A Rare Conversation with 40 Watt Sun's Patrick Walker
Stream the contemplative new album from the voice of Warning (but don't call it doom)
In a world where press cycles are dominated by brief snippets of celebrity life via Instagram photos, constant Facebook updates, and endless interviews, Patrick Walker and 40 Watt Sun are unique. The deliberate, careful singer and songwriter for the British trio shuns the notion of oversharing, barely speaks to the press, and prickles at common notions surrounding his band. Being painted in corners seems to make him particularly uncomfortable—and perhaps it's appropriate that 40 Watt Sun's music is as enigmatic as their focal point. Emotively, it's gloomy; musically, it's unhurried. The vocals are clean, rich, and emotive. For the passionate listeners, it conjures those universal feelings of love and loss via rich lyrics and evocative soundscapes.
Formed after the dissolution of Warning, 40 Watt Sun has worked slowly and surely towards operating within their terms. Their debut, The Inside Room, was released in 2011, a stirring trifecta of instrumentation courtesy of Walker's vocals and guitar alongside the skillful backbone of bass provided by William Spong and the rich, warm percussion of Christian Leitch. Their upcoming, self-released record, Wider than the Sky, is a skillful continuation of their sound, although one that stylistically has less in common with the heavy side of music and more with the expansive side. From an industry perspective, it's specifically marketed: herein, Walker was careful to note that Spong and Leitch are essential to the band, that 40 Watt Sun is decidedly not doom. To learn more, Noisey sent some questions along for his consideration.
Noisey generally tries to avoid email interviews whenever possible, but Walker is a special case; it's rare enough that he agrees to an interview in the first place. After multiple back and forth e-mails for clarification and expansion, he revealed the following—as well as a full-album stream of Wider than the Sky for your listening enjoyment.
Noisey: Many times you've voiced your distaste for interviews, so I really appreciate you giving us one. To be honest, I appreciate your minimalism. Interviews can be gratuitous, and with a cult of personality surrounding many artists, it gets annoyingly beside the point sometimes.
Patrick Walker: I can't overemphasize how much I agree with you on the "cult of personality" and gratuitous nature of so many interviews; reading "artists" indulging in their own myth-building and so forth. I find it all repulsive.
You have long been considered the "mastermind" of 40 Watt Sun, despite your band members Christian and William also being an integral part of the band. I think it's telling that the press for this album specifically notes their contributions to the album, as you've previously spoken about how both of them are brilliant players who challenge you to be a better songwriter and player. With this press cycle, it seems as if you consciously were looking to make sure they were credited in the same vein as yourself. Why?
I'm in a band with three lead players. And yes, you're right, it really does; it raises the bar for me; it encourages me to write better. In their respective roles they're as good as any musicians I've ever known. And then they both work out their own bass and drum parts of course; they add as much dynamic to the songs as my singing or playing might do. Not to mention William has recorded and mixed both of our albums; Christian takes care of the design work... So of course I write and sing the songs but it's not a solo project.
But no, despite my best efforts, I had no control over the press cycle with our last record as we were being marketed by our then-label. I would ask that they didn't do such-and-such and could they change this-or-that and they just said 'sorry, no—this is how it's got to be.' Even just their insistence on marketing us as "doom metal," despite my pleading with them not to, that straight away pressed my work right back into the same corner that I'd just quit my previous band to get out of. There were things that upset me quite a lot.
Wider than the Sky is being released via your own label Radiance Records on October 14. In early 2014, you mentioned that the band was going into the studio in a few months, yet here we are two and a half years later, and the album is now set for release. The press releases say that the album was "fraught with delays and difficulties." Can you give me some insight into what exacerbated the process?
God, was it that long ago? Okay, well as briefly as possible: the label had been asking to hear our new music and I sent them the demos of the album tracks. And they then went silent on me for about four months and I kept chasing them up. Eventually they replied and said, in short, that they didn't really like the new stuff and that they didn't think they were the best label to release the next record. That was fine by me; I knew as much. But they refused to let us go without getting something in return. We went away and recorded the album anyway, out of our own pocket, and then spent the next year-and-a-half trying to buy and bargain ourselves out of our contract.
At the same time I was trying to get back the rights to the old Warning albums from Miskatonic as I had been seriously screwed over those the past few years. That took a long time. And we talked with a couple of big independents who were interested in putting out the new album but by that time, speaking for myself personally, I'd grown so jaded and disheartened by the whole experience of working and dealing with labels and those kinds of people that I just wanted out. So William set up the label and we've done it all in-house. It was a very difficult couple of years, it really was.
