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'World Party' frontman Karl Wallinger dies at 66 — a look back at his visit to WYEP

World Party's Karl Wallinger performed at WYEP's studios in 2012.
World Party's Karl Wallinger performed at WYEP's studios in 2012.

Welsh musician Karl Wallinger has died at age 66. He was the key creative force behind the band World Party, releasing six well-received albums of new material from 1987 through 2000. He was also a member of the band The Waterboys, before leaving to form World Party. Wallinger also performed with Sinead O’Connor, Peter Gabriel, and worked on the soundtracks to movies like "Reality Bites" and "Clueless."

In 2012, Wallinger released the World Party odds-and-ends compilation "Arkeology" and subsequently embarked on a tour to promote the set. He came to Pittsburgh in September of 2012 to do a WYEP Member Appreciation concert and performed a Live & Direct Session while here. In his WYEP interview, he discussed his music and career, as well as performing songs spanning his discography including “Is It Too Late?” and “Put The Message in the Box” (from 1990’s "Goodbye Jumbo"), “Is It Like Today?” (from 1993’s "Bang!"), and “Waiting Such a Long Time” (from "Arkeology").

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Mike Sauter: It's Karl Wallinger of World Party here with us. This current release is a big set of CDs called “Arkeology.” The band is in town for a WYEP member appreciation show at Altar Bar in the Strip District. And your album, “Archeology,” this big of songs, a lot of it is material dusting out the closets or cleaning out the vaults. A lot of previously unreleased material.

Karl Wallinger: Yeah. I mean, I don't really know what it is. It's just some sort of beast, connected the electrodes to the studio and sort of brought to life one night during a thunderstorm. It was the box set thing came up, you know, and I hated the idea because, not only can I never find a place to put the box set packages that always have to go sort of next to my recipe books or something on this, but you know what I mean? It's like, where do you put all those things? So I was writing something in the diary on the kitchen table at home and I thought ‘That’d be it, have the book of the box thing to be a diary.’ And, and then I thought, ‘Well, let's go through the tapes we got here.’ And I couldn't actually do it myself.

Someone called Mike Worthington, who I work with at CV Records, took home five and a half days of music and came back with four CDs, some of which I couldn't remember recording. You know, it was great to find some of the things. Meanwhile, I was in London and I put together another CD of stuff, from tapes there, and we put them together. That's how it came together really.

There's one track that was on the English version of “Dumbing Up” and another track, which had a drum performance there from a drummer called Andy Newmark on a track called ‘What Is Love All About?’ And I kicked myself when I heard it because I thought, ‘Why the hell didn't use that in the first place, you know?’ So, I thought, ‘That's got to be on there.’

Apart from that, the only sort of album tracks that are on there, you know? So the rest of the other 68 [tracks are] just live things and covers and other songs that I've wanted to put out but never did.

Sauter: There were a handful, if I'm not mistaken, of songs that were fairly recently recorded that are kind of new for this. So it kind of functions as a new album in addition to —

Wallinger: The first CD is probably more of a World Party album than the other four, you know? But it's pretty much sort of a nuclear impact. We just doubled our output in one foul swoop. So that's pretty crazy.

Sauter: And I correct me if I'm wrong on this, but I kind of got the sense, looking over all the materials for it, that there's a reaching backwards in time feel for this, you know, with these days, people just downloading tracks, individual songs and having this big sprawling collection.

Wallinger: That was kind of the idea, really. It was like releasing one track to iTunes or something like that. I just sort of thought there's got to be a way around. There's got to be some way that people would want a physical thing, you know? And a diary was quite a big part of that, really. I just wanted to put out something that you could download if you spent a couple of days downloading. I wanted to do something as close to an analog thing, but not because I'm not into the digital thing just because I'm a difficult guy, I suppose.

Sauter: But also comes with about 140 or so page book that's kind of like a —

Wallinger: Diary. It's a diary. I mean, it's a non-year diary. So it just says January 1. It doesn't say Monday, January 1, whatever. But there's four pages of index diary and sort of a yearly planner so you can find out when the day's on. I'm using one at home. And I just put, ‘M,T,W,TH,F.’ You know that Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I just write them in the pages and you can always rub it out if you do it in pencil and use it next year as well. So I think the diary industry will be pretty after me or something I don't know.

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Sauter: Now you, your output in the past decade has been a little bit slower than in previous years and obviously, kind of a collection. So, as a result of your health crisis in 2001 —

Wallinger: I mean, an aneurysm isn't a big motivator, you know? Although in this kind of funny kind of way, it was really. I don't know, it's just something that happened. It happens to a lot of people, and luckily it didn't have that much of an effect on me. So I can't seem to remember any words to the songs, but that's just that's what you call nerves.

Sauter: Well, it did have a big effect in some of your playing.

