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Uneasy listening: recording Scott Walker

Scott Walker’s long-time co-producer, Peter Walsh, tells how the pair set about recording the 2013 album Bish Bosch... machetes, tubular bells and all.

“So the machetes for use on Tar were delivered to Kore Studios, addressed to me, in the same week that the London riots began,” recalls Peter Walsh (pictured). “I really can’t begin to imagine what people made of that…”

If this was one delivery that drew more than a few curious glances, it’s unlikely to have elicited even modest surprise from percussionist – and, for one day only, machete-wielder – Alasdair Malloy.

After all, previous sessions had required him to strike one of the largest tubular bells in the UK and batter a side of pork into submission…
“Oh yes, we always like to have a challenge or two for Alasdair. He’s completely used to it by now,” chuckles Walsh.
Ultimately, of course, the challenge is to serve the vision of singer, songwriter and Walsh’s co-producer, Scott Walker.

For some, Walker is still most closely associated with the sumptuous pop (The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore, Make It Easy on Yourself) that he recorded as one-third of the Walker Brothers in the late 1960s, or for his first four, eponymously-titled solo albums.

But for the past 35 years, he has been travelling a very different path – one populated by increasingly abstract song structures, vividly detailed soundscapes, and lyrics whose oblique construction bears closer parallel with literary giants like T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett than any musical contemporaries.
This is dense, elusive stuff requiring a sustained effort by the listener, but for those who cling to the increasingly unfashionable notion that music should be forever pushing forwards rather than contenting itself with stagnation, Walker’s last three full-length releases – Climate of Hunter (1984), Tilt (1995) and, most spectacularly, The Drift (2006) – reward repeated listening with extraordinary moments of bleak beauty.
Walker’s primary accomplice since Climate… has been co-producer and engineer Peter Walsh, whose other clients have included Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds and Pulp (Jarvis and co’s 2001 album, We Love Life, was helmed by Walker and Walsh).

As he tells PSNEurope, “as far as the engineering goes, a large part of my job is to realise the sounds and textures that Scott has in his head and to make everything sound as rich and compelling as possible”.
Whereas The Drift was sonically expansive, the new album, Bish Bosch, is sparser and more keyboard-orientated.

There was also a change in recording process, with Walsh and Walker opting to work simultaneously in both digital and analogue (variously using Otari MTR 100 and Studer A800/A820 tape machines), although they found themselves favouring the analogue: “It’s a question of taste and what suits the music better, but overall the analogue was more satisfying. By comparison, the digital sounded too edgy, and separated from the other elements already recorded. We loved the character of the tape. It had a kind of ‘sonic glue’ to it.”
Realising Walker’s intentions for Bish Bosch’s nine complex tracks required Walsh to lean on some trusted outboard gear, including a Teletronix LA-2A limiter for vocal parts and an SPL Transient Designer dynamic processor on drums.

Arranger/conductor Mark Warman, drummer Ian Thomas, bassist John Giblin and guitarist Hugh Burns were among the seasoned Walker players making return visits, while sessions took place at five studios: Kore, Sofa Sound, Air and Metropolis in London; and Walsh’s own facility, KHS, in Dusseldorf.
Although Walker is known for extended hiatuses between releases, he could not be accused of lingering once he does enter a studio. Recording for the new album spanned nearly three years, but in total session time did not exceed 75 days. “Scott likes to work quickly and rarely does more than a couple of vocal takes for each piece,” confirms Walsh. “When we do a retake it is usually to slightly alter the phrasing, or to give a line a particular dynamic.”
The 21-minute long ‘SDSS14+13B (Zercon, a Flagpole Sitter)’ is arguably Walker’s most ambitious composition to date, but in general Walsh believes that this album is more “accessible” than The Drift: “In general, the songs feel more structured than on previous albums. The textures are not as dark, and the rhythmical elements are more cohesive than before.”
Quite where Bish Bosch fits into a musical landscape shaped by ‘quick fix’ talent show cash-ins and ‘80s revivalism is anyone’s guess – although one finds it hard to imagine that the admirably single-minded Walker has given it that much thought. For anyone with ears to listen, however, profound riches lie within.
An anecdote involving Walsh’s friend James Stevenson – who contributes some “wild, improvised guitar” to several songs on Bish Bosch – is illustrative here. “I remember James telling me that he had heard Tilt and had not really known what to make of it,” recalls Walsh, who is currently producing Stevenson’s debut solo album at Henley’s Doghouse Studios. “But some years later he encountered it again and suddenly it made total sense. It just ‘clicked’ into place and he became incredibly excited: ‘You have to get me onto the next album!’ I think that’s often how it works with Scott’s music.”

Story: David Davies
Photo of Scott Walker: Jamie Hawkesworth