Interview – Karl Wallinger of World Party

Interview – Karl Wallinger of World Party

There’s an easy familiarity to so many of the songs of World Party, despite or maybe because their heyday was in the 90’s. They’ve become embedded as staple items into the soundtrack of our lives. I was in the very act of researching this piece and wandered for a moment into the lounge, only to hear ‘Put The Message In The Box’, from World Party’s 1990 ‘Goodbye Jumbo’ album, wafting out of the TV courtesy of a 2009 Jack Black film – a significant portent and even more so given how carefully Mr. Black likes to select his music. The band tended towards a revolving roster of members, but was always essentially one man, that being Karl Wallinger. If you know nothing else, I guarantee that you will be hugely familiar with one of the songs in particular. ‘She’s The One’ was recorded with World Party, for Karl’s own satisfaction and benefit, but he was thereafter ‘informed’ that it was being re-recorded and released by a certain Robbie Williams. The song sounds like an ode to love. It is – but far from being Robbie’s wooing call, it’s actually Karl’s paean for his mother, whose death at that time had prompted him to write the music in the first place. There was an unplanned hiatus in World Party’s trajectory in 2001 when Karl suffered a brain aneurysm, which took literally years to recover from. It’s a testament to his work ethic and need to create that things eventually got back on track at all.

 

They did though, and World Party have just released ‘Arkeology’, a 5 CD career spanning collection of live tracks, out-takes, covers, with a dozen new songs in the mix, which we recently reviewed https://www.godisinthetvzine.co.uk/2012/08/28/world-party-arkeology/ I chatted with Karl last week by Skype, while he was in the States. For some reason, I totally forgot that Skype has video, which means that you can actually see each other, and it was only when I started the interview that I remembered that I was covered in flies and sweat, and still in my venerable and ancient running kit. Luckily we weren’t in ‘smell-o-vision’, and on reflection the situation could have been much worse. Karl was enjoying a late summer sunny day in Pittsburgh, and was very kindly putting off a cooling dip in the hotel pool to chat with me. He was eight days into a promo tour, playing small gigs at radio stations to a couple of hundred people at a time, just him and his fiddle player David Duffy. Karl described it as “ commando raid promo, a great experience, especially when the audience know all the words and sing them back at you”. Even over the Skype connection, Karl was visibly moved. You must be fairly used to that though? No, it’s the age of it that’s really that’s weird. It’s like they must have amazing memories (Karl breaks off into laughter). They know more of the words than I do So where are you living these days Karl? Crouch End in North London. It’s a short walk away from the woods for my dog, Ringo. I called him that because I always wanted to say, “come on Ringo, let’s go for a walk”. He’s 15, and can’t see or hear anything, but he loves to sniff, so we go for a twenty-yard three-hour walk. Karl is always quoted as coming from North Wales; or at least he is locally – I live there too and the locals pass up no chance to bask in reflected glory. We exchanged some local gossip and he told me of his uncle, a clergyman with the glorious title of “Canon John Thomas”. For some reason we both thought this had an eminent and worthy ring to it. Karl then related to me an anecdote about sitting in the rectory while the worthy Canon’s father played some trick by putting a very hot teaspoon down on Karl’s hand, while guffawing to himself quietly. Ah, the innocence of making your own entertainment at home. We eventually got back on track, and Karl told me that this run of radio shows was partly for its own sake, to promote the new record which has just had its official release, but also partly a precursor to a full touring run in USA, potentially next year. He’s got a couple of shows lined up over here. As he puts it “we were in my agent’s office talking about wanting to do some shows. He phoned up a promoter who said that the Royal Albert Hall happened to be free on November 1st. At our end of the phone, we had a quick discussion, decided that we were insane and we’d go for it. You can’t really say no can you? It was an auspicious moment. All we’ve got to do now is fill it up (laughs) we’re doing okay, but that’s the game at the moment, fill up the Albert Hall.

 

