Wollongong in the late ’90s was dominated by stoner rock, garage and grunge. Pub gigs were full to bursting, with few of the desultory turnouts you see in Sydney today. Machine Translations’ Greg Walker wasn’t part of the sweaty pub rock scene, but he was certainly known and respected by it. I first heard about him from drummer Dillon Hicks (Zambian Goat Herders, Leadfinger), who worked at Wollongong’s independent record store, Redback Music, and talked about Machine Translations’ music with great admiration.
Walker lived in various houses (and sheds) in Wollongong’s north – Coledale, Coalcliff and Scarborough – small beach towns that crept up the escarpment; mystical places when compared to the city’s working-class grit, Methadone clinics and industrial southern suburbs. He played strange, delicate folk-pop with cellos, clarinets and broken pianos and, while it was distortion-pedal-free, it seemed everyone respected his music for its inventiveness.
Fifteen years on from the first Machine Translations release in 1997, Abstract Poverty, and seven years after his last record, Seven Seven, Walker is back with The Bright Door. It begins with the big, glorious racket of ‘Perfect Crime’ – “eight pianos and probably another eight guitars” – and has one of Walker’s requisite skewed pop singles, ‘Broken Arrows’, but to me its real draw lies in the deep, contemplative, quieter tracks, at which Walker just keeps getting better.
You’re still living in South Gippsland?
Yeah. For about nine years now. It was pretty rundown so the studio – which used to be a baker’s oven – has only been up and going for about three years. With these old places, you get to one end and then you go back and do the other end again. There’s about 20 houses scattered around in our village. It used to be quite a big coalmining camp with 400 houses, but the coal ran out and they chucked all the houses on the train and took them to the next deposit.
It’s been ages since Seven Seven.
Has it really been seven years?
It has, yeah. It’s ridiculous. I’ve been spending a lot of time explaining to people why it’s been so bloody long.
Well, you’ve been working with a bunch of other people right?
The big things have been our second child, film and TV work and some pretty big production projects. The TV stuff, particularly, tends to take over your life. They sort of own you. The deadlines change weekly so it’s hard to do much else while you’re working on a show. But as a musician it’s one of the only jobs where it’s steady work for, like, six months, which is amazing. And you get paid properly, which is even more amazing.
I’m just finishing the second series of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. It’s been really great, though it’s very rich soundtrack and, because I do most of it manually with real instruments, it demands a lot of effort. I’ve been teaching myself how to do proper string arrangements and I learnt how to play the clarinet.
I have a romantic idea of you sitting in some fabulous room with the show on a big screen, half-watching it and just noodling away.
That’s about right, though the screen’s an iMac. But it’s still romantic. It’s pretty great knowing you can wake up and make music all day. That’s hard to complain about.
How did you become the 1920s guy?
Like in any profession, if you do a good job on one thing then other people in that world notice and you get a other jobs in a similar vein. You could end up being asked to sculpt people’s noses or something because you did such a great job with the first nose!
My link into that world was a combination of things. I worked on a show called East of Everything a few years ago with the same writers as Miss Fisher: Fiona Eagger and Deborah Cox. Also, I made a couple of records for C.W. Stoneking and he has that authentic early blues style – so having an ability to go into that world and make it sound real, that was a selling point probably.
I had a similar thing with female singer-songwriters. I’ve worked on quite a few records in that vein [Holly Throsby, Jess Ribeiro & The Bone Collectors, Luluc, Ellen Kibble, Tash Parker, Sophie Koh, Emma Heaney) so I kept getting more. I got to the point where I was like, ‘I wonder what it would be like to work with a male?’
How did producing Paul Kelly’s recent album, Spring and Fall, come about?
He’d heard a couple of records I’d made, particularly a Tiny Ruins record as well as Jess Ribeiro [Little River, shortlisted for the 2013 Australian Music Prize]. Those were quite sparse, recorded in local halls around here. I really got into this thing of recording stripped-back, real performances in an authentic space. That’s the kind of record Paul and Dan [Kelly, Paul’s nephew] wanted to make so it was a natural fit. I managed to lure them down here and get them into this hall up in the hills. The three of us set up there for a couple of weeks and played music.
It was a very beautiful, organic process. I was really happy with how it turned out. We added a few extra things and that became the record. I played keyboards and guitar in the band on the ‘Spring and Fall’ tour this year, which was fantastic. We had [bassist] Zoe Hauptmann and [percussionist] Bree Van Reyk as the rhythm section … it was a great band to play with.
When you’re working with other people you’ve probably got that focus and set parameters, whereas when it’s you alone creatively it’s a bigger, unmapped thing. What is the switch like, from being behind the scenes to the creative artist again?
The shift is funny. If I’ve been working on someone’s record, hearing someone else’s ideas over and over again, particularly in the mixing stage, I get obsessed by it as much they do. Pretty much every project I work on, I sort of have to fall in love with. That’s my job.
So their ideas get in your head and it’s hard to drop it?
