The Chisel keyboardist is back with a new album that reminds us why he's hailed as one of Australia's songwriting greats
Reading other people’s interviews with the famously stoic Don Walker, I am prepared for the responses down the pub today to run the gamut from economical to blunt. True to form, the Chisel keyboard player, who has just released his third solo album – Hully Gully – meets quite a few of my long and winding questions with “… No.” But look, when the answer’s no, the answer’s no – too many interviewees react with filler, which has no place in answers or albums.
Hully Gully was recorded intermittently over three years and then mixed by Joe Henry after Walker fell in love with the sound of Allen Toussaint’s Bright Mississippi. It’s a taut collection of small-town antiheroes – loners, losers, bruisers, battlers – that’ll make you want to dog-ear your favourite bits and return for another visit. Take the single, ‘Young Girls’ – the spiralling fantasy of a man who spots a troublesome looking woman standing on a street corner and plots out an entire road movie based around this one glimpse – or the prowling title track, which turns the name of a '60s line dance into a lewd proposition. The cynicism throughout is usually tempered with some acknowledgement of hope or beauty – that perhaps being Walker’s philosophy in life...
“I don’t have a philosophy in life,” Walker interjects. “I just blunder through. Most of these things are not conscious. I remember at one stage when I was recording, I thought, ‘This is a bit misogynistic… have I got a problem?’ It was songs like ‘Angry Women’. Other times I’d think, ‘It’s a bit cynical…’ but overall the album is hopeful.”
The collection feels more like an anthology of stories though, I offer (particularly with little details like “her tone of voice begins somewhere that only dogs can hear”), so listening to the blues-sook ‘Angry Women’ is like being dunked into a new story with a different narrator...
...So Walker can’t be held responsible for the actions of his characters.
“No. If I can avoid responsibility, I will do so in all situations.”
His restless memoir of 2009, Shots, received excellent reviews and also enthusiastic hat tips from the likes of writerly musicians Paul Kelly, Richard Clapton and Tim Rogers. Walker doesn’t read other people’s memoirs, however.
“I read the Koran twice, and that’s kind of a memoir,” he muses, comparing this to the prose of the New Testament, which he’s also read from cover to cover. “I read Samuel Beckett’s Molloy last year, inspired by my sister [novelist Brenda Walker]. She wrote a book called Reading by Moonlight, about all the books that got her through a breast cancer situation. It’s a very inspiring book to read if you know very little about literature, and out of reading that I set myself to read his three novels.”
Walker has written and co-written songs for Jeff Lang, Mick Harvey, Troy Cassar-Daley, Jimmy Little, Jimmy Barnes, Ian Moss, Anne Kirkpatrick, Busby Marou and many others – and had ‘Charleville’ become a hit for Slim Dusty – but ask him if his literary interests cross over into his songwriting and he laughs indulgently.
“I don’t think songs should come from reading or listening. Songs should come from living and as a respite from living. Songs are the good bit that can iron your mind and soul out, and keep you sane. What you get out of it – it’s healing.”
(Later, he adds: “Creative writing classes are bullshit. Academics will tell you that. You can’t be taught to write the perfect sentence. Hemingway didn’t care about that!”)
At times, Walker seems deeply unsentimental, something that’s underscored when talk turns to Cold Chisel. If you had to hazard a guess, for instance, would you say he did or did not have a lot of memorabilia?
“I just never got into that side of things,” he says. “When Steve [Prestwich, drummer] died I had nothing. One of the other guys in the band gave us all a CD of years and years of Steve photos, so I’m enormously grateful that somebody takes care of those kind of things, but it’s not me.”
A few years older than the other members, Walker had a ‘proper job’, and after a spell working as an aeronautical engineer (“not a very good one”), he quit the band to complete his physics honours degree. His bandmates wound up following him to Armidale in the New South Wales tablelands. Presumably he didn’t have high hopes for Cold Chisel, then.
“Well, even a couple of years later when I quit that work all together to go on the road with the band, I didn’t have any high hopes then either. These days there probably is something like a career path, but in those days there was none. You were just consigning yourself to poverty and oblivion – there was no chance that you could actually make a record."
As the story goes, things wound up working out rather well ("Did you ever regret not pursuing the aeronautical career?" "No.") Almost 40 years later, Walker is playing two Melbourne dates in November with his band, the Suave Fucks. Performing these dates is an entirely different beast to performing with Chisel, of course.
“There are benefits in both,” he observes. “Cold Chisel has an enormous infrastructure of staff, you stay in the finest hotel suites and can hang out and have a lot of fun without much responsibility. With my thing there is no infrastructure and all the responsibility is on me. I have to do pretty much everything myself.”
Including walking to the bar across the dance-floor after a show?
“I get a fair degree of anonymity,” he says. “On my own tours people are pretty good. I can get across a room.”
Hully Gully is released through MGM on August 16. Don Walker and the Suave Fucks also play the Flying Saucer Club on November 30.