An Interview with Walt Disco (includes album review)

by Jack Faulds

Glasgow favourites Walt Disco are set to release their long-anticipated debut album, Unlearning, on April 1st. But this feature-length fever dream of ethereal anthems is no April Fools joke.

Honest, painful and ridiculously camp – Unlearning is an eclectic amalgamation of all the reasons we’ve come to love the Walt Disco crew. Frontperson James Potter unpacks the good, bad and ugly of the modern queer experience as they traverse the rocky soundscapes of each whimsical track, drawing on personal experiences of gender dysphoria, ephemeral flings and – of course – Selfish Lovers. An intense exploration of electronic sound is the golden thread that runs throughout the full forty-five minutes, fueled by the group’s unforgiving desire to push the sonic envelope. Influences from Scottish hyper pop pioneers like SOPHIE and TAAHLIAH come in strong on tracks like ‘Hold Yourself As High As Her’, where a tasteful auto tune adorns Potter’s already delicious vocals. Art rock flavourings reminiscent of prime-time Talking Heads and early St. Vincent are sprinkled across tracks like Be An Actor, where Charlie Lock’s bass bounces playfully over Jack Martin’s masterful blend of traditional and digital percussion. The range of styles on this album is seemingly endless, a few songs in and clearly the group has evolved drastically since their Velvet Beddays. The triumphant guitar work of Finlay McCarthy and Lewis Carmichael, however, harkens back to these times and proves that Walt Disco have not yet lost their homegrown Glasgow-band energy. 

With preparations for their UK and EU tour looming over their heads, it’s safe to say that the Disco dolls are booked and busy. Though, in spite of this, I managed to bag myself a quick interview with the band to discuss their takes on the album and what it means to them. 

So, Unlearning is the name of the debut album. For me, as a queer person, that title holds a lot of weight and significance. How did the title come about and how important is that word to your own experiences?

James Potter (Frontperson): Yeah, it’s a word I’ve seen cropping up quite a lot recently and I think it’s a really important word in many ways. Obviously there’s the queer aspect of it, you kind of have to unlearn things that have been taught to you by television, by your parents, by the world. Specifically things like aspects of gender which are very colonial and taught as fact. It has a lot of meaning that way, there’s so many things that people should unlearn. It’d do us a lot of good.

The opening track, Weightless, really sets the tone for the album as one of self-discovery and exploration. How did that song come about?

James: “That started as a thing Finlay came up with, right?

Finlay McCarthy (Guitar, Synthesisers): Yeah! That started out with me being kind of bored in .lockdown, messing about on Ableton. There’s actually audio that made it into the final song of my girlfriend wrapping a parcel that she’d sold on Depop. I just kind of filed it away and forgot about it, it didn’t even have a name. Then when we got signed, we were looking through a load of old stuff for ideas for album tracks, so James and I worked on it a bit. It was a kind of twee thing, very cheery, and then we put these menacing synths on it. The lyrics spilled out of you pretty quick James?

James: Yeah, once those synths came through – which are actually a really jangly electric guitar that we sampled and put a load of drum reverb on – it really came together. As soon as that was there, the emotion of the track became very clear and the lyrics came with it. The lyrics kind of came with me dwelling on a lot of those themes of unlearning. Then the guitars and all of that stuff came later, just because it was so electronic. We listened to it and we were like ‘this is great!’ but we thought it needed that rock band energy (*throws up devil horns*). 

Finlay: Yeah, very ‘Violator’ – Depeche Mode.

The video for Weightless and the album artwork were made in collaboration with photographer & set designer Furmaan Ahmed. How did that connection come about?

James: Well, we have a lot of mutual friends and we’d actually worked in their house before for our Dancing Shoesvideo, that was maybe the first time I’d met them.Then when we were discussing who would do the album artwork, we threw some suggestions around to our team and I think we all gathered that Furmaan was the best and would create something that we’d love.

Charlie Lock (Bass Guitar): They are a genius!

James: Yeah, and so lovely as well. I think the first song I sent them to get them in the mood of the album was If I Had A Perfect Life, the closer, and I think that really helped them to get the scope of the idea. It’s funny because, with the album artwork, they kind of knew what they wanted and so did I and it turned out to be basically the same thing! That idea of having a structure and all of us on the structure, quite symbolic and epic.

Be An Actor stuck out to me as very different from songs like Macilent Or Cut Your Hair. What was the process like for creating that track?

Finlay: Yeah, getting over the hill and looking towards the light.

James: Be An Actor’s a weird one because it started with more of a straight, rock type beat. I think I’d been listening to The Doors in the park or something and I liked that sort of floating bassline idea. So we came up with those rhythm section parts first, and then somehow it turned into this dreamy love song. But then we found once it was recorded, those kind of Doors-y drums just took it so far away from anything else on the album. We kind of had to reign it in a bit by making it a little more electronic, we took the snare drum away and it ended up having that slightly African rhythm. I’d never really heard a love ballad like that, with that rhythm. We were smiling the whole way through the recording process.

Jack Martin (Drums): Yeah, we all love that song so much. I think it’s my favourite song on the album.

James: Every time we play it we’re like ‘this is just really pleasant!

Jack: Yeah, that’s the word that kept coming up in the studio. With every new instrument we put down we were just like ‘Ugh! So pleasant! That’s the stuff!

The use of electronic stuff on the album is really strong, how did you begin to orchestrate that really ambitious and intricate sound?

Finlay: I mean, a lot of it was just fucking about and seeing what we liked. 

James: We couldn’t record that many live instruments because we were working with such a basic setup, so the only way to keep us creatively challenged was for us to go deeper and deeper into synth settings and reverbs and techniques. We also worked with producers that were adept with electronic music, like BOBBIE from Glasgow – they are a wizard at electronic tracks. They mixed like three tracks and did additional production on all of them.

Finlay: We went a bit mad with the electronic stuff on If I Had A Perfect Life, but I love it a lot. There’s samples on it of a coin falling onto the floor and… uh… a car crash. 

So did you go out and record the car crash yourselves or…?

Jack: Yeah, we were waiting about for ages on that one!

Charlie: There was a studio we worked in as well where we sampled this really gut-wrenching slam of a door which sounded like a knife or something. 

James: Yeah, and one night when we got a bit too drunk I was like ‘We’re going to go into the live room and hit record and we’re all gonna just bash things!’

Charlie: We were just running about screaming and shouting, absolutely feral.

Finlay: Yeah it was really stupid, but I’m glad some of those things we did made it into the album. 

The last track If I Had A Perfect Life really tied together the emotional arc of the album for me, especially with the lyric ‘Now I shout it/I don’t want it’. What are you renouncing with this song?

James: I suppose we’re renouncing the idea of any life being perfect. Just imagine if you couldn’t find anything wrong with your life, it would be a weird place to be in. It’s just not realistic, tragedy happens all the time. But I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world that life is complex and very sad at times. That song also expresses my anger at that idea of a perfect life. I can’t help but live this life where there is suffering, I need to be honest about it. 

Unlearning is released on Lucky Number Music Limited April 1st 2022