Bringing the Walls trilogy to a conclusion with ‘Urals’, is this the end of the road or just the beginning of a new journey for the Anglo-Italian duo?
“In all honesty, it almost feels like someone else’s record, like something that’s in the past now all the dust has settled.”
Sam Willis, one half of Walls, is nose to the grindstone at his London flat-cum-studio, where he spends much of his working week before gunning down to the Kent coast to spend weekends with his young family. Today we find him juggling his dual responsibilities as jointhead of the Ecstatic label with a new solo project called Primitive World.
“Yeah, it’s another alias,” he confirms. “It’s a minimal, raw take on the early Detroit techno and Chicago house sounds.”
Both Sam and his Walls co-conspirator Alessio Natalizia have quite a penchant for keeping us on our toes with their musical noms-de-plume.
“Alessio’s been having great success with his Not Waving project,” says Sam. “He’s just finishing up a new record [the follow-up to last year’s ‘Intercepts’, made with Ghost Box stalwart Pye Corner Audio], which sounds amazing and is a real departure from the analogue synth stuff he’s done to date.”
And that, of course, comes on top of Alessio’s ongoing recording work as Banjo Or Freakout, his guise for lovely, and very much on-the-button, shoegazey dreampop.
But back to the business in hand. We’re here to talk about Walls’ third and final long-player, ‘Urals’, which closes a three album cycle that began with their self-titled debut in 2010 and continued in 2011 with ‘Coracle’.
The accumulation of five years of studio exploration, ‘Urals’ sees Walls invert their signature sound into a new, more intense dimension, marrying futuristic, cinematic vistas with coruscating synth lines, acid squelchiness, spiralling guitar figures and howling distortion. Informed by the creation and curation of their Ecstatic Recordings imprint as well as their own individual projects, ‘Urals’ is a long way from the template they set out half a decade ago.
Their Walls partnership first formed when Alessio contacted Sam (working under yet another alias, Allez Allez) to remix one of his Banjo Or Freakout tracks.
“It felt like an easy, natural process,” says Sam. “And the relationship developed from there. We work together really easily in the studio. Our tastes are pretty compatible – neither of us usually comes up with something that the other one hates.
“But I think the key thing is that we both offer something different: Alessio comes from punk, krautrock and psychedelia, and has played guitar since he was really young, whereas I have much more of an electronically-focused background. Bringing our different viewpoints together definitely seems to work.
“In terms of our label, our mutual instincts over things like concepts, designs and layouts, and an overall sense of what fits, also feels natural. And that generally means we can both do what we want and know that it’ll work.”
It’s a formula you’ll recognise if, like us, you’ve been increasingly intrigued by the singularly immersive electronic patterns these two pioneers have been weaving over the past few years. The pair have got much that’s recognisable for sure – admirers of Boards Of Canada, Aphex Twin, Caribou and James Holden will definitely want in, if they’re not in already.
Moments of serene beauty, thumping ecstasy and long, hypnotic rhythmic cycles punctuate all three Walls albums, along with old-fashioned, hands-on musicianship and instinctive experimentalism. But then there’s also an abstract neutrality or ambivalence that brings to mind the more exploratory work of Roedelius or Eno.
‘Urals’ is a very different piece of work to Walls’ previous album, ‘Coracle’, which carries an overriding sense of optimism. It’s hard not to conclude that Sam and Alessio really did have to get their heads down and push themselves to look for the required musical progression as the trilogy advanced.
“If I try to be objective about it, we were different people when we made the first record and have developed a lot throughout, so hopefully each album stands up as a distinct work,” Sam explains. “You could describe them as sonic postcards from where we were musically at that time.
“Walls has definitely been about exploring quite intense emotions, right across the spectrum. There’s joy and euphoria and psychedelic intensity, as well as melancholy, particularly on ‘Urals’. There was an intentional lightness and naivety on the first two albums that we had no inclination to revisit this time around. Even ‘Radiance’, the final track, distorts and goes off a bit mental at the end, around what is initially quite a sweet melody.”
How does it feel now the whole thing is finished?
“Walls was always going to be kind of malleable as a project. We never really knew how far we could take it at first, but when we got the atmosphere and the mood that we were aiming to achieve – all the sounds and textures – when that felt right, we knew it was done. We never had a roadmap for this, but we always knew it would make a stronger artistic statement if we were to commit to ‘Urals’ being the final record and then move on to new things.
