Interview with Karl Wallinger of World Party
Picture yourself as the leader of a critically adored and reasonably successful pop band who watches his label steal one of his songs for someone else to cover, with the help of your own band, mind you. The label soon goes bankrupt. Later, you have an aneurysm. Ow.
Karl Wallinger, leader of World Party, didn’t have to imagine any of the above events; they all happened to him. But after a few years to collect himself, Wallinger is circling the wagons, re-releasing his entire back catalog on his own label along with a revamped version of the 2000 UK-only Dumbing Up. Bullz-Eye caught up with Wallinger, holed up in his London studio, to chat about label mismanagement, what’s in his iPod, and the possibility of making a record that Kraftwerk would like.
Karl Wallinger: Where are you?
Bullz-Eye: I’m in Dublin, Ohio.
BE: You’re in your studio?
KW: I’m in my studio in London, yeah. Looking at a cool cathedral on the skyline.
BE: Where exactly is your studio?
KW: It’s kind of in north London, Islington area. It used to be used as a fire watch in the Second World War, where you could just look out the window and say, “Oh, they just missed some poles,” whatever, you know.
BE: The only thing I’ve seen of London is Heathrow, and that doesn’t really count.
KW: No, not quite, but (Heathrow)’s just about arrived here, now, by the size of it, you know what I mean? It’ll come to you if you just wait long enough.
BE: Before I forget, one of our editors wanted me to inform you that he skipped his prom to see World Party.
KW: Ha ha ha ha!
BE: He assures me that that had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he didn’t have a date.
KW: Ha ha ha ha! Well, I hope he got one at the gig.
BE: He said you covered “A Day in the Life” at that show.
KW: Right, right, that was a while back.
BE: That makes three Beatles covers by World Party that I’m aware of. How many have you done?
KW: Oh, quite a few, actually. It’s like doing your homework, really, isn’t it? It’s just a good thing to do in various ways, either to sound like them or do your own version. You might as well take a good song and work on it if you’re wanting to work out, and let someone else’s inspiration catch you up, you know what I mean? We’ve done some other covers as well, some Dylan stuff and the usual suspects, you know. We did Buddy Holly, Bruce Channel, “Hey Baby”…there are a few covers knocking around.
BE: Did you say Dylan a little bit ago?
BE: That explains “Who Are You,” which is pure “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
KW: Yeah, yeah. I mean (“Subterranean”) is a defining moment, and it seemed like a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” kind of time, really.
BE: I have a confession: Dumbing Up is the only album I ever downloaded in its entirety off of Napster.
KW: Oh, right?
BE: And I added your cover of “Penny Lane” as a bonus track.
BE: And that was only because I couldn’t find a copy for less than thirty bucks.
KW: Really? That shouldn’t be the case. The versions you’re finding for thirty bucks are imports of the 2000 version (of the album), which came out only in England.
BE: Right, well, that’s when I downloaded it…
KW: The new album that’s coming out in America, it’s got a different track listing. Also, there’s two new tracks on it. But there’s also a free DVD on the inside with about two hours of stuff on it, the videos and also some live stuff, and stupid stuff you wouldn’t have seen if you weren’t in London the night we did the Dumbing Up gig, and we had a news reporter onstage introducing the band and all that kind of stuff.
BE: I have the disc, but I have not gotten to the DVD yet (Note: I’ve since checked out the DVD. It’s sweet.)
KW: Right, right. Well, have fun anyway. There’s a lot of stuff on there. It’s just something we cooked up here, me and Pete. (Note: I have no idea who Pete is.)
BE: Does it seem strange to be promoting an album that’s five and a half years old?
KW: Well, I actually decided to go that way because I’ve been a little out of action. Having licked my wounds, and gotten myself back together, I just decided to carry on where I left off. The idea at that time was to go to America, get a (record) deal, put the album out, and carry on. I’m sort of in denial about the fact that I have parentheses around five years of my life. So I’m just carrying on as usual. (laughs) In that British way, you know. ‘Right, well, get back to that plan now.’ So I just decided to go on like that, really, and (Dumbing Up) hadn’t come out (in the States), and I wanted to keep everything in sync. Next year, there’ll be a new record, and we’ll be all tickety boo again, you know.
