Since he released a self-titled debut EP on Dirtybird back in 2009, Walker has been in the background. He's done hardly any interviews, recorded just a handful of mixes and released his records with little fanfare. This didn't really matter to begin with. Walker said plenty with the music on his early EPs, namely Batty Knee Dance, Batak Groove and Chazm / Footsteppin', a bass-heavy and stylistically diverse run of tracks that got plenty of attention. Initially "Battle For Middle For You," which was released through PMR, simply felt like a nice continuation of his early work. But then, seemingly overnight, it caught fire. Everyone from mainstream radio jocks like Pete Tong through to footwork artists like DJ Rashad were playing it, and it eventually wound up at #3 on RA's top tracks of 2011 list. The hype surrounding Walker was gathering momentum, but it was just a trifle compared to what came next.
"Yeah, it was mad," Walker told me about "Au Seve," his biggest track. Like most hits, it was very simple. He sampled a vocal from The Real Thing's "You To Me Are Everything (Decade Remix)," laid it over some drums and wrote a melody that serves both the lead and bass—the magic ingredient is it's impossibly catchy. (Seven-and-a-half-million-YouTube-views catchy.) "Au Seve" put even more attention on Walker, but no one seemed sure what to make of him. Was he an underground producer who had accidentally scored some hits? Had he wanted crossover success all along? Things weren't helped when he casually uploaded a track to SoundCloud called "Duccy." In another situation, "Duccy" might have been seen as a functional if unremarkable house number, but coming after "Au Seve," with expectations high and the narrative surrounding Walker being written in his absence, people went on the attack, accusing him, among other things, of not trying hard enough.
According to Walker, the truth behind his intentions was fairly straightforward. Yes, he started out as a house producer with ties to the UK bass community, but as early as 2012 he was producing for Jessie Ware, a fellow PMR artist who went on to be an enormous pop star in the UK. (See the fantastic "110%," which was later renamed "If You're Never Gonna Move.") Walker had always loved and wanted to be involved with mainstream music as much as club music, but this was never properly communicated—and even if it was, he knew he was walking a very tricky line. The other side of this coin was Broadwalk. Walker has indulged in his more esoteric tastes by releasing music from him and Kowton, Funkineven and Shanti Celeste, artists whose music has accessible traits but remains firmly in the underground.
Knockin' Boots is Walker's attempt to merge his worlds, and finally reveal his hand. The crossover aspects of his music are emphasised and celebrated, while every detail of the record and its release have been carefully shaped to reflect his personality. Knockin' Boots is certainly the most overtly "pop" record he's written. It reached #25 in the UK album charts and it features plenty of guest vocalists and traditional song structures, but house music remains at its core. (He cites albums like Daft Punk's Homework as inspiration, which is easy to hear in Knockin' Boots.) Walker said that embracing what he sees as his true artistic identity has been a long and difficult process, but it's left him feeling more happy and confident than ever.
When did you leave Bristol?
I left about three years ago now.
Why did you leave?
Whilst I was learning my thing, or unwittingly learning my thing, basically just being really anti-social and working on music, all my mates were going to uni and stuff. But I hadn't really found my thing yet. So everyone had left Bristol and I'd had a band and the band members left when I was about 17, 18, to go to uni on the other ends of the country—so I'd never really left home. I'd been living with my parents for 23 years and I was like, "Man, I've got to get out of here." Not even that, it was more just like I don't know anything else and the whole world is open to me. I can live wherever I want, doing what I do.
I guess at that point you'd already got the wheels of your career in motion?
Yeah, I'd released "Battle For Middle You" and "Au Seve," and I was flying a lot. People joke around and say, "Oh is it because you wanted to be closer to Heathrow?" or something, but it wasn't that at all. It was more just living somewhere for 23 years and wanting to get out.
The last time I interviewed you was when we were doing the Real Scenes film. "Battle For Middle You" was out and it was popular, and it ended up having a very long shelf life. It had the initial wave and then—
—kept gaining momentum.
Why was that?
I think just the range of people playing it. Joy Orbison was playing it way before it got released because I think I sent it to him first. There were people from all different scenes playing it. Guys who I wouldn't really think of being connected—like Pete [Joy Orbison], the Wolf + Lamb guys, they played it at Movement. There's a video of that going off. Then you'd have grime guys playing it at 140 BPM, or DJ Rashad playing it at 160.
He was pitching it up to 160?