“We’d explored everything we felt was legitimate as Walls, so there was a lovely sense of finality to things when we finished and handed everything over to [Spacemen 3’s] Sonic Boom to master.”
Like those actors who never watch the films they’ve made, the pleasure’s always in the work and its process for Sam and Alessio. Looking at this bold project in its entirety, it becomes apparent that the Walls duo are not only creatively ambitious, but restless too. There’s a sumptuous variety in the soundscapes they conjure across their triumvirate of albums, though in the first two records in particular it comes with an underlying textural warmth that perhaps provides some kind of link.
So as artists then, there must have been a sense of liberation from the obligation, in the conventional band sense, to self-perpetuate? The idea that they weren’t just a band that needed a record deal, that had to continue making albums in order to justify a tour, and all that?
“Absolutely,” says Sam. “And that was a real motivation for us too. First and foremost, this was never about money, only the exploration of our joint creative process. Listening back to all three albums now, our debut was the first flush of the Walls sound, where we were discovering what we wanted to do, but which also set the template and parameters for what people might expect. Although within that we’ve definitely done our best to experiment.
“‘Coracle’ felt like a fuller realisation of the first record, but also gave us something of a departure point to lead into the final one. Working on ‘Urals’ had the feel of something coming to its natural conclusion, with quite a different sound and feel – both musically and mood-wise – to the first album.”
Putting yourself in your listener’s shoes, do you think that there’ll be a sense of satisfaction out there that you’ve delivered on your “contract” over the three albums to take the Walls thing as far as it could go?
“Well, I reckon so, and I’m sure Alessio would say the same. Hopefully the music sounds pretty unique in terms of its variety and palette. Every Walls track by definition sounds quite different, in that each one is pretty much its own ‘sound world’. We’ve never really stuck to a formula as such, just making it up as we go along and following our instincts. We probably made more work for ourselves doing it that way, and perhaps confused the listener at times, but that’s just the way it had to be!”
And there’s no turning back now? No scope for remixing or adapting the Walls sound for any individual projects?
“Absolutely not! We felt this very strong sense of reaching the point where, if we were really honest with each other and looked into the future, there was a danger that we’d start repeating ourselves. So no – really.”
Walls had found a winning formula over their three albums, but what was it about ‘Urals’ that made them decide to call it a day?
“It’s not that Alessio and I will never work together on music again, it’s just that recording as Walls, it feels like everything has been said that needs to be. Distance was definitely a part of it too, with me living outside London and Alessio still being there. When we first started the project, he lived two minutes walk from my place, so it made things much, much easier.
“But it’s mainly to do with the passage of time. Our tastes, habits and lives have changed substantially from where we were at the beginning of Walls, so it’s only natural that this thing should ultimately drift a bit and then come to an end. In our minds, it’s much healthier to call time on it ourselves rather than outstay our welcome.”
And there we finish it, so Sam Willis can get back on with the work he was doing on his new Primitive World project. Then after lunch, maybe he’ll find time to do a bit more on Abul Mogard’s forthcoming album and also make sure everything’s in place ready for the imminent Daniele Ciulini reissue. And we doubt he’d want it any other way.
Walls’ record label has gone from strength to strength since their first fruit in 2013
With releases from kindred spirits such as Pye Corner Audio, Axel Wilner (aka The Field), Gavin Russom and L/F/D/M, as well as their own individual explorations – Alessio’s caustic, minimal synth workouts as Not Waving and Sam’s lurid, ritualistic techno as Primitive World – Ecstatic don’t just press up a record and list the tracks. The thinking behind each release is that everything they put out will attract like-minded people who recognise and appreciate the honesty of their efforts.
Ecstatic is an independent label that has gained a reputation for adding value to each and every one of their releases. If you were lucky enough to bag one of the long sold-out limited edition copies of Not Waving & Pye Corner Audio’s ‘Intercepts’, you’ll know exactly what we mean. It’s an intriguingly cerebral piece of dense electronica built around the murky theme of espionage. Quite the musical treat, it also came lovingly packaged in battleship-grey vinyl with an excellent quality sleeve and liner notes.
‘Urals’ is out on Ecstatic