The album feels lighter sonically than The Inside Room. In terms of the sonic shift from your previous to this one, when you look at it with the benefit of hindsight, how would you characterize the album?
I'm not sure—that's not the kind of thing I would know. Apart from superficial, cosmetic differences I really don't see there's any difference. At least I'm sure my approach was the same. I really don't think about that kind of thing.
The musical depth of this album is undeniable, although herein it feels like you're doing more with less. Was it your intention to take a step back?
I think the sense of space is probably amplified by the more stripped-down guitars; but I'm sure the arrangements are as minimalist as they ever were.
Why did you decide to peel away at the guitars specifically for this album? Was that a choice during songwriting, or during recording?
"Stripped down" was probably the wrong phrase for me to use; they're just cleaner. There's still as much guitar on this record, if not more. But no, it was just apparent when I was writing the songs how the guitars would best sound. It's simply what works best for the songs.
The band recorded this over a five day period at Giant Wafer Studios in Wales. The studio is quite isolated; why did you choose this as the location for your recording?
William found it whilst looking for somewhere to make this record and this place was just beautiful. It's on a little farm about ten miles from the nearest small town. We worked hard all day, ate together outside in the evening, worked late into the night. There was very little distraction. Just the three of us.
Do you think that space (both physically and geographically) plays a role in your musical output? I ask both from a conceptual perspective and a literal one, given that your album title is Wider than the Sky. Allegorically, it seems so closely related.
I like sparsity and space in music. I like to be able to feel what I'm playing and to think about what I'm singing. But geographically, no, not really. I mean, for four-and-a-half years I've been living deep in the South Devon countryside, close to the edge of Dartmoor and a walking distance from the best coastline in the country, and I spend so much of my time alone out walking; but I don't connect that with my writing. Not isolation and the rural and all that kind of thing. When I hear artists talking about how they go 'walking in the woods' to find their muse, and drawing inspiration from nature and all that, I just don't relate to it. That's not my thing.
In terms of you enjoying "sparsity and space" in music, I particularly noticed these gorgeous, wide open segments in "Beyond You." It's a very vast, contemplative song, and lyrically, it's just as rich. From a lyrical perspective, are you also looking to evoke that space and sparsity, in a more metaphorical sense?
If anything it would be the other way round; the lyrics, the words come first. That's what it's all about for me; that's the most important thing; the bedrock of my self-expression. The music follows that.
Can you also speak of sparsity and space in a musical sense, and why that is something you value?
I suppose I can a little, and I think I've probably said this before, but when I'm playing the most important thing for me is that I can feel what I'm playing and that I can think about what I'm singing. That's very much all it comes down to.
You talk about how you "spend so much of my time out alone walking; but I don't connect that to my writing." It's a rather curious statement, given how the natural world seems to be strongly embedded in 40 Watt Sun's music.
When I say that, I'm thinking of the album cover of The Inside Room—which appears to be a starfish—and the cover of the new album, which depicts a wide open sky with birds flying. All the merch for your upcoming album available features birds of some sort: herons, seagull flocks, a bird man. The symbolism of the bird, and its associated connotations of freedom, flying away, is very prevalent. Can you speak to that naturalism, and if the theme is connected to music being wider than the sky (as in, you have the freedom to move away from metal, or doom, or a labels expectations). If not, what does that mean?
Actually, the first album cover depicts birds also—you're not the first person to think of starfish. And I'm sorry but I'm going to disappoint you with my answer to your deeply considered question. Firstly, no, I don't connect nature to my music, that's true. It's certainly not embedded in the music. But as for the artwork and specifically the birds... I can't bullshit you. I really don't know. It's just something that's happened. There's been no great envisioned approach to the bird imagery. You know, for this album I gave Rebecca, an artist friend of mine, the songs and all my words and she went away and filled up a sketchbook with her ideas based on that. The two final artworks we used were based on a couple of ideas which I liked best and asked her to elaborate on. Those birdman figures you mentioned were based on a small sketch idea of hers which I came upon and which had somehow haunted me; this anthropomorphized bird figure scratching at the earth. I'm a huge fan of the children's book illustrator John Burningham and I think it somehow reminded me of something of his.
Sarah Kitteringham has an unhealthy obsession with heavy metal that she proudly displays on Instagram.