Icons: The Apartments
Emerging from Brisbane in the late 1970s, The Apartments endured a storied few decades that saw a greater sense of reception abroad, with a relative sense of under-appreciation in Australia. Ahead of Captured Tracks’ deluxe reissue of the band’s 1985 debut, AARON CURRAN* spoke in-depth with band progenitor Peter Milton Walsh, as well as speaking to Peter’s friend and contemporary Lindy Morrison for her thoughts on The Apartments. Lead photo by *ANASTASIA KONSTANTELOS.
I couldn’t pick my favourite Apartments? record, all Peter’s albums are great. Some of my favourites of his are on The Evening Visits though it doesn’t feel enough to talk about just that one because it doesn’t have ?Thank You For Making Me Beg? on it, which I adore. His whole catalogue is exceptional.
I met Peter in the late ?70s in the Brisbane punk scene, although he was on the margins of that scene much as Robert and Grant from The Go-Betweens were. None of them were ever punks but they did hang around. Peter and I had a number of altercations at the start because he made the mistake of calling me ?darling? at one point and I very quickly said, ?Don’t you ?darling? me?, which Peter still reminds me of to this day.
So Peter was around and when Robert Forster and I started living together he started visiting us regularly with his trusty cassette player. He brought songs to play us. Normie Rowe’s ?It’s Not Easy?. ?All Cried Out? by Dusty Springfield. Heart ?N? Soul’s ?Lazy Life?. And lots of The Walker Brothers. He would come over and play us this lush, heartfelt music.
Ballads are Peter’s thing, that’s what he does. Mostly written in minor chords. Mostly sad songs, it has to be said. His songs can be tremendously sad. I don’t think you can listen to his work without tapping into a sort of melancholy but there’s a grittiness to them too.
“He has a great ear for an arrangement and a great talent for a caustic, biting sad lyric.”
Peter went to New York in the early ?80s, then came across to Europe where we were a couple of years later. But he was a man apart from everybody else, he didn’t mix really. He was singular and independent, quite cynical. He’s very literate and can make informed reference to art. Peter eschews sport [laughs]. He was vitriolic in his dismissal of my playing tennis or Robert and Grant playing cricket, he’d laugh at us, with such a scathing tongue. Peter had quite a profound effect on me. So intelligent, so willing to share the music he loved with us.
I think he’s a wonderful prose writer. I’ve been on at him to write a book. He has a great memory but he’s unsentimental in his take on things which I find hilarious. It’s like that song of his, ?Great Fool?, from The Evening Visits: ?What fools we all were!? That’s how Peter views things.
You can hear his humour in ?Mr Somewhere?, the first line: ?Day comes up sicker than a cat?. Such a great song, such a brilliant opening line. And ?Cannot Tell the Days Apart? is bigger than it seems. ?Sunset Hotel? has got a classic pop structure, with that ?Sha-la-la, doo doo? hook. So hooky. Peter loves Burt Bacharach. He loves ?60s pop and traditional ballads. That’s what he plays and listens to, but the ones with more complex arrangements. He loves drum breaks in pop songs. He has a great ear for an arrangement and a great talent for a caustic, biting sad lyric.
Peter would never say it but I think he feels he’s been overlooked. In a way he has. But it’s your loss if you don’t listen to his songs.
Interview with Peter Milton Walsh, February 2015
Peter Milton Walsh formed The Apartments in Brisbane in 1978. He has been the band’s creative force and constant across diverse line-ups and an erratically-released run of records of nonetheless resounding quality. In this interview we focused on the earliest years of The Apartments – an era compiled on a new 2LP vinyl expansion of 1985 debut the evening visits … and stays for years – with detours to discuss other outfits he played with prior to that album’s release, like The Go-Betweens and Laughing Clowns.
Walsh has a distinctive laugh, a low rumbling chortle, and this punctuated his recollections, so much so that it would have been repetitious to continually reference it. But you should keep his laugh in mind, for it appeared whenever a point or memory became too serious, self-aggrandising, or even mildly suggestive of careerism.
How would you describe the first music The Apartments played?
?Be My Baby? was the first song The Apartments played live. We played lots of covers, pop, love songs with, mmm, tension, but we were throwing in our own songs, songs of mine, from the beginning. My songs, even now, are done two ways: as ballads, everything I do lends itself to being a ballad; or they’re? bigger. I was trying to introduce a kind of intimacy into this fierce electric band.
Was there a collision between your balladeering instincts and the punk times you found yourself in?
Yes, I think so. Obviously if I could have been in The Walker Brothers, I would have been in The Walker Brothers. I was trying to fuse a more epic sound with the electricity that was all around us in the late 1970s. Everything was running so fast, so the sorts of music that were in my bloodstream were being contradicted by other things in the bloodstream.