He did a remix of it. At the time I was like, "What?" Then when I saw him play at Pinch's night in Bristol, and he played it out, I was like, "Man, alright sick, that's pretty cool actually." And Kode9 was playing it, but then you had more commercial guys playing it as well. It was similar with "Au Seve": everyone played it... to death [laughs].
What were the most positive things to come out of writing "Battle For Middle You" and what were the most negative?
I think the positives are that it felt like me finding my sound. Definitely that EP was loads of stuff finally coming together. Because you know how it was at that time, there were like a million places to draw from—too many to draw from. It was such an open book.
The post-dubstep thing where everything was being thrown into the mix. Do you feel like people were struggling a little bit under the weight of choices?
No, not really. I can only speak for the people that I know, my peers like the Hessle Audio guys, Pete, Mosca, Deadboy. We were all having a great time because it was just this open playing field. Literally sending each other beats over AIM every week. It really was like we were doing something new, like unchartered territory, if you will.
So we're talking about the time around your first release?
Yeah, and up to "Battle For Middle You." It was just mad, really. I've only realised recently that I've always denied, for some reason, any Bristol sound having any effect on me. I was just like, "No, I just make US-style house." So I've always been trying to rebel against everything that was going on at that time. It was a funny scene, where it was very dude-heavy, all the dubstep stuff.
It wasn't until Joker that I really got what was going on. That was my route into it all. Then I kind of backtracked. It was like, "This Peverelist, Punch Drunk stuff is pretty sick, I'm into that." What I'm trying to say is, it was a time where everyone was playing dubstep and to get any gigs I had to adhere to that. It would always be a one-hour set. I would have to start at 140 BPM, and in half an hour bring it down to 115, so I could play Motor City Drum Ensemble, and then bring it back up for the next guy. But all that stuff in between, I was making music for that, so that I could bring it down to that. I think a lot of other people were doing that as well. I think that's how we made something new. But I wasn't really very aware of that at the time.
Bristol did end up having a significant effect?
A massive effect.
It sounds like it's created your signature, in a way.
I've always felt detached from it. I'm not from the diverse Bristol—the amazing, rich history of Bristol. I'm from South Bristol, where it's predominantly a white, working class area. I think probably my brother felt that as well. I think that's why we were getting into funky house imports from America, because of that: a sense of detachment. We weren't into drum & bass, really. We'd always been listening to stuff from overseas. My brother, my eldest brother, pulled me into his bedroom to listen to Ice Cube when I was, like, six. It kind of all progressed from there.
We should probably talk about "Au Seve." You'd had an enormous hit with "Battle For Middle You" and then this just eclipsed it, in a way. Was it one of those ones where you felt like you had something when you finished?
Yeah, so I'd had the loop for ages. I've always had this thing where, when you're learning to produce, you think of the tracks that are big, or producers that you're really into, and you think, "How did they make that? It must be some really complicated process." I think a young me would be so depressed to learn how you make those tracks. It seems so fucking simple, but all the tracks I loved growing up, I realise now, it was just people using the most minimal gear to make the biggest sound. "Au Seve" is literally just a cheap drum machine and a DX-100, which cost me about 90 quid. It's a xylophone preset that I pitched up for the lead, and pitched down for the bass. I sampled someone saying, "Oh Baby," off of Spotify and that's literally it.
I remember I was about to play Trouw with Addison Groove and Martyn, and I played it to Tony, Addison Groove, in the lobby, when it was an 8-bar loop, and he was like, "You should just flesh it out now and then play it in the club." So in about an hour I went back to my room, made a rough arrangement, came back down, went to the club, played it, and I just kind of knew. I exchanged a look with Tony like, "Fuck, this is gonna do something."
I think it's had seven-and-a-half million YouTube views. Did you quite quickly reach a state of disbelief over how much it was catching on?
Yeah, it was mad. It did this thing, the same with "Battle For Middle You," where it started getting played by a select few, then it started reaching different people. Grime guys started doing bars over it, which was cool. Then Loefah was playing it, all the UK people were playing it, and some European people were playing it and then it exploded to getting in the charts and stuff. It was mad.
Were you were experiencing those classic bitter-sweet symptoms of having a massive hit?
