INTERVIEW / A Party that goes with a bang: Karl Wallinger loves to wall up in his studio and tinker. Giles Smith walled up with him

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ON STAGE at the Forum on Tuesday night, World Party opened with 'Put the Message in the Box' from the award-winning Goodbye Jumbo album (1990). Then they played 'Kingdom Come' from the new one, Bang] Karl Wallinger, the singer, guitarist and songwriter, wandered around in a shiny, plum-coloured shirt and grinned a lot. The drummer thumped away like Keith Moon's younger brother. They sounded a bit like the Stones, a bit like Dylan and a lot like the Beatles, but most of all they sounded like World Party, and the audience went mad accordingly.

Last month, the band was preparing this show in the studio and all-purpose headquarters that Wallinger acquired midway through recording Goodbye Jumbo. It sits in King's Cross, up several darkened flights of stairs, above a warren of rehearsal rooms in a converted biscuit factory. From the landing, you can see a sizeable slice of London, which prompted Wallinger to name the place 'Seaview'.

'This was used as a fire watch-tower during the war. It was post-apocalyptic when we moved in, uninhabitable, but it was a dedicated space for a studio, which was something I'd never had before - you know, somewhere to have a studio clock and red and green 'RECORDING' lights.'

Somewhere, also, to have a stack of discarded sitting-room furniture, a tacky illuminated globe, a ludicrous fake sunflower and a 4-lane model racing track ('I had a pounds 200-a-week Scalextric habit for a while'). The studio isn't glossy or glam, but it works. 'We had this kind of beauty parade of people who do the insides of studios. One guy just wanted to clad the whole thing in fibreglass wool. Another guy asked us what colour we wanted it, which wasn't very technical of him. But then a great guy called Nick Whitaker appeared and he had a computer which analysed the rooms, and he said, 'if you just stick a box here and a box there, it'll be fine.' '

Wallinger is a multi-instrumentalist, a producer and a self-taught engineer. If he could dance, he would be the hottest property in British showbusiness. But he can't, so instead he walls up in the studio and loses himself in tinkering. The mixing desk in the control room is an object of particular joy to its owner, and actually something of a curio.

'This desk came up, offered for a ridiculously small price, sight unseen. It's from 1975 - state-of-the-art for then. The Clash did 'London Calling' on it and Mike Batt did the Wombles on it, and Never Mind the Bollocks was mixed on it. It was just an old desk out of an old studio, and it looked like chickens had lived in it - but it was a great, vibey object. I didn't even know if it would work. It came through the window on a 100ft crane which I didn't see, because I didn't want to be here to watch it.'

Through the glass, the soundroom, where the band are thrashing things out, is brightly strip-lit and has a vaguely familiar feel. 'I liked the idea that you could make yourself a fantasy version of Studio Two at Abbey Road and then conduct your business in whatever way you wanted: if you wanted to pretend you were George Martin and the Beatles, you could indulge it. We went through three copies of the Mark Lewisohn book about the Beatles' recording sessions. We thumbed through them until they fell apart, looking at the pictures and seeing the screens and drum positionings and mike positionings, and re- creating it, because that must be a good way to do it. It sounds obsessive, but it's just a pleasurable way of doing things - working and living out a childhood fantasy at the same time.'

Obviously, big-selling albums get made here, but much more importantly, Wallinger has an entirely free rein to conduct utterly pointless experiments in sound. 'We've done fake Beatle bootlegs - what it would sound like in Ringo's drum booth if the headphones were on the floor and he was playing the drums to 'Hey Jude'. You put towels on the floor, mix a bit of the actual Beatle track through filters . . . This is studio enthusiast land. I'm interested in any insight into people's technical means of going about things. I worked with the engineer who worked on Prince's Lovesexy, and half the time was spent working on my stuff, the other half was spent with me asking him, 'those drums that sort of talk to you - how does he get that?' It demystifies the music. It's not such an impossible dream anymore.'

Built gradually in the studio, the pop songs from Bang] are not instantly guaranteed to work on a stage. 'They're stacked up in some way that works for an album. But when you come to play them live with people, they don't necessarily work that way at all. When we started rehearsing 'Kingdom Come', I was thinking, what is this? It's barely a song at all.'

At the Forum, underneath some jagged ceiling hangings that gave them the appearance of performing in a cave on a cardboard mountain, the band got round the problem chiefly by unwinding the numbers, playing through them with an easy flow. Lights and pictures bounced off the scenery. During 'Give it All Away', while an entirely unnecessary go-go dancer flipped about briefly at the back, the lights turned the stage into a glacial scene sufficient to induce snow-blindness. 'Hollywood' went by on a clatter of drums; the band nailed those tricky harmonies on 'Is It Like Today'; they turned out a particularly buoyant version of 'Way Down Now'; they slipped 'Ship of Fools', in among the encores.

'Sunshine' sounded like a Beatles out-take, but, as Wallinger says, 'Part of making music is being interested in other people's music.' He would claim that he was working with whatever material he could find, and asking, as he phrases it, the perpetual question: 'Can I use this window- frame as a mantelpiece?' Well, yes, he can, to judge by the audience reaction at the Forum, and if he wanted to try and pass it off as an abstract coffee-table, that would probably be fine too.

(Photograph omitted)