Machine Music's Albums of the Decade – An Interview with Patrick Walker of 40 Watt Sun
[This is the ELEVENTH installment of the Albums of the Decade series of interviews. For the rest of the series go HERE.]
Artist: 40 Watt Sun
Album: The Inside Room
Label: Cyclone Empire
Favorite Song: "Carry Me Home"
The Bare Bones: The Inside Room was the first album in 40 Watt Sun's ongoing story. But, for many, right or wrong, it was the first album the man behind 40 Watt Sun, Patrick Walker, released after the dissolution of his previous band, Warning, which had released one of the best metal albums of the millennium in the form of 2006's doom-metal masterpiece, Watching from a Distance.
The Beating Heart: 40 Watt Sun had nothing to do with Warning, and yet, somehow, everything to do with Warning. While Warning's style matched glacial, shifting, and heavy riffs with Walker's heartfelt, often heartbreaking, lyrics, 40 Watt Sun seemed like a conscious attempt to focus on the latter, while loosening his hold on the former. And while The Inside Room would never really completely relent from a previous trademark heaviness, it does mark what would be the highlight of 40 Watt's Sun – Walker's words, his voice, his intonation. It is a difficult task not to break into inappropriate sentimentality when discussing Walker's work, since, as many of his listeners no doubt know, his is a rare breed – perhaps a class all of his own – of a musician so moving, so human, so tender, and so resolute that it becomes impossible to speak of Walker's music without conjuring some deeply personal image of a time in one's life when that music served as comfort, perhaps even support. But alongside those personal feelings, the fact remains that 40 Watt's Sun's debut stands, alongside all of Walker's past and future achievements, as one of the most stirring, beautiful albums in recent memory.
And Walker, as will become immediately clear in the very first question of this interview, doesn't like to be interviewed. He, in fact, wants to express himself, as do many other gifted artists, through his art, and his art alone. Perhaps that's the reason he doesn't give many interviews, and, in fact, has never agreed to a live phone interview before this one, which was held a few months ago, on the day is was revealed that another Walker, Scott, had passed away. The result, I believe, is as moving as Patrick Walker's music, a rare and brightening glance into the soul of a man so many have felt was close to theirs. I could not be, honestly, more honored and privileged to have been moved by his music, allowed to speak to him about his music, and to have, in my own way, met him.
Before the interview itself, however, I would like to encourage any who are interested to read the rest of this ongoing project, which will probably be running until the end of the year, with a lot more exciting conversations to be published. You can follow us on any one of our social media outlets (Facebook, Instagram, Spotify) and also, if so inclined, support us on Patreon. Our aim has been to use whatever support we can get to produce interviews like these, as well as other projects supporting our local scene, such as the newly launched music compilation MILIM KASHOT. Thank you all for being here, and here's the talk with Patrick.
I wanted to begin with why you didn’t want to have this conversation, and I wanted to guess why, if that’s OK.
I write. And about a year ago I was asked questions about my writing, and the whole conversation seemed ludicrous to me. Because it seemed to me that it had taken me a very long time to say something and whatever is happening right now is not what I was trying to achieve. Is that somewhat similar to what you had in mind?
Yes, that’s always been at the heart of it. I express everything that I want to say through what I write, so why would I want then to elaborate on it and say anything more? And I’m very careful about what I write and what I say, very careful about how I say it. I like to be precise and articulate, and I feel that in the written word I’ve got more control over how that is articulated than when I’m speaking to you.
I can understand that. But, having said that, I would like for this to not be a conversation made up of questions the answer for which would be “my music.” And so a best-case scenario is that it will feel like an appendix or addendum to what you’ve already said. Like a mushroom on a tree, something that has its own existence, but that can co-inhabit your writing and your work.
And so the first thing I wanted to ask you is if you can think of an album or song that changed the way you thought of music, that confused, scared, and attracted you all at the same time?