BE: That was one of my next questions…
KW: The idea is to get everything out, and keep it all in sync… Also, the reason I changed (the album) and added all those tracks is I was aware that people might have a copy, or either bought the import, or been aware that it was out before, and I wanted to make a difference between that and the old album. There’s a lot of stuff there, and there’s a lot of stuff we’ve invested on the web. I might not be Universal Music’s sort of thing, or EMI, or whoever it is, but I’ve got content, and I’m quite happy to have it go out there. Maybe not the way that record companies would want to put it out there, but I think it’s a valid form of promotion, but also entertaining people, you know what I mean?
BE: How difficult was it to regain control of the back catalog?
KW: Well, I had an album that was my call to do, I had the say on whether I took on the option or not. And basically, EMI had done such a terrible job with (World Party’s 1998 album) Egyptology, both here and in America…I didn’t get on with the guy who was in charge at that time of the Chrysalis division, and that was it. I was sitting in an office, and my then-manager was discussing how much money you could get out of the record company for fucking up Egyptology, and I said, “Forget about the money, let’s just get the catalog back.” And that’s all we did, we just went to them and they said, “Okay.” And that was fine by me.
BE: Were you signed to Chrysalis in both England and the US?
KW: Well, yeah, it was both here and there, and it all just went belly up, you know. We were just actually promoting “She’s the One” at radio in the States, these were the early days on the Egyptology tour. And we were on a little label called the Enclave, with a guy called Tom Zutaut, who discovered Guns ‘n Roses, etcetera. So we were on his new label, and they just pulled the plug on us, basically. It was more to do with what was going on at the company that it was to do with what was going on at our label. So I basically got the albums back then. And then there’s the little matter of becoming manager-less. Steve Fargnoli, who I’d been with for 12 years or something, he decided to get cancer and die, basically. (laughs)
BE: He decided that, huh?
KW: And then I had an aneurysm. (chuckles)
BE: I saw that in the press release. That was the first I had heard about that.
KW: Well, we weren’t making big news at that particular moment, you know. It’s been a wild few years; it’s been a sort of 40 days and 40 nights.
BE: Aimee Mann said that she never made as much money as she did when she started releasing her albums independently.
KW: Certainly, it’s a better share. It’s certainly a lot more work, but it’s good to know that between me and piano sitting here in London, there’s no one that says anything about what goes out, other than me. I can talk to people, and find out what they think, you can find people that you think are good advisors, or whatever. But the bottom line is I’m in charge of what I put out, and that’s pretty amazing. Especially when the distributor is a big company, Universal, and it’s good to know you have the best of both worlds, really. But obviously, the proof is in the pudding, and I’m on my second mouthful, so I’ll let you know after a while how it’s going.
BE: The press release says that four years ago, your label kidnapped your band and handed them over to Robbie Williams, but by my count, that was eight years ago.
KW: Yeah, it’s gotta be ’98, I reckon. Yeah, it was pretty weird, that was quite a strange one. I did the track here on my own, “She’s the One,” for a movie soundtrack of the same name. Tom Petty was doing the soundtrack, and he was also the music supervisor. And there were a few other people, the Dead Presidents, or the Ex-Presidents of the United States, whatever they’re called (Note: we’re pretty sure he means Presidents of the United States of America), and a couple female singers were on it as well. Then (Petty) just decided to do the album himself, and make it an album by Tom Petty. And then I heard that Robbie was walking around with a copy of Egyptology under his arm. And then they decided to record it. And Guy (Chambers), who used to be in the band, he was the co-writer of the songs with Robbie.
BE: The only good songs that Robbie Williams ever did were the ones that Guy Chambers wrote for him.
KW: Yeah. Well, apart from “She’s the One,” eh? (laughs)
BE: Well, of course! So you had no idea at all that they had done that until they had finished recording it?
KW: Yeah, the band sort of snuck away into the recording studio. It was ironic, because I did (the song) really quickly, and sent it off. They studied the thing and got all the parts sorted out, did the version of it, and that was it, you know. It’s kind of strange, like “Don’t tell him,” you know. (laughs) It’s weird that your closest people, doing this as a favor to somebody else. It was kind of a weird trip. But it meant getting paid when I was ill, which was ironic. You know, the Lord must have arranged this – not really, by the way – but it was like that, you know, because when I was ill, I could retain my studio, my family, my life. I didn’t have to go and move somewhere else, you know what I mean? It was just a strange thing, I was definitely looked after by the fates. I’m feeling about ready for some more action, and I just want to go on the road, which we’re doing in the middle of May.
