The man himself on his debut solo album, using his own name, and movies and chickens
Photo by Matt Comer
"I think it'll be best if we do it beforehand. Get me thinking about why I do this."
If you want to know why Walter Schreifels makes music, just go along to any of his solo gigs. What's the relationship between this and his work in bands? There's reinterpretations and covers not only of the likes of Rival Schools, Civ and Quicksand, but his hardcore and indie influences too, and somehow it all flows. Does he still believe in DIY? The dude is touring alone, driving from gig to gig by himself, with only his sat nav and the informed middle class tones of Radio 4 to keep him company ("It's meditative, really."). He's been burgled three times. He wants to find a castle tomorrow. He wants to know what Poohsticks are. All of this comes from between song-banter over an hour and a half. The lyrics will pretty much give you the rest.
Still, an appointment is an appointment is an appointment, and backstage at the Cockpit, where Schreifels has just arrived three and a half hours late (most of which was probably spent in the Leeds one-way system), we're packing ourselves into the tour manager's office, between plush swivel chairs and guitar cases. Schreifels is friendly and charming, as much offstage as on, and he still remembers our meeting of two years ago. He's open, not embarrassingly so, and constantly welcoming of new experiences. At one point, Schreifels makes a mental note to check out a book that sounds "very close to the feeling that I think I want my music to kind of give. That there's this pretend playfulness, but there's this kind of underlying heaviness or danger as well...". Maybe he's not so much the wild Mexican revolutionary of those Zapata backdrops he's touring with, but there's something of the folk hero about what he does - or at least where he's been placed - with the same wryness you'd expect from someone who's self-aware enough to get the joke.
"It's like being into someone. This dude's name - what is he? What is he into, what is he like? Because I'm rock'n'roll or I'm hardcore, or I'm like emo, or whatever these labels are, but to be honest, I'm just a guy who likes music, and at a basic level, just writing songs, talking about what's going on - and that's what my solo stuff is about." [2008 RM interview]
In many ways, it's a mystery why he hasn't taken "the solo route" sooner - not least to the man himself, who admits he wonders why it took him so long. Schreifels still remains a significant figure in both the hardcore camp something like 25 years from his debut on New York's scene - and in contrast with many of his peers, not only kept that status, but branched out into the rock and indie scenes and did exactly the same thing there. Years on, Rival Schools and Quicksand fans debate the timelessness of the albums those bands. Yet rather than luck, it's just a testament to the basic universal appeal of great songwriting, and Schreifels stands out as one of America's mastercraftsmen. Maybe moreso than a lot of musicians I've met, it's a weird thump to the ground to find that for him it's just something as natural as breathing. Even weirder to find that same person has such down-to-earth acknowledgement of his position both in the scene and in the wider world, that he didn't think his name would be marketable as a solo artist. It's that future that seems to thrill him more than anything, the opportunities to explore what he can do next, and it's discussing these where he's at his most animated:"What's more interesting to me is someone that could give a shit about Gorilla Biscuits or Rival Schools... a person that just is walkin' around, hears some music and likes it. To me that's breaking new ground."
So for thirty minutes before the show (and ten afterwards, in the parking lot outside the clubnight) we sit drinking beers and discussing the changing roles of musicians today, weird names, and movies, and chickens as food. There are no tabloid secrets - unless you count the info we glean at the end about the upcoming Rival Schools album. Simply something of a man whose songs have tapped into something that's of the essence of our realities and imaginations for years, and with his new, long-anticipated solo debut, An Open Letter To The Scene [Click here for the RM REVIEW], might be about to do it all over again.
What were you doing ten years ago tonight?
