INTERVIEW: Mike Walker (new album Ropes for release September 2018)

Mike Walker
Photo credit: Lieve Boussauw

Salford-born Guitarist and composer MIKE WALKER’s first album Madhouse and the Whole Thing There, released in 2008, was widely considered to be a masterpiece. He is about to release a new album Ropes, which is once again the fruit of several years' work. Sebastian found out more about this very personal project:

London Jazz News: So Ropes really is only your second album as leader?

Mike Walker: Yes, it is. When my first album came out in 2008, I toured the music for about a year whilst doing other projects. One thing I did was Tim Garland's Northern Underground Orchestra which is where I met Gwil(ym Simcock). I had the idea then to get together The Impossible Gentlemen, I think in 2009, with (Steve) Swallow and Adam Nussbaum. We were touring from 2010, and that band became my main focus, writing-wise.

LJN: But you have other projects on the go all the time…

MW: Yes, I'm involved with many things here and there. I seem to morph from one thing to another fairly seamlessly and I enjoy doing so. I've gigged and recorded with Stuart McCallum in a folky ambient guitar duo, worked with NDR Big Band in Germany in different projects, played with orchestras, Toured with Mike Gibbs, Trish Clowes, recorded and gigged with Johannes Berauer, a fine young Austrian composer, toured and recorded with Norma (Winstone) and Nikki (Iles) in the Printmakers as well as projects in Europe, etc.

Mike Walker (centre) as a member of the Impossible Gentlemen
Photo credit: © Adrian Pallant

This, along with many other projects, has sustained me creatively and allowed me to continue my love affair with expensive chocolate. I also developed a relationship with a classical, creative orchestra called Psappha. I wrote a piece for them called Autonomy and played in a piece by Steve Mackey, an American composer, called Deal. A really interesting piece. I improvise for 30 minutes to through-composed music written for about 20 musicians. That performance is on that YouTube they have now, I think.

LJN: Ropes started with a commission to compose a piece. Where and when was that original premiere?

MW: The original piece came out of a commission from Manchester Jazz Festival in 2008.
I had to wait to see if the commission was going to be accepted by funders. When it came through finally, I had six weeks to write about seven pieces and come up with a theme. I worked non-stop to get that finished before the premiere. We performed at the Royal Northern College of Music Theatre. The atmosphere was electric. It was quite an experience. The audience was part of the music. I know that's a cliche but if any of the folk reading this were there, they'll be nodding away right now and they should film themselves nodding and post it to that YouTube they have now.

LJN: More or less at the same time as Madhouse… was released, right?

MW: Indeed. Madhouse... came out right at the same time. The first copies of that album were sold at that gig.

LJN: And who was playing then?

MW: The band was Iain Dixon (saxophone), Les Chisnall (woefully under-recorded piano player) Adam Nussbaum (drums) and Steve Watts (bass). The orchestra was a bespoke body of players, hand-picked from different ensembles like the Halle, Manchester Camerata, etc.

LJN: But the music has evolved since then…

MW: It has. I've re-written some string parts mainly. I was writing for 22 strings, so more of a chamber orchestra than symphony. The weight is obviously different. It's delicate, exposed but very direct. When I originally wrote for them, I had 'symphonic' in mind for some pieces and I over-reached I think. I was thinking Mahler when I should have been thinking Mozart. Mozart wrote mainly for orchestras at the chamber size and really knew how to get the most from that sound.

It was an interesting process to be a little more modern harmonically, whilst keeping the intimacy of that sound. As you add more harmonic sophistication, you risk watering down the sound too much and losing the centre. I love the enigmatic curves of harmony, so that was a challenge. I fared better on the re-draft. I'm getting better at that, though still a ways to go.

The Psappha Ensemble in 2017
Publicity picture 

LJN: And you have other people on the album apart from the quintet and the Psappha ensemble…

MW: The Psappha ensemble came into the picture when I had a meeting with Tim Williams, Psappha's musical director. He's a tireless worker and a committed advocate of new music. I also have the Impossible Gentlemen on there.

I wanted to feature Gwil on a couple of tunes – one, Devon Bean, for his free spirit through a set of knotty changes, and the other for his comping on Madhouse And The Whole Thing There, which is a piece that was not on my first album of the same name. I love his comping on that track. In fact the band sound like they were parked dead centre of a Joni (Mitchell) album. Reminded me of Paprika Plains or something similar. And I had the luxury of improvising over that, along with the strings. My Aunty Mim would have brought out her best china for such shenanigans.

