We're All Gunna Die Writing Songs - By Steve Hoy
|"When does a song usually
appear ? Well Ive usually got a few scraps on a dictaphone and they might hang
around for ages, years. I mean I dont really sit down and work on a song if I can
possibly avoid it and usually that doesnt come up until I have so much of a song
completed and so many bits through whats dropped into my head over the years that
its ninety percent finished and Im compelled to justify all that dictaphone
space thats there. Im inspired by the fact that theres not that much
work left but inevitably that last ten percent is ten times more work than the rest."
The working methods of arguably Australias finest and certainly most successful songwriter is enlightening and perhaps explains Walkers askew relationship with the music industry he helped shape through his work with Cold Chisel. For some the blue collar rowdiness of Barnes and co was at odds with both the Countdown pop and the pop-faced artiness of the inner city.
Being a Countdown watching art noir in the late seventies and early eighties but having the discomforting reality of a background in solidly working class Newcastle, I had a soft spot for Chisels popularity and the earthy blues rock they championed. A dozen years on from that bands demise Don Walker has released a record that somehow includes that blues rock but also turns it into something darker without the dungeons and dragons beloved of other travellers into the dark stuff. Like the wonderful "Sad But True" collaboration with Tex Perkins and Charlie Owen "Were All Gunna Die" is a loosely played collection that tips its has to blues and country but doesnt appear as stylist or retro - the instrumentation and the approach is bluesy but the songs are bigger, grimmer and funnier. The Catfish records "Unlimited Address" and "Ruby", Walkers post-Cold Chisel projects were significant departures from that bands approach. In describing Walkers instrumental approach I suggested that Catfish uses a classic Chicago blues line-up harmonica, upright bass, drums, guitar and vocals with more sophisticated chord changes. He corrects me here replacing complicated for sophisticated. "There is nothing more sophisticated than the Chicago blues."
"I wanted to come up with something different than just having a band with a guitar that did all the lead and Ive always been in love with that Chicago blues setup where the main thing is the harmonica, especially if you can get a harmonica player thats big enough. I mean a harmonica player thats big enough will blow a big guitar clean off the stage. Theres just so few of them around. So I wanted to set it up just to make it different to everything else thats around. You have to remember what was around when Catfish started, I cant remember, was it power pop? Synth pad based stuff that people were very serious about at the time. But by no stretch of the imagination is what I do Chicago blues, none of the songs are Chicago blues, theyre a whole lot simpler but a lot harder to nail than what I do although Im getting closer all the time."
"Theres nothing on this new album thats pushing the barriers of musical structure whereas on the first Catfish record in particular there are some songs that, structurally, are nothing like nothing else. With songs like "Subway" I was trying to write songs like John Barth writes novels ; instead of being linear they follow spirals, although Im talking about things I really dont know a lot about there. From the first album to this one the songs have gotten a lot simpler, musically. Part of the reason I had to really sit on things with the first two albums was they were meticulously arranged songs and theres nothing wrong with that. I mean string quartets are meticulously arranged too."
"With the first Catfish record I hadnt made a record for five years. I had all these burning ideas and I had no live experience for five years, developing with no outlet over five or six years travelling and then letting loose in the studio with no band just a couple of names and some session players.
"Id worked it down to every note that I wanted played so I was sort of a control freak at that stage. I remember Ricky Fataar begging me For God s sake can you turn this Fairlight off that Im playing along with, can you just get a bass player. He loved the songs and the music but just wanted to enjoy playing it and I had him in there tied to a chair playing to a Fairlight, playing the most sublime swing of any drummer on earth. The Fairlight had every bass note where I wanted it and Id spent years writing it. From that point to now has been a gradual relaxation and getting back to what I used to do ; write stuff with a lot of spaces, work with very good people and allow them a lot of room to have fun."
The importance of co-producer/arranger Phil Punch should not be overlooked as it is his fondness for recording music as unhindered as possible by studio trickery or fashion that provides "Were All Gunna Die" with its sonic consistency. It seems that Walker has found or rediscovered a form of recording that best compliments the relaxed approach he has to songwriting.
"Phil Punch and I did the production and Phil did all the engineering. Phil is a big fan of 40s and 50s recording - all about mike placement and old valve equipment and getting it down live, so he was perfect for this. He mixed it to his unique one inch mastering machine, and that machine accounts for the unusual depth you hear in the sound." "Id lost touch with that (recording live) and forgotten it, didnt think that worked in the modern world. Im enormously grateful to Tex and Charlie and the people of their generation for sort of frogmarching me into that situation and against all my scepticism, making me see that this not only works, its the only really enjoyable way to do it."
Walkers accomplices on the new record are a seasoned bunch of mainly Sydney musicians, most of whom have been working as Catfish for the last couple of years. Harmonica player Dave Blight was the occasional sixth member of Cold Chisel and is the lynchpin in the Catfish sound, a blending of Little Walter blues and ethereal textures. The rhythm section of drummer Paul Demarco and upright bass player Paul Burton is a solid blues based unit that emphasises the blues rockabilly feel. Guitar parts are handled by Andrew Heggin aka Red Rivers and Ian Moss solos on the title track. Occasionally Mental As Anythings Mike Gubb plays Hammond while Walker plays piano. Garrett Chopper Costigan lends his profound musicality on pedal steel.
