A lot has been said, and written, about how the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns halted the momentum for artists on the climb. And while that may be true for a huge amount of acts, for some it allowed them the chance to hunker down and finesse their craft into the finished product. One such artist is Walt Disco, the Glaswegian band that entered lockdown having only just finished (but not yet released) the Young, Hard & Handsome EP but left it with the sensational Unlearning album under their belts. We caught up with the band over Zoom to find out more.
It’s a few weeks before the band depart for SXSW when we speak, and nerves are still twitching about whether the six-piece can dodge all the various COVID variants for long enough to get there (spoiler: they did). There is also a huge excitement in the air, with Unlearning finally making its way out into the world. It’s a debut record that deserves that excitement, a huge leap on from that earlier EP release in tone, texture and subtext. Full of theatricality, poise and drama, it’s a breathless romp through the world of Walt Disco — taking in glam rock, Bowie-like whimsy and vibrant hyper-pop. Fittingly, the video for opening track Weightless shows a band waiting for their big reveal behind a theatre curtain, an image that guitarist and keyboardist Finlay McCarthy laughingly points out as an apt metaphor for the record itself.
‘We can write these very in-depth, maybe sometimes heartbreaking lyrics about ourselves and it won’t be weird for everyone else that’s hearing or seeing them written down for the first time.’
Unlearning is the story of metamorphosis and change, a journey through queer life designed as a stage show — complete with an interlude — building on themes such as gender identity, exploration and discovery. It continues to shine a torch on subjects understandably close to everyone in the bands’ heart. I remark at one point that for such an important conversation, it feels strange that more bands aren’t talking and singing about it. Singer James Potter has their own theory on why that is, drawing attention at the same time to the closeness that this band possesses. ‘I suppose people in bands might find it harder to write difficult lyrics [than solo artists], because they feel the judgement of other people in their own band,’ they say. 'Rightly or wrongly, they might not want to divulge too much to their close friends that might not know something about them.’ That’s plainly not a problem with this band. ‘We are all just so comfortable with each other,’ James continues. ‘We can write these very in-depth, maybe sometimes heartbreaking lyrics about ourselves and it won’t be weird for everyone else that’s hearing or seeing them written down for the first time.’ Anyone who has seen a Walt Disco show will have seen that closeness play out on stage. ‘I think you can often tell when a band isn’t really, really close with each other on stage,’ grins Finlay, ‘James comes over and slaps my arse, you wouldn’t get that with a band that aren’t the best of friends. You can tell when there isn’t that chemistry. We like to show it off!’
What is most striking about Unlearning is how easily the band shift across genre, taking in all elements of modern pop music. It’s an entirely genreless approach to style, authentic in its ability to fit style to mood. ‘All of my favourite artists are genreless,’ agrees James, ‘They all wrote big pop songs but in general, just floated between genres. It’s more about how to get the energy of the song across, and some styles of music help more than others.’ It’s something that band favourite Sophie did so well of course, something that marks out this era of music out as vastly different to the more tribal times of the past. ‘Sophie is a great example of amazing music bringing people together, and changing people’s perspectives,’ nods Finlay. ‘That’s a really beautiful thing that music can do,’ agrees drummer Jack Martin. ‘It’s an exploration of the different sides to the human experience and identity. And I think it gets those things across in a much more poignant or innately touching way than just having a conversation about it. But it starts that conversation.’ ‘You can start so many more conversations when you’re big,’ continues James. ‘The way that Sophie decided that she wanted to be a world-famous pop star — you could just be making music for the art scene in your city, and that will drip down and influence culture. But sometimes you have to dream big to make the changes in the world that you want to see. And I think Sophie depicted that perfectly.’
Dreaming big is what Walt Disco do, of course. Few artists at this stage of their career are able to so clearly define their image — whether that’s through what they wear or in the ambitious videos for their single releases — each new track has only built on what has come before and heightened the atmosphere and anticipation further. For this, they (in part) thank the lockdown. ‘I suppose if we hadn’t had the time to create a record all at once, it might have been the type of debut that some put out where it’s a lot of early recordings put together with a few new songs,’ explains James. ‘That can make for a great album, but they often don’t feel like a piece of work that was thought about from start to finish.’ With only Cut Your Hair penned before the pandemic arrived, opener Weightless held the keys to Unlearning — bassist Charlie Locke describing it as ‘the base layer’ of the whole record.
'...you could just be making music for the art scene in your city, and that will drip down and influence culture. But sometimes you have to dream big to make the changes in the world that you want to see.'
Frontloading the record with the familiar was another wholly conscious decision, as James talks about the ‘constant evolving of the album journey.’ It is utterly theatrical and utterly Walt Disco. ‘That idea [of it being like a stage show] came before the album even started to get written,’ explains Finlay. ‘It has that emotional arc, and the big emotional end song. And there’s drama, plus some scary sounds and shit,’ he finishes with a grin. At the heart of the record, amidst all the pop bangers, lies the poignant and powerful Those Kept Close, a track that James describes as ‘the band favourite.’ ‘It’s about my parents and my mum and stuff,’ they say quietly — their mum having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the mid-2000s. ‘I think it is heartbreaking. I love listening to it and playing it has that feeling times ten. A lot of times it takes time to get the songs right, but the first time we played that we were like, “Wow, it’s so right.”’ Skittering and intense, it is a far cry from pretty much anything you are likely to hear all year. ‘It’s honestly so lovely to have all this freedom and not feel like we have to fit into a certain niche or anything like that,’ adds Jack.
If they are still a bit of a cult band right now, then chances are that will be very different by year's end. They’ve already played one show with Duran Duran, and Primal Scream will soon follow. After our conversation, they moved on to successfully blitz SXSW — playing nine shows in five days, getting described by Rolling Stone as one of the bands of the festival and charming the hell out of Texas in the process. They may say they want to start big conversations, but Walt Disco are quickly becoming the whole conversation. The stage is theirs.
Walt Disco's debut album Unlearning is out 1 April.