It’s more like they occupy that subterranean space in the back of my head where things percolate. Which is great, to be honest; I don’t necessarily need to be living in my own mythical landscape all the time. But in terms of getting back to my own stuff, that’s probably contributed to my recording project ending up as this vast, sprawling labyrinth of potential songs and half-finished ideas, with loose ends that took a long time to weave into a record.
Is that process frustrating or fun?
When I come out of working with someone else, it takes a week or two before those ideas start to taper off and my own organic ideas start to bubble up again. It can be a bit tricky because those two weeks might be when I’ve actually got the time to do my own stuff. That happened a few times and it was a bit frustrating.
It’s always fun when you’re in the moment of creating something new. That’s a constant. The frustration comes a few days later, listening back to something I was thinking ‘This is fucking great, best thing ever’ when I was recording it. Then listening in the cold, hard light of day, and thinking ‘Yeah, it’s kinda shit’. I think the sensitivity of my bullshit meter has gotten higher. It has to be exciting to me after that cold daylight hits it. A lot of stuff didn’t hold up.
The frustration was also about wanting to find new things to say and new ways to say them, and not feel like I was doing my usual stuff. I tried really hard to break some new ground on this record, whether it was lyrically or the ideas, sounds and production techniques. Then people turn around and say it sounds like classic Machine Translations.
I would be one of those people. You’ve got a sound despite yourself. When you say you tried to create new sounds … is that when you did crazy things with power tools? Was that related to the house-building?
Yeah, probably! There’d be times I’d look around and go, ‘Oh come on, let’s try something totally different here’. There’s one track that didn’t make it with a sort of power-tool solo in it. Drills and saws, an industrial thing.
It’s funny. Conflict is the wrong word but there’s a duality in my stuff; a tension between my desire to experiment and break new ground and the actual stuff that comes out of me as a songwriter. Sometimes that stuff just needs a simple, traditional backing. That’s fine. I think I’m old enough to realise I’m not going to reinvent the world in a musical way. But it doesn’t stop me trying.
I still think the ideal musical forms are there to be discovered. I don’t like the complacent thing we hear in modern music sometimes. You know, if you take 20% dub and put it with 43% angular new wave and the other percentiles made up of disco beats and the ’80s or something. It’s kind of like your horizons are painted on and you’re in a 2D world.
There are a few tracks on this record in unusual time signatures, using a pallet of sounds that are not traditional. That stuff’s important to me. It’s not like I’m trying to make tricky jazz music or anything, but I am trying to find something that feels new.
But you don’t want to force it. You want it to find its own shape?
That’s right, particularly if it starts life as a song strummed on the guitar with a melody line. There are all kinds of places you can take that. I’ve got those kinds of songs on this record and also songs that started as an out-of-tune ukulele loop or something or a drum pattern. Those [starting points] take you to different parts of the spectrum. The process of recording has always been really interesting to me because you can start with some kind of primitive mechanical thing and it can end up being a song, if you follow your nose.
People talk about how making music electronically can be frustrating because of its limitlessness…
I am professionally finding it hard to take [electronic music] seriously these days. I mean, it can be done brilliantly or badly – but all I see is this bloody guy at 4 a.m. with his Red Bull just programming shit. That’s what I see. I don’t see mystery in it. I don’t see the creativity of it. I just see this bloody guy.
The records I really love are the ones are where there is a sense of ‘What is this?’ It doesn’t have to be mysterious instruments or complicated rhythms – it might be something within the songwriting – but it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s something new and different and deep on some level’. That’s what I want to be part of. I don’t want to be part of this bloody computer program.
Music’s got such a rich history and so many incredible branches, whether it’s classical, Indian, or Middle Eastern, western avant garde or whatever. There’s worlds and worlds of it and the idea that ultimately the musician is a computer programmer just doesn’t satisfy me. I’m not slagging the whole thing off, just saying that it’s easy to be complacent with it. And I don’t mean to single out electronic musicians because God knows there’s enough banal shit being made with a bass, drums and two guitars.
Well, your wealth of possibilities seems just as big. You use noises, pianos and many instruments that you can actually play. You have lots of opportunities with different sounds. Does it sometimes feel limitless too?
It does. The most exciting bits are when I don’t know what I’m doing or where it’s going to end up. It’s like that blank canvas is where I’m always wanting to find myself.
Trusting where instinct is taking you?
Yeah, for me that’s where the recording process and songwriting meet. Almost everything I’ve ever recorded, when I started recording it, I didn’t know what it would be. I’m recording as it’s becoming a song. That’s obviously where technology is great because you can cut and paste something that’s spontaneous.
A lot of things are first-take. I’ll sit down with a guitar and bash something out, grab the bits I like and cut it up a bit, and … the melody turns up in my head. The lyrics are the thing I labour with most. Often I have to work pretty hard because I want the lyrics to say a bunch of different things at the same time.
The analogy of astrophysics is a good one. If you’ve got two celestial objects in orbit around each other, you can predict the movements. But as soon as you introduce a third, the mathematics suddenly becomes incredibly complicated and it is vastly more difficult to predict where it’s going. It can be like that with recording, when you start with something that’s a back-and-forth, two-chord thing. When you put a bass line under it, you’ve got a more complicated deal already. Then you add one more thing that’s moving in a different cycle within that and you’re like ‘Fuck, that’s really quite complicated’. All the ideas are simple but they overlap. That sort of stuff is really fun to explore.
