Man, did this one sting. I had set up an interview time to speak with Karl Wallinger, the creative director behind pop chameleons World Party, who’s doing press in support of Arkeology, a sprawling five-disc set of World Party live tracks, covers, demos and other assorted rarities, packaged in a day planner filled with pictures of the band throughout its existence. In terms of the packaging and the content, it’s an extraordinary piece of work.
I spoke with Wallinger once before in 2006, and he was extremely generous with his time, gave me smart, well-considered answers to my questions, and was just an all-around nice guy. He’s one of those guys where the music has always come first. Sadly, this would explain why he has largely toiled in obscurity.
So, back to our recent chat: after a brief false start (Skype said he was online but he wasn’t), Karl called me on the phone to apologize, and asked if I was still free. As it turned out I was, so I hit him back up through Skype. We spoke for 57 minutes. He was just as funny and candid as he was six years ago, and often broke into song when the moment called for it.
And exactly two minutes of that conversation wound up on tape. Fuck my life.
To date, I’m still not sure what happened. He asked me to send a video feed, which was really cute when my son popped up behind me after his nap and Wallinger said, “Oh hey, there’s Junior!” and waved at him. I suspected that switching from audio only to video is what compromised the recording, but some of the conversation after I turned on my video feed is on the tape. Not even the makers of the recorder can tell me what went wrong.
This unfortunate turn of events, then, has forced me to look at things differently. Wallinger and I spoke for 57 minutes. Fifty, seven, minutes. Do you really want to read the full transcription of a 57-minute conversation? To quote Jonah Hill in Moneyball, you do not. So here’s what we’re going to do: I’m going to post the questions that I asked him, and paraphrase his responses, using direct quotes for the bits I remember. (Sadly, this is not the first time I’ve done this.) Given that some of Wallinger’s responses were rather lengthy, think of this as going straight to the meat of the answer. I know, I suck, but this is the best I can do. For the record, Wallinger volunteered to do the interview again – because he’s awesome – but I declined, fearful that my Skype recorder would fail me a second time.
When his video feed starts up, I see Wallinger holding a cigarette. “Mind if I smoke?” he asks. We both laugh. “It’s almost gotten that bad,” in terms of having to ask permission to smoke, he says. He then talks about the price of cigarettes going up 37 pence in the UK. I tell him that I remember when they were 45 cents a pack. Moral of the story: we’re old.
Back in 2006, you told me that you’d have a new record out the next year. Please to explain.
Wallinger pretends to not hear me when I ask him this. “What? I said what? A lot of the times I say that, I’m talking to myself more than the person I’m actually talking to, to talk myself into it. ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m going have a new record out next year!’” I took this to mean that the new tracks on Arkeology will have to do for now.
With regard to the new song “Photograph,” you told me once that you thought about making an electronic record. Listening to this box set, you already did; you just spread the tracks over the course of five records.
Wallinger explained how he was never one to do just one thing. Being inspired by Dylan, the Beatles and Kraftwerk, the albums were always going to be a hodgepodge of influences and styles, and he was never concerned about the impact that mixing things up would have on his commercial viability. This led to talk about how a lot of bands these days hone in on one style, or think of themselves as a brand, a concept that is completely foreign to him.
In the opening liner notes, you say, “I’m glad the whole CD format is dying.” And you wrote this inside the most ornate box set released in the last 15 years.
And here is where I lost the best piece of the interview.
It begins with Wallinger talking about how he never liked CDs, mainly because he used to get lost in album artwork, and would love soaking in the visuals. Albums also had an additional bonus, he says, and at this point, he leaves the room and comes back with an album in his hands. “I used to use the album cover to make my voice sound like the people on the radio,” he explains, and then he starts quickly pushing in and out on the open end of the album cover like an accordion, places it just under his mouth, and starts singing “Good Vibrations” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” “Picture yourself in a boat on a river…” while creating this waffling effect using nothing but an album cover. Had I been able to record it, an mp3 of this exchange would be sitting below this paragraph for you to hear yourself. Because it was fucking awesome to hear, never mind watch, Wallinger do this.
Wallinger then said that despite doing that for years as a kid, he’s never done the album cover trick on one of his albums. He plans to amend that in the future.
One other interesting bit: he originally thought about putting the music on a flash drive instead of five CDs, since flash drives are more practical and practicality was the idea behind the packaging, but decided to go with CDs for people who still use a CD player in the kitchen or in the car.
“Break Me Again” – how on earth did this song never end up on one of your albums?