Everything I’ve ever listened to and enjoyed in my life is synonymous with an experience, or an emotion, and some deep feeling. I remember when I was seven or eight, when I first started hearing pop music, and hearing the song “Maybe Tomorrow” by the Jackson 5. And while at the time I couldn’t understand it or articulate it, I remember being fascinated by what I would be drawn to now, which is this amazing chord progression and structure of the song.
What about the progression or structure?
Well, it’s got a couple of beautiful key changes in the song, which I still find very stirring, I still think it’s a great song. It was written by “The Corporation,” the panel at Motown. But the first time I became serious with music was when I was 11 and had first heard Marillion, which is still my favorite band. That was in the summer of 1989 and I remember the music seemed to have a greater seriousness of purpose, that had layers of mystery, something that demanded my attention, a lot more than anything I had listened to previously.
And when you think about it now when you’re older, what was it about the music that made you feel mystery?
Musically and lyrically. Lyrically it was one of the first things that made me love language. Musically, they were not conventional song structures. Music for me, before that, was verse-chorus, verse-chorus. And with Marillion, the song structures went A-B-C-D-E-F, and so on. They were composed in a completely different way than anything I had head before. They were a lot richer, musically.
I wanted to ask about starting to “love language.” Did that have a real-life effect? Did it make you start writing? Did it make you learn to play?
I didn’t start with an instrument until I was 15, I wasn’t writing until I was 15. And I don’t think I was good with any of that until I was in my mid 20s.
You were in a band for a while by the time you were in your mid-20s, right?
Yeah, I started my first band when I was 16.
So the writing and the songwriting came together? They were always, in other words, words meant to be sung?
I was more interested in creative writing, as a teenager, before I even thought of songwriting. But you mentioned “words meant to be sung,” which is interesting because I think that some songwriters write lyrics with regards to the phonetics of the language they’re writing in. So, their lyrics are written, literally, to be sung. With an eye to phrasing and melody rather than the words. I think most songwriters write like that.
I’ve always felt that song lyrics should be heard, not read, and that’s through personal experience as well. I’m often sitting down with lyrics sheets, reading along and how they spoiled the music [laughs], and how they sounded clumsy and awkward when you notice the phrasing and have the lyrics in front of you. And so I have always thought that lyrics should be heard rather than read. But the downside of that, particularly in the age of the internet, is that people, I think well-intentioned people, start transcribing the songs online.
When we put The Inside Room out the lyrics weren't initially printed on the inlay, and so the songs started appearing online and there were so many misheard lyrics [laughs] that it was awkward. Even now you hear cover versions of “Carry Me Home” using the 40 Watt Sun misheard lyrics as the definitive version. But I guess that’s a necessary evil, to an extent.
Would you consider yourself as part of that group of those who write in phonetics in mind? Obviously you care about how the words sound, but is that the focus for you?
I care a great deal about the sound of the words, perhaps as much as I do about their meaning.
So, they are both as important to you?
I think they are as important to me.
So, I had a thought regarding your music in preparation for this conversation, which I assume is something you don’t like, because I’m pretty sure you don’t like it when people reach conclusions regarding your music. So, this is a bit of a risk. And it comes down to saying that Warning, and to a larger extent, perhaps, 40 Watt Sun, are very loud folk music. That it retains that element of folk music that focuses on lyrics that are personal and emotional, in a very loud setting. So when you say that you place as much importance on what you are saying as on how it sounds, can you identify a source of influence for that general attitude? Something like, say, folk music?
Yes, but it depends what you mean by folk music. A lot of people think that anytime there’s a voice and an acoustic guitar then that makes it folk music. An artist like June Tabor. She has those qualities that you talked about. The music is very spacious, unhurried, and there’s a lot of emphasis on phrasing with regards to what she’s singing, every word…. It’s the same with Frank Sinatra, in a different way, every word is very carefully weighed and considered. And you have a sense that [Tabor] is singing words and sentences rather than lyrics.
And she’s also very much in service to the song. I don’t like to talk about things in general terms, but certainly with some artists who I consider to be folk singers, then I would agree.