You went through a rough patch health-wise. Are you better?
Yeah, that’s going back a few years now. I had a few bizarre health incidents – the crazy one was what they call a classical migraine. Basically half of my body went numb and I got this incredible thing called aphasia when the impulses you send your brain get scrambled. I would try to say something and totally different words would come out of my mouth. It was very fucking scary. I got over it quite quickly but I was really tired for a long time.
That would have made make lyric writing pretty hard! I love your lyrics. They really endure. I’m still listening to songs from ages ago and getting new meaning. They take a long time to chip away at.
That’s what I hope they do. I’ve also had people say they listen back to songs they know well and still hear new things because there are layers of ideas there. I like that idea that…
Yes, particularly lyrics, because the words can be simple but the way they work together can be complex.
Last time we talked, I mentioned some music and you said you hadn’t listened to anything in ages. Is that still the case?
I don’t know whether to be embarrassed or weirdly proud of the fact that I don’t listen to much music. It’s basically a side effect of making so much music and working so intensely with people on their stuff. Like the builder who lives in an unfinished home.
There’s a huge body of stuff I carry around internally. There are heaps of records I will probably never listen to again because I know them so well. They’re permanently there in my head. If I want to hear something I can reach in, which sounds weird, but as a musician you have a brain that works that way.
There are also records I’ve heard a handful of times and loved so much I’ve made a point of steering away from them. I don’t want to be influenced by them too much. One of my other rants is that I think people get a bit hamstrung by how knowledgeable they are about music.
Yes! Especially now.
I like a bit of isolation and being in my own bubble. I feel like that’s when I’m going to make better work than when I’m out there absorbing everything there is and YouTubing my way through every possible musical style. It doesn’t help me. I get confused. I am the opposite of the encyclopaedic type who can also do incredible things. It’s not my thing.
Those people must have great filters – only absorbing what they want to absorb.
Or maybe they’re more porous and suggestible but if they listen to or read enough stuff, it’ll all get so mixed together they’ll come up with something new anyway? It’’ different for everyone. I grew up in Canberra in the ’80s when everything was pretty shit – a lot of music around didn’t speak to me. My mates and I taught each other write and record songs. We encouraged each other to be as experimental as possible. I have always thought a) you should seize the means of production as much as possible and b) you should try and be true to your own voice rather than amalgamate yourself to a movement or a style.
Has that influenced your production work?
My job as a producer is defined by the individuality of the person I’m working with. It’s about not making them sound more like everyone else but making them sound more like themselves. If it’s someone who plays guitar and sings, in particular, then you’ve really got to find the uniqueness in their voice or in how they phrase things or play.
You wrote in the record notes that certain words – ‘belief’, ‘hand’, ‘arrow’ and ‘apple core’ – keep coming up in the lyrics. Did those words have a symbolism attached to them from your perspective beforehand or did they arrive of their own accord?
I didn’t set out to write songs with those same images in them. I noticed it afterwards when I wrote down the lyrics. Sometimes you write a song and a couple of years later you go, ‘Oh right, it’s about that’. I don’t set out to write songs about things, because if I do it’s always really embarrassingly bad. My approach is [to write] more like a series of scenes in a story, but I don’t actually know what the story’s about.
So your songs are always about you?
I think that’s the same with pretty much every songwriter.
Well, some people write songs about things.
True. Paul Kelly is almost the opposite type of songwriter than me. He can sit down and write a song about Don Bradman and it’s bloody good. I’ve got no idea how he pulls it off but he can. Most people can’t. Lou Reed too can write about a specific thing, and somehow it opens other doors along the way, sort of suggests multiple things, and emotionally you buy into it. I’m not one of those people.
On Seven Seven, I had always assumed ‘Oh Ma, The Sea is Rising’ was about global warming. Is it?
Yes, it’s got that global warming, apocalypse aspect in it. It’s also about being softly overwhelmed in general, like that feeling you get in the water when the swell is rising and you start to feel pretty tiny in amongst all that oceanic power. Every now and again a song pops out that is more ‘about’ something, but the obvious ones are pretty rare for me.
I’ve realised over the years my job as a musician is not to be the protest songwriter or the guy who writes in a straightforward way about love or anything. My job is to write about stuff that’s a bit like the world you enter in dreams, which have a very strong psychological reality. Then you wake up and you’re not really sure what it was about. It’s like the other world that’s connected to this one. That’s more how I see what I do. I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious.
You mean the less explored things?
There are conscious realities you access with the logical part of your brain. And there are subconscious realities and emotional realities you feel more than understand. That’s the area my music goes into.
I think there are probably whole worlds and religions and philosophies where what you’re talking about aren’t seen as different things.
True, it’s not a dichotomy at all. But there are times in your life when everything goes along in a more or less planned, logical way. And there are other times your life becomes very emotionally based. Like when you lose a friend, or have a child or whatever. To me there’s another reality in that that’s much harder to pin down.