Music

Walt Disco: 'Politicians would rather talk about trans people than things affecting everyone'

The latest group in the grand tradition of Scottish outsider pop on their new album, The Warping

Walt Disco. Credit: Izzy Leach

Walt Disco. Image: Izzy Leach

A great band can offer a gateway into a new, even more vivid world. That’s definitely the case with Walt Disco, a Glasgow glam-pop collective whose music contains arty shards of Bowie, Bolan and Queen, plus sinewy grooves inspired by Scottish post-punk pioneers Orange Juice and The Associates.

The fast-rising five-piece – Lewis Carmichael (guitar), Charlie Lock (bass), Jack Martin (drums), Finlay McCarthy (synths) and Jocelyn Si (vocals) – take pride in being outsiders. But they’re also a warm and welcoming proposition. In the video for You Make Me Feel So Dumb, a funky highlight from their new album The Warping, they liven up a boring corporate drinks party with their signature brand of stylish but unselfconscious queerness.

Singer Jocelyn Si started writing The Warping, the band’s follow-up to 2022 debut The Unlearning, while self-isolating with Covid in September 2021. “I got it after going to the first club night for, like, a year-and-a-half,” they recall with a playful eye roll. “It was a big queer night with loads of dancing and sweating and snogging, and then everyone got Covid. We called it the queer variant!”

Though pandemic angst informs The Warping, which was released earlier this month, it doesn’t define the album. “We did most of the writing at a time where we were feeling and fearing change in our lives a little bit,” says drummer Jack Martin, who also contributes to the band’s lyrics. Si points out that because they and Martin weren’t in romantic relationships at the time, they were able to tap into more unusual topics that “avoided cliché”.

The result is a confident but vulnerable album that explores friendship and family ties, Si’s experience of gender dysphoria as a trans woman, and the masculine underpinnings of climate change. From the shimmering, sea shanty-esque The Captain to the raucously horny Come Undone, it’s exhilarating and life-affirming in equal measure.

Speaking over Zoom from a London hotel room, where Walt Disco are preparing for a busy few days of gigging and inking contracts, Si and Martin talk candidly about the challenges of being an independent band in 2024. Though they’ve opened for Primal Scream, Duran Duran and OMD, Walt Disco are still, at this point, mining musical gold from a base metal budget.

Is the song The Captain your comment on climate change?

JS: Yeah, but it kind of ties into the rest of the album exploring things like dysphoria, femininity and embracing masculinity in ways that I feel comfortable with. The Captain is set on a fictional boat where the captain rules with an iron fist – he has no kindness or femininity. And that’s what I believe is destroying the world. Greed and masculinity and the sort of leadership that is very uncaring is what’s driving the corporations to pollute the world.

JM: A lot of the album is quite personal, but that song kind of addresses a global issue too.

Which songs are the most personal?

JM: Probably Pearl for me. I think I managed to articulate a lot of loneliness and, like, this kind of yearning I was feeling at that time. Like, I wanted comfort and normality, but I wasn’t envisioning any normality for the foreseeable future.

JS: For me, The Warping. I think I managed to put into words the way I experience gender dysphoria and jealousy and all that. And I think I got it right.

Walt Disco. Image: Izzy Leach

Is it important for you to talk about gender dysphoria and the trans experience?

JS: Massively important. I started talking about it in my songs way before I started talking to anyone I knew about it. This band has definitely helped me figure out who I am and what I need. And with each record, I figure out more. The first album was [exploring] a juvenile sort of trans experience: explaining I  was really sad about it, but trying to be motivated to figure stuff out. This album is kind of diving into the intricacies of my feelings towards it and who it affects. And then our next record – which we’ve already written a lot of – is dealing with the practicality of it. Like, you know how you feel now; what are you going to do to feel better?

It must be even harder to figure this stuff out at a time when conservative voices – and the Conservative party – are using trans issues as a political football.

