No conversation about Australia greatest songwriters is complete with the name Don Walker. Able to draw inspiration from suburban life to notorious hangouts and everything in between, any LP that has the name Walker in the writing credits is sure to feature some gems. Blacktop, a boxset featuring Dons solo work and Catfish is due to be released soon. As well as gigs with Tex Don and Charlie and the other band hes in, Mr Walker is certainly been busy. We spoke via telephone, me in Melbourne him in Brisbane.
Munster: A box set is about to come out called Blacktop, featuring four of your solo LPs for the first time on vinyl. Why did you decide to do a career retrospective at this stage of the game?
Don: It wasn/t so much motivated by doing a career retrospective its more motivated by the fact people these days like listening to music on vinyl and they cant listen to my albums on vinyl so we fixed that.
Munster: What do you make of the Vinyl resurgence during the digital age?
Don: I avent listened to a vinyl record for 25 years at least, so I cant tell. People who love vinyl tell me it sounds a lot better and i/ll take their word, bit I avent had a turn table in that time.
Munster: Do you use Spotify and other streaming sites?
Don: No I don/t use streaming sites. I listen to CDs in my car and look up YouTube thats how I find and listen to music these days.
Don: no I avent use a cassette for a long time, since they put CD players in cars.
Munster: You ave this box set coming out and some shows to promote the release and you/ve been busy with Tex Don and Charlie and Chisel ave played a few gigs recently, you feel like your in more demand then ever?
Don: Uh I don/t think its a demand driven thing, its just those are the main three things I ave going, three of them rarely happen, but they just happen to all fall together, especially in the first few months of this year I don/t think that has ever happened before. in six weeks id done a few cold chisel shows six Tex Don and Charlie shows and a month of my own shows.
Munster: You played Clipsal 500 with Chisel and you/re playing arenas with them but also playing Theatres and clubs with your solo and Tex Don and Charlie gigs, do you prefer bogger or smaller venues?
Don: they ave there pluses and minuses. I love playing in small places because its like playing in a pressure cooker and you get a lot of energy in a confined space which disappears when you/re playing in a big outdoor crowd. But the benefit with the big outdoor crowd is better backstage facilities, theres no toft in the change room, and more money.
Munster: I remember seeing you at the Caravan Club a few years back, the first song you did wasKhe Sanh, was that your way of saying lets get this out the way?
Don: No. No I never get a request for a Cold Chisel song, the kind of request that every covers band gets and every band attempting to be original in the country gets to play Khe Sanh, im not dogged by that, and In fact I don/t feel sorry for them at all, but for some reason that doesn/t come at me. Sometime a few years ago I found I could do a creditable version of Khe Sanh with just me and a piano which is rare for a cold chisel song, I usually cant do a creditable version. I avent done it that often, and id say the crowd at the Caravan would ave been quite surprised for me to kick off with that.
Munster: When Chisel ending and you started your own projects were you comfortable being uo front and singing?
Don: no its something I had to figure out. I used to sing when I was a teenager and in my early 20s when I played in bands. Then when I got in a band with Ian and Jim I stopped doing that and they did that. They had better voices then me and spent the next ten years developing what they do and I didn/t sing at all. So when I can and tried to do it again in my mid 30s what came out was a bit of a squeak compared to what I thought I could do in my head. It took a awhile not only how to open up and do it, but also how to write songs that were suitable for what I could do as opposed to what Jim and Ian can do.
Munster: Shots your autobiography for me is an amazing book, and I loved how you focused on a certain period of your life and not a typical start to finish of your life, and you focused on places then people. I also loved how Louis Tillett was the only person you mentioned his last name, nad everyone was just a first name basis and Barnsey was just Jim, what gave you the idea to write the book like that?