"The only difference to the live line-up, apart from personnel changes, has been the addition of Garrett. Ive always used acoustic bass. I was always looking for something that could hold a chord. I had a fair bit of pressure not only from the band, even my best friends(to play keyboards). Ysee I really love that kind of minimal thing when youre desperately hanging on by the skin of your teeth to make it work because there is so little there to make it work. Thats the kind of situation where you get wonderful things happening. With that three piece line-up with lead harmonica...the guitar player cant turn around and lean on the harmonica to get him out of trouble. Each person has got to really shine, so I love that kind of sparseness. People find it a bit daunting, mainly people listening to it. "So I was always looking around for something that could hold a chord but I didnt want to take the step of bringing in keyboards because I would come under a lot of pressure from everybody around to sit down and do it myself which I didnt want to do, just out of perversity and secondly because Ive always found that keyboards sort of tie everything else down. Youve got a great three piece band whether its rock or blues, then you add keyboard in there and somehow the whole thing is tied to the ground, yknow it cant really take off and fly anymore like a three piece band can. And it gradually dawned on me over the years after I first came in contact with Garrett when he was working with you in your first album [third actually] that pedal steel could be the right instrument. You can hold chords on it but theyre never really held, theyre suggested and they can sustain harmonies but its a lot more shifting and swaying than keyboards. It doesnt clutter up anybody else. Somehow with a keyboard a guitarist has a whole less room.
Whenever talk turns to Catfish or Walkers songs the question of his singing is bound to arise. Most people think the songs are fantastic but the singing lets them down. Having had the powerhouse larynx of Jim Barnes, the bluesy soulfulness of Ian Moss and the stentorian lope of Tex Perkins, Walker has certainly had his share in impressive vocal foils. Theres no doubt that there is an accepted way for rock singers to sound, a sort of orthodoxy of throat, someone wailing away usually or a delicate flower unravelling the mysteries of the psyche - Walker doesnt really fit either of these - more of an approximate blues whisper, probably better suited to quieter songs. The new songs benefit from his unadorned style and lack of singerly mannerisms - whether you like the sound, as always, is down to personal taste but my two bobs worth is that the songwriter singing a song quite often brings added dimension that goes missing in the voice of an obvious singer - witness any Michael Bolton record. (Ed. We reluctantly left in the words Michael Bolton)
"Theres a lot of confidence involved in singing (in my case) from a very low base. From having to get almost unconsciously drunk so I could sing in front of people to where Im almost confident; its not a confidence, its a sort of resignation."
What other musicians are listening to is often a window into what they may be working on, although at other times its as baffling as finding out that your favourite blues guitarist only listens to the radio and often only the racing results.
"Theres a Gene Vincent collection, theres a Julie London compilation. I actually went out and bought some records today. One of them was a Sonny Boy Williamson collection and another was a Chicago Blues rarities. I was trying to find a Peggy Lee record. Most of the new stuff I hear I find by going into truck-stops when Im driving and Im totally sick of whatevers in the car and Im just looking through what theyve got in those racks and you find the most wonderful stuff there. One of the things that got a spin for a couple of years was this Peggy Lee compilation and on it was this wonderful song "Is That All There Is ?" Ive got this vague dream of Ian Moss doing it but I dont know how hed feel about the talking bits; the singing part he just kill it. Id change the talking part cause Pegs obviously talking about Pegs life.
A couple of songs on "Sad But True" and "Were All Gunna Die" were written with Nashville writer Micheal Smotherman during a sojourn Walker had in the Country songwriting sweatshop. Does he listen to any new country writers?
Im quite ignorant about it. At a certain point when I started over there the guy who Im vaguely connected to in a publishing sense, David Conrad, gave me a stack of cds to bring home, stuff that he likes. Its not the commercial stuff. My attempts to write anything vaguely country, what I think is country, is like light years from what hed consider to be country."
Nevertheless, Australian country icon Slim Dusty recorded Walkers "Charleville" which went to number one on the local country charts. Walker was approached by Slim with the idea of recording a duet version and video. This seems appropriate, in some sense a meeting of two different strands of Australian popular songwriting, both using Australian imagery to tell a story. Slim Dustys rural Australiana and Walkers darker musings counterpoint recent literary controversies and the attendant discussion as to what constitutes Australianess. Throw kev carmody, Paul kelly, Tiddas and some of the CAAMA bands into the mixture and you have something as stimulating and as exemplary as any batch of grants clutching literati.
Anyway, enough of the guff. What most people want to know about Don Walker is the important stuff. He barracks for Brisbane in the Rugby League and has little or no interest in the AFL. On the burning issue of Cold Chisel, the band that refuses to die (at least on commercial radio) one question has never been asked. What was Cold Chisels favourite colour? The answer? Aries.
Fairlight: Mid-80s Australian designed wonder keyboard/sampler seemingly redundant with contemporary midi/computer options - will probably make a return when what was state of the art is seen as quaintly antique e.g. wha wah pedals, Fender Rhodes pianos, 60s guitar effects.
© 1995 Aussie Music Online
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