I think what I had in mind when I mentioned folk music is less so someone like Joan Baez, for example, and more of some of the things I heard from Tabor, which I guess you could call the English tradition and those parts in that tradition that have a link to prior versions of English folk music. Tabor seems to be taking part in that, and it made me think of your music in those terms. Because when I first heard heard The Inside Room, this was after a period in which I was not listening to heavy music, and along other artists like ISIS or Cult of Luna. So my immediate point of reference was that 40 Watt Sun was like those artists, spacious, intense, just more somber and personal.
But then two other things came in. One was a comment by a vocal coach who does YouTube reactions to songs. She was reacting to a song, commenting on how a certain singer was singing in an “old” way, meaning without much vibrato, just straight. And the second was, again, listening to Tabor and realizing that both she and you had that “old” quality about your voices. So, that’s the full context of what I meant by “folk.”
I appreciate that observation, and I think you’re right with drawing that line. Because I think that’s really where I’m coming from. Whereas with the other music you mentioned, ISIS and Cult of Luna and so on, while in some respects I can see my record as part of that, I’ve never heard those bands.
When we were in Germany on tour, I think it was in 2011, someone else mentioned 40 Watt Sun as being…. What did you call it, heavy folk? I think they called it “heavy pop,” or “doom pop,” or something like that. But I kind of appreciate that as well, I know what they were saying.
What’s the pop element?
To me a song is a song. It’s about the song. When you mentioned Warning, when you mentioned the folk influence, and I don’t see that connection there, Warning was very much about riffs, and Watching from a Distance was a metal album.
Is that what you would consider it to be? A metal album?
I can’t deny it. But to me, 40 Watt Sun was just about the songs, I think of them as songs.
So, I'd like to challenge the statement that Watching from a Distance was a metal album. And I think what sets that album apart from most metal albums is the persistence of the non-accusatory second-person address. Metal music often is positioned in an accusatory position when addressing others. Which doesn’t seem to be the case with your music, even Warning’s music.
That observation may or may not be true, but it says more about the shortcomings of metal music as a whole [laughs].
Yes, but that’s not the case in both Warning and 40 Watt Sun. Those songs sound like letters to someone, which, it seems to me, take those songs out of 90 percent of what metal seems to do, lyrically at least. So I guess I could switch that around and ask: Why do you write so much in the second person?
[Patrick receives message midway through the interview]
I just had a text message come through, and it says: “Sad news about Scott Walker.”
I considered telling you, but I didn’t want to ruin your mood. He died, I think yesterday.
Yeah, I found out about 30 minutes before I called you.
That was probably the reason for all the phone calls I was getting. My God.
He seems, and I don’t want to jump right back in, but he could make into an interesting addition to our conversation. I think he’s another artist that makes sense in terms of saying something and being in tune to how it sounds as well. Maybe even as a contributor and disruptor of the American version of folk tradition.
Scott Walker was one of my few living heroes [long pause]. But, going back to what you were saying about the nature of the lyrics. I use the second person because the nature of the experiences that have had the most profound effect on me in my life, which makes we want to be creative and which make me want to sing and write, involve another person. Whether it’s to do with moments of great calm and profound peace, or whether it’s through guilt or regret, or any big experience.
If what is required is a specific scale of event or experience for you to write about, and if the nature of that experience usually involves human interaction, an experience with someone, does goes some distance in explaining how long it takes for you to record and put out albums?
Possibly. I don’t find writing very easy, and I’m not very kind to myself with regards to how I treat my own work. If I spent a year writing one song that wouldn’t be an unusual year.
But, if you are as strict with yourself as you say, would that then mean that there are experiences waiting on the sidelines to be unpacked or addressed? Seeing the time it takes you to write of each?
Possibly. But it may be that the effect of the experience may not reveal itself immediately. Maybe it’s something that occurs over time.
I think the thing that always irritated me about metal fans is that the same people who champion artists for integrity or for being true to themselves are those people who criticize you when you step outside their expectations.
Did you experience that? Say in the transition from Warning to 40 Watt Sun, was there some backlash there?
