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World Party: Pure Pop for Party People

Karl Wallinger turns his obsessions with the Beatles and other bands into hits of his own

Karl Wallinger, World Party

Karl Wallinger of World Party in the studio, United Kingdom,1990

Martyn Goodacre/Getty

Two of these things are not like the others. Karl Wallinger — World Party’s singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, though not, he would stress, a “fabo musician type” — is giving a tour of his North London studio. Along with the obligatory fleet of Stratocasters and Les Pauls, he comes across a pair of instruments that have a somewhat sacred air: a black-and-white Rickenbacker guitar and a Hofner “violin” bass. They are the same models that John Lennon and Paul McCartney played while in the Beatles. Wallinger, whose preoccupation with the lads from Liverpool is well documented on World Party’s new, genre-bending album, Goodbye Jumbo, stops and stares at the instruments. “Hmm,” he says. “Wonder how those got in here.”

As the tour continues, however, Wallinger — a former Waterboys keyboardist who launched World Party in 1986 with a funky, Sixties-inflected bit of consciousness-raising called Private Revolution — explains that he and the Beatles go way back. “Sgt. Pepper’s just sort of blew my mind,” he says, having been a nine-year-old in seaside Wales when the album was released. “I used to wander around trying to make all those sounds with my mouth. I found out that if I waved the album cover in front of my face, it made my voice sound like it was double tracked. And I’ve got a gap between my teeth, so I could get a really great distorted-guitar sound.” Wallinger pauses. “I was a sad case,” he says, laughing.

The last stop on the studio tour is a grand piano, which, for soundproofing purposes, has been covered with a thick, tiger-spotted blanket. Wallinger sits down and knocks out a McCartney medley — “Martha My Dear,” “Lady Madonna,” “Let It Be” — then segues into the Seventies with “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Just when one expects “My Love,” however, Wallinger stops playing. “I really thought Paul had died when he started Wings,” he jokes. “I thought, ‘This guy must be a look-alike.’ ”

A few moments later, Wallinger is sitting behind his mixing board talking about his own career. While in high school, he hooked up with Nigel Twist and Dave Sharp — now of the Alarm — and played gigs around Wales. At nineteen, Wallinger headed to London, where he worked briefly at a music-publishing house — sending royalty checks off to John Lennon, among others. He later flitted through several underground outfits, including the Invisible Body Club, which released an indie single.

Wallinger seems comfortable talking about the Waterboys, whom he joined in 1983 and with whom he recorded the albums A Pagan Place and This Is the Sea. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that his decision to leave the group when it was on an upswing has long since been vindicated. World Party’s first single, the cautionary tale “Ship of Fools,” easily eclipsed the Waterboys in stateside airplay, and the accompanying video went into heavy rotation on MTV. Wallinger says his departure from the Waterboys was amicable: “It just wasn’t meant to be. ‘That shit ‘appens,’ as they say in Minneapolis.”

But he admits that, of late, leader Mike Scott’s Irish soul-searching has put a distance between the former collaborators. (Of the fact that the Waterboys’ latest album includes a song called “World Party,” Wallinger will only say, “I guess Mike thought he could do it better.”)

By the time Wallinger left the Waterboys, he had already secured a contract with Ensign Records — a Chrysalis label carrying Sinéad O’Connor, among others. And, in December 1985, he retreated to the English countryside to write and record Private Revolution. Occasionally he enlisted the help of studio musicians from London — “I’m not a popular man with a saxophone in my hands” — but, for the most part, he recorded everything himself on a sixteen-track home studio. “The place was falling down, but beautiful,” says Wallinger, growing animated. “It was a big, old white house — twenty-two rooms, I think. If I’d stayed there, I’d have opened a trout farm and become Sir Karl of Eversholt, or something.”

Wallinger’s current studio is located in one of London’s industrial sectors, on the top floor of a drafty, sprawling building that was once a bakery. To reach these rooms, one climbs a series of apparently forgotten stairwells — when asked the way to the studio, a custodian in the building answered, “There’s a studio in here?” — and eventually arrives at a door with a hand-painted sign that reads Seaview cottage. In many ways, Wallinger’s studio — which is decorated with fake roses, fake ivy and poster-size fragments from an enormous world map — seems like a remote place. It is the sort of place where one might spend three years writing and recording a second album.

“I figured out the other day that my record deal will last thirty-two years,” Wallinger jokes about the delay in completing Goodbye Jumbo. “You know — one album in the Eighties, one album in the Nineties. I got rid of this one right at the beginning so I’d have the whole decade off.”

As Wallinger starts discussing World Party’s new record — which includes contributions from keyboardist Guy Chambers and bassist Martyn Swain, both of whom played on Private Revolution — the tape recorder that is in use for the interview breaks down. Wallinger offers to record the conversation on his twenty-four-track system and, getting the go-ahead, he jumps up to adjust a boom mike. “I think we need a little compression on this,” he says, then presses a few buttons at the mixing desk. For a moment, there is some painful, high-pitched feedback, but soon the tape is rolling, and Wallinger sits back down.

“I’ve got everything rigged up the way I like it here,” he says, gesturing around at his studio. “There’s the odd crackle and pop, and sometimes — as you’ve just experienced — I hit the wrong button. But I’ve still got my eardrums.”

Goodbye Jumbo is every bit as varied as Private Revolution and summons up much the same musical pantheon: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Prince, Sly and the Family Stone. The album’s guitar tracks are particularly raw and, in general, the whole production has the homespun feel of the McCartney album. Since he can’t simultaneously play an instrument in one room while recording it in another, Wallinger explains that he plays everything — with the exception of the drums — in the mixing room itself. “For the drums, I splice in some leader and run like hell,” he says.

As a lyricist, Wallinger has put a lot more humor and perspective into his latest batch of songs. No doubt, this is partly due to the fact that the make-love-to-the-world sentiment of Private Revolution was the subject of a little critical hippie-bashing. Wallinger — tapping his fingers to “Put the Message in the Box,” which is playing in the background — acknowledges that his lyrics perplex some people: “It’s like, ‘There’s this guy who writes songs — they seem to be about God, or are they about the world?’ I don’t know really. I’d like people to make up their own minds. I just believe in the power of the twenty-four-track studio.”

The next day is the day that Nelson Mandela is freed. Wallinger — wearing a rumpled floral shirt, black jeans and tinted wire-rimmed glasses — is walking to a pub near his home. Of his family life, the thirty-two-year-old musician offers this shorthand summary: “Kids. Nappies. People bumping their heads as they fall over.” Of his tidy neighborhood in the Highgate section of London: “Dickens lived here, and Sting used to have a house — all the great social campaigners of the last two centuries.” Once inside the crowded pub, Wallinger secures a stool and a pint of lager and talks about South Africa, Czechoslovakia and Germany, and the fact that people would be wise to invest in map companies. He also talks about the Beatles — in particular a cover he recorded of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” Wallinger’s version sounds remarkably like the original, which he explains by saying that he pored over logbooks from the Beatles’ recording sessions, “looking at the old photos and seeing where they put their mikes.”

“I don’t feel amazingly well educated,” Wallinger says of his admittedly obsessive ways. “I just feel like an enthusiast — a world watcher, really. It’s not just the Beatles. I’m trying to piece together the whole thing. I need, like, the session books for mankind. You know what I mean? How did Jesus record his songs? How did the Israelites get that trumpet sound when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down — and can I get it on an S900? You know? No, because it’d blow my speakers.”

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