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The Apartments: Back Into the Light

Peter Milton Walsh has long been an unsung hero of the music world, and as The Apartments release their first new album in five years, he once again steps into the world of acclaim.

When it was announced earlier this year that The Apartments would be releasing a new album, many fans may have felt the news was almost too good to be true. After all, records from Peter Milton Walsh are few and far between, with 18 years passing between the release of 1997’s Apart and 2015’s No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal.

But Walsh is the furthest you could get from an artist content to sit on their own laurels. Rather, years spent in the darkness preceded his return to the light, with critically-acclaimed shows, and live material then arriving to satiate the appetites of those who had longed for his return.

But after only five years of waiting for a new record, some fans may have felt they were being almost spoiled to receive an album so quickly after the last. The new record, dubbed In and Out of The Light, has origins that stretch back over a year ago, with recording beginning in Sydney at the end of winter.

Working alongside producer Tim Kevin for only a handful of hours a day, the album slowly began to grow thanks in part to the talents of bass player Eliot Fish, French Apartments Natasha Penot and Antoine Chaperon, English drummer Nick Allum, The Necks’ Chris Abrahams, and Miro Bukovsky.

The result is a breathtaking document of The Apartments, with a thematic focuses on “a set of characters who, in the aftermath of loss or simply the changes that turn up in everyone’s lives, have gone looking for some other way to live—and found it.”

In much the same way as Walsh hadn’t particularly expected to release No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal in 2015, In and Out of The Light is a similarly unexpected release, with the songs seemingly creeping up on its creator thanks in part to an “aimlessness” approach. Nevertheless, it arrives as one of the most powerful releases in Walsh’s catalogue to date, as it switches between the mesmerising and breathtaking, to the emotionally devastating within the space of just one line.

To discuss the release of the album, Walsh spoke to Rolling Stone for a lengthy discussion about the writing and recording of the new record, his plans to tour, and his time as an unsung hero of the music world.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Firstly, I want to say a huge congratulations on the new album, it’s just a truly gorgeous record.

Oh, thank you. It’s good that it worked for you in that way. With my records, what I’ve been trying to do is to make something beautiful; bring something beautiful into the world, and I was wrestling a bit with that idea when I went into the studio this time. The world seemed to be in a state of such total chaos and there were 1,000 reasons for despair, and I was thinking, “What am I doing?” You know, I’m gonna try and make something beautiful and what’s the point, really? Then I just realised, “Well, actually that is the point.”

Obviously the new album is also coming out at a bit of a difficult time for everyone, and it’s clearly a little different for yourself with a new album coming out the midst of everything. I’m assuming it would definitely be feeling strange to be releasing a record at a time like this?

Yeah it is odd. But look, I had disappeared. For me, it’s less of a challenge than it would be for, you know, if I was a musician in my 20s. During that sort of turmoil and whirlpool of your 20s, the band and touring is not just your family and your income, but it’s it’s your spirit, and and it’s almost like your identity. And if that is gone, I think you’re in big trouble. So there are lots of people who are musicians who are in far deeper trouble than me.

Obviously I would love to have been able to tour. We had a tour booked for well, we were planning a September tour and of course, that got cancelled. Then we had European tours and we had a February and March tour which was great. It had some really fantastic shows and festivals and clubs in it and then that had to be cancelled. We looked up the Department of Foreign Affairs ruling on leaving the country and you can’t. You can’t leave Australia unless it’s for medical emergencies or compassionate [reasons]. Unfortunately, The Apartments touring Europe could be seen as a compassionate cause, but I don’t think Foreign Affairs would be agree.

You’d be bringing emotion to to crowds all around the world. I mean, that’s that’s something that the world needs right now, isn’t it?

That’s right, that’s right. You know, anything [that] could be done safely, I would love to be doing it.

At the same time, though, the music of The Apartments definitely does warrant a listening experience where people can give it their full attention, which hopefully something that people were stuck at home or able to do now. Personally, I feel that the album might even be received a little bit better than it might have been otherwise.

I think that’s a valuable opinion and it’s a perspective I didn’t have. I think that you’re right. When I really get into an album, I actually live in the world of the album, and I just thrash it. You know, I just live with it and it colours my days. I do think there is a kind of a rightness about releasing this album at this time as well, because in some ways I believe in the spirit of the album, which is that we do move in and out of the light.

Right now it’s a hell and you know, it’s like when you’re going through hell, well, keep going. It’s kind of got that spirit to it, and I think that’s one of the hardest things to convince people of when things are not good. It’s to convince them that you know there are times when, this won’t last; this too will pass.

