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Interview with Karl Wallinger
In the twenty five years since he left the Waterboys, Karl Wallinger has been keeping busy. Very busy. As the sole member of World Party, Wallinger has released five studio albums, including the 1990 Q Album of the Year and Grammy nominated 'Goodbye Jumbo'. As well as writing and performing the hit singles 'Message in the Box', 'Ship of Fools' and 'Way Down Now', Wallinger has collaborated with Sinead O’Connor, supported Steely Dan and won an Ivor Novello award for his track 'She’s the One' (later a Gold certified hit for Robbie Williams).
More recently Wallinger has released a five-disc career retrospective, 'Arkeology', and will be headlining the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London in November.
Pennyblack caught up with Karl (and his charming dog, Ringo) as he prepared for the Albert Hall gig, and found one of the UK’s most compelling artists discussing such varied subjects as his career, his loathing of CD packaging and 'Star Trek'.
PB: First of all, congratulations on 'Arkeology'. It’s a mammoth collection, absolutely bursting with great material. It’s very rare that a collection like this, containing B-sides, demos and live tracks, is actually a coherent listening experience, but you’ve pulled it off. I imagine you spent a long time selecting tracks for inclusion and toying with the running order?
KW: Yeah…Unbelievable! No, not at all, I couldn’t actually do the investigation into the tapes myself, I was shell-shocked! You know, listen to twenty-five years? You must be joking! I sorted it out into an i-Tunes program which had 79 days of music in it, mainly due to the fact that we’d taped every tour and so it was lots of the same things.
I whittled it down to five and a half days, and gave it to my colleague Mike Worthington who went back to America with a hard drive with all the MP3s on it and he came up with four of the CDs. I was back at the studio and I went through the DATs, and I got another one CD and we put them together when we got together again a few weeks later, and a couple of things got moved here and there but basically that was it,that was the running order.
I did take something from here and put it there a couple of times, but it basically did itself really. I like the fact that there are different versions of the same song on there and they’re so different that you…[dog barks] SHUT UP, RINGO! I called him Ringo because I always wanted to say that!!
PB: Did you come across any material that you didn’t include? Do you think that any of it will see the light of day anytime soon?
KW: Yeah, the last ten years wasn’t really picked up on, because I wanted to leave that because that was the stuff that no-one had heard and that hadn’t been part of any album, and I might take that material and work on it for the next album, but I don’t know yet – I just wanted to keep that in the bag!
I was toying with the idea of making it six CDs and having a new-ish one, but the five CD package works well. Otherwise, (the package) would have been a two-year diary or something ridiculous!
PB: You left the Waterboys at a highly successful time for the band. They say it’s never easy to exit a fast-moving train. What led to your decision to leave and was it an easy decision to make?
KW: Just the fact that it was definitely Mike (Scott)’s vehicle and he wasn’t really looking to branch out and make it a kind of band thing. I had lots of songs before I met him – I’d been writing songs for years; I think I wrote my first one when I was about nine, so I’ve always been a songwriter, a musician and a singer. It was obvious with the Waterboys that it wasn’t going to be inclusive in that way and I just thought that it was good to get out at the top.
I’d already had a (solo) deal for a year that I hadn’t done anything with. It was with the same company, so they didn’t really mind. I really just wanted to get going and finally do my own stuff.
It was the right time, because 'Private Revolution', World Party's debut album, worked out really great as far as I see for a first record, and it had some good tracks on it. I really enjoyed the writing process. I had done a few of the tracks before, but I kind of remastered it all in the country and just had a great time recording it – it felt like I was in Abbey Road with George Martin!
PB: Your music career started when you were twenty years old. Before going it alone as World Party, you had spells in bands, notably with David Sharp and Nigel Twist of the Alarm, working in music publishing and I gather working in a West End production of 'The Rocky Horror Show'. Did you feel that music was somehow “in the blood” even if you weren’t performing?
KW: I had thousands spent on my education for some unknown reason, and I went back home after school and met the guys from the Alarm up there in Wales. I knew a guy who used to be a jockey for the owner of Chrysalis Records, and years later he rode a horse called Ship of Fools after my record. Anyway, he played bass with us, and Dave Sharp played guitar when he was in town.
They were called Quasimodo when I found them and they were playing things like The Who’s 'Live at Leeds' album note for note and it was great; Nigel was thundering away on this drum kit – he was a crazy psycho, he used to drive around these terribly narrow lanes to this pub we used to go to. He drove like a lunatic – it was a wonder that we didn’t end up in a heap of flaming metal. He now works in San Francisco for the Public Defender’s Office! I saw him recently in San Francisco, I always call him when I’m going there and we hang out.
I was like, "Where are we going, what are we doing?" I wanted to go to London, so I headed to London and left them up there, and I saw them a few years later. They were in London at The Music Machine and there was no-one there, and I thought, “That was a good idea, coming to London!” Then the next time I saw them was a couple of years after that, and they were the Alarm, and they were playing at The Marquee on Wardour Street and the place was absolutely chock-a – everybody looked like them!
