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FILTER 50: Replying To Silence: Scott Walker’s New Heights

By Kyle MacKinnel; lead photo by David Evans on January 11, 2013

 

FILTER 50: Replying To Silence: Scott Walker’s New Heights

 

“It’s a beautiful night from here to those trembling stars.” 

—Scott Walker, “The Cockfighter” (1995)

You awaken in a disoriented state, lying upon numb soil. The surroundings seem oddly familiar, but you can’t quite place yourself. At your periphery, lurching acquaintances gaze through you, their inaudible screams coursing your interior. Somewhere distant, machinery grinds indifferently. It’s dark, save the moonlight seeping through cracked sky. You cling to its great blue beams, transfixed as you ascend past leafless branches. Your direction mysterious, your business in the grey thicket unresolved, still your heart swells at the enormity of it all. A proper soundtrack to this moment exists only in the infamous beauty of a Scott Walker string crescendo. The scene could be set to “Boy Child” (1969), “Sleepwalkers Woman” (1984), “Farmer in the City” (1995) or “Corps de Blah” (2012); it doesn’t much matter which—time flew out the window when you weren’t paying attention. It is the infinite sound of a wave curling back on itself. It’s that first glimpse at unspeakable depth in the stare of a fading grandparent. Just check the Climate of Hunter (1984) cover for reference: a look impossible to ever articulate, but you’ll hear it all in the eyes.

 

In the mid ’60s, when Scott Walker was first beginning to compose the original songs that would increasingly populate those beloved Philips solo records—Scott (1967), Scott 2 (1968), Scott 3 (1969) and Scott 4 (1969)—he was as yet unable to conceive just where this innocent songwriting venture would lead him. (Walker modestly refers to the earliest of these compositions as “a sort of filler,” an absurd claim to which one need only retort the title “Montague Terrace (In Blue)” [1967].) But the destination hardly mattered. Propelled by an insatiable thirst for pure creative juice and the catalysis of Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel, Walker dispassionately eschewed his lucrative and established standing as a pop crooner in swinging England to focus on his own material. During this time he also immersed himself in the study of Gregorian chant on the Isle of Wight. A cosmic trajectory was no doubt fixing its aim, but the adoration of Walker’s fans was gradually revoked by a public unequipped to receive the prescience of his vast poetry. In what he calls an act of “bad faith,” Walker acquiesced to comfortably backload his Philips contract with MOR cover records. It was a decision that has brought him anything but comfort.


He doesn’t much like to discuss it—perhaps there’s little to be said, really—but in the intervening years between Scott 4 and The Walker Brothers’ final album, Nite Flights (1978), Scott turned a sort of corner. What is well documented on this period is that Walker hired a desolate forest cottage in the English countryside for a spell, and that he imbibed heavily during this time—nothing too crazy by genius musician standards. What emerged from his exile, however, is extraordinary. Beginning with those transcendent first four Nite Flights tracks, it was clear that the sun in Walker’s songwriting had set sometime in the ’70s. The resulting night has proven long, sleepless and ruminative. Post-Climate, the albums Tilt (1995) and The Drift (2006) emerged at regular intervals of 11 years and continued the intense progression of increased space, nuance and chaos in Walker’s work. Though conceived in half the time of its predecessors, his latest effort, Bish Bosch, is a behemoth at 75 minutes, and arguably represents the all-time most-gloriously confounding album of any former bubblegum popper. At its core is the 21-minute “SDSS1416+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” chronicling the ill-fated spiritual quest of a time-traveling jester in Attila the Hun’s court.


Today, Scott Walker is nursing the tail end of a cold as he talks on the telephone from his home in West London on the island he has inhabited for nearly half a century since The Walker Brothers first skipped the Pond in 1965. He seems in good spirits, and speaks thoughtfully, earnestly and patiently. Despite his friendly nature, Walker still seems shrouded in an impregnable mystique. Maybe that’s something we’ve created around him, though. Perhaps there exist some secrets that are far too deep-seated to divulge in words—secrets that instead must simply be understood.


Photo by Jane Pollard

A Conversation with Scott Walker


Ironically, I found myself listening to Bish Bosch this weekend on the way to a wedding, but was surprised to find that for all the grotesque and darkness present, I was pulled toward the sheer beauty of it. Do you find your recent work beautiful?


Well, that’s good to hear. I find passages of beauty in it, yes. It’s not meant to be bringing in the plague or anything. The album is meant to be many-layered. And a lot of people, maybe from the past or a preconception of things, tend to read it one way. So I’m always happy to hear that people are getting other things from it.
 

It has sort of an electronic feel, at least relative to your other work.

We used more electronics on this than anything we’ve done, simply because it’s in the air. But we never cheat on sound; we never pitch an instrument in the wrong place. For instance, we used an instrument called a tubax—there’s only two in the country. It’s a very deep instrument, phenomenal-sounding. It’s a combination of a tuba and a saxophone, but it’s an enormous thing that has to sit on the floor. You’ll hear it at the very beginning of a song called “Epizootics!” It’s got a very black sound.
 