In some ways, I do feel like that’s the spirit of the album. I absolutely did not go into the studio knowing what I was doing. But writing songs, and you’re a writer, so you would know that the act of writing is an act of discovery, and you’re kind of finding out what’s on your mind while you do it. It’s almost like if you knew what you had to say, well, you’d be saying it in some other way. But by the act of writing you are discovering what it is that you want to say.

“When I really get into an album, I actually live in the world of the album, and I just thrash it. You know, I just live with it and it colours my days.”

This album is also the first record from The Apartments since 2015. What was it that made you decide that it was time for new album? Or was there really a decision that was made?

I released No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal in 2015, and I had absolutely no expectations whatsoever. With that album, all I felt was like I had a bunch of songs and either the songs go out, released into the world, or the memory that is within those songs is killed in some ways. And I didn’t want that to happen, so I made that album without knowing. Well, actually, when I had the songs, I didn’t even know if the songs were any good because I hadn’t played them to anyone. So I got Wayne Connolly who produced the album to come around and Wayne’s produced like, 300 albums.

Oh, totally, he’s done some absolutely amazing work over the years.
He’s a legendary Australian producer, but he’s also a friend of mine. I met him in 2012. I was doing a French tour, and someone suggested, “Have you thought about Wayne as a guitarist?”. So I did, I got in touch with him. Anyway, he toured France with me, we got talking on that tour, and he was saying things to me like, “How do you normally record?”. I said, “I normally do, one take or two takes and if it’s no good, that’s it.” He goes, “Have you ever thought about doing things in another way?”. So, we had these sort of interesting conversations about recording.

And then I thought, “OK, well look, I’ve got these songs, he’s got this experience. I’ll just play these songs to him.” I sat down with him and I played six or seven songs. I sat down the piano, I didn’t look up, I wasn’t talking to him, I just played them. And then at the end of that I said, “That’s a bunch of them. [The album will] be like that, that’s the world.” And he goes “How’s October 15th for you, to record?” So suddenly, I was recording the songs, and I needed that kind of validation, because as I say, I had no perspective on it at all. And I thought, “I don’t know if these songs should be released,” and he felt like, yes, they should be released.

So, it was for me, really valuable, but I had really no intentions whatsoever. Then the fact that people wanted the album and that it made such an impact was a great and beautiful surprise to me. We put the album out and then we did a big 2015 tour with the band. Then I did the 2016 tour, then I did a 2018 tour and it was like, “Well, this is all new to me.” You know, just being back into this life, ’cause I’d walked away from it for such a long time. So, at that time I was kind of remaking my life in some ways.

But I had little bits and pieces of songs. I always write bits and pieces of songs, some of them I might even keep. So, I had this idea, “OK, well, here’s some more songs, why don’t I do something with it?” And then 2019 just seemed like, “OK, this is the moment that I’ll stop. We’re not going to tour. I’m going to make a new album,” and then it was a matter of working out how I was going to do it.

First, I was going to do it in France with Antoine [Chaperon] who’s the guitarist, he’s got a studio, he lives two two hours south of Paris. I was going do it there, I was gonna mix it with Victor Van Vugt, who did The Bad Seeds, PJ Harvey, and others. I’d been talking to him and he said, “Yeah, let’s mix it in Berlin,” so that was the plan. But then I ended up working here in downtown Marrickville, which is like ten minutes away from where I live.

I just felt like, “OK, I’m ready to do this,” and I felt like this is the time. I started it in 2019, in the winter of 2019, but I work in an interesting way. I was working with Tim [Kevin], the producer, and really we just did none of the stuff that I you normally do. Like, you’d start at 10am or midday work through till 2am, blah blah blah. Tim had a lot of commitments and he’s got his family at the time, kids at school, all that kind of stuff. So, we would just do a slab of time, maybe four or five hours, and we finished by five or six.

So this was very unusual for me and it was also just one or two days a week. It was never like, you know, bang, bang, bang, bang, “Let’s do the album and it’s got to be finished and mixed.” There’s no hurry for me. I just figured, I’m dealing with this exactly as it’s presented itself to me, this is a wonderful person to work with, and this is the situation so I’ll just go with it.

From a lyrical point of view, how far back do the songs in this new album stretch? Were these tracks composed specifically for the album, or were they some that you had been sitting on for a while?

What was interesting was that I demoed two songs, because as I said, the original plan was to go to France. I’d get Nick [Allum, drummer] over from England, you know Antoine, Natasha [Penot] lives in Lille near the Belgian border. We’ll all get together, do this recording together, and it’ll be like band in a room together.

And then I thought, well, I can’t just sort of ambush them with ten songs they’d never heard before; “Oh my God, what am I gonna do?” So to prep them I thought, “OK, well, I’ll start. I’ll just send them two songs and see how we go with this.” And while I was doing the demos, I did them just around the with a guy that lives around the corner, a guy called Darren Cross. Lovely, lovely man.