This is a song Wallinger recorded by himself in 1989. Powerful and dramatic, it’s the shortest nine-and-a-half-minute song you’ll ever hear. Wallinger never put it on an album because he thought it was too angry. The song was written about an unpleasant experience (he declined to elaborate any further), and while he’s proud of it, he prefers not to go back to that dark place again.
Follow-up question: I hear a little bit of “Fisherman’s Blues” in the verse.
This surprises him – he doesn’t hear a connection at all. I explain that three of the four chords in the verse are the same (G, F, A minor), plus the vocal is a bit like the “Fisherman’s” verse. He gets it then, but makes it clear that he was definitely not trying to emulate the Waterboys track. He also lets slip that he and Waterboys singer Mike Scott are not on good terms, but again declines to elaborate, and I didn’t push the matter.
Who is this?
I hold up the Arkeology day planner to a picture of Wallinger, a drink in each hand, with his arms around a lovely brunette.
“That’s my wife,” he says. They’ve been married 33 years (it could be 31, I’m a little fuzzy on the number). Well done, I tell him.
There are a ton of covers on Arkeology, but there are still a few that are missing, namely “Penny Lane,” “All the Young Dudes,” and “Martha My Dear.”
Given that the set already includes covers of “Fixing a Hole,” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “Dear Prudence,” Macca’s “Man We Was Lonely,” and two original songs modeled after “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” (“I’m Only Dozing” and “The Good Old Human Race,” respectively), Wallinger felt as though the Beatles were more than adequately represented on the set. He did talk a bit about the “Penny Lane” cover, explaining how he played the piccolo trumpet solo on a keyboard, but kept having to cut the notes shorter and shorter to recreate the staccato sound of the original recording. He also said that one of the reasons that he left “Penny Lane” off of Arkeology is because he adores Paul McCartney’s vocal on that song, while he feels that his own performance of the song doesn’t measure up. As for “All the Young Dudes,” he joked that it’s the “slowest version ever recorded.”
I liked seeing the pictures from the unfinished video for “God on My Side.” Pity you didn’t finish that clip, because I love that song.
He said they shot some nighttime sequence in all white like a bunch of Christian pilgrims, and that it’s just as well that no one ever saw the finished product, since he’s rarely happy with how his videos turn out. He cites the video for “All I Gave” as the ultimate example, saying he looked like a menopausal woman in that one. “With all due respect to menopausal women,” he’s quick to add.
Wikipedia wasn’t as prominent when we last spoke, so I’ve learned some new things about you in the meantime, namely that you were once musical director to The Rocky Horror Show.
He loved doing this. He basically got the gig because he worked in the house band and found out the current musical director was leaving the show before anyone else did, so he told the producers, “Hey, let me do the job.” And so they did. He also loved hearing that Rocky writer Richard O’Brien voices a character on “Phineas and Ferb.” (He’s the boys’ dad.)
One of our writers wanted me to ask you about Big Blue Ball (the long-gestating world music project of Peter Gabriel) and your experience working on that.
Great experience, he says. He told this story about a guy from Papua New Guinea with a stern face (Wallinger then makes the stern face, which I wish I had screen grabbed in retrospect), who played some octave-jumping wind instrument that had only three or so notes total, yet he managed to produce these incredible melodies with it. After the album was finally released in 2008, he said he could immediately tell from some accompanying video that “that was from 1994. I could tell because I was skinny.”
I was surprised that you did both of the voices in “And God Said…” I mean, I know you’re the singer, but that doesn’t sound like you at all.
Wallinger then does a pitch-perfect imitation of the first line on the song. He said that he was never an opera fan though his son is, which we joked was a rock star’s son’s way of rebelling. He said Peter Sellers was the inspiration behind the use of opera as a way of sending an environmental message with a twist. “He loved taking something upper class and pompous and having fun with it, which is why I thought that was the perfect medium for a song to end with, ‘Fuck you!’”
He then says that more people should be required to smoke marijuana, so they would stop taking everything so seriously. All he’s really cared about, he says, is frivolity, then quickly corrects himself. “And environmentalism. Frivolous environmentalism.”
Can you explain the note at the end of the day planner that describes you as “not the most stable and reliable person on earth,” and later says, “he has also too often played to the crowd”?
That came from his teacher when he was 16, when the only thing he wanted to do in class was have fun at the expense of the guy in front of him, who had an afro. He would keep sticking Biros in his hair to see how many he could get in there before the guy noticed. “The record was 12,” he says.