But then very early on you shut up shop and joined the Go-Betweens instead. Why?
It was more of a brief halt. The Gobs had got an eight album record deal with Beserkley Records, the label of Jonathan Richman and others. Robert said, ?Do you want to join the band? We’re going to England and we’ve got this big deal?. Which sounded pretty good to me. It didn’t take long for this all to fall through. Beserkley went bust, so all of a sudden there was no money to go to England and no eight album deal. It was like, ?Okay everybody, carry on as you were before?.
I did do some recording with the Go-Betweens though, songs like ?I Wanna Be Today? and ?The Sound Of The Rain? (both on the new box set) as well as some live shows. There was no particular drama to my leaving, or negativity. Grant and Robert loved my Stratocaster and my Fender Twin, and knew it had been a chance for the Gobs to be more like Television, if only briefly. But my doing it, or not doing it, was no particular drama.
So your ongoing friendship [with The Go-Betweens] led to you releasing The Apartments? first EP, Return of the Hypnotist, on their independent Able Label?
We were friends, so yeah, but I respected their work too. The very first time I saw Robert and Grant perform they played ?Lee Remick? and ?Karen?, which was not a bad introduction to how good they were together. So I was happy to have my music on the same label as songs like those.
In the years that followed – the early to mid-1980s – you travelled continually, first through the USA, then UK and Europe, with occasional visits home. How did all the travel affect the music you made?
I didn’t have any sort of continuity, the musicians I played with, we didn’t have that. Most of my friends who were in bands, for at least some portion of their band’s existence they had a sense of continuity, when they could settle in to how they played together. I didn’t have that. The music I made then was more like a fire and when the fire went out we all just broke up and disappeared, and then I would drift on. I was always writing though, I think I’m just wired that way.
But as a career the music thing wasn’t really happening. That wasn’t such a negative. I’m always more surprised when something works out well, than if it doesn’t. I think it’s interesting that this early Apartments collection is coming out in the same year that I’m releasing a new record too. That was completely unplanned’and completely unplannable. But I am very happy that it’s working out that way and also that it’s taking place in two cities I’ve always loved: the past is being taken of in Brooklyn, New York, with the reissue on Captured Tracks, and the present is in Paris with the new record.
The songs you released on singles like ?All You Wanted? and on the evening visits… LP strike me as snapshots, of different people you were meeting along the way, different lives…
Yeah, sure, it’s all a bit of a collage when things finally make it into a song, whatever has moved you, or made an impact on you. But the past is not necessarily revealed, for every revelation there’s a secret. That’s the nature of songs.
?All You Wanted? was the first of your songs I heard and it’s still a favourite. What do you remember about writing and recording it?
That’s good, I do like that one. ?All You Wanted? is the song that led me to getting the Apartments back together, and making an effort to assemble two guitars, bass and drums into a whole again. But that was quite a bit later (back in Australia), first I had the song present itself to me in New York a year or two earlier. New York is a place that was always very important to me, as an idea as much a place itself. When I was a boy in Brisbane I used to wonder if I could write my way out; if I could it was to reach places like New York. Not that I regret growing up in Brisbane, it just never felt like a place where I’d stay.
So you were writing these songs in New York in 1982, 1983, a time when it was still an affordable place for an artist or musician to live there?
New York now is a place for far richer people than I was ever going to be but back then it was a great city to land in. Everybody had crap jobs but crap jobs could sustain you while you did the things you really wanted to do, like Thurston Moore worked at Unsloppy Copy, which was just a photocopy shop servicing students. Whereas now I get the sense you’d have to be more serious, far less careless, about your ambitions while living there. Or more realistically you’d only go to New York now if you’re already drenched in money.
In the liner notes to this new version of the evening visits…, you recollect hosting Australian bands as they toured New York, taking them to bars because they had an original 45 of Bob Dylan’s ?I Want You? on their jukebox.
That’s right, there was a circuit for bands like ours and New York was on it. The consensus music media now like Pitchfork and Stereogum are American but back then the consensus magazines were all British, like NME, Melody Maker and Sounds. If you’d been featured in those magazines then you could tour America. There was a promoter at the club Danceteria, she booked a whole load of Australians, like The Birthday Party, The Go-Betweens, The Moodists, so I’d see these people when they floated through town.
So was that how Ed Kuepper asked you to join The Laughing Clowns? Did he visit New York too?
That was another roll of the dice, totally unplanned, but no I actually got a letter from Ed inviting me to join the band. An ?aerogram? as they were then, I actually found the letter at home the other day, he wrote: ?I’m putting a new band together, would you be interested in playing bass? It’s not a lifelong thing, it’ll be about a year, we’ll do a tour of England, a tour of Europe, then Australia and we’ll record an album there as well a tour. Then we’ll see how it pans out, maybe Europe again.?
