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Walt Disco: Inside a Warped Reality

[Rolling Stone UK]

With 2022’s spine-tingling debut ‘Unlearning’, Glasgow glam-pop collective Walt Disco marked themselves out as one of the most intriguing outfits on the UK’s alternative scene. On brilliant follow-up ‘The Warping’, however, they’re shapeshifting boldly into the band they were always meant to be…

By Sam Law

There is no such thing as standing still. Not really. Walt Disco understand this better than most.

Breaking out on the eve of COVID, the Glaswegian collective could have been caught in the suffocating stasis of lockdown. Instead, they plotted a way forward, pouring empty, uncertain months into striking debut LP Unlearning

Rather than building conservatively close to home as life opened up again, they harnessed that record’s momentum to get out and see the world. And as technical difficulties threaten to derail their homecoming at McChuills Bar when we meet on a balmy Wednesday at the tail end of Scottish summer, they just sit back and smile, quietly assured that it’ll take more than dodgy speakers to stop tonight’s sweaty soft launch for superb second album The Warping

“It’s a record about change,” smiles ‘matriarch’ and vocalist Jocelyn Si, surrounded by bandmates Finlay McCarthy (synths), Lewis Carmichael (guitar), Charlie Lock (bass) and Jack Martin (drums) in the calm before the storm. “It’s about reacting to change, being afraid of change, wanting things to change. Unlearning could be seen as an album about unlearning habits and how we think about things in our lives. The Warping is about changing how we deal with those things moving forward.”

At the forefront of that conversation is personal change. Compared to Unlearning’s disentanglement from societal norms and the outside world, The Warping is inherently more introverted. The title track, for instance, is a powerful exploration of gender dysphoria and envy, which finds Si pondering and processing the emotions and insecurities that come with being trans, ultimately finding catharsis in radical honesty. Dig deeper, though, and there are profound ruminations on separation too; the distance that can open up when the changes you go through detach you from life events like the death of a family pet or the sale of a childhood home. The nursery-rhymed inflections of ‘Black Chocolate’ tap into an almost-childlike appreciation of the security of family, while ‘I Will Travel’ finds that same constant grounding in a parent’s dog.

“It’s definitely a reaction to our experience of life in a band,” continues co-songwriter Martin. On album one, being locked down shielded them from the harsher realities of life on tour, which only made them hit harder this time. “I see the members of this band far more than I see my friends or family. A lot of material here comes through the lens of realisation that just because we’re away doesn’t mean that things stay the same at home. They don’t wait for us to get back. Life goes on.”

McCarthy shrugs. “I guess that’s just the price you pay to do all these amazing things that we’ve done. It’s a form of therapy to talk about that bittersweetness, but ultimately we’re grateful to be here.”

Indeed, Walt Disco have plenty to be grateful for. With Unlearning nominated for the Scottish Album of the Year Award and Best Independent Album at the AIM Awards, as well as their high-profile support slots with acts like Simple Minds, Duran Duran and Primal Scream, plus appearances at Glastonbury, Latitude and SXSW in the US, Walt Disco have built a global following. Hollywood superstar and cult queer icon Tilda Swinton called them her new favourite band. And as this feature goes to press, they’ll be on a continent-spanning European jaunt with English electronic icons Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD). 

While Unlearning was written and recorded in the claustrophobia of their own homes and driven by the mainly electronic DIY tools at their disposal, The Warping is the result of transatlantic sessions from Los Angeles and Austin to London and Glasgow. Lead single ‘Pearl’, for instance — a bleak portrait of an imagined future where Martin is living alone with regret on Glasgow’s south side — is named after the Pearl Street Co-Op in Austin where they first toyed with its composition on a grand piano and features a voice-note from when they returned to that very spot. Real recording, meanwhile, included sessions at Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera’s studios in Surrey, with the majority taking place at The Vale in west London with co-producer Chris McCrory and engineer Chris D’Adda. Recorded almost entirely in analogue, the album draws on a whole new dimension of sound with horns, woodwind and strings.

“Does it make for a more atmospherically dense piece of music?” Si muses. “I think so. We have a lot more space to build out the size of the songs and add in those orchestral elements.”

“As you get older, you get a bit more profound,” says Martin, picking up the thread, while his bandmates name influences like Scott Walker, Sonic Youth, Sufjan Stevens and Kate Bush, as well as Grangemouth icons Cocteau Twins, Glasgow electro trailblazers The Blue Nile and Dundee post-punks The Associates. “You’re not as lost in your feelings and fears. You’re more objective about what you’re trying to achieve.” 

“Plus,” Si adds, “it was interesting writing pop-oriented music when none of us were in love.”

“There wasn’t a lot of vague love language,” Martin agrees. “Fewer placeholder lyrics, too. There’s still love in there, but it has a different feel when it’s about love for friends, family, pets or even just the way that things are — to counterpoint the fear that they won’t always be — rather than being about being ‘in love’. It makes it more broadly human than any intense, specific romantic feelings.”

From the breathy delivery, widdly synths and rump-a-pump melodrama of opener ‘Gnomes’ via the faintly funk-infused attitude of ‘You Make Me Feel So Dumb’ and the skeletal vulnerability of Si to the widescreen experimentalism of grandstanding closer ‘Before the Walls’, the execution is bold and breathtaking, combining the intimacy of the album’s themes with the grandeur of an act ready to take over the world. Every experience they’ve enjoyed or endured over the past few years, right up to playing a crowd of 3,000 at Portugal’s Extramuralhas Goth Festival a few days before we convene, and tonight’s whites-of-their eyes homecoming has clarified the band they want to be. 

“We’re not Broadway,” Si laughs. “We’re not even famous, but we talk as if we are dealing with the struggles of being a famous Broadway act. We’re haggard and showbiz, basically.”

“And we’re not afraid to have fun,” nods Martin. “We get serious on tracks like ‘The Captain’ — touching on topics like global warming and toxic masculinity — but we turned it into an OTT Celtic sea song!”

“Why did we rhyme ‘cantankerous’ with ‘can’t anchor us’?” Si teases. “Because it’s fun!”

They’re ready to be figureheads, too, not just for the queer community they’ve always stood for — compared to solo artists, there is scant representation among British bands — but for all young creatives hoping to push the boundaries and defy expectations through truly original art. 

“We’re outcasts,” Martin concludes. “We make music for anyone open-minded. And plenty of people who are open-minded just haven’t had an experience where they can really embrace it yet. Maybe it would be easier for us if we were more ‘normal’ or stuck to one style, but our heroes — Bowie, Queen — all transcended genre to one degree or another, and it feels like we have to do the same!”

“We’re not here to make music for the middle- of-the-road,” McCarthy signs off with a wide smile. “We want people to be fully won over or totally disgusted. We’re not interested in the in-between!”

‘The Warping’ will be released on June 14 via Lucky Number.