JS: When we started out in 2018 and 2019, I don’t remember that rhetoric being around. Also, I was very much in this bubble of people being queer and trans and just very accepting. So there were times when I was talking about it where I sort of thought: “What’s the point?” But since then, it’s become a huge focal point in the news, so it’s felt important not to shy away from it. We have young queer fans but also older fans from supporting OMD and Duran Duran, so we can reach people who aren’t hateful but maybe don’t understand it completely. It’s scary talking about it a lot, but it feels like the right thing to do.

Why do you think this incredibly damaging rhetoric has sprung up?

JS: I think because of the way social media works, it encourages populism and it became a popular issue for politicians to speak about. Politicians kind of work in the same way that tabloids do – they need taglines. They speak about things that affect hardly anyone while they don’t speak about things that affect everyone. That’s why they talk about things like small boats and trans people, which is hardly anyone in the grand scheme of things. They focus on that because it gets headlines and it’s easier to talk about because it doesn’t affect anyone, really. And that’s true of both major parties in our country; they’re both populist in their own way now.

Do you think of Walt Disco as a ‘queer band’?

JS: I don’t think that’s how we describe ourselves. But over half the members are queer – and I’m the principal lyric writer and I’m a trans person. So when we get labelled as that because of people listening to our songs about being queer, I’m like, “Fair enough.” But I think we mainly feel like a very creative band who aren’t scared to make different choices.

On a semi-related note, how does being Scottish inform your creativity?

JM: It maybe adds slightly to the sentiment of being on the fringe [and] being an outcast in some way because we’re so distant from the epicentre of the music industry. You know, a lot of people from other parts of Britain have never even been to Scotland and don’t really know what it’s like or how we feel about the rest of Britain. Also, Scottish music has always been pushing the envelope – whether it’s The Associates, The Blue Nile or Cocteau Twins – and that’s a very inspirational heritage to pull from.

JS: I also feel like being in Scotland means we’ve had more development time. We get to develop while making albums instead of developing while playing, like, a million gigs around London trying to get an opportunity to play in front of the right person who can maybe change your career.

JM: We’d be getting beaten down from all angles in London because we’d have to get full-time jobs. Whereas [in Scotland] we’ve sort of been able to get by doing part-time jobs that we can leave whenever we go on tour.

What is the hardest part of keeping Walt Disco going financially?

JM: It’s basically everything. Even in our position where we’re signed to an independent label, the cost of touring and playing one-off shows far afield is a huge obstacle. Especially post-Brexit, the cost of touring Europe makes it harder than it’s ever been.

JS: We just did a month-and-a-half tour of the UK and Europe with OMD that would have made a £30,000 loss if we hadn’t got funding from MEGS (Music Export Growth Scheme) and the PRS Foundation. Thanks to that funding, we just about managed to break even. And when we were on that tour, we got offered the opportunity to go to America with OMD later this year. So now it’s like, “How do we raise another £30,000 so we can do the America tour and keep growing our fanbase?”

JM:
Dealing with personal financial struggles is another challenge. If you’re in a medium-sized band – where you’re very busy, because the more work you put in it, the more you’ll get back hopefully – you just don’t have time for a full-time job. But at the same time, you’re travelling a lot on your own dime. Sometimes it’s hard to stay motivated against that kind of struggle.

So many musicians rely on corporate gigs and having their songs synced on adverts to survive, but it’s almost seen as taboo to talk about it.

JS: We’re the same. I think we’re going to sign a publishing deal today, which is obviously gonna help with a wee cash injection. They’re gonna try and get us an advert, and we recently got a Netflix sync, which is cool. And this weekend, we’re playing a corporate gig, but I think we need to change the rhetoric around doing that.

JM: It’s so rare to get paid for music in any capacity, so it’s great when you get offered a gig that’s actually profitable. People always say, “Oh, you should play weddings”, but our [version of] weddings is corporate gigs. And we still get to play our own tunes!

The Warping by Walt Disco is out now via Lucky Number.

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