Scott Walker possesses one of the greatest and most distinctive voices of the last quarter-century. To the pop world, he's best known for his work with The Walker Brothers in the 1960s. For a time, Walker's stardom rivaled that of The Beatles — and even then, he pushed the envelope and shaped a sound that interested him. His music is personal, complex and inventive, always presenting sounds and forms that haven't been heard before. Lyrically, Walker can be dark yet caustically funny, obscure but always completely thought out.
Here, he speaks with World Cafe host David Dye about terrifying his musicians with machetes on his latest record, Bish Bosch, as well as why he never listens to his old material and the "giant in a general's toilet" of "Zercon."
DAVID DYE: Can I talk about your voice a little bit to begin with? It is so unique, attractive, and I wonder how you related to it to begin with and now?
SCOTT WALKER: Well, I didn't start off that way. I was a musician in Hollywood. I was a bass player and I was working clubs and things, and the Walker Brothers got a deal. And John [Walker] really was the main singer, and then they had a ballad that they wanted sung. And I was the guy that could do that, and that's when it all started. Quite innocent, really.
As you've gotten older, I've noticed on Bish Bosch and a number of your recordings, you're using more of a tenor register. Do you have to kind of get it into shape for each project?
Well, yes, but I mean, I don't do a lot of that. I'm not a trained singer. So I'll do a little singing before I go in, if I know I've got a big job like this. And I'll sing at home a bit just to see if it's still working. Because there are long stretches of time where I don't sing at all, where I'm just doing instrumental stuff for a ballet or a dance or whatever.
But, basically, a lot of the pitching of the voice is about the material. If the material is calling ... for the voice to be placed in a certain way, then it will be. For instance, I always say this with the lyric and I put a lot of stress on the lyric, getting that right. So many times in the songs, you have different characters. Now, I don't want to be welded to an acting kind of thing. I just want to give you a flavor of the kind of situation that character's in. And these particular characters on this album, and maybe the last one, are not in kind of tranquil situations. So I'm really trying to place the voice where it's going to be appropriate for that song.
A lot of the singing on Bish Bosch, because of the characters, is kind of aggressive. Do you worry about over-emoting? Does that ever enter your mind?
Well, no. I mean, I said in the last album, I remember doing an interview saying I want to keep it as neutral as possible. But with this, you couldn't. You had to engage more. There was a lot of stressing to be done. I don't worry too much about it, no. Maybe one day I'll regret it, but we'll see.
You've not been terribly, terribly prolific, shall we say, because it's been five years since The Drift. So tell me a little bit about the process of recording Bish Bosch and the period of time it takes.
Well, how it works is that after I spend this time on the lyrics, I will start putting it to music. Of course it's not the kind of music you can sit and strum a guitar to — or, you know, a straight piano part — so I start virtually arranging it on a keyboard with a very limited set of presets. I start shaping it out. So, with this limited set of presets, I realize I can make a little noise and say, "Well, that's going to be this. When I get into the studio with the real equipment and the right stuff and the people around me, this is what this is going to sound like." So I'm bringing sketches. So basically, about 70 percent of it is done. And then 30 percent of it is accidents and things that I'm hoping to get in the studio from the musicians and things like that. So it's pretty much complete in my head, but it's just a question of getting them to do it.
Yeah, I wanted to comment about that, because you must have incredible communication with these people, because a lot of your ideas seem unorthodox. For instance, on "Tar," the sound of the swords being drawn together for the percussion. Is it easy for you to communicate with these people? Is that why they are a part of your group?
It's easier. I mean — I can pretty — that's not a great example. These are machetes that are making that noise. I mean, normally, like I said, I can drive a herd of cattle through the studio now and they wouldn't blink an eye, you know. It's like, with machetes, when I brought these machetes in, everyone really panicked. I don't know what they were thinking, but I thought, "Well, of all the things we've done in the studio, why are you concerned about this?" We had to do it. I had to be able to get them out — the machetes out — that very day because it was worrying too many people, you know. So, these were big — we're talking about things with blades that were, oh, I don't know, three or four feet long. I mean, these were big.
Has your creative process changed through the span of Tilt and Drift and this new album? You just seem so intent on not repeating yourself — on doing, how should I put it, on doing things that have not been heard before. Do you start over creatively each time, or do you build from one album to another?