"My name's Walter Schreifels and I'm thinking about what I might have been doing ten years ago. Exactly to this day? Is that the question, because I have a feeling you know what I was doing. You don't? Okay, so I can make something up then. I was probably doing something like what I'm doing right now! Probably not too much different. I don't know. April, that would make it... year 2000, right?" [sings] "Year Two thou- I was probably working on the Rival Schools record or something, writing songs, I don't know. It came out in 2002 and, I don't remember. Probably I was writing songs, doing probably the same kind of stuff I'm doing right now, it's kinda been my thing."
"It's so bewildering when you're in an atmosphere like that, and you're just turning and twisting around, and it's just like different kinds of music and different kinds of people going, it's just like 'oh, get me the fuck out of here'."
I kind of would have thought you'd be used to it on this tour.
"I am used to it, but I know how to navigate it, but when I'm not part of it, I just wanna get the fuck out of it. There are so many venues that are like need to be multi-functional to stay in business, they have to be metal, and indie, and everything at once or they can't afford to stay in business. Anyway, what was going on?"
You've done acoustic shows before, and it's always been "this is Walter from Rival Schools", or wherever, as opposed to just you. Now, when you play live as yourself rather than a band name, does it feel different?"Well, it's taken me a long [time] to get comfortable to do that, but I think it's also having records out under your own name, is what creates that thing, and also it depends on like how well known you are for these different things. It's like, some people I'm most well known for Gorilla Biscuits, other people it's Quicksand, to other people it's Rival Schools, or something else. Putting out records under my own name allows me to kind of make that a more powerful thing, but I don't really care in any regard anyway. Ultimately I wanna have it all have a context, which is this is what I've been doing, do you know what I mean? All these different things are connected."
In a way you're kind of in a limbo period right now. Your own solo album hasn't come out yet [This interview took place on 3rd April - Ed.], the Rival Schools album is still being finished up..."I guess so. I don't think of it as a limbo. To me, it's done, cos I can't control it anymore, it's out, so to me it's a great feeling. I worked on this album best I could, and I'm really happy with the way that it came out, and so that was a real accomplishment for me, so I think anything that comes after that, it's going to be interested and I'm excited for it."
What made you decide now is the right time to release a solo album?"Um, I guess I'd wanted to do that for a while, but I think it was just trying to create some sort of identity for myself that I was comfortable with as an artist. I've been kind of interested in bands, you know, I grew up loving bands. I wasn't really so much in to solo artists. I would always think of, 'what's a band name - what are they like, what kind of songs, do they sound..' do you know what I mean? I like that. But to create, after doing that for so long, 'who is Walter Schreifels', and trying to figure out who that person is as an artist, and what I would be comfortable with, and what would my record cover look like, what kind of imagery would I conjur up. All those things just took some time for me to feel I had an aesthetic that I wanted to put forth, and create something that sparks some kind of imagination."
Seems like a weird kind of disconnect, having to say to yourself "what would I do"."It's different when you're even being the creative force behind something, it's sort of a staged show, do you know what I mean? Like I have my players, of which I'm one, I'm acting and directing in the show, if it's this band or that band or the other. But it's me going out there, doing it, and I'm the show, the name on the marquee. I don't know, psychologically there's something, or... I just haven't gotten my head around it. So yeah, it is strange, and actually now that I've finished the record and I'm out here doing it, it seems like almost silly to have taken so much time considering it. I think I probably could have done something just as well ten years ago as I have done now."
Last time we spoke, you mentioned that one of the reasons you took a break from Rival Schools was because you wanted to take a break from being in bands. With that in mind, a lot of people would have expected you to start a solo project then."I did creatively, I think, with the Walking Concert record. I really just didn't consult with anybody about how this, it was basically my solo album, but at the last minute I thought 'I dunno, Walter Schreifels just isn't a marketable name'. I just thought it didn't really conjur anything, for me, and I thought, 'well it's not so important to me that it be called my name as it is that it be heard'. And so I came up with the name Walking Concert, and eventually it became, it ended up becoming a band, and then I realised... Ok I'm finding, driving around in England with a GPS, I sometimes make circular turns, and I end up back in the same fucking place. So then I said whatever my name is, that's what I'm going to put forth and that's how it's gotta be. And I've gotta do that for whatever it's worth, whether it reaches more people or less people or whatever. That's not what's important to me right now. It's doing something under my own name that I feel I can grow from."