Yeah, I don't know, really. It's just that thing of a transitioning period, you know? It was funny because I'd never really seen it as two different worlds, because for as long as I'd been making the underground stuff I'd been making pop tunes with Jessie Ware. But I was always weary of keeping those two worlds a little... just never wanting to mix. So I think when me and Jessie started working together, people just assumed, "Ah, well you'll make a pop house thing." And it was like, "This is my first chance with a pop star," and I'd been listening to Michael and Janet Jackson and Prince my whole life. So it was like, "This is my chance to do that." I just wanted to do something different, like make some R&B and stuff. I've always been involved in both worlds, but that was a moment for those two worlds to come together, really.
At the end of the day, it came out on my own independent label, and it's set me up to do a lot of stuff I always wanted to do. It's been really great from that sense, but the other side of the coin is that sometimes it's difficult for me not to play it in sets.
That must be a head-scratcher. In playing it you'll of course make a lot of people happy, but at the same time you're probably sick of hearing it.
Well yeah, I don't know. It's actually still fun to watch people lose their shit. It's fun now, it was more when it was in that period of getting big, that's when I struggled with it. That's when I was like, "Uh, do I really want to play it?" It makes sense more to me now because I know when to play it. I know that if I'm playing to a huge festival people want to hear it, and it just seems fair to do that and it doesn't ruin my night by playing it, you know?
There was something you said last year about the crazy offers you received following "Au Seve." Were any of them tempting?
It's always tempting, you know? I'm not from a money background. I've never struggled, never wanted for anything, but it definitely is me supporting me, at the end of the day. That makes it very tempting. There's a thing, especially in the UK, where people are very unforgiving if someone does give in to that temptation, and try and make money even if they don't really have much choice. People come down on them hard.
Have you always recognised that in straddling the underground and mainstream you were taking on a difficult position?
I've always known. There have been times when we're talking about it in terms of, "You know this is a hard path?" but at the end of the day, it's always happened organically. It doesn't come from this sinister place. I genuinely can't release something unless I feel like I'm doing something new, and whether it falls into the underground or overground I've just had to stop thinking about it because it will drive me mad.
So with the album it's definitely just me saying, "Fuck it, I will make what I will make and let's just see what happens." I've always loved pop music, and I've always loved dance music, and being a fan of both since I was a kid has made me realise that the two do not sit well together, necessarily, but there are a few select people who can make that work.
You look at my career and there have been serious ups and downs because of that, but ultimately I feel like I'm in a place where, right now, I'm working with people who I'm a big fan of, and they're super talented. I can go and play shows with FunkinEven, Shanti Celeste, and we'll smash it. But then, I don't know, I can grab the guitar and go on stage with Jessie. I don't mind being in the middle. That's fine. I think it's becoming my identity now.
Has it been difficult not to be swept away by the success? Or swallowed up by the major label side of the industry?
The hardest thing is the trajectory, from putting stuff out on MySpace and posting shit on Grime Forum in the UK funky section and that getting recognised…then Claude Von Stroke picking me up for his Dirtybird label… to Pete playing "Battle For Middle You" to thousands and thousands of people at Glastonbury, then to "Au Seve" being on the radio. The hardest thing is that trajectory, when it's up, up, up. When "Au Seve" was in full swing, then when I released "Duccy"… What was weird about that was when things are going up that high the pressure builds and builds and builds. I wasn't sleeping, I wasn't eating right, you know? I was having a really bad time. Then "Duccy" happened and that night, and ever since, I've never struggled to sleep. How weird is that?
So wait, when you put that out—
—when I put "Duccy" out, it got slammed.
And as a direct result of that…
It was this deflating feeling. Really intense, but yeah, really fucked up. It sorted me out. Ever since that I've never struggled to sleep, or struggled with anything. I think it was needed. It was like a slap in the face.
I know it was cathartic in a way but it must have been tough to get a response like that.
You can't even imagine.
Was it a case of the new audience you'd picked up through "Au Seve" rejecting it?
No. To be honest, it's not that at all. What hurt about that wasn't people saying, "Oh this isn't 'Au Seve,'" it was my old fans, people who were into "Battle For Middle You," rejecting it and slamming it as well. This was a tune that Ben UFO had been playing out, I'd been playing out, and everywhere it was getting the best reaction. So what sucked about that was those people slamming it.
The problem was there was no context attributed to it, so I think that's why people didn't know what to make of it. Because it just seemed like, for me, in my head, such a simple thing. It was this track I'd been playing out that had been going well. I'm just gonna stick it on SoundCloud. And all I said was, "Here's a new one," not, "Here's the brand new single!" bam, huge marketing campaign. It was just hard. I couldn't really process it, to be honest.