BE: Is that in the UK or the States?
KW: In America. Everything is America at the moment.
BE: Are you coming anywhere near Dublin Ohio, by chance?
KW: Who knows? I’ll have to have a look at the map. I don’t think we are on the first trip out, but on the second one, in the middle of June, we’re doing Bonnaroo in Tennessee, and then we plan on touring after that, so hopefully we’ll get to Ohio somewhere. We normally do.
BE: I went to a show when you were opening for 10,000 Maniacs, and all of the people I’m with are dilly dallying while I’m screaming, “Come on, let’s go see World Party!” I heard you playing “Give It All Away” from the parking lot. By the time I got inside, you were gone. Then I found out later that you packed up your gear and played this tiny club maybe three blocks from my apartment.
KW: Right, yeah, yeah. Yeah, we were trying to avoid you, we had the satellites link up with your car, your bumper, your (license plate) numbers. And we just tracked you, and we made sure we weren’t anywhere near you. (laughs)
BE: You did a magnificent job.
KW: Yeah, that was great fun, we used to play with (10,000 Maniacs) for an hour, or whatever it was, and then head into town and just have a blast. It wasn’t really like a gig, it was just a mad…I don’t know, it’s more disciplined as the opening act.
BE: Back to the whole Guy Chambers thing; do you keep in touch with him anymore?
KW: Not really. It’s a weird one, everyone just goes in their direction. I don’t really know what he’s up to. I haven’t spoken to him in a while. No doubt, our paths will cross at some point.
BE: Okay, but that’s just due to being busy and not because of bad blood or anything.
KW: No, no, not at all.
BE: The last thing I saw his name on was INXS’s last record.
KW: Really? That figures.
BE: There are some interesting names in the liner notes of the album: Amanda Kramer from Information Society…
BE: ...and Graham Massey from 808 State.
KW: No, no, just the same name, not the same person. Not unless he’s been moonlighting.
BE: I just saw those names and thought that there was an electronic World Party album coming out soon.
KW: You know, (chuckles) I’ve been thinking about it, actually. I’m a big fan of Kraftwerk, and I’ve thought about taking songs and doing them in that style. But I do like that kind of music. But I’ve done some of that myself.
BE: You can hear it on songs like “Give It All Away.”
KW: Yeah, yeah, and “Hollywood,” as well.
BE: Even the ending of “Who Are You” has that beat track.
KW: Yeah, yeah.
BE: One other song I wanted to ask you about is “You’re a Hurricane, I’m a Caravan.” It struck me as kindred spirit of sorts to “The Whole of the Moon.”
BE: Yeah, lyrically. I don’t think they have anything in common musically, but lyrically, I do.
KW: Yeah, yeah, I suppose I know what you mean, because of the little party talking about the big party, yeah. I had never thought about it, but yeah, it’s very similar in its mood. I’d agree with that.
BE: Well, I think I just blew through all of my questions here. So you hit the States in a couple weeks, then?
KW: Yeah, right about May 15th, something like that.
BE: How was South by Southwest?
KW: Oh, it was so great. We came into the States, we hit New York and did a couple of radio shows, went down to Philly, went down to Washington and did XFM…which was in this amazing building as well that was pretty much an event, to do the session in the studio was like visiting “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or something…then we headed down to South by Southwest, and it was quite funny going back, because it was pretty much eight years since we (last) did it, and I didn’t know what I was going to find. It was like a really open verdict; I really didn’t know how we were going to go down, or would anyone be remembering the (older material) or whatever. And it was a packed house, everybody was singing the songs. So it was just like completely mad. (laughs)
BE: That had to have been great.
KW: Yeah, it was great, very heartwarming, and we had a lot of fun on the whole trip, which is a good thing. I can’t be like that sometimes because of the way personalities react, but the group of people we had traveling were really great. It was thoroughly enjoyable.