A lot of people would find that pretty funny. I mean, let me put it this way - you're living in Williamsburg now, fairly close to the New York scene you're intimately associated with, so I would imagine you're brought into contact with a lot of people who hold you in high regard quite a lot."Yeah, I guess it was too late for me to change it to like 'Walter Steel'!" [laughs] "Or something like that, something that had more of a ring to it. And I thought it's more important to me - or not more important, but it would be more satisfying to me - when I find out there's someone that loves me from Gorilla Biscuits or Quicksand or whatever, one of these things that I've done, and will hear something new that I've done, and [say] 'Wow, Walter I still really love this new thing, I really love your current work. And I relate to the initial work that I've got into you by.'"
[faster] "But what's more interesting to me is someone that could give a shit about Gorilla Biscuits or Rival Schools or something like that, or it's someone from just doesn't even know about hardcore or any of these things, it's a person that just is walkin' around, hears some music and likes it. To me that's breaking new ground, so that's what I wanna do, because I feel like I'm doing that in a kind of artistic way. I feel like I'm breaking new ground. So beyond the people that already know being affected by it in some way, to me that's a direct reflection of that, and I want that."But I think it's cool, my name, I'm now more comfortable with it, it's just like.. it is what it is, you know what I mean? It's a post-modern time, and it's cool to have like a weird kind of nerdy sounding name" [laughs] "I think. I think it's a cool name now. In a way. Maybe it's still not marketable, though." [RM mentions her name] "Ruth Booth, now I could work with that. Ruth Booth is hot, like I wanna be into Ruth Booth! You know what I mean, like who are we into? Ruth Booth. Oh that sounds cool! you know what I mean? But I'm out there for all the people with fucked up names."
[You're living in Brooklyn now, you used to live in Germany. Was there any reason behind the move?
I've got a lot of friends in Berlin, which is a special city in Germany and I went over there on a tour with my girlfriend, and she's a photographer, and she was really keen on moving there or living there, spending some time there, and I was way up for it, I mean, I was, I really fell in love with the city, I was in Berlin when the Berlin wall came down, it was the end of the tour that I was on, and from that moment on I was really captivated by the place, and I have great friends there, and I really still love the city very much. [Moving back] was a bit of culture shock. The pace in Berlin is a lot slower, and more relaxed, and I really like the European pace, I'm into it. New York is a lot faster and a lot more, yeah, consumer-based, but after a while I got back into it. ]
Last time we spoke to you was May time, 2008, and you were just about to start work on An Open Letter To The Scene. So what happened from then? Were you working on it yourself? Were you in Germany at the time?"I was in Germany at the time, and I had been working on a recording and I did complete that recording but ultimately I wasn't happy with it. I thought as much work as I had put into it, and all it's merits - beacuse it wasn't like it sucked - I still felt that I hadn't hit the bar for what I wanted to do, you know? I wanted to put out something like... where whether people like it or whether they don't like it, like I'm cool with it.
"I've sometimes had stuff come out that I think, 'eugh, that's just not my best, I could have done that better' and then some people think that's like my best shit. And that's great, but it's way better to feel solid on something, I think, where it's like if people don't care for it, you're still strong, and if people do care for it, then you feel like some kind of validation. I like that position."
Did you record all the instruments on the new album yourself?"For the most part. On this album, I actually played almost all the piano except for one song maybe, and I had a couple of friends guest in on a couple of different things. I had a drummer play on quite a few songs. I'm not such a good drummer, but I did play drums on a few songs."
Any names we might know? Was Ian involved?"Ian Love from Rival Schools recorded most of it, yeah."
