'I Thought It Put A Stop To Songs Forever': The Apartments' Peter Milton Walsh
After completing The Apartments' fifth album in the 1990s, Peter Milton Walsh watched in horror as his life echoed the darkest portent of his lyrics. In the midst of a gradual return following a decade's absence, the revered Brisbane songwriter recounts for ANDREW STAFFORD the making of 1997's underrated 'Apart' and the personal tragedy that changed him forever.
Peter Milton Walsh was on a roll. It was 1996, and the singer-songwriter behind The Apartments – who had emerged from the same post-Saints Brisbane scene that gave birth to The Go-Betweens and The Riptides – was onto his fourth album in four years. Drift, Fête Foraine and A Life Full of Farewells had all met with acclaim, and if they hadn’t done a great deal to boost his reputation in his home country, they’d cemented it in Europe.
Prior to this, Walsh had spent much of the 1980s “like a scrap of paper, blown down the windy streets of the world.” He’d had a couple of real successes: the haunting, cello-soaked elegy ‘Mr. Somewhere’, from The Apartments’ 1985 Rough Trade album The Evening Visits, was later covered by 4AD’s shape-shifting ensemble This Mortal Coil. Another song, ‘The Shyest Time’, appeared in the John Hughes film Some Kind of Wonderful at the height of Hughes’ fame. “Sometimes it seemed like I got one lucky break after another and I didn’t hold onto any of them,” he says. “Fugitives might have had more stability.”
Finally, though, life had settled, and it was good. Walsh was working a straight but rewarding job in Sydney, anchored by his wife and their young son Riley. Around that, he had constructed an alternative existence as a recording artist that was almost clandestine. Being recognised in Europe before Australia had its advantages. “If you offered me the choice of whether to be unknown here or unknown in Europe, I admit I would go for unknown here,” Walsh says. “Having that distance has enabled me to live very quietly – lead a double life, even a secret and quite fine one here.”
Songs were flowing. The new album would be different, as different as each had been from their immediate predecessors. Three short, piano-based snippets – ‘Doll Hospital’, ‘Your Ambulance Rides’ and ‘Place of Bones’ – linked eight major pieces with rich, almost baroque arrangements. “I’d written not only the songs but some string, woodwind, brass and piano parts, and I just wanted to try something I never had before,” he says. “We all get restless. Sometimes we get tired of ourselves.”
To play these songs, Walsh needed a new band. He met Gene Maynard, a drummer who “had such fantastic swing.” He then contacted The Cruel Sea’s Ken Gormley, “a great, instinctive player with a beautiful feel. I was very surprised when I asked and he said yes.”
The result was Walsh’s least-known but quite possibly best album, Apart. A lush, moving piece of work, it was also the last record Walsh would make until last year’s single ‘Black Ribbons’. There had been a 15-year silence. “I always had a hunch that what I did might appeal to a particular sensibility, that a world existed somewhere in which the songs would deeply connect,” he says. Apart, perhaps, is a world unto itself. It’s a shame more people in this one haven’t heard it.
Which is not to say that the album is difficult or self-indulgent. It is merely singular. After ‘Doll Hospital’ – a slightly jarring 26 seconds of a few repeated piano notes – there’s barely a pause before a low, melancholy blast of trumpet introducing ‘No Hurry’. It sounds like a foghorn blowing across a bay, and Walsh is being carried along like one of the those scraps of paper. “The days are getting longer,” he croons, backed by loping groove from Gormley. “Night comes down so late.”
“I wanted to get some of that slow sensuality of summer into a song,” Walsh says in hindsight, and perhaps it’s a metaphor for Walsh’s old hometown of Brisbane: “I got no ambition, I’ll sleep by the lazy river/Someone slowed the whole world down, in the old town called the past…” The music matches the lyric, the semi-orchestral arrangement never cluttered, “drifting along just like smoke.”
‘Breakdown in Vera Cruz’ ascends from peak to peak, piano and percussion driving the verses, trumpet and strings holding up a majestic chorus. But underneath the song is desperately sad, a story of a dissolute but codependent coupling: “They talked a little bit/Then things just went all quiet again/What they have’s on the skids/He depends on her, she depends on gin.” A drawn-out coda ends with a shiver of cello and violin.