BE: I talked to Richard Archer from Hard-Fi, and he says the US tours are always “play the gig, bus. Play the gig, bus.” He doesn’t see anything else. Have you experienced something similar, or do you give yourself the chance to stretch your legs?
KW: Well, I guess I’m more in charge, I suppose. You’ve sort of got to fight for your right to…party, you know? (chuckles) You should just do it, if you want to go see something, you should just go do it. Have a look at the map before you get on the tour, and see what people are proposing to do, and what kind of time scale they’re proposing to do it. And if you want to make a day to go somewhere, you have to realize that early on, and get into when everything’s being organizes so that everyone is happy. Maybe you can make them give you a day off somewhere, in Yellowstone, or New York, or New Orleans, or wherever it is you want to see.
BE: I think the label is whipping (Hard-Fi) like stepchildren.
KW: How are they going on the States?
BE: The album’s being very well received – I love the record – “Cash Machine” has done okay chart-wise, on the modern rock charts, but it’s not #1, like it was in England.
KW: Yeah, yeah.
BE: Who are you listening to these days, what bands have caught your ear?
KW: It’s really frustrating because there was one lot I saw about four years ago, and they were on one of the music channels, and I’ve never seen them since, but they were great. They had a little blonde singer, he had a little ‘60s-y hairdo. He looked a bit like Paul Williams, you know, the guy who did “Phantom of the Paradise” and all that stuff.
BE: And this was four years ago?
KW: I think they were American as well, which is really weird. And I’ve never seen them since, and I thought they were fucking brilliant. Anyway, apart from them, um, I don’t know. Nobody has been in heavy rotation. It’s sort of Evergreen, really, Kings of Leon. But then I haven’t been playing them for a while, either. I’m not very engaged. I might say, ‘Why didn’t I mention that band’ when I think about it later. There’s not really anybody that springs to mind. I’ve just been getting people’s new albums off of iTunes, or finding a link to a Neil Young set from 1969, or whenever it was, when he came and played Harvest before it had been released. As far as the current scene goes, I don’t know, really. But I don’t rush around putting on the Rolling Stones, either. It’s a strange thing, actually. The last music I listened to was my own, but that’s just checking the CD’s that are going to be produced by the record company. (chuckles)
BE: Given how things were a couple years ago, did you wonder that a moment like this may never come again?
KW: What’s that?
BE: Well, that you’re getting the albums back. You’re getting them released. You’re getting them issued in the States. You’ve come quite a ways since Dumbing Up originally came out.
KW: Oh, yeah, it’s been great. It’s been great to get this sorted out, you know. It’s been a major project for a while. It had a few detours along the way; there have been a couple of false starts. But this has definitely been worth the wait. And I think you have to get to this new period to have people thinking that it’s okay to have a band in charge of a label that are putting out their own albums. I think it’s only now that people are really feeling that that’s…and I’m talking about now being the last two or three years, it’s all coming together. It’s the way we’ll do it in the future.
BE: I think a lot of people have shown – and again, I go back to Aimee Mann on this – that you can compete, you can succeed.
KW: Yeah. I mean, a major movie was the big thing that enabled her to do that. It was “Magnolia,” wasn’t it, really?
BE: I think that came out later the year that she put out her first record on her own.
KW: She opened for us on our UK tour, it was in ’93, I think. Or maybe it was later in ’96, ’97, something like that.
BE: Did you get a chance to spend any time with her?
KW: We didn’t hang out that much, because we were always two bands turning up within a few minutes of each other. We were soundchecking while she was at the bar, and they were soundchecking while we were at the hotel. It was strange (chuckles), but I don’t expect it to be anything else on the road, anyways. But I got to know her a little. She was good. (Wallinger changes subject back to who he’s been listening to, which I think at first is a list of the bands he and Mann talked about.) There’s also Tim Buckley, Traffic, things like Simon & Garfunkel and “The Graduate” soundtrack…
BE: I’m sure you could talk the Beatles with her all night long.
KW: Not so much the Beatles, really, which is a bit weird. When I hear them, I just love it, but they’re pretty ubiquitous around my life, it seems. So I hear enough of them to be not exactly jumping on the record player with Beatles records. Oh, I know what I could do, I could get my playlist, hang on a second.