Well, no. One of the things I don't do is ever listen to anything once I've done it. Because, first of all, the reason for that mainly is that I've had to write it, I've had to produce it, I've had to virtually arrange the parts and then mix it. And you're absolutely thrashed by the end of that because, you know, it isn't easy in the first place. So I want to put it behind me. So I don't listen again and I move on. So I've forgotten virtually what I've done before. So I just, of course, it's in the style that we've achieved. That's not an appropriate word totally, but you know what I mean. The style we've managed to achieve over these few records has changed, I imagine. But we have achieved a kind of perimeters where we've worked. But that will probably have to change now, because that was kind of a trilogy, these things we've done. So we'll see what happens next.
You've talked about how this all begins with the lyric writing, and I'd love to talk a little bit about your approach to lyric writing. I think I understand you say that you kind of write lyrics in clumps, does that make sense?
Well, it's only, especially if you're constructing a big song like the main song on the album, ["SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter)"]. It's a waiting game, and you just have to be very patient. So, often it will come in chunks and then mysteriously, of course, like all these things happen, when you're absorbed, when you're totally absorbed, something thrilling will happen — that you don't know how you got there.
But I think what you mean, maybe, is that a lot of the times when you're looking at the lyric on the page, it's very black-and-white. They kind of stand out. I used to describe the look of lyrics on a page to me as kind of soldiers on a field. I can move these soldiers around. It sounds quite mysterious, but if you see it on the page... So I think the music kind of reflects that. It does happen in chunks sometimes.
Many of the subjects on this album and in the past are historical. On a very basic level, how do you decide what to write about?
Well, the historical things — I mean, the thing I always say is, "Look, I'm not welded to historical fact. They're just a kind of ramp that I can get started to play with the ideas from."
I mean, I was very lucky with the idea of "Zercon," because I was wandering around. I have a friend who's got an enormous library, and he lets me wander around in it, get lost in it at night. And I happened to open a page, and there was this one page on this character. And I thought, "What a fantastic character." And I was so surprised no one had found it before, written a play about him or anything.
I got this idea that, of course he was a comedian, so at the beginning of the song, you have these big gaps of silence. He's being heckled by silence. And he's feeling guilty because, well, silence, of course, is where everything starts from. And the song moves in, and he wants to escape Atilla's wooden palace, which has become a kind of toilet to him. So he's kind of a giant in a general's toilet. So there's these insults that would be placed on a wall. And because of the time it's placed at, at least in the beginning anyway, there's these phone numbers in roman numerals. I'm just playing around there and, of course, he reaches various stages of height as he goes along.
He's a man who has a calling. The calling, he wants to reach a kind of sovereignty — a spiritual sovereignty that has no bottom or top. So he's trying to take off from different levels of height throughout the song. Of course, in the end, he fails completely and becomes a dwarfed star and burns out.
When did that begin for you, the playing with the language and the importance of these lyrics? Because the more I spend time with Bish Bosch, the more I understand how everything is driven by this.
Yes, well, it probably started around the time of — the last Walker Brothers album we made was called Nite Flights. And I probably got the germ of it there. And I've just kind of carried it on from there, you know, and sort of widened it out, and it's reached this point now. It's the point of no return.
You talk about not listening back to your records. I'm wondering if the early days were financially successful enough to kind of fund as you've been continuing. How do you look back on that success?
Well, it was a big success in kind of every way. And not a lot of people, as you know from rock legend, have wound up with a lot of the money. But, you know, I've managed to duck and dive a bit. And I was fortunate to be able to pick up work and stuff as I went along, so I'm okay.
Now, you don't perform. And I'm interested in why.
Well, I stopped, really back in the '70s. I could never ever get — because in those days, sound was still quite primitive. I mean, today it would probably be quite easy. But I could never get the sound right, or the players I wanted, or the conditions I wanted. And it became very frustrating, and it made me very nervous. So I decided I wouldn't put myself through that. But I'm always getting pressure to do it every year. Every time I sit down to write a record, I do have that in mind. But my imagination takes over, and suddenly I've got a cast of thousands, and no promoter is going to do that. And it's the hard thing and, you know, it becomes another nightmare in another way. So with good intentions, I'll sit down and start again and see if I can keep everything down. And maybe I will do — if I can get the right record — do some gigs.
So stage fright is not a part of that question?
Well, it might be. I haven't been on there, we'll see. I haven't been out there for a while, it might be. But right now, I'm not feeling it, because at least I'd have sound on my side, you know. Everything would sound decent to me, and I'm a stickler for that.