When Don Walker writes a song – it stays written; it stays writ. He gets it right. What he writes says with us. This has been the way across his various careers – as solo artist, as member of Catfish, as one third of Aussie songwriting supergroup, Tex, Don & Charlie and of course back where that reputation was cemented, with Cold Chisel.
The difference between Don Walker’s solo career – well, the first difference – and that of Chisel is that when Walker writes a song for himself (as on wonderful recent solo record, Hully Gully) it is for himself, with Chisel he’s writing for other voices, he’s writing for Ian Moss and Jimmy Barnes.
“Yes, you should probably announce that”, Walker drawls, always a dry sense of humour detected within the tone; ingrained in fact. “People coming to see me get me – my songs from my solo career, I don’t do Cold Chisel songs”.
Walker is playing two shows with New Zealand country-rockers, The Bads. They’ll play tonight (Thursday, April 17) at Vector Arena’s Tuning Fork and on Saturday, April 19, up at Leigh’s Sawmill. I tell him he’s in safe hands.
“Yeah, I’m looking forward to it – I hear good things about The Bads”. We let that hang there.
His usual group, The Suave Fucks, is full of great players across jazz, blues, country and rock disciplines, guys that sit in with the stars and have their own bands in jazz clubs in Sydney and Melbourne, players that Walker can trust; he says there’s “work every year” with The Suave Fucks, but it’s increasingly around other commitments. For everyone.
Right now Walker is – “officially” – in writing mode. For Cold Chisel. The band pushed out a new album and successful reunion tour in the wake of the passing of drummer Steve Prestwich. Prestwich’s death almost ended the reunion before it began – but by the end of the year (2011) Walker believes it had “focussed” the remaining four founder of Australia’s proud pub-rock unit.
It’s a band of songwriters in fact – every member contributing, Walker just happens to have written the lion’s share of the material that people remember, that people call for. He says writing a setlist for a Cold Chisel show these days is a lot easier than deciding material for the new album. It’s always been a fiercely competitive arena for these writers.
“It’s hard to squeeze one or two new songs into a show, absolutely. There’s only just enough room and your audience decides the set in many ways, they know what they want to hear. They are expecting certain songs. So it’s pretty clear-cut now what a Cold Chisel setlist might look like” – but there’s still a lot of jostle when it comes to compiling the records.
“I think Steve [Prestwich] particularly was a very good pop writer – better than anyone else in the group, actually. And we probably all resented him a bit for that. Now there is more a case of the band coming to me to write, but they’ll all still offer their songs too but it was certainly a very competitive situation back in that first decade. Yes”.
Walker is a writer – he’s often described as a writer, more so than musician. To add to this he has penned a successful memoir, Shots. And though he isn’t planning to repeat that experience (“there won’t be another memoir”) he is interested in the idea of further prose writing.
“I write little bits here and there – little stories I guess. Currently they make no sense to anyone but myself but I am thinking that I might do another book at some stage, a novel or some stories, something to do with fiction though, definitely”.
So, though it would seem he’d fit the description, be careful not to call Walker a writer.
“Sitting in a room writing will get you more distracted from reality” – he says. He lets that sit there for a bit. Then adds, “which is why for me it’s always been about playing too. It’s why there are solo albums and the work with Tex and Charlie, and shows with The Suave Fucks and these ones in New Zealand with The Bads. I understand that people might think of me as a writer but I see myself as a musician, a songwriter within that. But a musician. I’ve worked at this for a long time, we hone stagecraft, we practice, we rehearse ideas, there’s a moment you have on the stage that you can’t have at home writing a song. They’re two different experiences”.
So, is it a case of wearing different hats when writing? Or knowing who you’re writing for?
“Yes”, Walker starts, then pauses. “Now, it’s definitely a case of me knowing that I’m writing material for Cold Chisel and I’m aware that I’m writing for other voices, I’m trying to write for other voices, but the songs come and you sometimes don’t know until you try them. I have put things aside in the past because I know they’re in my voice. And currently I’m trying to write for other voices, having written the songs on the latest Don Walker album for me”.
But Don can’t be accused of stockpiling material for his own use – for keeping certain songs from the band.
If a song works with Chisel then they can have it too. Well, that was the case with the band’s recent reunion album, No Plans.
“The song HQ454 Monroe is one from years ago, that was part of my show for a while before offering it up to the band”.
And Everybody, also from No Plans, exists again – with Walker singing – on his latest solo album.
“Yes, but there again, that was part of my show for, oh, about a decade or so. So we just decided to finally record a version of that after the band [Chisel] had a go at it too”.
For the shows with The Bads Walker says it will be a case of surveying his work outside of Chisel – “a pretty broad range, really”. He mentions the aim for another Tex, Don & Charlie record (“possibly later in the year”) and there’ll be the aim towards another Cold Chisel album.
But he’s excited about his return to New Zealand. The country was “always good” for them when Chisel toured in their first decade, he remembers strong shows a couple of years back as part of the band’s reunion tour. And he’s enjoyed holidaying here across the last two decades with friends in several cities.
In fact he’s hopeful these shows could become a regular thing – he likes the idea of returning later in the year or next year to do it all again.
“Well see of course how this goes first. But I’d like that. Yes”.
The Bads will open each show with their set and then join Walker to play his selection of material.