Recently you've had the 'Arthur Lee's Lullaby' video doing the rounds. Were you worried about wardrobe malfunctions?"Wardrobe malfunctions? What do you mean?"
With the bathrobe and the exercises..."Oh!" [laughs] "Yeah, we didn't have a belt for it, so I just took my leather belt and wore that. I think I must have been wearing shorts, underwear, something like that... Maybe showed a bit of nipple" [laughs] "That might have been as much as it got."
Where was that?"A friend of mine has a really beautiful country house, out in upstate New York. It's just insanely beautiful, so we just went up there and did it."
The imagery of the album artwork [click here to view it] and the video are identical. Was it the artwork that came first or the video?"The video came first. I just felt like the video really captured the feeling of like what I wanted. I think it really nailed the feeling of the song, and all my friends had helped out on this thing, and it felt like this is the land that I want my music to exist in. And so I asked my friend who is a painter to watch the video and see if they got any inspiration from that, and she made this really beautiful painting that's the cover."
So what's behind the whole idea of, to put it bluntly, hippies with guns?"Well, it's really inspired by the movie Week End by Jean-Luc Godard where it's the hippy generation hitting against the modern world, and how it's eating itself, and commercialism, consumerism and all that kind of stuff. I just like that imagery, you know, I think it's just strong, and I think it still applies. I think more than the gun side of it, I really like the kind of adventure, mystery, I don't know the right word, but there's something playful about it."
It's somewhat Arthur Ransome. Have you read the book Swallows and Amazons?"No, no." [RM explains the plot.] "I like that, that's very close, although that wasn't something, I will now check that out, because that's very close to the feeling that I think I want my music to kind of give, you know? That there's this pretend playfulness, but there's this kind of underlying heaviness or danger as well."
So what made you decide to cover 'Society Sucker'?"Um, I just came home one night or something like that and it just was in my head, and I was thinking about what a cool song that is. I just started playing it and I came up with my own version of it, and I was happy with it. I put it on my myspace, cos my myspace was all dusty and everyone was like 'wow, love it!'
"I started to piece together some themes for the album, and I thought that would tie it more tightly together. I had this song 'Open Letter to The Scene' and I thought that that was a strong track and tied in to where I've come from, but also you know it's about loss and I think universal themes. I felt 'Society Sucker's showed the maybe the beauty and the danger of Agnostic Front. Like the danger and ugliness - I don't know if it's ugliness, but there's something scary about it - and trying to show the tenderness and the sweetness. Not the tenderness so much, but some other angle. I didn't think about it so much, but in a way, that's why it made sense to me."
You also did that video for it back in 2008 with Ray Parada."Yeah, I had little to none to do with it. Ray is an old friend of mine and he just said 'hey I make videos, I'd love to make a video for you'. I was visiting New York and I said I can go over to Astoria for an afternoon. I was pleased with how it came out."
I'm not sure if you could call it a cover, but 'Don't Gotta Prove It'...
"Um, I guess I wanted to put it out there, that I felt I needed kind of a rocker on the album, and I thought that I wanted to do my own version of my surf songs, you know? I kind of felt like, because of the reasons at the time, which had to do with like legal issues and stuff like that, I wasn't really able to sign my name to something that I think is really really good. So that was a way for me to also bring that into the thing."For this record I really wanted to collect a lot of different aspects of what I've done and put it in some way that to recontextualise it, to put it out as a starting point to what my next thing will be, to build on that foundation. So I thought that was a nice way. And also I thought that would be a cool kind of rock song, and I was happy with it."
[Do you regret not being able to play a bigger part in Civ?
"Uh, I don't regret that, but I guess if there was something that I could do differently it would have been just to have put my name to my role in the first album, just 'cause the songs are really good. I think my philosophy at the time was it's enough for it just to exist, really, which is ultimately true."]
Can we confirm that no chickens were harmed in the making of the album?"No chickens were harmed? I don't know what you mean by that, but I would not have... I guess Ian probably ate some chickens..."
