Saturday, September 29, 2007

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (an interview with Stephen Kijak)

Nerve Magazine music editor Adrian Mack turned me onto Scott Walker back when I was writing my Jandek piece for them. An obvious call: Scott Walker’s last two high art albums, Tilt (1995) and The Drift (2006) come across as Jandek for art snobs (as if Jandek weren’t an elite enough taste). Adrian also takes “full responsibility for turning Radiohead on to Scott Walker.” He has a story for us:

“This was before Tilt was released, but as I remember it, Radiohead had entered a studio Walker had vacated, and there were hair-raising stories about what he'd been up to in there. When I expressed my excitement over Walker's 60s material and did the whole salesman bit, Jonny Greenwood became interested. I was fairly drunk and it was a really long time ago, but I recall Greenwood muttering something about checking it out. A few years later, that Radiohead movie came out, and his music was in it... Incidentally, later that night, Greenwood kind of turned on me when I confessed that my friend had destroyed his and Thom Yorke's secret acoustic performance at the Railway Club a year or so prior. It's a long and crazy story, and Radiohead vowed they'd never return to Vancouver (they did, of course).”

Stephen Kijak (pronounced “kayak”), the director of the VIFF Scott Walker documentary, received a different story from Radiohead, but this doesn’t necessarily rule out Adrian’s version of things. "Colin at one point - I was asking him at what point they got turned onto him, and he said someone had taped the Boychild compilation for him. So it would have been around the early 90's. He said it was 'the album Marc Almond did,' because Marc Almond had done the liner notes. So I'm guessing someone just passed them a tape, and it just rocked their world. They had never heard the Nite Flites stuff before, so it was fun to play that for them, but, um Scott 3 and 4 loom large for them - "Duchess" is a big favourite, and "On Your Own Again," I know Ed says its his favourite record to have on tour. But yeah... the source of it. It" -- ie, Adrian's version - "could be true - they were doing OK Computer at Rack when Scott was doing sessions for Tilt."

Walker has had a bizarre and remarkable career. He’s recorded everything from Top of the Pops prettyboy romantic love songs, to Jacques Brel flavoured, brooding 70’s crooning, to late 70’s soulfunk/new wave fusion, to 80’s avant-pop. His current Hyperborean pinnacle of dauntingly dark and difficult music cannot be easily classified; The Drift, the album that I bought on Adrian’s recommendation, is such an alienated album, its points of reference so far removed from anything I understand or have yet encountered, that I find it chilling; it gets even chillier as you realize the amount of craft and deliberation that went into it – he’s no lone nut spewing, he’s got ORGANIZATION, he commands RESOURCES, which is far more disturbing. (Matt at Scratch, when I confessed that I found it unsettling, reacted in a sort of “of course” way, quipping: “it’s the end of music.” Yep). Kijak considers him “one of the most unique characters in music,” in that he’s “come all that way, and to not just be a rehabilitated 60’s popstar, but someone who has, in a way, denounced the past in order to move forward.”

An excellent overview of Walker’s career, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, plays Sunday at 6:30 at the Granville cinemas, with the director in attendance, I'm told (it will also screen on the 2nd and 11th). It features the testimonials of David Bowie, Brian Eno, and many others who have been influenced or affected by the music of Scott Walker, or played with him; avant garde monocerous horn player Evan Parker even turns up, having been called in by Scott to record on his 1984 album, Climate of Hunter. More exciting, the film has considerable footage of the reclusive Walker performing in studio and talking, in a most relaxed and open fashion, about his music. What follows is an interview I did with Stephen Kijak, a few days before he was to depart for Vancouver...

Allan: What was your history with the music of Scott Walker? When did you first start listening to him?

Stephen: 1991. It was a CD issue of Boychild, which is a compilation that Fontana Records put out. It was the first time Scott Walker stuff had been on CD. Universal released – through Fontana – 1, 2, 3, and 4 on CD in the UK, and did this compilation called Boychild. That was the first thing that I got my hands on. Someone had actually played me the track, “The Old Man’s Back Again,” parenthetically subtitled “Dedicated to the Neo-Stalinist Regime,” which is pretty much the coolest title ever to come out of the late 60s. It just hooked me. It’s really a simple case of an obsession, starting at that period, and I just went back... He really became one of the great musical discoveries of my life; I heard in it everything that I was into. As the years ticked on, I just collected more and more, so by the time Tilt came out, I was fully committed to the cause of Scott Walker. Allan: Was Tilt at all unsettling?

Stephen: No – it was thrilling. I loved it. I like really dark, difficult music. I was a bit of a Goth – I liked Einsturzende Neubauten, I liked industrial music, I was into punk, so the noisier elements of it – what people say was dark and impenetrable – just to me was thrilling, that a man who had once done Tony Bennett covers was giving us this pitch black music. It was more like still life painting... I think in the film someone compares him to Francis Bacon, and it’s totally true. It was startling, but thrilling as well.

Allan: Do you have a favourite?

Stephen: I can’t pick, you know? I did the movie. I embrace it all – I had to. Each phase of it holds fascination for me; it’s like – “which side of this diamond do you like the best?” He reflects and refracts all these different things. By default, since I’ve been so immersed in every other period, I’m dipping into the weird 70’s country stuff, just for freshness – that’s the stuff I’m not as familiar with.

Allan: That’s from the vinyl only, unreleased period? (Walker has several albums that he blocks from coming out on CD, I learned from the film. They may, however, have had limited release in Japan, if you can figure out how to order from Amazon Japan. I've done it for some mini-LP style Sun Ra stuff... For example, here's a CD of Til the Band Comes In, selling used on the site for about $200 Cdn. Stretch and We Had It All are quite a bit cheaper, one one CD).