He is indeed. He’s also done some absolutely amazing work over the years.

Yeah, he’s a really lovely guy. So I demoed them with him and I actually really loved the process. The demo, it’s a bit like writing. The demo is the time of discovery and you know, this song’s never been heard by anyone before, you’re almost discovering the song while you do it, and I really love the process of the demos.

I finished those and I thought, “I really don’t want to do any more demos. I want to do the album, I want to just start.” So that changed my thinking about how I was going to do it, and then I decided I’m just going work from the ground up. Prior to that, like with No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal, I’d gone in the traditional way that you do these things, which is you lay down your bass and drums and blah, blah, blah, and then everything goes on top.

My feeling was, “OK, I like the invention of of the thing happening in in the moment and being all fresh and new.” When I recorded the first Apartments album on Rough Trade in 1985, The Evening Visits [….And Stays For Years], that was with Victor Van Vugt, we had a song on there called “Mr. Somewhere”, and I just went into that with no idea how it was going to go and everything arrived in the studio. All the ideas arrived in the studio, so I really loved it.

I really love that process and I could do that here with Tim because there was just no pressure. I feel like I would have made a different album if I’d had the whole band there, we had three weeks to do it, and then I had to go to Berlin and mix it. It was this whole aimlessness approach, and I’m a very aimless kind of guy, so in some ways that kind of worked for me.

I would just I’d go into the studio with Tim, and it was pretty much like I did with Wayne, I’d say, “Look, I don’t know if this is any good,” and then I play it for him. The first song that we did, I just went into his studio, which is a very small studio, but it works for him, I just sat there on his couch with an acoustic guitar and I sang “I Don’t Give a Fuck About You anymore” to him and I said, “I don’t even know if this is a song,” and he goes “It’s a fucking song alright!”

I had this vibraphone part in my head and I got onto Clare Moore who plays the vibraphone, and I said, “Do you think you could do this, you know, upload it and blah, blah, blah?” And she goes, “Yeah, of course”. It was just all these splashes of things that were running through my head in the moment. It was more like a painting to me than making this album. They’re just like little touches here and there, but those touches are the song.

The whole album, it was new. It wasn’t like I had a bunch of shit lying around and I had to record it. It was like, “No, I’ve got an opportunity to do things.” Obviously I had ideas about things. I had a big slab of stuff, and I just played it through for about 10 minutes to Tim and I said, “I’m really not sure about this, I’m not sure how to structure it,” and stuff like that. He said, “That’s OK, we’ll get it down. You go away and this is what would happen.”

I’d go away and then I would play back what we had, and then I would say, “OK, that dies, I have to cut that, shift this bit here.” The whole thing would come to me.

For the first time in my life as well, I now have a room to myself at the back of the house that I can write in. When I was writing No Song, No Spell, I wrote the title track while daughter was doing the HSC. I’ve got teenage kids and I’m sitting at the kitchen table, trying to write these songs, and they were always at the at the fridge going, “There’s nothing to eat.” Just this standard parade of distractions, whereas now I have a room at the back of the house, so I would come in here, I’d put on what I’d recorded with Tim and I just sort of pace up and down and you know, like like Billy Wilder you know and just go, “Yeah, this works, this doesn’t work, kill that.” you know. So, it was a very good really interesting process for me.

Also looking at one song particularly, one that struck me quite quite hard was the song “Butterfly Kiss”. Lyrics like “Even the guy I was in 2010 is stranger to me now“, “Every memory I have is a danger to me now“. These are obviously quite poetic lines, but there’s also this deeply personal lean to it, which almost feels as though it could be sort of universally relatable to everyone. I hope I’m not overstepping when I ask, what was it that inspired that song particularly?

There were a couple of things. I had a friend, and this dates back a long time, it was in the late ’80s and it was a conversation I had with him. I’m not going to reveal his identity, but he’s far more, far more successful than I am, so that’s a very big field for you to choose from. Anyway, we had this conversation and he was pointing his finger in my chest and saying, “Yeah, well, you’re like the the grasshopper that sang through the summer. You think that things have just happened for you, you’ve got to work, you’ve got to be more like the ant and prepare yourself for the for the winter that’s coming.”

And it was true, he was working hard, doing that whole write, rehearse, record, release, promote process; rinse and repeat. He just did that all the time – hardest working man in show business in many ways. I often used to think about that because I haven’t led a very determined life, I definitely have drifted a lot. But I used to think about that, the grasshopper in the end and I thought, “Well, maybe the the grasshopper did die in the winter, but the grasshopper had a good summer.”

Right, sort of a more “living while you can” sort of approach?

Yeah, it was a happy, happy summer for the grasshopper. But the funny thing is,, I saw him again like about three or four years ago and I said, “Do you remember this conversation?” He says, “Nope, don’t remember it at all.” So, what was really funny about that, is that here is this thing which has kind of haunted and in some ways fabled my life, and the person who said it, it meant nothing to them, they don’t even remember it.