Have you played there before then? Now I haven’t, but several people who will be playing on the night have. I’ve been there many times but never actually stood on the stage. It’s been the scene of the crime for some notable events in music history. It’s quite a thrill I must say. I’m trying to practice and remember all our songs. It’s the closest thing to a full monty World Party show that I’ve put on since coming back. Will there be any surprises in the lineup on the night? Who knows, we’ll see. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if I told you would it? The surprise is that we are doing the Albert Hall! You’ve got a couple of dates over here in the UK leading up to that? Yes that’s right. Leamington Spa, Oxford and then the Albert Hall. It’s a toe in the water really, although its spectacular water; it’ll be good. The idea is….well to be honest it would be foolish of me to pretend there was any great idea. We’re doing the Albert Hall because we can. It’s a blast. So let’s talk about Arkeology? Yes. That whole box set idea had been talked about. It had raised its ugly head and I just thought I don’t want to do that. It’s like with Biograph, the problem is where do you put the box? I mean I know where to file music… I was thinking artwork and a book, and I really was ready to say no. And then I was at home taking a phone call and making notes for a plumber, or for a friend to come round or something. We have these things called the Redstone Diaries; I don’t know if you’ve seen them? Each year is a different kind of subject, they might do surrealists one-year, another theme the next. I was putting something in my diary and there was this great picture of Picasso getting out of a car in the South of France, and glaring at the camera with those amazing intense eyes he’s got. And I just thought how great would that be, as an album booklet. There would be music, different tracks, but it would be something you could use. And also, it sticks around – it could inhabit the kitchen table for a year. I wanted to make something that wasn’t just the thing that you’d look through and then get rid of. Also I didn’t want to put loads of album tracks on there. I wanted it to be an analogue thing rather than just a load of tracks uploaded to iTunes. Especially with people saying that the album is dead – I just thought surely you can do something that’s worth getting? I mean, Jesus, what’s going on? Having the utilitarian nature of the diary seemed to help me because it’s not really a greatest hits, it’s not really a box set. I don’t know what is really. It’s a book with some funny pictures in and a few mad dates in the diary. There’s one about 512 BC and an emperor.. I just went a bit mad. There is my birthday which is October 19 and I just got Zip-a-deh-doo-dah day or something..

Oh I see, I shall break its duck and write ‘Karl’s birthday’ in there right now. You have caused some consternation. I looked at some fan reviews. There were comments about the CDs being in paper covers, that people would be immediately putting those in jewel cases. And I could see them being tempted to wrap the whole thing in cling wrap. No! It’s meant to be totally irreverently handled. It’s a utilitarian package. In the age of no waste it’s not meant to be a reverential thing, it’s supposed to be there on the kitchen table, that’s the idea. The whole thing is very home spun. I did it at home; I got my kids to help me out with it. One of my daughter’s friends shot a video to go with it, which is ‘Everybody’ s Falling In Love’. I sort of screwed up and did a bit of special effects for the video, which she didn’t like, so she kicked my arse for that. Cara who is one of her friends also did a lot of work, scanning images, doing a new Facebook site and website. And another friend of my kids did the initial layout for the book. So we got young people involved, and then with their help I put it together myself in the front room. It was great fun just making a diary, knowing that we were going to put it out there to sell and that people would use it.

The cover is our address book from home. The dog when he was a puppy had ripped it up, ripped the black cover off. We’d stuck it together with gaffer tape over the years. I looked at it on the kitchen table and thought that’s definitely archaeological, that is. So that’s the cover for Arkeology, designed by our dog! I formally congratulated him for designing it, and of course he was on the cover of our last record. Designed by a dog called Ringo, I mean who can say that about their album covers? Can I ask why now, why at this point? There is no logic to it, no reason, it’s just because we can I suppose. I read somewhere about you regaining control of your back catalogue? Oh no, that was years ago. It was something like 1998 that we got the catalogue back from EMI. Basically my last fax or whatever it was to EMI was literally just like “fuck off”. I had such a thrilling time with them just towards the end; it was just crap. The thing was, I had this album to do. They didn’t have the yes or no over it, it was definitely on the cards to do. I’ve had some extraordinary deals in my time, been very lucky and thought things through as well. At that point I just said “tell them we don’t want any more money, just say give me back the catalogue and I’ll walk and we’ll call it a day”. Just to demonstrate how little it mattered to them, they said yes. It ended up on the front cover of Music Week I think it was, ‘World Party get all back catalogue back’ or something like that. It was great to get my music back because otherwise they can do anything with it, they can just put it on a shelf, anything. Getting control of that back was the essence of being able to survive really, because since then I’ve had tracks in films and in television programmes and the money’s come to me instead of a black hole as it was with EMI. And also when you’re doing your own thing, it’s much nicer because you can surround yourself with people you want to be surrounded with. Because a record company will just tell you they going to handle your press or handle this or that. As it is, we got some great people we’re working with, promotion people, press people. For instance I really like working with Partisan (his PR company). It’s been great you know. You can just deal with people, it’s real, I mean I’ve got no airs and graces about being someone. I’m a recovering aneurystic sufferer and I don’t really give a fuck anymore. I’d rather be with people who I find congenial and interesting, and we work together to get it out there. Yes to sell copies, but we’re not trying to retire on this or anything. We didn’t make it 70 quid (it’s £29.99). It’s reasonably priced…it’s a funny thing, if you make something too cheap, it turns people off, it’s weird. It’s like the tickets, £55 max for the Albert Hall. I know that people play there for £110. I’m more interested in hooking up with people and getting something going than making a mint. I’ve been lucky I know. I still got a publishing deal. The ‘She’s The One Thing’ was a crazy bit of luck when I wasn’t well. It enabled us to survive, it even enabled us to stay in our house, do you know what I mean? I’ve been very lucky in lots of ways.