I was talking about the start of 'Shootout'."Oh!" [laughs"] "Um, because I have a theory as a joke that I've told a couple of times about how chickens would eat us, so why can't we eat them? They're just dinosaurs, shrunk, you know? But anyway, that's another story. Oh no, that's just some farm sounds. the song was written, it's actually from the movie Week End, there's a scene in the movie, and it's about a woman who gets shot and killed, and I actually just lifted the translation and put it to music."
What is it about that movie?"Um, it looks so cool, and it's just so moving. I think it was like the last movie that godard did before he just kind of slid into just complete weirdness. Even I haven't really followed him beyond that movie, but it's just an amazing movie to look at, and you don't have to kind of get too involved with the characters or the plot. It's a cool movie. I like it, especially the imagery."
[ Was there a particular event that inspired 'An Open Letter To The Scene'?
"I guess it was initially like describing my feelings about going to my friend died. He was the singer of Warzone and I went to his funeral, and I guess I was probably like in my early twenties. It was just shocking to see someone, kind of a older brother to me, in a way, pass away at such a young age. It was my peer group was there at this funeral and it was... yeah, that was an affecting thing. One day I decided to write a song about that, cos I had some feeling about it that I wanted to get out."]
'The Ballad Of Lil' Kim' and those blogs you did before Christmas suggest you don't exactly have a positive attitude towards the cult of celebrity."Um, I think it's just a reaction, I don't think of it as good or bad. I think it's part of our every day life, it's hard to avoid it, so every once in a while I indulge myself in commenting on it. And I guess with women it's really intense too, because, I think, of how they're marketed to...
"When I think of Andie Macdowell, whatever I wrote about her, I don't know what it was..." [click here to read] "Like a woman, the other night, just showing me how her elbows are weird, and I was just thinking, 'this is great, there's money to be made in this'. Another way to make women feel insecure about their looks. There's about ten billion dollars in making women awkward about their elbows!" [laughs] "So I don't know, I think celebrity stuff is totally fun, but it especially, I guess in the UK, it's usually super intense here too, like definitely with all the glossy magazines, there's like loads of it. But you can at least escape into Radio 4 and like some seriousness in the world, if you choose to. In the United States it's harder to find that, cos everything is driven by that."
I was wondering about how you felt about social networking, especially considering the start of 'The Ballad Of Lil' Kim', where you're musing on how she has time to make the music she's famous for, as opposed to just being famous."I do what I can do. Yeah, I guess I wouldn't think about it... I wasn't really commenting on how I feel about it in any sort of conscious way, but maybe on some level.
"Really what I'm into doing is making songs. Recording them and performing, I find fun. Not always, but for the most part, yes, and recording is the same way, but in the end there's something satisfying about it. But now, over the last whatever, five to ten years, there's a new job that you have to do, and that job is to report on your goings on, and have a back and forth with the people that are, in a sense, your supporters and your team. Especially as record sales disappear, these are the people that will allow you to continue doing what you do. So it behooves you to nurture that relationship - but at the same time it's totally like a new skillset, and it's not what I initially signed up for."It's not problem for me to like do an interview, it's no problem for me to meet someone and say hello and have a conversation, but to somehow artificially update something because that's what's expected of me in some way, I find strange and unnatural. But I do occasionally enjoy it, and that's usually when I do it." [laughs] "I don't do it so much out of a sense of obligation, really. Once in a while, but for the most part, I'm doing it because like, 'aw fuck, it's fun. Let's see what people think about that.' Or anyone thinks any thing about it, because sometimes I write something, and people are like" [monotone voice] "great" [laughs]
When you were bringing these songs together to make an album, did you get the impression that these songs were a lot more personal than anything you've done before?"Uh, no. Everything I do, I look at it as absolutely personal - in a sense that it's not necessarily about pulling something out of my deepest regionsof my soul or heart but personal in the sense that I take a personal pride in like the things that I do and put out, especially if people are going to listen to 'em, pay money for 'em, stuff like that.