I, of course, thought all that sounded pretty good. Not that I was ever going to write songs for the Clowns. I’d been in a band where I was the main songwriter so I knew how important it was to keep that clear. But I think it was good for Ed to have someone around who understood what it was to be the songwriter, and I always believed in him. That was such a great band’Louise on sax, Jeffrey on drums. But at that point, Ed was saying, ?You know what? This jazz rock stuff, the Laughing Clowns? history that people are so in love with? Fuck it, I’m setting it all on fire. I’m doing something different now?. Ed’s done that all his life, I admire him for it.
Sure, and it wasn’t long before he broke up the band and went solo with Electrical Storm. Still, ?Eternally Yours? is really quite special.
I had heard Laughing Clowns? songs while I lived in New York, it didn’t take long to decide yes, I want to play them. I went over to England to meet them and in the meantime Ed had sent me a cassette of his new songs, a tape I still have, with his first recordings of things like ?Eternally Yours?. So it was more than good, I had a strong sense that this would be great. I loved being in that band at that time, it didn’t matter that we always rehearsed in shitty practice rooms, it was all easy to love when the band sounded like that. We had a great year. I’m glad we still get on well together.
So after your stint in The Laughing Clowns, you recorded ?All You Wanted? back in Australia, yes?
?All You Wanted? was recorded by Clive Shakespeare who used to be in Sherbet. He had a studio called Silverwater, and Peter O? Doherty from Mental as Anything – who I’d first met when the Apartments supported them in Brisbane – I’d asked him to produce it. Peter said that they’d used Silverwater for demos and it was really good. And it was. But better than that was working with people to whom I could say, ?I want a rimshot in the verses like Aretha Franklin’s ?I Say A Little Prayer??, and know that they understood what I meant perfectly.
It was ?All You Wanted? that first garnered the attention of Geoff Travis at Rough Trade, right?
Yeah, he’d come across the single in the (Rough Trade) record shop, I think, and he loved it and wanted to release it on Rough Trade in England too. When I found this out I wasn’t satisfied with his generous offer and said, ?Thanks very much but how about you put out my new album as well?? Either an infinitely optimistic or foolish suggestion, borne of youth.
Rough Trade was one of the biggest independent labels in the world at that time, with The Smiths and so many others, but that sounds like you ended making an album there pretty much by accident?
Yeah, I know. It’s still like that for me, that kind of luck. A friend of mine is a music publicist in New York, he really knows his music and is kind of a tragic for a band called Blank Dogs. Now Mike Sniper from Blank Dogs is the guy who runs Captured Tracks. When Mike first asked me if I wanted to re-release The Evening Visits? on Captured Tracks, I asked my friend whether he’d heard of the label and he almost lost his mind. Some people would kill to achieve these things, on these labels, but really they’ve all come about without me actually doing anything.
It’s great to have the evening visits… LP available again because it’s not one that a lot of people have heard, certainly not a lot of Australians. I bought my copy in the States.
It was never released in Australia, you could only buy it on import. Back then all the power seemed to be in the hands of the local offices of the major record companies and they were just uninterested, Rough Trade struggled to even get The Smiths released in Australia. If you had to struggle to get distribution for an act like The Smiths, whose music speaks so universally, then you’d have no chance with me. This actually didn’t bother me because I’d been out of the country for so many years at that point. Australia just wasn’t the main priority for me. In retrospect it would actually have been helpful but no regrets. Instead the album immediately found a connection with others – with Italian, French, Swedish and Spanish audiences. The record found the people who needed to find the record, I think, and I don’t think that would have necessarily happened if it had only come out in Australia.
So the album was recorded in England in 1985 and featured a stellar line-up of players, like Ben Watt from Everything But the Girl, Graham Lee from The Triffids, and Clare Kenny from Orange Juice. How did you gather them together?
Clare Kenny was playing with Orange Juice when Geoff Travis gave her a copy of my demos, he told her I needed to put a band together and she was one of the first to come on board. He’d also given the demos to Tracey and Ben from Everything But The Girl, they needed a support band for their upcoming tour and said to ask if I was interested. That was a phenomenal piece of luck as it was established practice then to buy your way on to a major tour, bands would actually pay for the privilege which I never had to do, nor could I afford. So they took The Apartments on a 20-date tour – England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, with a big final show at the Hammersmith Odeon. Ben asked if he could play guitar on ?Mr Somewhere?, he did an amazing job. Graham Lee I chased down to play pedal steel on ?Black Road Shines?, the last song on the record, he added a bit of drama to the sound. Audrey Riley on cello was a friend of a friend. These people were around in London and ready to go, so I hit the ground and we started making music straight away.
