We're All Gunna Die Writing Songs - By Steve Hoy

 

"When does a song usually appear ? Well I’ve usually got a few scraps on a dictaphone and they might hang around for ages, years. I mean I don’t really sit down and work on a song if I can possibly avoid it and usually that doesn’t come up until I have so much of a song completed and so many bits through what’s dropped into my head over the years that it’s ninety percent finished and I’m compelled to justify all that dictaphone space that’s there. I’m inspired by the fact that there’s not that much work left but inevitably that last ten percent is ten times more work than the rest."

The working methods of arguably Australia’s finest and certainly most successful songwriter is enlightening and perhaps explains Walker’s 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 Chisel’s popularity and the earthy blues rock they championed. A dozen years on from that band’s 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 "We’re All Gunna Die" is a loosely played collection that tips its has to blues and country but doesn’t 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", Walker’s post-Cold Chisel projects were significant departures from that band’s approach. In describing Walker’s 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 I’ve always been in love with that Chicago blues setup where the main thing is the harmonica, especially if you can get a harmonica player that’s big enough. I mean a harmonica player that’s big enough will blow a big guitar clean off the stage. There’s just so few of them around. So I wanted to set it up just to make it different to everything else that’s around. You have to remember what was around when Catfish started, I can’t 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, they’re a whole lot simpler but a lot harder to nail than what I do although I’m getting closer all the time."

"There’s nothing on this new album that’s 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 I’m talking about things I really don’t 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 there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean string quartets are meticulously arranged too."

"With the first Catfish record I hadn’t 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.

"I’d 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 I’m 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 I’d 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 "We’re 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 ‘50’s 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." "I’d lost touch with that (recording live) and forgotten it, didn’t think that worked in the modern world. I’m 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, it’s the only really enjoyable way to do it."

Walker’s 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 Anything’s 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. I’ve 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). Y’see I really love that kind of minimal thing when you’re desperately hanging on by the skin of your teeth to make it work because there is so little there to make it work. That’s the kind of situation where you get wonderful things happening. With that three piece line-up with lead harmonica...the guitar player can’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t want to do, just out of perversity and secondly because I’ve always found that keyboards sort of tie everything else down. You’ve got a great three piece band whether it’s rock or blues, then you add keyboard in there and somehow the whole thing is tied to the ground, y’know it can’t 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 they’re never really held, they’re suggested and they can sustain harmonies but it’s a lot more shifting and swaying than keyboards. It doesn’t clutter up anybody else. Somehow with a keyboard a guitarist has a whole less room.’’

Whenever talk turns to Catfish or Walker’s 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. There’s 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 doesn’t 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 bob’s 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’)

"There’s 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 I’m almost confident; it’s not a confidence, it’s 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 it’s as baffling as finding out that your favourite blues guitarist only listens to the radio and often only the racing results.

"There’s a Gene Vincent collection, there’s 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 I’m driving and I’m totally sick of whatever’s in the car and I’m just looking through what they’ve 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 ?" I’ve got this vague dream of Ian Moss doing it but I don’t know how he’d feel about the talking bits; the singing part he’ just kill it. I’d change the talking part ‘cause Peg’s obviously talking about Peg’s life.’

A couple of songs on "Sad But True" and "We’re 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?

‘I’m quite ignorant about it. At a certain point when I started over there the guy who I’m vaguely connected to in a publishing sense, David Conrad, gave me a stack of cds to bring home, stuff that he likes. It’s not the commercial stuff. My attempts to write anything vaguely country, what I think is country, is like light years from what he’d consider to be country."

Nevertheless, Australian country icon Slim Dusty recorded Walker’s "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 Dusty’s rural Australiana and Walker’s 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 Chisel’s 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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