"The fact that it's my name on it I guess in some way by nature makes it more personal, or the songs ring more that way, and maybe I feel more comfortable in that voice, because it is that. But I can't say I've thought about it too much in that way, really not at all thinking I really need to say something about what I feel, but maybe that's coming out. I've written a lot of songs that are super personal, and some songs are totally light, that aren't heavy. The Lil Kim song's not heavy, it's just like a blog put to music and It's just kind of funny and light, but you're going to think of it as me thinking and me saying that thing, so I guess it comes off that way."
Yeah, I totally agree, people are going to come to it asking who is this guy and expecting this album to answer it."That's great, that's good."
Especially 'An Open Letter To The Scene' does sound like you're anticipating people bringing a lot of their historical and musical baggage to this album."I guess that's maybe why I thought that was a good thing to title the record, and to draw attention to that: To answer that right away, to say 'here's where I'm at', or 'here's where I'm from'. How do you reconcile the dude that jumped around in Warzone or Youth Of Today or something with the guy that's singing about Little Kim, and it's like, here it is. This is how.
"For anyone that's come to it from a new place, that doesn't know anything about that, can say 'hey this is a good song. There's something more to this that maybe I could be led into'. I think a lot of people know the word hardcore, but I don't think they really know what it's about, and don't really understand it, or have, from my point of view, the wrong idea about it. And so I think that's a way to lead someone into some deeper story."Ultimately I'm not so like keen on like hardcore in that way, it's just part of my travels, just like any other song on the record. But I think I recognise like why, if I'm playing tonight, it says ex-this ex-that and ex-the other, so I think I have to deal with that in some way. So this album is kind of dealing with that, and at the same time putting something out that's new and forward, and it's something I want to follow up, you know."
Before we left Walter, we thought we'd catch up on the progress with the new record from his other band...
Rival Schools album - what's happening?"We're going to release it worldwide. The meeting we had, we just signed a record contract in the States and these things can change, but the date that's projected is September 21st, and we still got a little bit of time to work it out, but that's a nice date I think. So we'll be touring the UK in the fall. Photo Finish / Atlantic, yeah. I don't know what it'll be in the UK." [Most likely Atlantic Records - Ed]
Do you have a title for us?"We're kind of duking it out on the title at the moment. We're going to kind of release all that information at once."
How many songs are gonna be on it?"We'll probably keep it to ten, eleven tops, and of course there'll be loads of available material out there that people'll be able to get, but I think as an album we wanna keep it tight."
There's a few tracks we've been hearing over the last couple of years, and I wanted to see if any of these were due to appear. '69 Guns' and 'Choose Your Adventure'..."Yeah, those are gonna be on it."
'...'Big Waves'..."'Big Waves' is gonna be on it too, if I have anything to say about it, yeah. I think that's one of the better songs."
...'On The Fray'..."'On the Fray' I don't think is gonna make it. I don't know if we got the right version, I dunno. Whatever, it's a good song. People who wanna seek it out will probably find it. We haven't mastered it yet, so it's not a lock, but I could say confidently 'Big Waves' and the other two songs mentioned will be on it."
How about 'Sophia Loren' and 'Paranoid Detectives'?"'Sophia Loren' will make it. 'Paranoid Detectives' might be more b-side material."
So you finished recording last year?"We finished, yeah, I think in the Fall last year, and it's taken us so long to negoitiate the deal, and we were in negotiations with a couple of different people, and then it all came together, and I think it's come together in just absolutely a great way. That's what's been holding it up, to find a means to release it that suits it, and to kind of choose carefully. Photo Finish and Atlantic really came with the best deal and most enthusiasm."
Walter Schreifels' new album An Open Letter To The Scene is out now on Big Scary Monsters