songs for walter

IN CONVERSATION: Songs For Walter

Songs For Walter has been gracing stages and making waves for several years now with his indie folk songs about singer/songwriter Laurie Hulme’s grandad, the titular Walter. A few EPs resulted but you’d be forgiven for thinking that an album was unlikely. After all, whose grandad has that many songworthy stories? But no, the self-titled debut album is here, a collection of songs about, inspired by, but most importantly for Walter.

Walter was clearly a big character. The tales here range from his experiences at the evacuation of Dunkirk in World War II (‘Dunkirk’) to getting scabies and arriving at his own wedding painted in iodine (‘Purple Blue’). It’s an intimate portrait that clearly shows a deep love of its subject, the sort of passion that only comes from strong familial bonds. In less safe hands, the flowery folk of songs like ‘Meet Me at the Empire’, a story of his grandparents’ first date, could come off as cloyingly cutesy, but Hulme’s craftsman-like songwriting makes it charming, the nursery rhyme-like melody becoming an irresistible earworm. There’s a harder edge brought by the explosive outros of ‘Useless’ and ‘Dunkirk’, the Dinosaur Jr riffing and militaristic drum tattoos giving the record a broad palette of sound.
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The sleeve proudly proclaims that the record was made in ‘bedrooms, living rooms, corridors, bathrooms and cellars in South-West Manchester’. These unique conditions give a gritty, earthy feel that certainly comes across in the detail and texture of the production. It’s a genuinely fascinating record, which is why we caught up with Laurie before the album launch to chat about everything from the frustrations of doing it yourself to the perils of being a communist in a biscuit factory in the 1930s.

The album’s been a few years in the making; you started playing these songs about three years ago. That must be pretty frustrating.

SFW: It was. The first EP was released in 2012. It’s a long time, but I was playing in other bands and also I finished it in late 2014, got it mastered in January 2015 then had to sit on it since then. It took ages mixing it once we’d recorded everything. I was also learning how to mix as well, which was the main thing.

So you’ve done it all yourself?

SFW: Pretty much, with the help of my cousin Ed who did a lot of production and my brother Alex sorted all the artwork out and mixed the drums. There were a lot of tracks too, 16 or 17 that we finished because originally I just thought “we’ll put them all out because they’re only short tunes,” but that’s still 38 minutes, which is long enough.

So the album’s based on stories that your grandad told you.

SFW: When he died I decided we were going to write an album all about his life. There’s a Lou Reed album called Songs For Drella about Andy Warhol’s whole life, so I was like, “right, I’ll do that about Walter.” So that’s where Songs For Walter comes from. Some songs weren’t good enough and then I wrote some better songs about other things. He’s a massive theme, but when I planned it out, originally I wanted it to be absolutely biographical. After the first three, they’re pretty much all about my grandad.

It’s a very personal record, what do your family make of it?

SFW: It is quite a family thing. I think mum and dad are pretty made up because he was such a big character. In a weird way they do have a certain kind of influence over me, not to write stuff but… If they hated something I wouldn’t want to put it out. It’s weird because what your family think shouldn’t affect it. My parents have quite a good taste in music, though.

Did Walter know about your songs?

SFW: No, he didn’t have a clue. He died in 2009 and I had just started writing. I had a few songs; I had ‘Meet Me at the Empire’, and it was just [singing the melody] and didn’t really fit. I needed something to write about really.

So that was the catalyst for writing all these songs?

SFW: Yeah, I didn’t want to write about girls or the same stuff as everybody else. I never set out to be weird or anything. It just felt like the right thing to do at that time. I had all these songs that were about him, he was a big influence on me.

There’s a rich folk tradition of passing on songs and stories by word of mouth and through family members, do you feel part of that?

SFW: In a way, yeah. It was the first kind of acoustic thing I’ve ever recorded and maybe that had an influence. The bands that I was into, I could imagine them writing songs about their grandfather.

So do you think this was because you were writing on your acoustic guitar for the first time?

SFW: Maybe that was an influence on me. I couldn’t imagine a heavy band writing songs about their grandfather. I guess that must have influenced me at the time without realising. The options are so much broader.

Some of the stories behind the songs are great, like ‘Dunkirk’ is about the evacuation in World War II, and ‘Moon/Two out of Ten’, is about him reading articles and scoring them.  Can you elaborate?

SFW: He hated outer space. Well, he hated people spending money going into outer space when the world’s in such a state; half of the world is impoverished. He used to buy the National Geographic and, I don’t know why, but he’d rate loads of articles and anything about space was two out of 10. My dad pointed it out and we laughed our heads off. That was weird.