What was that like then, to suddenly find that Robbie Williams was going to use your song? Strange. What was even stranger was that they went and recorded it with the band that I’d just taken on the road. They took the band into the studio and played the track with them. And they were all told not to tell me… It was “don’t tell him because Robbie is going to phone him and ask him if it’s alright for him to release it”. It was a strange time… Did Robbie do a good job of it? Well it was pretty faithful. It sounded more expensive. Getting the words right would have been good. I made a real faux pas actually. I made a phone call and I thought it was the publishers, and it was a management company, and I said “he probably just sang the wrong words because he couldn’t read” or something. Next thing I had a phone call back from someone saying “why exactly have you’ve got a problem…” I said “whatever man”, but there you go… I nitpick. It was bloody amazing. I’d got ill. I didn’t work for five years really. I came out of hospital and did a charity gig at the Union Chapel. Mark Thomas the comedian did it. There were a few people, it was a benefit for a therapeutic art class that we had then. We were trying to keep it going. Edwyn Collins did it too. He had had a lot worse time than I did with the aneurysm thing. But after doing that, I didn’t do anything for four, maybe five, years. And that was 2000 or so? 2001. It was just a few months after came out of hospital, and I wanted to just see if I could, and we played a few numbers of this benefit gig. And then I went away AWOL for a while. It must have been 2 years before I went in the studio. We went in there and it was like tumbleweed blowing down the street. Bar signs swinging in the breeze and creaking. It took me a while just to get anything going, to try playing things. If I look directly in front of me I can’t see that hand there (he indicates to his right on the web cam). The right-hand vision in both eyes went, I can’t see there unless I look around. The aneurysm was where the optic nerves connect to my brain, it was like a clamp around them. My eyes work, my brain works, but the connection between them is affected. So the neck of the guitar became an area of ‘jazz chords’ to me (laughs) Yes I know that saying, “close enough for jazz”… But you know, I’ve just done the session for the radio today on my own. I can accompany myself now. You just get into it man. What doesn’t kill you does make you stronger. It made me care less about how I’m perceived, and it’s made me just believe in the songs. Go and perform the songs, and let them do the talking. They have their own life – the get played at weddings, people have sex to them, they want them played their funerals. There was a guy today saying that he played ‘Hollywood’ every time he went to play ice hockey. That’s an amazing thing about being songwriter, that songs do have their own life. It was like that with ‘She’s The One’, it got really big. It went the Brits. The song went there, not me! It’s so weird. Do you play live on a regular basis? I mean, I know you’re there in America doing radio? Yeah, I do, but I haven’t really done it in England, that’s the thing. It’s really exciting, that’s why I’m really looking forward to playing at the Albert Hall. There’s the technical side, because it’s a big band. I’ve got to go and try and find all these bits and pieces. It’s been such a long time – you have to go through a lot of different files and discs and things, and find out where the hell the cello sound is for “All Come True”. First you’ve got to decide what you’re going to do, and then whittle it down. It’s great opportunity to play there as our “Hi, we’re back!”. It’s going to be a great night, we’ve just got to get some bums on seats. Fans, fans I mean! Don’t tell them I called them bums! I’ll headline it like that “Karl Wallinger calls his fans bums”! (laughing) Yes. World Party fans are bums! By now I was aware that I’d taken up much more than half an hour of Karl’s time. He was sitting politely in his hotel room but no doubt was really itching to get that swim. Still, we gossiped a bit longer, as only the Welsh can, not least about ex-Alarm drummer Nigel Twist who now lives in San Francisco. As Karl tells it, Nigel, who now works for the Public Defender’s Office, joined Karl for a radio session a while ago. As the SF local, Nigel drove to and from the gig. Afterwards he dropped Karl back at his hotel, and then as Karl was walking towards the door, Nigel excitedly jumped out of the door, shouting “Karl – Karl – they are just playing the session we just did AGAIN on the radio!” Equally enthusiastic, Karl came running back saying “Wow! Really?” only for Nigel to say “Err, actually, no. Had you though!” It was a good note to finish on, Karl to finally get his swim, and me to get changed out of my skanky running kit.

 

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