What comes first, music or words?

Years ago I’d do a little bit of both, but now it’s particularly the words. It’s like getting a film script. If you get a good film script, chances are the film will be good. So I take a lot of time with the words, and then I’ll just dress the song. Whatever the word is telling me to do, I find a sound, or a noise, or a melodic line for that. The big surprise that I always look for comes when I start putting music to it, because then, quite magically, it seems to come alive. Everything seems to work as it’s meant to. And that, of course, none of us who make these kinds of things can figure out. Why that happens, I don’t know.
 

Speaking of the voice—the narrator, if you will—do you view that character as more of a victim, or an aggressor?

Each character is in a different situation. In the case of the “Zercon” song, this character Zercon is trying to escape his situation. So he is, in a sense, a victim. In that song he is a court jester to Attila the Hun. At the beginning, he’s replying to a heckler. And the heckler in this case is silence, because silence is where everything mysterious starts from. It’s kind of a spiritual trope, you know. He has a spiritual calling, and wants to reach a height beyond calculation; a detached summit without any vantage point. But he also wants to escape Attila’s empire, because empire doesn’t pertain to sovereignty—it pertains to domination.


I’m playing with time all the way through. At various outposts in the song, he finds himself at various heights. Once he’s up at a sort of imaginary height, surrounded by metaphysical birds, and the next stage he talks about Saint Simon of the desert on his pillar. He finally winds up in 1930s America as a flagpole sitter. So he finds these heights as different taking-off points. But of course he—like a lot of my songs—ends in failure, because he becomes a brown dwarf at that height and freezes to death. He never really accomplishes what he wants. Only in the first part, in his imagination.

 

Is there a sense of humor in your songs?


There was a fellow the other day who had come [into an interview] with a lot of preconceptions. The look on his face [indicated] that he had to be deeply serious and worried about it all. I always think of the story about Franz Kafka, who used to read his stories to his friends, and he would get really, really angry if they weren’t laughing. So I kind of feel that way about it as well. It’s not all humorous of course, but it’s not just a one-way street. As I said earlier, it’s a multi-layered situation.

 

 

Though if you’re comfortable in a state of paranoia, then it’s probably easier to find humor in Kafka.

Yes, of course. I think it’s good that people get whatever they get out of it—I don’t want to force anything on them. But I think that a lot of times, that element is left out. The humor element.
 

Does it mean something to you that younger generations exhibit a strong appreciation for your music?

Oh, of course. I’m glad anyone listens to my music at all, because a lot of people find it too daunting. I’ve never understood that, but I’m happy for any listener that I get. The people who bought my records in the ’60s don’t understand what the hell I’m doing today. They don’t want to be bothered, really. So I do have kind of a whole new audience, which is nice. It ranges across all ages, and younger ones particularly, which is good.
 

Would you say that Jacques Brel is partly responsible for the music you make today?

Yes, absolutely. That was a very important point for me, because I’d gone solo at that time and needed something different to lift me up. I’d always been interested in French chanson anyway, and when I found that I could get pretty good translations of his stuff in English, I was thrilled. When I got into the studio, everything seemed to just really take off and work there, and that was magic for me. Unfortunately, things kind of went to hell when I finished those four albums.
 

Why do you think Scott 4 got such a lack of positive reception?

I can’t remember anymore. It was a different vibe then, and people were still in kind of a hippie phase. Things were kind of going that way, and of course now it’s a different story. Now people really like that record. It was in the wrong context, basically.
 

You said before that your songs often end in failure. Do you feel that you have failed or are failing on some level?

Well, when I speak of that, I’m speaking about the situation for all of us. You’re a young person, but eventually, all of us are gonna die. You know, there’s no way out of this that’s going to be a good experience. And also, whatever we really try to do, however hard we try to know something or know each other, or anything about anything, or what we have to say, it’s impossible to find out exactly why, or how, we will really do that. I’m not talking about failure in the everyday world. I’m talking about a basic failure to understand what the hell is going on in general.
 

Is there comfort in realizing that we can never know those things?

Yes, I think it makes the world far more amazing. Because then we realize when we’re here, isn’t it fantastic? And we’re here for a limited time only, and we better make the best of it. I think it makes everything far richer.
 

I couldn’t agree more. That said, is there anything you would do differently if you could go back in time?

Yes. I went through a stage where I became a terrible whore at the end of the ’60s. I was recording all that crap to get out of a record contract. Nearly a decade was taken away from me before Climate of Hunter, and quite rightly so for doing that. I should have kept my nose to the grindstone, but I lived in bad faith—that’s the best way to describe it. I can’t say I regret it so much now, because I’m making the records that I choose to make. Whether they’re any good is another thing, but at least I can make them now. So, better late than never.  F

This article is from FILTER Issue 50