Wallinger: Yeah. Well, the only thing that's lasted is this very strange thing where I've got sort of no right hand vision in both eyes. In the left is normal, but you can gesture to me however you want on the right and I won't realize. And it's quite funny, apparently. So my wife says, anyway. It's a Christmas shopping nightmare. People don't realize how much they use their peripheral vision. You’re always banging into people with lots of carrier bags and stuff, and they're looking at you like you've gone mad or something. But, hey, they're banging into you as well. They've got their peripheral vision. So what the hell's going on there? That's what I was thinking anyway. So that was that's the only thing.

I used to look at my right hand when I was playing the piano and sort of look at the shapes that that was making. And that used to be my little way of getting around on the piano. And I can't see my right hand now when I see the piano. I had to just sort of find a way of getting around that. Playing guitar was quite interesting at first. I was playing a lot of inverted commas, jazz chords, you know, and, still do actually. But, there you go. That's my excuse.

Sauter: You know, completely unrelated, but since you bring up your right side, with your vision and everything. You're right handed, but you play a left handed guitar. No, I know you play everything. You play right handed, upside down, right?

Wallinger: Jimi Hendrix School of Guitar technology. I'm kind of like, in between somewhere in between the two. Probably nearer to Bob than Jimi, put it that way.

Sauter: For a guitar player, it's fascinating for people watching, you know, how did it come about?

Wallinger: Well, I was just a kid, and I sat opposite somebody who was holding the guitar the right way. So I put the neck that was mirroring. I sort of mirrored them, and I thought, ‘Well, I'm right handed. So that's I'll do all the sort of fiddly bits with the right hand, make the shapes on the neck and just strum it only with the left hand to the thing.’

So I didn't realize how wrong you can be something when you're 12 or whatever it is, you know. So and then I just kept doing it so it just felt more comfortable. I mean, I can't play things like Blackbird, which is annoying because everybody seems to learn Blackbird at some point in their guitar playing, and I just unless I could have my hands taken off and put on the other arm, I'm never going to be able to play it. But hey, we make these sacrifices.

Sauter: I remember seeing you many years ago. And, in addition to watching your fingers make the chords, which was very interesting. But also, it seemed like now when you're playing on the electric guitar, it seemed like you were strumming with a pick. But when you would play a solo, you would finger pick it. Is that sort of a style that kind of emerged?

Wallinger: I wouldn't read anything into my guitar playing at all. That seems to be honest. I find it on the luck. That's where, you know, that's where I sort of go with that one.

Sauter: Well, it had a very distinctive visual flair to it because right before a solo, you'd have to kind of toss the pick aside and just start, fingerpicking it.

Wallinger: I don't know. I mean, I'd love to have done something properly. I play drums the wrong way around. I play open handed. I should have the kick drum in the high hat on the other side, but, I mean, it's I'm just a mess. It's a crazy thing. It's a wonder I've been able to make any records at all.

Sauter: Well, I know you're a big Beatles fan and you've recorded a number of Beatles covers over the years, and some of them show up on “Arkeology.” So, half the Beatles were right hand and half were left handed, so maybe something into that. Do you sometimes record Beatles covers to sort of deconstruct them?

Wallinger: I've done a few where it's completely different to the original and done a few where they're exactly the original. I mean, like we did a Penny Lane, which isn't on “Arkeology,” but I sort of spent a while with the Mark Lewis and did a great book on their sessions, and also there's a Japanese book of their scores. I did a Penny Lane version and I used the score and used the book and sort of recorded everything in the same instrument-by-instrument as they recorded it and stuff like that.

That was great. Doing anything that you like in a studio is a great way of learning about the studio and about your own technique and your own technologies. You know that you want to make your own music with, and it informs what you do. So it's just a good thing to do copies of stuff that you like yourself, because that gives you knowledge about what you're doing.

Sauter: And with covers of Beatles songs and also Bob Dylan and “Arkeology,” it might as well go to the greats if you're going to be covering.

Wallinger: But I mean, there's a few things in there. I think there's a Big Bill Broonzy song in there. And there's something else in there as well. I can't quite remember what it is, but there's a lot of little songs there. I've done all kinds of things, and some crazy, stupid ideas as well, where I sort of mixed in “With a Little Help From My Friends” with a song off the Prince album, “Paisley Park.”

I've done “Black and White,” Michael Jackson, done a cover of that, which is pretty funny. All kinds of covers, [including] “Hey, Baby” [by] Bruce Chanel, just songs that I love, you know? I just like a lot of different kinds of music. So I cover a lot of different kinds of music. I mean, the Beatles just happened to be one of the people that I did more probably, but it's I like a lot of different kinds of music.

Sauter: Speaking of put the message in the box. I was thinking, if you were still on a big label, they probably would have wanted you to title it, put the message in the box set. And now you're kind of just putting things out very, you know, independently.

