A Conversation With Scott Walker

Some think of Scott Walker as an enigmatic artist whose every block of sound rings with dissonance, and every lyric dances with bleakness. Certainly there is a climate of despair that chills his earliest warbling solo works from the late ’60s, as well as the obtuse lyricism and open orchestration of Climate Of HunterTilt and The Drift, the latter three representing respectively the ’80s, ’90s and the mid-’00s. With the new Bish Bosch (4AD), though, it may be time to rethink what lies beneath the work of the nearly 70-year-old American who made Britain his home when his Walker Brothers (in reality, not at all related) ruled the U.K. charts. Along with wailing about gods, angels, Huns and animal illnesses throughout his latest album, the now-quicker-working Walker laced Bish Bosch with blackly humorous asides, fart noises and references to vaudeville song. Plus, for a guy who people call reclusive and distant, he was pretty damned outgoing with MAGNET, considering he was suffering the effects of a cold.

When was the last time you were in Ohio, where you were born—or the United States, for that matter—and what do you think of it?
Ohio, oh, not since I was a child. The United States, probably eight years ago when my mother died. I was only there for a week and a half.

I ask not only because you’ve been living in Britain since the fame of the Walker Brothers, but because there are a string of references to America throughout Bish Bosch, about the South, about Jimmy Durante and his “Inka Dinka Doo.”
You’re the first person to get that Jimmy Durante reference. I probably see the United States through the same lens we all do here: the news. My feelings fluctuate. I voted for Obama, so I keep up with what he does. I have hopes for the United States, even though things don’t look good there at the moment. They don’t look particularly good here either.

Most people assume that you became a British citizen, but your voting record proves otherwise. Did you keep your American citizenship just in case things get bad in England?
[Laughs] That’s not a bad reason, right? And a dual citizenship would make things easier. But I guess I’ve been too lazy to get it together. I am a resident here, though, with all the requisite benefits.

I saw a BBC News piece on you where you mentioned ceasing your touring schedule in Britain in the ’60s because cuisine on the road was so terrible. Are you a secret gastronome, or do you have a bad stomach?
Absolutely not. I’m a terrible cook, but I appreciate good food. During the ’60s here, food was shockingly bad, especially after just coming from the States where good food was so plentiful. The U.K. was still hanging on the coattails of war and the rations mentality. You couldn’t get anything decent to eat within certain timelines. It was nothing but fish and chips and curries.

Would you say that, with your first four solo albums—then again, starting with Climate Of Hunter—you left pop for the avant-garde, or it left or drained out of you?
Yes, that’s probably correct. I just stopped caring about it. It’s an interesting thing to consider. The avant-garde was never intentional to me.

It never is.
I don’t fancy myself John Cage. My whole thing is dressing my lyrics and whatever that takes; whatever the lyric is telling me it wants is what I will do musically. That’s why I do the lyric first—so that the music will correspond with it. If a lyric requires a really schmaltzy Mantovani string section, so be it. That’s where things changed for me. In the early days, I wrote music and lyrics at once. Then the lyrics started to take precedence, around the time of Night Flights, then Climate Of Hunter. It transformed how I wrote the music. Don’t get me wrong. I do love to listen to some pop music. I don’t hate it.

I wasn’t planning on asking you this, but is there something “pop” that caught your ear recently?
I will listen to a Beyoncé record. It has a certain kick to it, as does some hip hop. I don’t seek it out and buy things, but I won’t turn it off.

What opened you to the sort of freedom and open verse that your lyrics have? It’s all very Joyce-ian in that regard.
There is a lot of reading on my part—early influences, too. What opens it out is that I’m making that space for the lyric that wouldn’t normally be there.

You’re making space for it.
I’m not shoehorning them in. It’s not awkward. Does that make sense?

Yes. The further along you’ve come, the less restriction you give to the lyrics. You’re freed by spaciousness and unbound by the constraints of melody or rhythm.
But still there is form. It has to have some frame, some form, or else you’re just freewheeling it.

You paint. Is there any comparison or correlation to be made with the abstraction you have—you use—as a painter, and that which you have at your command as a composer and singer?
I haven’t painted in a few years, but I know what you mean. I don’t paint as an abstract expressionist, but if you have a large canvas and you’re arcing and swinging free, there is a musical sense to it, a sweep. I think you can see a lot of how my music sounded in what my paintings look like.

How do you translate what you want sonically to who you work with musically? How do you communicate what you want, as there is so much abstraction? I mention this in tandem with the painting thing because Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) painted and drew where he wanted his musicians to go. More so than on Tilt, the blocks and bolts of music on Bish Bosch are so open, yet specific. I’m curious as to what you’re saying to your players.
I’ve worked with some of these musicians for so long, they’re used to me. I could probably drive a herd of cattle through the studio and it wouldn’t surprise them. They’re open and prepared even during the most agonizing processes. I lay out the texts and the arrangements roughly on my keyboard so that they have some direction of where I’m going, some reference. They are great actor players. On Tilt, I wanted the sound of something scratching its way out of an egg, so they brought in a gourd as big as a big man’s stomach and placed beads around it, turned off the lights and started scratching. Now that’s the way to do things.

I’m loath to ask the question about timing and how long it took. Things take how long they take. So, how about this: When did you start the process for Bish Bosch, and when did you realize that there were a complete set of thoughts to make Bish Bosch an entity, a whole thing?
I try to find a strong idea to start, an anchor song that you can build an album around. Not that these things need to relate to each other—just something that will pull it together. In this case, I worked constantly throughout one whole year, which is positively speed-of-light for me, very fast. I notoriously take a lot of time. This time it was the Zercon song. A friend of mine has a library of old books, and I found this book about Attila the Hun. I found one page with an illustration of him and suddenly realized that no one had ever sought to build a song around that character. Once I found a few links to the character, I found my ending. The song itself is about trying to achieve spiritual sovereignty beyond calculation, to scale the heights. That has theological implications. And, as with most of my songs, he fails.

Cocteau wrote a great deal about eternal failure. Do you really see all your characters as failing? Why must they fail?
Death is the benchmark. We can’t win no matter what happens.

—A.D. Amorosi