Years later, when I was with the Waterboys, I’d meet them at festivals and stuff, so we’ve always kept in touch.
PB: With the exception of your 1993 third album, 'Bang, you’ve made a great deal of your records on your own. Obviously, you’re a very accomplished musician. Do you feel comfortable with most instruments, or are there some that you shy away from?
KW: It’s mainly because I’m the only one who stays up that late at night! With 'Goodbye Jumbo', I was recording in Woburn, which is more isolated anyway. I finished it off in London, but the majority of the writing and recording was done up there. There are a couple of guys on it. I do like recording with other people. I’ve never been impressed with virtuosity. Sometimes you get people and they either have one thing or the other – they have virtuosity and they make no impact on your feelings, or someone may come along and play one note and that note is played in such a way that you go Wow!
PB: I like the idea of the narrative arc of 'Goodbye Jumbo' – the apparent story of a life of sadness transformed through spiritual intervention. The joint epiphanies of 'Sweet Soul Dream' and 'Thank-You World' are, for me, very moving pieces of music. Was the “story” of the album in any way autobiographical?
KW: Well, I was playing a set in America the other day and I was listening to the lyrics, and I thought “Oh God! I’ve got to sing a happy song in a minute!” I suddenly became appalled by my own darkness! There are some lighter things on there. Things like 'Message in the Box' buoy things up a bit. I never really try to do anything deliberately – I always try to let the music be a conduit rather than a master. I’m not trying to consciously write things, I’m trying to subconsciously write things. It’s a case of trying to make your ego disappear really.
PB: You’ve won the Q Album of the Year Award, been nominated for a Grammy, played Glastonbury and then of course there’s the Ivor Novello for 'She’s the One'. What has been your proudest moment professionally?
KW: Just walking through the door of the studio ,and it’s twenty-five years since I first walked through the door and I’m still playing there. I think just still working is probably my proudest achievement. I’m still here and still making music that’s hopefully not just comfortable, but real in the sense that it’s really from me. I try not to put things out that are just guff! The more I’ve been around, the less those things (awards, etc) seem important. It’s great to have the fun of playing at the MTV music awards – or was it the Grammys? We played at something in LA, we were hanging out with Motley Crue and those sort of people, and I was like, “What’s this all about?”
PB: There are so many different musical styles on 'Arkeology', from the Kinks-like 'I’m Only Dozing' to the Beach Boys style 'Kuwait City' and the George Formby light-heartedness of Silly Song. You’ve said that your home had a modest record collection – where did you absorb all this music from?
KW: I think the reason for some of those tracks was a response to people saying that I always emulated the Beatles. Those songs are fun in their own way, but 'I’m Only Dozing' is real pastiche. I’m not saying it’s the greatest thing. It was done because I was really sick of getting it in the neck. I’d never thought of myself as being a pastiche merchant!
I was always told, “You never do things in the same style! You should do things in the same style on the album so we know where to market you,” but when I listen to stuff, when my ears are out in the daytime, I hear all kinds of things from the sound of people walking and talking to radios going past in the car to TV to adverts to film music to having the radio on in the kitchen – it’s all day! I don’t understand this thing where you’ve got to be this kind of artist or that kind of artist. It has hurt me as far as the marketability of the band goes, but I’ve enjoyed making the music I’ve made and I wouldn’t swap it and do something the same in order to make it because it would just do my head in!
PB: I love the idea of the packaging for 'Arkeology'. In the liner notes, you mention your dislike of CDs. What is it that annoys you so much about them?
KW: Just the small size and the plastic boxes! They’re horrible! And the things always break off the end, and you get it out of the box, and you’ve broken the box before you’ve even opened it! And the terrible graphics where it’s all reduced! It’s like a bubble gum packet, just a little bigger, but they don’t build into a picture of Batman in the end! It’s just a terrible format. The loss of the end of side one and side two was a shame…Lots of reasons!
PB: You’re playing the Albert Hall on November 1 in a show billed as 'Arkeology Live'. What can fans look forward to on the night?
KW: Mm, that’ll be interesting! They can look forward to leaving, intervals, getting out alive! No, hopefully, they can look forward to hearing stuff that they know and maybe some stuff that they don’t know and, hopefully, enjoying it!
PB: Finally, I read somewhere that you were a 'Star Trek' fan. Despite growing up with 'The Next Generation', I personally feel that the original series is still the best. What do you think?
KW: Well, I love the fact that 'Star Trek' is so crazily aspirational, I don’t know, how can you resist Captain Kirk?
PB: Thanks for your time, and good luck with the Albert Hall show.
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Andy Cassidy speaks to Karl Wallinger, the front man with World Party, about his career, his recently released five-disc career retrospective and his hatred of CDs
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