As Walt Disco touch down in Austin, Texas for their debut run of shows at SXSW, the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, is deep into a campaign to get a bill passed declaring that medical support for transgender youth be classed as ‘child abuse’.
A proudly queer band with a core ethos of self-acceptance, the Glaswegian sextet found themselves spending some of their first hours in the city not chomping down on tacos or supping margaritas as is the norm, but attending a protest, flanked by armoured vehicles and rebutted by angry, staunchly conservative counter-protesters. “We were obviously scared because we know what America can be like, but no one wavered, they were being solid as fuck. There were armoured cars but everyone stayed. It was very inspirational,” vocalist James Potter recalls. “There is that conservative side that we knew about, but we were also surrounded by all these amazing queer people. We got lost on the way and this 70-year-old gay cowboy just started explaining what’s happening and pointed us towards the protest.” “He came over, gave us the quest and went on his way…” nods drummer Jack Martin, sagely.
There’s an increasing sense with Walt Disco - completed by guitarists Finlay McCarthy and Lewis Carmichael, bassist Charlie Lock and keyboard player Dave Morgan - that wherever they go, they’ll find and broaden their tribe. Before we meet today, the band played a chaotic house party that was marketed as a lesbian wedding so as not to get shut down by police (“When we got told that, we were jumping for joy,” says Jack, pink cowboy hat perched jauntily atop his head). Even at the location for today’s shoot - the none-more-Texas Little Longhorn Saloon - an initial selection of raised eyebrows from the locals soon turns into a series of requests for selfies.
“They might have never met someone like me or us, but if you’re open to getting to know someone different from yourself then you’re gonna make a lot of friends,” says James. “I want to meet people and share my friends with them,” grins Finlay. “I mean, I never thought I’d be in a saloon in Texas, with neon blue cowboy boots on, holding chickens. James got shat on by a chicken. Lewis got shat on the other night before a gig too.”
By what, we ask? “Whatever a Texan pigeon is?” James chuckles. “A hawk? It was the eagle from the bank notes!”
“Politics isn’t about changing the biggest thing in the world straight away; tiny changes in attitudes create bigger shockwaves.”
— Finlay McCarthy
They might be prone to a little aviary-based exaggeration, but there’s a core feeling of playfulness, unity and fun to everything that Walt Disco do. Blessed with the sort of cheekbones that have already scored James modelling work with Celine and always, collectively, dressed better than 98% of people in the room, when the band first arrived they were quickly compared to the likes of HMLTD: art school types who prioritised aesthetic. The reality, however, is a world away from any sort of posturing. “We find that sometimes people have an expectation or an assumption of what we’re about, but we’re a band for everyone,” Jack asserts. “I believed in Walt Disco long before I joined the band, and I still have to pinch myself sometimes - finding that kinship is more than I could have imagined.”
There’s a sense of genuine love - for each other, for their band, for the world they’re trying to help build - when they speak that could warm the coldest hearts. “It’s so possible to hide behind something on stage and put on an act, but I think the hardest thing is to really be yourself,” Finlay continues. And it’s this attitude that permeates throughout their just-released debut ‘Unlearning’: a truly eclectic trip through industrial thunks and hyper-pop bleeps, operatic trills and melodramatic swoops that should sound like a brain-boggling cacophony but is somehow strangely beautiful.
Recorded throughout lockdown predominantly in Dave’s bedroom, the endless hours afforded to the band meant they could indulge in every experimental whim and flight of fancy that came their way. Today, they gleefully recall times spent attempting to record the exact metallic clank of a particularly pleasing fire door, and creating the scattershot electronics on ‘Those Kept Close’ that they describe as “the sound of R2D2 crying”. “There’s bits even when we play it live where I’m like, my god! That robot! Someone help them!” exclaims James. Whether leaning into icy ‘80s pop on ‘Selfish Lover’, swooning through the heart-wrenching croon of ‘Be An Actor’ or coming on all Bugsy Malone on ‘How Cool Are You?’ (“That’s one of me and Jack’s favourite films of all time!” the vocalist cries gleefully when we suggest the comparison. “Even now when I was deciding on a haircut I wanted Tallulah’s hair…”), you never really know what’s going to come next.
“If you’re open to getting to know someone different from yourself then you’re gonna make a lot of friends.”
— James Potter
What connects the mad patchwork of dots together, however, is the sense of genuine sincerity behind it all. Walt Disco aren’t throwing shit at the wall just to see what sticks; ‘Unlearning’ is the giddy result of genuine freedom of expression, and the fun you can have when you allow yourself to play with all the toys. In a previous interview, James spoke of opening track ‘Weightless’ as an ode to “gender euphoria”: the joyful antithesis of the dysphoria more commonly spoken about in queer headlines. “For trans and non-binary people, there’s a lot of bad news, and even in art and film people lean towards telling the tragic stories,” James explains, “but there’s so much happiness in it - in being able to express yourself to the world so you CAN be happy.” “Oh please don’t cry / It’s never too late to start,” goes its emotive refrain.
There is sadness within ‘Unlearning’ yes - not least in ‘Macilent’, which was written in the wake of an attack on three trans women in Hollywood last year. “I was just fed up with seeing stuff like that on the news,” James nods quietly. But even within those moments, the backbone is one of hope. Walt Disco might not go around mouthing off about Brexit, but theirs is a personal revolution - and one that feels twenty times more actively political than most bands who’d adorn themselves with the title.
“Politics isn’t about changing the biggest thing in the world straight away; tiny changes in attitudes in your community and in the way you speak to people and accept people - those create bigger shockwaves,” says Finlay, as James picks up: “Writing about emotion and talking about emotion will create better people who vote progressively. The arts and being in tune with your emotions leads to you wanting good in the world.”
Walt Disco are people who undeniably want to put as much good into the world as possible. They’re kind souls, making bright and brilliant music, who are trying to hitch as many people onto their gleeful wagon of freedom and fun as possible. In every town they pass through - from Aberdeen to Austin - you suspect there is a confused kid desperately grateful for their visibility and existence.
And, at their core, the band’s members seem just as indebted to the communal safe space that Walt Disco provides, too. Their hopes for ‘Unlearning’? “Empathy,” replies Finlay. “And the feeling that people are being empathised with,” nods Jack. “That, as people who are being perceived as different, we’ll have our day.”
“This album is your friend,” smiles James, “and so are we.”
‘Unlearning’ is out now via Lucky Number.
Thank you to Terry Gaona at The Little Longhorn Saloon, and feathered friends Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline.
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