BE: I heard someone in the background. I’m not keeping you from recording anything, am I?
KW: No, not at all. (Scanning iTunes) Okay, what have we got here? Mostly World Party tracks. There’s a Kaiser Chiefs track in my Most Played…
BE: Which one?
KW: …along with Kings of Leon. (answers Kaiser Chiefs question) “I Predict a Riot.”
BE: I love that song.
KW: And the White Stripes’ “Blue Orchid.” I like the new band (Jack White)’s doing, that’s good.
BE: The Raconteurs?
BE: I’ve heard the single, and I love it. I haven’t heard anything else yet.
KW: Yeah I just think it’s good that he’s into the change, you know.
BE: It sounds like more of a power pop thing, and I didn’t even know he was interested in that. (Note: he’s not. Outside of the single, the rest of the record is Zeppelin-o-rama.) But he does it really well.
KW: He’s got the attention, you know what I mean?
BE: It’s funny that you mention that. If anyone else were to make that album, I don’t know if it would get as much exposure as it’s getting.
BE: Because he’s Jack White.
KW: Yeah, exactly. But he’s using it on his own terms, and I think that’s the important thing about it. Too many people do what they think the Man should tell them to do, and it’s not very usual for people to be doing things on their own terms, because everybody’s got to have their little slot paid for. And he’s actually taking a risk, and he’s doing something that he wants to do, and having some fun, hopefully.
BE: I would have to think so.
KW: (still scouring his iTunes list) I’ve got my list of favorites here, and it’s got things like “Grapevine,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and “A Day in the Life” and “Freedom Rider” by Traffic, and a lot of Cat Stevens. That’s what I listen to. (laughs) There’s a Beck track in there, as well.
BE: That sounds exactly like what I’d expect to be in your iPod. I didn’t expect you to tell me that you’re listening to “Stockholm Syndrome” from Muse or anything.
KW: Yeah! It’s a very strange time to be trying to say something, and especially with the pressures of the corporate world on people, it’s not creating an amazing result. But it’s ever hopeful that whatever’s holding people back will be relieved from them, and they can actually get it together, you know.
BE: Q Magazine said years ago, right around the time that Dumbing Up first came out, that with bad politics comes good music. The ‘90s were so good economically that no one had anything to say. They cited the lyric to “A Town Called Malice” and compared it to “Yellow” from Coldplay. We need a recession for music to get better.
KW: Is it official? Are we in a recession?
BE: Well, I’m not sure about England, but they try to spin that we’re not (in a recession) here in the States, but things are kind of screwed up.
KW: Yeah, yeah, things are kind of screwed up. It’s a very weird time, it’s it? It’s difficult to get any…I think the corporate interest is really massive and just becoming out of control at the moment. It’s like something that’s gathered enough mass to have its own momentum, and it’s very unwieldy, and governments are getting rolled over by it all the time. The whole idea of people ruling their own lives is a bit out the window at the moment. It’s mostly Microsoft or some other big corporation that is ruling people’s lives.
BE: My wife just read a book called “Jennifer Government,” where in the future people will take the company they work for as their last name. It sounds crazy, but it kind of doesn’t.
KW: I think there’s all kinds of futures open to us, and it’s down to us to make the right decision. Sometimes I get concerned that people are able to choose in a free, unaffected kind of way, and they’re stressed out by these big companies.
BE: Well, I have taken way too much of your time, and I appreciate you taking time away from recording to chat with us.
KW: That’s fine, the studio’s up in the air at the moment, it’s got its guts hanging out, we’re rewiring everything like crazy. There’s a genius here with a soldering iron, and he’s really great, and he’s sorting me out. And the rest of the time, I’m going around saying, ‘Well, that’s a nice t-shirt design.’ (laughs) And that’s really what my days consist of at the moment. It’s definitely pre-production at the moment. So that’s okay, I don’t mind having a chat. I’m sorry if I’m waffling on and on, I’m not quite in interview mode, but that’s how things are at the moment.
BE: Don’t worry about waffling, because I don’t know anything about interviewing people, anyway.
KW: (laughs, then jokingly) Well, I didn’t want to say… (laughs) No, nice talking to you, anyway.