Let's talk about the album. Tell me about the process and how long it's been in gestation.
I guess three and a half years. It actually started in Bristol, then moved it to London—White City, had the studio there, then moved to Red Bull Studios, they gave me a spot in London. Then at the end of last year, right before Christmas, I was getting to a point where I was like, "Man, I've gotta finish this off." It all came together in one week, really.
Were you just chipping away that whole time then?
Building loads of stuff, yeah.
I assume with your pop side, writing an album was always something that was going to happen sooner or later.
Absolutely, it was always something I've wanted to do. It's what all my favourite people have done. You know, what "Duccy" taught me is that it's gonna be difficult for me to say what I say with one piece of music. So to put up one song, without any context, it taught me that that can cause confusion. An album seemed necessary to paint the picture that I want to paint, ultimately.
The last few years have been so intense. I feel like this is the most confident I've ever been in my music. I feel like that comes through in the album a little bit. It all goes back to growing up and I feel like now is the time. I feel like I couldn't have done this album, I couldn't have done the press and the shows. I would have cracked if I tried to do this, but it's through going through shit like "Duccy," even with the heights of "Au Seve," going through all that stuff has kind of shaped me, and having people around me to keep me on the right path.
In broad terms how would you describe the approach you went for with the album?
Well, it started out as a backlash to the whole deep house thing that was going on in the UK, that is still, surprisingly, going on in the UK. I was making loads of really gritty stuff and I made a bunch of that. And then it was like, "You can't have 12 tracks of..." It took a long time because, well, there were two points where I could have released an album, and now I'm glad I didn't, because you see all the time, when someone makes a dance music album and it's 12 beats, it's not an album. Well, in my head it's not an album.
I went back to looking at stuff I love. For me a supreme example is Daft Punk's Homework, an album that goes into both worlds and puts down its own stamp. You know there's personality, something innovative. I don't know, Michael Jackson albums. What makes them great albums is diversity, which is a hard thing to cram into a dance music album, especially if it's just one thing. Luckily with house music there's such a sense of diversity within it that there is the scope to make an album out of it.
In a practical sense, how did you approach that? Was it a case of, "I'm going to work with this range of vocalists, the tempo's going to be this way, the mood's going to be this way…"?
Nothing like that, really. It was just the result of jamming stuff out for three and a half years, and really picking what goes right together, and just thinking, "What do I want to hear on the album, and how is it going to work?" There are tracks like "Let Me Be Your Weakness"—that's the pop song I've always wanted to make, that's the MJ track I've always wanted to do. It's probably the one that I'm most happy with on the album.
"She Ain't" is just a friend I met through Seven Davis Jr., it's his best mate in LA. She was just singing on this song, drunk with her mates, so it was just like, [sings] "She ain't fucking around, she ain't fucking around, you better work bitch." She was just singing that in the car driving us around LA and I was like, "That's sick, I want that." I just put it on a hard, chopped-up disco loop. I'm happy that it's all happened organically and I've been able to put it out the way I put it out.
Did the relationships with all of the vocalists come about in a similar way?
Yeah, just people like J'Danna, I found. She did something with Gilles Peterson and I got in touch via him, so this was a few years ago. I saw her perform for a Worldwide event for him, she covered Gil Scott-Heron and I was like, "Wow." Then I found out that she was 16 and I couldn't believe that. I think of what I was doing when I was 16, the maturity, and I'm still not there.
It's been all about building relationships, with her and with Seven Davis Jr. The only exception is Okmalumkoolkat. I heard him on the last LV album on Hyperdub and I was like, "I've gotta work with that dude," because it goes back to the early percussive house I was doing.
What has it been like in terms of reactions to the record?
It's been amazing. If there's one thing I've come to appreciate, it's people saying nice things about your music. I don't care about anyone who says they don't give a fuck about what people say—they ain't telling the truth. When people say nice things about your music and you're doing stuff you love, it's the best feeling in the world. It's filled me with confidence.
Is this all going to mean stepping out a little bit? We were talking about this idea of gradually revealing more of yourself. Have you figured out a way you can do that and have it sit comfortably with you?
Yeah, I don't know what's going to happen. I'll probably disappear for a bit [laughs]. No, the thing is, with the media, doing interviews, people have said in the past, "Oh he's introverted and he doesn't do interviews," but it was just because I was a kid and I didn't have anything to say. Now I feel like I've been through a lot and I actually have shit to say.