Stephen: Yeah – the album Stretch, for example, has some really great shit on it! He covers Bill Withers, you know, doing “Use Me.” It’s great stuff!

Allan (bursts out laughing): He does “Use Me?!” (Great song - you can hear the original here).

Stephen: He does “Use Me!” Oh my God, it’s so good.

Allan: Did you get to talk to him about why he doesn't want those albums to come back out?

Stephen: We really didn’t get around to it, to be perfectly honest. I mean – he’s not a fan of those records. He does speak about it a bit – it was the imbibing; he was very drunk, he had lost his way. He was trying to find his way back to songwriting and people just wouldn’t let him do it. What do you do, you gotta pay the bills!

Allan: How did you get in touch with him?

Stephen: I’ve been asked this question a lot, and to be honest, how I found his manager’s fax number still remains a mystery to me. I can’t remember how I did it, but somehow I did – I don’t know if it was online, finding a number and changing the digits and getting their phone number. You know what I mean? Just weird detective work eventually got me in touch with the people who manage him. And I just started sending them ideas and introducing myself and seeing if he’d be open to letting me do this film.

Allan: Was he less eccentric than you expected?

Stephen: Completely. Well – I mean, I had done enough research, and I had spent a lot of time with his management, so you start to get a picture of the man through other people, but yeah – you still never really know what you’re going to be confronted with. But there was just something in his manner – he was extremely polite and courteous, just a really nice guy. It kind of dispels all the myths of, kinda, “the Phantom of the Opera of Modern Rock” that a lot of people have in their heads. But that’s not to say that there isn’t still some very weird schism between the really nice man and the really dense and abstract music that’s pouring out of his brain. Which is a zone that I wanted to kind of leave as enigmatic as possible. You can’t explain it away, really, and I didn’t want to. It’s part of his mystique and what makes him an interesting artist.

Allan: Did you see any hints of eccentricity or darkness in the interviews, maybe that didn’t make it into the film?

Stephen: Not really – I mean, the darkness is there. I mean, the man tells you he’s been carrying around this image his whole life of the beaten dead bodies of Mussolini and his mistress.
Allan: Right! I had forgotten about that...

Stephen: That tells you something. That’s something that reverberates through his life, you know? It’s there. I feel like some people want it to be more explicit than it is, but I just think, “Watch the film a bit closer, it’s all in there.” When the man says “My life and my work are the same thing,” that’s the answer, I think.

Allan: Yeah. The only thing I couldn’t make sense of in the film – when Brian Eno is talking about the Walker Brothers' Nite Flights, there seems to be a consensus that that’s a singularly difficult or avant garde album. I can’t really hear that – it seems like pretty standard 70’s pop to me.

Stephen: Well, the song “Nite Flights,” it’s almost like a template for all of New Wave to come, in a way. It feels very much in line with what Bowie and Eno themselves were doing, with Heroes and Low. But I think he’s thinking in particular of the track “The Electrician,” off that album. That just pushes it into another direction, and there’s just a hint that Scott is working on a level that’s a little removed from where pop music would eventually go.
Allan: Was it intimidating or weird contacting Eno or Bowie?

Stephen: It was my idea to get Bowie to executive produce, just because I knew he was such an enthusiastic fan. Yeah – you get a little skittish before Bowie's about to walk into the room. But really, everyone kind of came together around a genuine love of Scott Walker's music, so that kind of set a tone for it all. Eno was great. It was probably one of my favourite interviews to do, just 'cause the man is so fucking smart.

Allan: He's an extremely articulate guy.

Stephen: He's so articulate, and - it was just one of those rare interviews where you could just use everything he said. It could have been the Brian Eno show, he was just so captivating.

Allan: Just something you might find interesting - I saw Eno perform live in Tokyo, in, I think 2001, in a very rare concert appearance, and of all the people I saw perform when I was in Japan - Sonic Youth, David Byrne, Lou Reed, Joe Strummer - he was the only one who had taken the time to work out a speech in Japanese. You could tell he didn't actually know how to speak it, but he had it all written out, introducing his "atarashii ongaku" to the audience - his new music, and his pronunciation was pretty good! It really impressed me, and them, that he did that.
Allan: A final thing. There's a remarkable shot of Scott singing in studio that you used, and you cut away from it to an animation. I was kind of screaming in frustration, because I wanted to see more of it. Did Scott place restrictions on how much footage of him you could use?

Stephen: No, he actually stopped. That's all there is! He sang like, another line, and then he stopped recording. The famous "one take vocals" for this albums - they're really rigorous songs to sing, which probably part of the reason they'll never be done live. He once told me to just get across the songs themselves was just such a feat it would kill him. So... yeah, we used almost every frame of him we had at the mike.

Allan: Are there going to be any really interesting extras on the DVD, when it comes out?

Stephen: Well, the DVD's come out in the UK, and they've done kind of a dumb thing and taken the 25 minutes of Scott Walker interview and put it on a limited edition disc that you can only get through HMV, whereas on the regular disc it's just extra interviews with everybody else. But in North America, we're going to try to cut it a bit differently and we're going to go back in and I'm going to put some extra studio stuff on, because a lot of the fans have been saying that the one thing they really want. The diehards - they want to see him just kind of puttering around the studio. Which our distributors thought, "Oh, that's boring - let's just put more Bowie interview," or something. I'm like - "Ohh, all right. They're paying for it, so we can only argue so much.

Allan: Right.

Stephen: But it's probably going to end up being a case where different DVDs in different territories have different goodies on them. But the British DVD is great, it looks good. We've got the whole lost Neil Hannon interview, which, due to time and editorial constraints, we couldn't use in the film. It'll be a nice package, but we're psyched that it's gonna be coming around on screens and things. It's going to come out in America in January. I think we're still working on a Canadian deal. But uh... if people are tenacious, they can get their hands on it.

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