Wallinger: It's the best of both worlds because I'm working with people who just do the things we want to do. For instance, when you're looking for PR people or press people, if you're with a big company, you get them from the press department. We find the people that we like and we work with them and it makes the whole thing a lot more congenial. It's just an enjoyable thing.

Sauter: Now you're here solo. But this, kind of U.S. jaunt that you're on right now, you're performing as a trio.

Wallinger: No. Well, sometimes. Okay. But I'm not on my own, obviously. You know, I haven't got that many personalities yet. No, I'm with David Duffy, a fiddle player [who I] worked with in England, and he's moved to Nashville. And then later on this little trip with being joined by John Turnbull on guitar as well. So that's me on acoustic, David on fiddler mandolin and Johnny Turnbull on electric guitar, sort of doing all kinds of things. He kind of suddenly hits a pedal and he's playing sort of a bass sounding thing, and then you play slide. I just sort of sit there on the corner, just sort of strumming the chords. I think we can go on for as long as we like, it's nice.

It's sort of strange because if you play things in different ways — five piece, seven piece band, three piece, two piece, and they're here one piece and, it's just it's strange the way the songs just have the life of their own anyway, you know, despite what I tried to do to them.

Sauter: The singer-songwriter Maia Sharp was recently in our studios, and she was talking about when she first started, she played with a large group of musicians, but more was better. And over the years just slowly pared it down to the point where she feels like the songs take so much more prominence.

Wallinger: November and the end of October, we're doing three shows in England and we're doing the Royal Albert Hall in London, and that's pretty far out way of coming back after sort of 12 years there. I think I've got nine people so far and there's maybe another 15 because I'm going to get some singers and then do some of the big vocal tracks with a lot of voices. I'm looking forward to doing that. So I'm not going in one direction. I'm just all over the place, you know, as far as the number of people goes.

Sauter: I have to say that the Olympics really blew it by not booking you for the closing ceremonies as part of that. Come on — World Party?!

Wallinger: We were asked, in fact, to do one of the opening ceremonies for the Paralympics, but we were over here and that was an interesting one. But also, I just sort of thought, ‘No, no, we've got to do something back home first. We can't just suddenly appear at the Paralympics, you know, because nobody know who the hell we were, you know?’ So that's a strange thing. But that would have been great. But it was fantastic to be asked.

Sauter: So what's next for you? Is the next step going to be new material?

Wallinger: November, just back into the studio and hopefully come out with something early next year. That's the plan. Anyway, these plans often don't turn out right anyway. But I mean, that's what I'm telling everybody I work with.

Sauter: I've heard parts of this, but I don't know if I've ever heard the full story. What's the backstory to the song? ‘She's the One.’ And I've heard intrigue and —

Wallinger: I mean, it was a film. Tom Petty was music supervisor for the film, ‘She's the One.’ I got given the title and it was like a title track, and I did it. It came really quickly and sent it off. And then he decided to do an album. So there were a few of the people doing songs on the soundtrack and we all got our songs back and he did an album.

That was the ‘She's the One’ soundtracks, I think, he'd only done half the record before that and then went in another film called ‘Matchmaker’ with an actress called Janeane Gruffalo. And then I put it on ‘Egyptology’ and it was on there and while I was doing Egyptology, somebody called Guy Chambers, who was working with Robbie Williams as his kind of musical director or co-writer or whatever you want to say, came into the studio. I wanted to do some swingle singing as an intro to a track. And rather than me, I'd normally just stand in front of a mic and make it up, but because I wanted it to be quite precise, I wanted him to write down the music and give me an arrangement. And, so he came up and did that. And when he was there, we listened to ‘She's the One’ and he went away and was working with Robbie and eventually that track, you know, Robbie was kind of roaming.

Eventually he just recorded the track and put it out maybe two years after it was released on Egyptology. That was very lucky because then I had the aneurysm and the royalties kept us all in fried bread for a while. That was pretty lucky, I must say. And it was number one in about six or seven countries and all that kind of stuff. So that was a damn fine idea writing that song one afternoon, you know? I mean, it just goes to show.

Sauter: It's always fascinating, those twists and turns that when you write a song, sometimes you have no idea when it's going to see the light of day.

Wallinger: There was a there was a sort of weird aspect to it, which was it came we came off the road with World Party and then, they took the band, unbeknownst to me, were then taken into the studio and recorded the track with him having me having taught them it, you know, and it was, I was they were told not to tell me because I was famously grumpy or something. I don't know why that is. I don't know. That's surely that's not me. I was quite shocked by that anyway, but it was just weird. It was just a weird thing anyway. But, I mean, it was great. And it went to number and, you know, then I had the aneurysm. Then I had something to live on.

Mike Sauter started at WYEP in 2004 and held various positions, including Midday Mix host, music director, program director, and station manager.