I also have the drummers and old friends, Steve Gilbert and Mikey Wilson, the drummer on the first album, and Rob Mullarkey, a fantastic bass player, playing on the second part of Ropes MII, Knots.


Mike Walker at Brecon in 2013
Photo Credit: Mick Destino


LJN: And what was the first musical idea that you had/wrote?

MW: The first idea I had for Ropes was a tricky little sea shanty I wrote which became the basis for the three movements and the album's title. I thought about the rope involved in sailing the old 18th-century ships. There was about 30 to 40km of rope required to get it sea-worthy. That got me thinking about how rope can be used in various ways. It can tow us home, pull us out of a hole or tie us up in knots. So it's about line. How it's used and over-used – how we choose or don't choose and the implications those decisions can have.

LJN: And I gather it’s not just separate tunes, there’s a unity to the album…

MW: That sea shanty snakes its way covertly and overtly, through the whole thing in one way or another. It's that idea that brings unity to the album. As with Madhouse..., my first album, it's meant to be listened to from beginning to end.That seems to be more difficult in a flip-flap-cut-to-the chase-oh-do-get-on-with-it world. But that's OK. I'm not a big fan of that. I like to take my time a little. Sink into it. Double the experience. Don't crunch the crisps in the hushed moments.

LJN: But there are track titles which will resonate with people who know your other work…

MW: Still Slippy Underfoot was on the first album but arranged for a babble of bass clarinets and synth. This time it's arranged for piano, cello, clarinet and strings, and totally revoiced.

Wallenda's Last Stand was on the first Impossible Gentlemen album. It's about a guy, tightropes, high wires and high winds so it had to go on there. I've revisited that piece with soprano and cello, violin, and peppered the orchestra throughout. When writing for this set up, loving harmony as I do, it would be so easy to fall into the trap of putting what I know, before writing what I feel, and what I want to convey as a whole. That's much more important. I could regurgitate my whole life's musical history in some form or another, so that what you hear is more of a calling card for what I've listened to and learned over the years. And of course, in many ways, it is. But, for me, that must be in the shadow of the music's intent.

LJN: Madhouse... had those unforgettable recorded spoken voices – “Diddly-Oh, Diddly Doh” and the singers. Are there studio effects here too?

MW: Nothing like that on this album. It's a very different album. Less of a guitar album I think. Though it does feature on a few of the tracks, it's more about the writing, and giving voice to the other players.

LJN: Who’s produced/enigineered? And who else needs thanking?

MW: I produced this one. My brother, Paul Allen, and I mixed. Paul also recorded it, on location and at his studio. This album is as much his at is mine.

Sarah Waterhouse did the artwork. She's also someone that really gives a shit about what she does and has a creative malleability that's just great to work with. Jo McCallum, who helped me with the crowdfunding, is the person responsible for getting me to do it in the first place. She's been brilliant throughout and is always my first port of call when projects arise. Team player through and through without the angles.

Bob Katz mastered. Bob is great. He did the Madhouse... album too. A sucker for detail. "The clarinet at bar 367 needs a lift so I brought it out." He cares. Surround yourself with folk that really care and care right back at them. That's really what got this album finished.

Mike Walker (second from right) with Gwilym Simcock, Steve Rodby, Iain Dixon, Adam Nussbaum
and string players from Psappha at Ropes at RNCM in 2016
Photo credit © Adrian Pallant

LJN: And if someone wants one of the first copies, how do they get one?

MW: Well, an interesting question. I decided, after talking with my old friend Mike Chadwick, to do it myself, with the help of crowdfunding (thanks all!!!!) and a few folks that supported me from the outset – Derek Hook, Jez Hall, Tom Hall, Nigel Chadwick, and many others. I'm going to sell it from a website that will sell my output in future. There's obviously the argument of distribution and labels can help with that, and I'm up for that in general. But this one just felt too personal as did my first album.

I'll sell it on gigs, of course, and I'm currently thinking about Amazon and sites like that that they have now. (props to Stewart Lee!!). I'm still open to ideas, of course. Making these decisions is never easy. But, where's the fun in easy?

LINKS: 
Mike Walker's website
- Madhouse and the Whole Thing There is available on Bandcamp  or from Jazz CDs
- Internationally Recognised Aliens  by the Impossible Gentlemen is available from  Jazz CDs
Adrian Pallant's review of Ropes from 2016

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