‘Something to Live For’ is about marriage, fatherhood and letting go of the past. At the time, Walsh was writing the album three days a week and spending the other two with Riley. Playing music isn’t that important in the greater scheme of things: “Travelling man, a travelling band, the lights go out one by one/A daddy does what he has to do, the circus moves on.” “Learning the meaning of gratitude,” Walsh explains. “Trying to be good.” It’s the most optimistic, uplifting song on Apart.
Things take a left turn with the appearance of Walsh’s longtime fan Dave Graney, doing his best Philip Marlowe impression as he narrates the tone poem ‘Welcome to Walsh World’. Gently brushed drums, more strings and lyrics that would do Lou Reed at his most narcissistic, early-’70s best proud. If there’s a parallel to be made here, conscious or otherwise, Apart might be likened to an Antipodean equivalent of Berlin, Reed’s bleak masterpiece of domestic melodrama.
“What got to me was the songwriter’s fear; firstly that the songs are omens, finally that the songs have come true.”
The second half of the album opens with ‘Friday Rich/Saturday Poor’. It was an old tune for Walsh, having been demoed in 1990. After Apart’s release in France, Lanvin, which was launching a new perfume, came close to using this song in an advertising campaign throughout Europe – I imagine it was the seductive introductory flourish of violin that they were after. Walsh demurs: “I liked to tell myself it was because of the prospect of decadence within the lyrics.” Lanvin ended up going with a track by Finley Quaye instead. “I’m sure the perfume sank without a trace; that wouldn’t have happened with ‘Friday Rich,’” the author deadpans.
‘World of Liars’ is a big, slow ballad in an album that seems full of them, but it’s the sparest – no strings or brass this time, just the core of Walsh on piano, accompanied by Gormley and Maynard, with some deft hand percussion. ‘Cheerleader’ underscores a more unexpected influence: the Bristol sounds of Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky, who is name-checked in ‘No Hurry’. It’s a showcase for Gormley in particular, whose descending bass line provides the hook of a song that relies on atmosphere more than structure.
All this is leading up to Apart’s final statement. ‘Everything’s Given to Be Taken Away’ opens in a similar manner to ‘No Hurry’, and reprises some of its lyrical themes of wasted potential: “There’s a rose that blossoms in the barrel/For each lost little girl.” It begins with just piano chords and the soft sound of Walsh’s voice before Gormley and Maynard enter, drawing the song out. Strings rush in like the climactic moment in The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’, until finally the song explodes into a chorus of ba-ba-ba’s that’s at once childlike and exquisitely wistful.
And then, it all became horribly prophetic. On the final day of mixing, Walsh took a phone call from his GP. “Riley’s blood tests had come back,” Walsh remembers. “‘You have to take him to the Westmead Hospital right now,’ she said. ‘Right now?’ I asked. ‘Straight away – I’ve rung, and told the specialist you’re coming.’
“What got to me was the songwriter’s fear; firstly that the songs are omens, finally that the songs have come true.” Riley used to sing along to those ba-ba-ba’s; the three instrumentals, with their haunted titles, had also been floating around for some time, long before there was an inkling of anything being wrong. “The fact that I wrote such a song, and that I wrote it before things came to an end – before we lost Riley – that stopped me, and I thought it put a stop to songs forever,” he says. “I didn’t know if I could find my way back to who I was before he died, but really, I didn’t think I should, either.”
It would be over a decade later before the Apartments would re-emerge: firstly with a discreet run of shows in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney, followed by a gig in Paris a couple of years later. With no advertising or press support, the night was a sellout, as was another rooftop set in Paris last year, at the invitation of a French magazine. “A journalist who came along, some girl who said she’d never heard of me until she found ‘World of Liars’ on YouTube … said, ‘How do you explain this?’ … I had to tell her I don’t do explanations and I never question this, because it might imperil it. I am happy to do what I do in the glow of this benevolent mystery.
“I remember the record company warning me when I refused to tour to promote Apart: ‘No one knows where you’ve gone or why … People will forget you. You have to top up the goodwill; release something new, to remind them.’ I just remember thinking, you know, I couldn’t care less. If they need to be reminded, they never got me in the first place.”