[Laughs] Yes, a very great deal. I can’t talk of 40 Watt Sun as an extension of Warning. Though it may be an artistic progression, they’re not part of the same thing, to me. When the 40 Watt Sun record came out, the first one, we were still on our European label, Cyclone Empire, and it was a wholly frustrating experience, because they didn’t like the record when they first heard it, they hated it.
Did they say why?
Yeah! Because of the production and the sound of it. They wanted something big and chunky and well-produced, in a clean sense, and something that sounded metal. And we sent something that sounded…. I don’t know what you would call it, maybe a little lo-fi. It was quite rough, and it didn’t sound like a metal album. I don’t remember whether they asked us to re-record it or re-produce it, and they said something along the lines of “Well, we’ll put it out if you really want to” [laughs]. They said they listened to it in the office in something like ten different sets of speakers and that it just didn’t sound good [laughs].
Do you think that what they meant by “it doesn’t sound good” was “it doesn’t sound like metal and thus won’t sell among our metal fans?
I think partly that, yes. And when the record did come out they insisted on marketing it as a doom metal album. And I begged them not to do that, because as a consumer or record buyer, or even just a listener, if someone told you something is a certain thing then that affects how you listen and how treat the music. It’s the same with anything, whether it’s a film or literature or music – if someone tells you what something is then that then affects your response to it. And they said “Well, you’ve got to call it something, otherwise nobody will buy it!”
Did you have interactions with angry fans?
Um, maybe. I don’t think so. If anything I think the response to that record proved Cyclone Empire wrong. I think it could have had a bigger reach if they hadn’t marketed it in they way they did. As it was, it wasn’t metal enough for metal fans and it was probably too heavy for non-metal fans.
So it’s either a too-heavy version of My Bloody Valentine or a watered-down version of Warning?
Yeah. I think Roadburn described it as a harder-edged Red House Painters.
[Laughs] That’s pretty good. So, I have a question I don’t know if I feel like asking, because I don’t know if it’s one you would like to be asked, but I’ll try. You can just kick me to the next question. As we said, you’re interested in the lyrics and in having them heard and enunciated. And I think if we held a hypothetical poll among all 40 Watt Sun fans, 99 percent would say the lyrics are the standout feature of the band. The music is obviously wonderful, but had they been asked what it was that made 40 Watt Sun special, they would say the lyrics.
I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s nice to hear.
It is true for me, so I won’t speak for anyone else, I’ll speak for myself. But then one thing that comes with that, also given the folk tradition we discussed, the British folk tradition of the voice and the story, and your own interest in conveying a story or an emotion, why then would you need all the loud guitars around? Even though your words still come through, and despite that loudness people are focusing on the lyrics, so you have succeeded in that regard, but why then do you need all the guitars around you?
Well, with the first album, which I recorded in 2010, then at the time it was just part of the natural progression from what had come before. It wasn’t there to the same degree, but it was there. And maybe as well I felt as if stripping everything away made me a little bit more vulnerable in front of an audience. Volume as a way of maybe protecting myself a little bit. Regarding the second record, I don’t know if you could describe that as a loud record, I wouldn’t.
Yeah, not as much. Not as rough too.
Yeah, I wanted to strip away all the guitars, take away all the heavy distortion. I wanted to be able to hear myself sing. One of my biggest frustrations was that I was fed up with not being able to hear myself sing.
In live performances?
Yeah. But on record as well, but particularly in lives performances. So I wanted to strip it all away. And with the new songs that you will hear on the third 40 Watt Sun record [laughs], they almost disqualify your question [Laughs].
Or maybe supports my question. Sometimes you need the noise like a kind of scaffolding that has to be there for you to even do anything, but once you’ve done it then you don’t need that scaffolding anymore.
So my question is still a brilliant question.
[Laughs] Yeah. The way the songs one the first record were performed, they wouldn’t have worked any other way. All those songs were performed with different arrangements, stripped down, and the arrangements as they were on the first record maybe would have worked the way they did. But you’re asking me about songs recorded the best part of a decade ago. It was part of the tradition of what I was doing, to an extent, and part of a need just to protect myself a little bit.