Don: a lot of the book was written before there was any idea of it being a book. A lot of it was written for my own private amusement. I called a data entry guy to type it up. When I had a lot of this stuff I was approached by Chris Feik, an editor at Black Inc publishing. He asked me if I had a book in me. I said I don/t think so but I ave this writing, but I don/t think it’s a book. And if you see the writing in Shots you/ll know what I mean, especially at that stage the writing had no punctuation. I enjoyed the writing as a sort of flowing surfing music kind of thing. I didn/t know if anyone else could read it. I gave it to Chris and he said yes it is readable writing but you know can we try a bit of punctuation. And he said you can always take out later (laughs)
Munster: what influences more Places or people?
Don: (pauses) Both. Im trying to think of a bar graph and see if places or people would be longer but I don/t think I can do that.
Munster: Are you the kind of person that can write anywhere like waiting for a bus you get the pen and paper out, or do you need to be at home or an office to do that?
Don: I can do that anywhere if I ave a space and I don/t need a notebook. I can just do it in my head. The problem with modern times its easier to pull out your phone and read the news.
Munster: Mark E Smith in his book mentioned every year he would try and write a song for England to enter in Eurovision but said he cant as it takes a special skill to write a hit or a radio friendly song. Im in Melbourne your in Brisbane im sure we could turn on the radio and we/d find a song you/ve written being played. Do you agree, it’s a special skill to write hits?
Don: Absolutely! That the ultimate skill. I was gonna say anyone can write a Mark E Smith song but thats not the case only Mark E Smith can do that. Writing a Hard Days night is really difficult, the best writers in the world ave been trying to do that for 50 years. Writing a radio song is a very difficult skill. Its good too, and I think I know what hes talking about because even if you don/t achieve that it makes you a much better writer for trying. It really cleans up you more literally writing.
Munster: You/re often mentioned in lists of great Australian songwriters, which other songwriters deserve to be in that list in your opinion?
Don: well that would be a long list. For my personal taste Harry Vander and George Young are head and shoulders above everyone else. The guy from Little River Band that did Reminiscing. Theres a guy that wrote a song that was namechecked by John Lennon and sang up Frank Sinatra. You can sleep well. Also Lewis Tillett. The usually people, Paul, sorry Paul Kelly, I gotta put in full names. I think Nick Caves a great writer, Ian Rilen is a favourite, Tex Perkins and all the guys from Chisel. So all my friends. Slim Dusty had great writers allround the country that worked with him from the 40s onwards. This is an endless list that when I look at later i/ll be like damn I let out such and such.
Munster: My favourite passage of Shots is when you talk about playing with Chisel in St Kilda. Last year you played at Memo with Tex and Charlie and you/re playing solo very soon there, does St Kilda ave a special place in the Don Walker story?
Don: for all my life Melbourne has been St Kilda. First time we drove into Melbourne, you know Cold Chisel in a car we drove to St Kilda. And we always stayed in St Kilda. Rose Tattoo stayed in South Yarra which is nearby. All the musicians in Victoria I later worked late in life with ave always been St Kilda musicians. I always stayed there and I didn/t know any other part of Melbourne other than St Kilda and that little strip up St Kilda Rd to the city. My daughter has been at Melbourne Uni for the last four years and she has opened my eyes to the North of the city. So in the last four years im learning more parts of Melbourne thanks to my daughter, but before than it was just St Kilda.
Munster: You lived in Kings Cross for a long period, are there many similarities between the Cross and St Kilda?
Don: there are some obvious comparisons but not really. Culturally very very different. Kings Cross is different in many ways, especially the decade or two I lived there. Its a bleaker place culturally. Theres the importance of aving the Naval base at the bottom of Kings Cross which is an element thats not in St Kilda. There are similarities but big differences. One of Paul Kellys songs which is one of my favourite songs is of course From St Kilda to Kings Cross. He took a bus to Sydney got off at Oxford Street walked to my place with his guitar over to my place and said he has a new song. It was wonderful for a first hearing.
Munster: Do you ave a favourite Fall LP?
Don: not by name but in the late 70s and early 80s I listened to the Fall a lot. i thought what he was doing was really free and interesting. There was no one like him, that I know of, maybe hes part of a genre I don’t know about and I don/t remember how I discovered them but I really liked it.
Don Walker plays MEMO in St Kilda Friday April 13. Blacktop boxset out now.