Interview with Peter Milton Walsh (The Apartments) – Part 1
by Killian Laher
Peter Milton Walsh has been recording and touring under the name The Apartments for more than 40 years, on and off, coming through personal tragedy to emerge as an artist of a substance. No More Workhorse spoke to him from his home in Sydney, over zoom, the first Irish interview of his career. We began by discussing the early days of the band.
You guys formed in the late 70s around the same time as The Go Betweens, is that right?
It was 1978. Our first show was October 1978 and that incarnation of the band finished in October 1979. It’s like 12 months we blazed through town. (Laughs).
Well, it was an interesting time. There was a lot happening. I mean you had the whole punk thing going on. You came out of Brisbane as well as The Go Betweens, is that right?
Yeah. I’m actually born in Sydney but we moved there when I was five years old. So, as Graham Greene said of England, Brisbane made me. If you’ve spent your childhood and teenage years somewhere, that’s I think how you’re made. The Brisbane in which I grew up was a small town, almost like a country town, and was very slow, and was very hot. The cops were insane. There was a corrupt government, and the cops were supported by that government, hand-in-hand, just you know like American cops and Trump. It’s like they hold hands! Laughs. And it was that kind of environment and it always felt to me like I was in the deep South, the American South.
It must have been quite oppressive.
Yeah, well you definitely felt like you would want to get out of town, which was essentially what a lot of people that I know did. You looked for a way to get out. And, with me, I wrote my first song when I was about 15 but you hit 20 and you think, yeah I really don’t wanna stay here. And so it was that kind of feeling. And look, you know, when I was in England, cos maybe you don’t know this, but I sent a cassette to Rough Trade. Rough Trade got in touch with me after I released a single which was called All You Want and they said they would put out that single in Europe. And I said well that’s fabulous but I’ve just done some demos because I wanna do an album, would you be interested in hearing that? And they said yeah! So I sent them a cassette of the demos and they signed me. At the time I just thought oh this is justice. (Laughs)
But of course, now I realise it was the roulette wheel, you know and I got lucky. I remember thinking then how so many bands had left the towns that they came from and it wasn’t really the same for them after that. Orange Juice left Glasgow. What was interesting to me about that time was that nobody left Manchester. And you were able to deal with the world from the town in which you had your band and all your connections and stuff like that. I’d moved around the world a bit at that stage, I lived in New York for a couple of years, I’d travelled around. But I think there is something about the ability to stay in the town where you have connections and still deal with the world. And that never existed when I was a kid.
I think it exists now and obviously it’s because of the internet, but people can have whatever sense of a home you can have when you’re 20, 21 and you’re in a band. You have a sense you can be in your home town and deal with the world from your home town. Whereas that was just not possible, that was never gonna happen for us. We could never have stayed in Brisbane and dealt with the world in that way. For me, it was just fantastic to go on to Rough Trade, because Rough Trade were in Europe.
When was that?
That was 1985, so they were on top of the world then because they had The Smiths, so it was a good time to be on Rough Trade. Although it was also at the time that The Smiths were trying to negotiate a divorce, so it was also a bad time to be on Rough Trade! (Laughs)
So it was around that time you put out your first album, is that right?
Yeah, that’s right, The Evening Visits… and Stays For Years. What I had done was record some songs here in Sydney, where I live now, and then I sent the cassette off to Rough Trade. I had a friend that worked in a record shop and they had a telex machine, and they got a telex back from Geoff Travis at Rough Trade saying, “Great, we’re going to do this album, we’ll put you on wages, we’ll give you a place to stay, pay your rent for six months, we’ll record the album and you know blah, blah, blah. Oh, and we’ll pay your air fares to come over.” So it was, dramatically a big change for me. Because I can’t remember what I was doing for money at the time. I wasn’t working in an ice cream parlour but I used to have lots of ‘bottom-of-nowhere’ jobs so yeah, it was quite an event. That was 1985.
Since then you’ve been putting out albums every couple of years, through the end of the 80s and the 90s as well. You became quite popular in France, is that right?
I think that was connected to having been on Rough Trade and having access to Europe because in ’85 when we released that album, that was still the age of fan mail. Lorries would turn up to Rough Trade’s offices with fan mail for The Smiths and I would pick up about three or four bits of fan mail! (Laughs) But we got fan mail from Italy, Spain, Helsinki, Copenhagen. Then a couple of countries licensed the album. Well, France licensed it. So we actually had a local release, it wasn’t an import record. Cos no one licensed it in Australia, so you could never get that album in Australia, unless you were prepared to pay import prices so it wasn’t going to happen in Australia.
You’ve sort of been a cult artist, would that be fair?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Cult is, in the music business, cult is like an accounting term that means you don’t sell over 100,000. (Laughs) I’m excessively grateful to have anything happening because… it’s one thing to write songs. Obviously I’ve done that for a long time but you know they don’t really exist until people hear them. So I feel that I’m very lucky that I got any kind of thing happening at all. You see so many great things just come and disappear, so the fact that I’m still able to find people interested or people find me, find The Apartments, it’s a bit of a miracle. So it’s a benevolence that I don’t underestimate.
Continues in Part 2 of Interview…