I’ll just add a comment that I thought of mentioning when we’re done but it seems pertinent now, which is that I saw Warning live in 2017 in San Francisco, and that was the single loudest show I have ever been to.
Was it really?
It was. It was shocking, in a good way, but still shocking in how loud it was. And maybe that’s partly what makes Warning’s music work, even though we’re not talking about Warning now, that as amazingly loud as it was, your voice and lyrics are still the focus.
That’s interesting. When I’m on stage I always ask to have no guitars in my monitors at all. In fact, I don’t have any other instruments in my monitors other than my voice. And [laughs] I was always under the impression that we weren’t very loud, because I have always preferred not to be. I hate loud music [laughs].
Hate it as a listener?
And as a performer, but yeah, as a listener. I associate loudness with lack of clarity. We’re always very insistent that we didn’t want to be overwhelmingly loud. I’d rather us have everything low.
I don’t want to interrupt you, but I think it works. And I think the reason it works is…. I’m often made fun of because I always find a reason to insert Megadeth into my interviews, and I shall do so currently! “Holy Wars” has a long and heavy intro.
But the middle of that intro features a very melodic short solo that rides the riff. That’s your voice. So, in the Warning setting, your voice works so well precisely because everything is so loud. Everything is so crushing that the last thing you expect is this clear and, going back to what we were talking about before, old-style voice cutting through that loudness. Your voice won, every time.
That’s nice to know [laughs]. I do like that Rust in Peace album so I should go away to listen to it once we’re done.
Good, that is the desired outcome of any conversation. Now, back to 40 Watt Sun. There’s a strong sense of natural space and nature in your music, even though nature is not a theme directly, but, perhaps against logic, it seems to be there when I’m listening. Is nature important in your writing process in any way.
No, not at all. I’ve been asked that question once. I can appreciate people making that association as listeners, because everyone responds to music in a different way. But: not at all. When I think about the songs, the inspiration behind them and where they began and the associations I have with them, then I think of cities and towns and streets and rooms.
You started your first band when you were very young, as perhaps almost a rash decision. And going back to what we just discussed, given more thought and time you might have not made that decision. So, obviously we’re all happy you are, but what was one thing you didn’t know back then?
I had a very narrow focus, and a very small frame of reference. When I was 16 or 17 I was immersing myself in that subgenre, and it was tiny. You’d be lucky to get 20 people at a show in the U.K. Cathedral were still playing tiny little clubs in the U.K. as well. It felt like I was a part of a club, that I was let into quite a niche club, and it was very exciting. And though I possibly didn’t recognize it at the time I was very much influenced by everything that I was hearing that I liked and I wanted to imitate it. And that was certainly true throughout my early 20s as well, at least up until I was 21.
I think I look back at that as just me growing up and learning, maybe even learning how to be an artist, or how to be a writer. You’re doing it out loud and it’s very public, isn’t it? Everyone can see what you’re doing.
So you’re growing up with an audience.
I guess you are, yeah.
So 16-year-old you loved being in a club, but I’m guessing present you would hate being in a club, right?
Oh, God yes! When I was 16 all my favorite bands were my friends as well. Today you have festivals like Roadburn or Days of Darkness, but there was nothing like that then. There were half a dozen bands and everyone knew each other, it was a completely different time. It’s hard to say, because when I’m looking back at me it’s like I’m looking at a different person.
Is there anything you still have, as an artist, in common with that person?
I’m struggling to think of anything I connect with when I think of myself as an 18-year-old. When we put out those demos, when I was writing the first album. Maybe the one overarching factor that extends to The Inside Room, for example… We talked about the influence of folk and artists like June Tabor, and so there was also the influence of bands like Revelation, who were from Maryland, from the late 80s to the early 90s – they were on Hellhound records. They’re not talked about a great deal anymore, but they very much informed the trajectory my music took.
This was John Brenner’s Band?