‘Competition, Diffidence and Glory’ has an interesting line, “I used to be a commie”.  Tell us more!

SFW: I was really political when I was younger; I gave up my course in geography for politics. He thought I had gone uber left-wing and damaging the fabric of society, attacking police officers or whatever. The new single ‘Useless’ is about how he used to be a communist. He worked at the same biscuit factory as his dad, but word got out that young Walter was a communist. His dad was hauled up into head office and told that “if your son doesn’t stop, he’ll bring the whole family into disrepute and you’ll both get the sack.” I guess in the 1930s it was pretty dangerous. Ironically then, he ended up giving me the same lecture that his dad had given him. There’s a line in that song which actually happened, “He took me to a corner/Looked me square in the eye and said/Son you give that shit up and concentrate on physical geography.” I was like, “No way.”

Do you feel like it’s easier releasing such an unusual concept record in the Manchester DIY scene because you’ve been part of it for quite a while now?

SFW: Maybe. What’s been interesting with Songs For Walter is, [previous band] Beat the Radar was totally about me and Johnny [Swift] being really ambitious and it was almost like ‘I want to be in a band and we want to be successful’ and then everything was kind of channelled towards that. This started off much healthier, like, I’m going to record these songs and see what happens. And when you read about how all your favourite bands started, they didn’t start thinking they’re going to be rock stars. It definitely feels like a healthier way to do it.  BTR was really fun but there was definitely an element of that to it. Everything was really stripped down, poppy as it can be, catchy as it can be.

So do you have any plans to tour Songs For Walter?

SFW: I’ve got no plans to tour yet. Maybe Europe. It’s so hard because I’d maybe rather spend the time doing my next album than going to play on a Wednesday night to nobody; it’s stupid, but it’s a shame. We’ll see. Getting a tour together is too much on your own. When you’re older, I think I don’t want to go and play somewhere that’s going to be quiet, it’s hard. When you’re playing to nobody, or even if you’re playing to a few people I just think I could spend that recording a guitar track and then that song could be heard by thousands of people, which is probably better. I don’t know. There’s definitely something to be said for gigging; I need to get a booking agent because it’s really hard. If you’re big enough you can hire venues in cities, but I’m not. Who’s going to come and see me in London, like 15 people? If you’re doing it full-time it’s easier because you don’t have to work.

It might be easier now you’ve got all your production experience.

SFW: It will be, and also this album took a long time because there’s a lot of stuff on it, there’s maybe too much stuff on it. If you listen to all the tracks there’s loads of stuff going on in the background. Maybe it needs to be more stripped back, really good takes. There’s loads left over as well, that’s Ed’s influence. There was absolutely loads of stuff on ‘Stamping on Snails’ and then we just got rid of all of it. It was really interesting. It definitely made it a better song. I also learned how to arrange the songs. BTR was in the practice room, writing songs from start to finish. This was much more computer based, see how it sounds on the computer first and then re-recording ideas accordingly.

So do you have any plans to tour Songs For Walter?

SFW: I’ve got no plans to tour yet. Maybe Europe. It’s so hard because I’d maybe rather spend the time doing my next album than going to play Nottingham on a Wednesday night to nobody; it’s stupid, but it’s a shame. We’ll see. Getting a tour together is too much on your own. When you’re older, I think I don’t want to go and play a shit place, it’s a waste of time. When you’re playing the middle of nowhere to nobody, or even if you’re playing to a few people I just think I could spend that recording a guitar track and then that song could be heard by thousands of people, which is probably better. I don’t know. There’s definitely something to be said for gigging; I need to get a booking agent because it’s really hard. If you’re big enough you can hire venues in cities, but I’m not. Who’s going to come and see me in London, like 15 people? If you’re doing it full-time it’s easier because you don’t have to work.

It’s being able to afford to do it full time. It’s insane. You’d have to live off beans.

SFW: It’s the dream.

He tells me he’s nervous about the album launch but he has no need to be. It’s a resounding success, the sheer force of goodwill lending the evening a buoyant, jubilant air against the odds (the band are forced, mid-soundcheck, to find another venue following a problem with the plumbing). It’s a joy to watch him happily relate the story of each song as an introduction and point out his dad and uncle in the crowd when their picture appears on the projection of the album artwork behind the stage. With him restless to move on to his next project, though, you’d be wise to catch Songs For Walter sooner rather than later.

https://soundcloud.com/songsforwalter/tougher-than-a-soldiers-boots-1

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