2017 marks 20 years since Greg Walker – also known as J Walker – first recorded under the Machine Translations name. Originally the title of a record he made for a musical project named Shed Method, Walker has since taken up the mantle of Machine Translations permanently. A myriad of other musicians have joined him along the way for a spell, but the project has remained the sole focus of Walker for nearly its entire lifespan. With the ninth Machine Translations LP, however, Walker presents it as a band record, with the behind the scenes lineup rounded out by bassist James O’Brien, keyboardist/guitarist Robin Waters and drummer Ralph Rehak.
“It’s a great lineup,” says Walker, taking the call on tour from Thirroul on the south coast of New South Wales. “I’ve been playing music with Ralph since we were both about 13 years old, and both James and Robin have been playing with us for the better part of a decade. I feel like, with this album, it’s really become a band – not just the guys I have playing with me live. It’s been a gradual process for me, opening myself up to other people’s input. It definitely felt like this record was the perfect kind of inroad for the other guys to get more involved in recordings. These songs are a lot more rock’n’roll oriented, and I feel as though it’s the closest parallel I’ve ever had with the studio and the live versions. There’s a real connection there.”
Going into this album, I knew that the spirit of it was best honoured by recording it quickly.
The new album, simply titled Oh, is the first Machine Translations record in four years. While that may seem a lifetime for some bands – look how many records King Gizzard have made in that exact time period, for instance – it’s a considerably faster turn-around as far as Walker is concerned. “The last record took me seven years to make,” he says, alluding to his 2013 album The Bright Door. “I’m really proud of that record and what I was able to achieve with it, but I also know that it was far too long. Going into this album, I knew that the spirit of it was best honoured by recording it quickly. That’s how the record started, but it ended up being one of those classic things where you have two-thirds of a good record and you’re just waiting for the rest of the songs to present themselves. It took about 18 months longer than it should have, but that spirit of doing it quickly was still very much a part of it.”
Walker has certainly kept himself occupied in the intervening years between Machine Translations records. You may have seen him on lead guitar duties for Paul Kelly during his national tour in support of the Spring And Fall album – which he also produced and helped to arrange. More recently, Walker was enlisted by Jen Cloher and her band to record her self-titled album out in Jumbunna, a regional town out in Victoria’s South Gippsland. “That was a really fun record to make,” says Walker.
“It was really focused on being a live band record, and I definitely took a bit away from that in making my own album. We recorded a lot of that album live to tape, and I did the same with Oh. After maybe ten to 15 years of working on music digitally, I’ve found myself really drifting back to analog. I’m loving where it’s taking me – I mean, purely on a process level, it helps that you’re not just looking at a screen as much. You’re staring at the space between the speakers, and you really start to listen to it in a different way.”
Walker is someone who has filled his days with music for over 30 years. Whether it’s through Machine Translations, his production work or his time creating soundtracks for shows like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Walker is continually going between projects and ideas. As a musician, a songwriter and a composer, Walker can best be described as the sum of his parts – everything he learns from music outside of Machine Translations goes right back into Machine Translations itself. “For me, one of the great joys of producing is getting an insight into other people’s process,” he says.
You always learn something – you’ll watch someone play, and you’ll be like ‘I never knew you could get it to sound like that.’
“Every band works together differently, and every band gets different sounds out of their instruments. That can be from something as simple as guitarists not playing with a pick, or drummers using different sizes of sticks depending on the song. You always learn something – you’ll watch someone play, and you’ll be like ‘I never knew you could get it to sound like that.’ When you’re producing, you learn so much about the little details. I’m really into the idea of capturing energy on tape.”
Seemingly on a steady train of thought, Walker continues to discuss the concept of recording a band live in the studio. “It almost feels like there’s ghosts in the room,” he says. “The energy between people gets on tape a lot easier than it would if you were recording digitally – because you’re capturing everything. That’s something you might not even think about when you’re listening to an album, but if you’re recording it then you notice everything. There’s a couple of songs on Oh that were done in the first or second take – it didn’t require any labouring. For me, that’s really exciting.”
Oh is available through Spunk now.