Yes. John Brenner was a huge influence on me, and I still think of him as an inspiration. And my sound you could say was the result of two possible lines of influence – the one we talked about before, and then there’s John Brenner, which is that progressive, downtempo heavy music with very introspective, confessional, lyrics. A lot of the time you hear people talk about Warning or 40 Watt Sun as being somehow synonymous with that, but it all comes from John Brenner.
How did you find out about him?
Because it was part of that late 80s, early 90s metal scene. They were on Hellhound Records, with bands like Count Raven, St. Vitus, and The Obsessed. Their first album came out on Rise Above Records. And they stood out to me because they were good, I think [laughs]. The music seemed a little more progressive than most of the other groups of that ilk. But also because the guitar chords they were playing seemed more interesting and their lyrics made me want to listen more carefully.
So, my last question is when you think of The Inside Room now, even though it was a moment of personal transition for you, is there something about that album that you love or are proud of today?
I’m proud of it all. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard it, probably about four years, but there’s a lot of stuff on there that I’m proud of. Nothing in particular. I just like it, I think it’s a good record, lyrically and musically. I think some of the things on there are some of the best that I’ve written, and I still play some of the songs live.
It’s great. You should listen to it.
[Laughs] Yeah. May I ask what do you particularly like about it?
I think I have a similar answer, I like it as a whole. I haven’t listened to it in a while, and when I was going through that mental list of albums I’d like to address in this series it was very clear it would be one of them. But I really haven’t heard the whole thing in maybe three years. And I thought to myself “Maybe I’m making a mistake. Maybe contacting Patrick before I made sure that I still loved that album was a mistake.” And so I put it on. And the reason I’m telling you this story is that the first five seconds of that album hold a very special importance to me. Not because they’re better than the rest of the album, but because the moment they were over I was “ Oh yeah” and it just unleashed a time capsule that holds all the memories I had when listening to it, the thoughts I had while listening to it, which then led me to hear the album three or four times straight. Which was the way I used to listen to it then as well, many times over.
Some of the albums I do for this series are the kind that scare you, some are technically impressive to the point of being beautiful, there are many ways of making a beautiful thing. But I think The Inside Room is the standout in the “what it’s like to be human” category. Which is a very prestigious category in my head, because that’s the kind of art I enjoy the most, and that inspires me the most. I listen to The Inside Room and I want to write, and I want to call my wife and tell her that I love her.
My favorite thing on that record is the last song. I remember we played the first 40 Watt Sun show about three days before Christmas in 2009. And we played every song from that record apart from “This Alone.” I can remember playing that show and the mood that I was in, and I can remember what I was thinking about, and I remember being before the show and thinking “Nothing that I am about to sing, nothing that I am about to play reflects what I want to be singing now and what I want to be projecting. And I can remember going home and thinking about what that was and writing that song. When I think about that, it’s a lot more tender than anything else on the record.
It’s quite a tender record.
Yeah, yeah. But I’ve got good memories about writing and recording that.
Do you usually have clear memories of the process?
Yeah, I think so. I can remember exactly where I was when I wrote “Here I am wide open, surrendering to your side” [from Warning’s “Footprints”]. I can remember exactly where I was. But when I wrote The Inside Room I remember thinking I wanted it to be a lot more spontaneous, the writing to be a lot more spontaneous. And I think that while it possibly was, and in places you can see where it is. It was a little bit more careless, and I don’t mean that in a negative sense. I think I wanted it to be spontaneous and thus perhaps more heartfelt.
We recorded that in the Library Studio in north London and we went into the studio at four PM on a Saturday afternoon and we left at about seven PM the following night with everything finished.
That’s very quick.
It was very quick, yeah. But then I don’t see why we should have needed any longer. If we had had longer it would have been a completely different record.
Was that a conscious attempt to work against your self-editing impulse? By just blazing through it?
I think partly, I don’t really remember. I think I realized that I could record an album for about 800 pounds, which we did. But I wanted to catch that spontaneity as well. And we didn’t need longer. We all knew the songs well and we’re just a three-piece band, and there’s not a lot of layers on that record, it’s quite a simple production.
Which is part of it’s charm, I think.
I hope so.
It is, I’m saying so.