From there it was rehearse, record, release, tour, promote, etcetera etcetera. The usual cycle, then its rinse and repeat. You have to do that or you can forget about it. It wasn’t really my thing. You can be a word-of-mouth artist which is pretty much what The Apartments have always been but if you really want to get in there and have impact you’ve got to do it like the hardest working man in show business. Like Nick Cave. What is he, in his mid-fifties and he’s still playing up to 200 shows a year? That’s generally the kind of commitment success requires.
Sure but you still seemed to experience more interesting opportunities than most, like having your song ?Mr Somewhere? covered by This Mortal Coil. Did you know that was going to happen?
No, I had no idea that they were interested until I heard (the song). And you’re right, it was great. There’re people who put a lot of time into developing their careers but I feel, well, chaos has been the principle here and it’s paid off.
Like having your music take a featured position in that most 1980s of artistic triumphs, a John Hughes? film soundtrack?
Exactly. Another accident. I had just recorded ?The Shyest Time? and John Hughes was casting around, asking a bunch of London record companies for new songs. His music producer must have liked what he heard, next thing it’s in his film (Some Kind of Wonderful). Which felt pretty good. When I think about how things have happened? if the music business didn’t really know what to do with me, I didn’t care enough to help them much, so the fact that all of these things actually happened is pretty extraordinary.
For me, The Evening Visits has an autumnal sound, but more New York in autumn not London or Brisbane. Am I projecting or do you think records can sound like a particular place and time?
Look that’s close to my own feelings but I don’t like to demystify it really, I think the best thing with music is to encourage people’s own take on it. For instance, a French fan I met who loves that album said, (in French accent) ?I always imagined that the album cover is a farmhouse next to a big water tank in a distant part of Australia?, so it’s the sound of Australia he hears when it plays. Not many people confuse my music with rural, rustic Australian life but it can happen. Which is great. But I took the cover photograph [pictured left] on the rooftop of my apartment in New York at 3 a.m., it’s a water tower and the steeple of St Ann’s church, right next door to where I lived and wrote some of the songs. So to me it’s this beautiful, still golden New York night, which is important to me in my conception of the album.
It also reminds me of Truman Capote or something? his short stories and Breakfast at Tiffanys, with the songs as snapshots of particular lives.
Definitely. It’s absolutely like that. For me, it’s saturated with New York, so much of it is the settings, the people, and situations – to me, that’s what it is. I was deeply in love with a bunch of writers from the American south, and some had been transplanted to New York like Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. It seemed like their imaginations had been created in the same sort of towns as Brisbane’small hot towns, isolated and claustrophobic, and instead they escaped to New York. Without knowing that I don’t think it would have been as easy for me to just head off there with no money. To just turn up in the big city and feel confident that things would be okay. And I wouldn’t have written ?Mr Somewhere?, I’m sure of that. Brisbane is a river town and I remember being stoned on a ferry crossing the river at night. The past catches up with you in some ways.
“I’m lucky that the songs mean a lot, not to so many people, but they mean so much to the people who they do mean something to.
I found your liner notes to the record very evocative, they’re wonderfully written. Have you thought of writing a book? Lindy Morrison thinks you should and I agree with her.
Look I had to write those liner notes because all the records of those times have disappeared. It was like skywriting. Some of us, like Nick [Cave], were diligent about collecting their clippings, he sent them off religiously to his mother. I wouldn’t have a clue what someone wrote or said about me, it’s all gone’something happened, then it was over and gone, you might as well have set fire to it. But I do have a good memory so I was able to get back into thinking about the band and how it got going, then I’d sit with a coffee and just type away.
You can easily get lost in memories of longing and regret but I never felt that when I was writing those (notes), it was just that’s how I lived my life and these are the things that I did, I’m glad I did them but there was very little nostalgia. I don’t think I have a nostalgia switch. But I’m very grateful that things happened and I’m particularly happy that they happened without my having had to do very much at all.
Instead it was down to the efforts of all of those people, some friends and some total strangers, who were kind to me – The Go-Betweens, Rough Trade, Ben and Tracey, This Mortal Coil, Captured Tracks, so many people in France – it’s such a long roll call of people who showed kindness, who cared. Obviously it wouldn’t have happened if my songs hadn’t connected with them, if the songs didn’t mean something to them. I’m lucky that the songs mean a lot, not to so many people, but they mean so much to the people who they do mean something to. And that’s more than enough.
?The kindness of strangers? – we’ve circled back to Tennessee Williams again, which seems like a great place to finish, thanks Peter. But I look forward to hearing the new album, perhaps we can talk about that next time?
Yes, a little further down the line, it’s going to be called No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal. I’ll make sure you get a copy and we can talk about it later in the year.
####The deluxe reissue of the evening visits … and stays for years is out now on double vinyl, CD and digital through [Captured Tracks](http://www.capturedtracks.com/shop/ct-related-releases/ct-206-the-apartments-the-evening-visits-cd2xlp).