I do think our lives get shaped by almost inconsequential things like that: just a gesture, a kindness that someone shows you, and sometimes your life will be shaped by that. And a butterfly kiss, you know, just the notion of eyelashes fluttering against cheek or something. Something as light as that can save somebody’s life. Some songs for me also just sort of float around in their own world, and meaning is not so much literal as it is a thing that you bring to it. People have told me they see themselves reflected in my songs and it doesn’t matter how personal my songs are, they see their themselves and their lives reflected in songs.

“Butterfly Kiss” is an example of that. When I think about where I was in 2009, 2010, in some ways I was absolutely at the bottom of nowhere. I remember that guy, but I would like not to be him anymore, and I did stop being that guy.

You mentioned this friend of yours who is more successful than yourself before. One thing I’ve always noticed about The Apartments is that they’ve always felt this undiscovered secret who never sort of quite received the wider recognition that’s deserved, which I feel is something you probably heard quite a lot over the years. Is this sort of nature of being a quiet achiever something that you find sort of enjoyable, compared to the alternative?

I did some some photos with Bleddyn Butcher recently, and Bleddyn’s, you know, he’s been on U2’s private jet, he’s done a book on Nick Cave, he’s done The Fall. He’s just photographed everybody on earth. Anyway he is a very lovely man, very charming man, and very generously he said he wanted to do some photos of me. We finally got it together and I’m working with him and I’m going, “Can you hurry the fuck up?” Like, it’s just just driving me nuts just standing there posing for photos.

And it occurs to both of us that Bleddyn has dealt his entire life with people that are standing there going, “Look at me, look at me!” And that’s not what I do. I’m not that kind of guy. I led an invisible life for such a long time. I was sort of quite at ease in the shadows, and when I do come into the light of some attention, obviously it’s good, but it doesn’t bother me if it disappears. My identity is not tied up with sort of some sort of acclaim. I’ve got different things that matter to me.

“My identity is not tied up with sort of some sort of acclaim. I’ve got different things that matter to me.”

That is sort of what I was saying earlier about how if I was in my 20s and the band was my family and my work and my income and my spiritual life, and crowds, and that acclaim, every night sort of thing. You know, you dive everyday into the pool of adoration and it does change you, chemically. You’re altered.

Do you have any sort tentative plans of when The Apartments might sort of be going on the road again. Or is it sort of too early to tell?

Sean [Bouchard] from Talitres, which is the label that is releasing the album, he’s making plans for October next year because Qantas has announced they won’t be flying up until like July 2021. I’m not a summer in Europe kind of guy anyway. Iit’s too hot. I like the autumn. The blue light of autumn in Europe is just beautiful. I like the falling leaves. If I can tour in the autumn, I would love to, but that is the plan. We definitely will tour, because I would love to play these songs live. It’ll be a process of discovery, because I’ve never played them live, I’ve only played them to the record!

On the subject of live shows, I was speaking to to Pat Monaghan of Rocksteady Records in Melbourne last year and he cited an instore performance you did there as one of the most memorable moments in the stores history. He said, “as the sun went down behind him he went into this absolutely heartbreaking song […] there were people weeping in here and it was just something really amazing to witness.” Is this sort of response a common one at your shows?

People definitely relate to the songs and yes, there is a power there. It’s definitely a powerful connection that gets that gets made. But you know the interesting thing for me about performing is I don’t even remember it. I just disappear. It’s beautiful, there’s this lovely lapse in time and you have no idea what went on in there, and you kind of disappeared for a while, and then you land on the other side and then you’re at the merch desk saying hello.

But I did “Pocketful of Sunshine”, that song in some ways was inspired by a conversation I had after the final show that we did in Paris. A guy came up to me afterwards, I was doing some signings, and he came up, and he said, “I have friends who find your music too dark. I’ve never found it too dark. I’ve always found it inspirational and it helped me get through trouble.” And I just thought, “That’s great.”

In some ways, I have tried to do that with friends of mine that have been been in trouble. I may be the least qualified person on earth to act as cheerleader, however, I have tried to say to friends of mine when they’ve been in trouble, “You just have to get through this, this is going to go.”

I’m never saying, you know, “Get over it,” I’m saying, “Live it, experience it, be absolutely at the bottom of nowhere, but you can get through to the other side.” You just almost have to make people believe that there is such a thing as the other side of the situation. They will reach the other side and “Pocketful” was kind of about that. But it was also someone coming up to me and telling me something that was pretty significant. My songs have a sort of afterlife with people, so you know, that’s a good thing.

The Apartments’ In and Out of The Light is out now via Riley Records