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World Party: Save me from yesterday

By Chris Riemenschneider

McClatchy Newspapers

AUSTIN, Texas -- He had just touched down for his first American gig in seven years and was about to give his first interview on American soil in nearly as long. But talking to Karl Wallinger at the start of the South by Southwest Music Conference in March, he acted as if it was all just another day at the races for his cult-loved hippie-pop band, World Party.

"I'm treating this whole thing like it was some sort of lost weekend, and I'm back to, 'OK, what's the plan again?"' said the 48-year-old Englishman, grinning from under his tinted glasses at a table outside his hotel room.

With its Beatles-copping, big-chorus hits such as "Message in the Box" and "Ship of Fools," World Party was an odd bird in the late-'80s/early-'90s era of grunge and synth-laden British rock bands such as the Cure and New Order. Wallinger created the band while working solo in the studio in 1986 after a short tenure with the Waterboys.

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Like a lot of rock acts in the late '90s, though, World Party got lost amid mass corporate downsizing at EMI after four albums.

Wallinger took a break and started his own record label. Just as he was getting ready to release his next disc in 2000, though, he blacked out while on vacation.

"I had been out cycling, it was cold out, and essentially 15 years of being holed up in a studio chain-smoking caught up with me," Wallinger recounted.

The singer suffered an aneurysm and nearly died. He was in the hospital for a month and spent almost a year struggling to regain his mobility. After that, he spent a couple more years fine-tuning his playing and singing abilities. Even now, there are lingering effects.

"I essentially have no peripheral vision on my right side, which is a lot more of a problem than you'd think it'd be," he said. "I'll be out shopping and bump into people. And even playing the guitar can be a problem. I come up with some pretty interesting chords nowadays."

In person and onstage, though, Wallinger seems refreshingly unchanged. He still has the same mussed-up hairdo with a little more salt than pepper. And he still sings like John Lennon's kid brother, his sweet falsetto intact.

Since one of World Party's selling points in the first place was the songs' timeless qualities, the band sounds as fresh and pertinent as ever on its newest CD, "Dumbing Up."

"Dumbing Up" was actually completed before his aneurysm in 2000, with the exception of a couple tracks. Hence the singer's "lost weekend" outlook on its release.

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"I think I'm more enthusiastic about the album now than I was then," he said. "That's just the obvious side effect of nearly succumbing to death. Before that, it was more like I was drudging on with it all."

Songs such as "Another 1000 Years" and "What Does It Mean Now?" are classic World Party, with a mix of doomsday and do-gooder lyrics and that unmistakable "Magical Mystery" sound (in fact, parts of "1000 Years" sound a bit too close to Lennon's "Baby You're a Rich Man"). Some of the album's best tracks are starker, piano-fueled ballads, including the romantic gem "You're a Hurricane, I'm a Caravan" and the eight-minute, Dylanesque epic "Always on My Mind."

His talent for writing ballads was spotlighted -- somewhat dubiously -- in 2000 when British pop star Robbie Williams had a big hit and even won a Brit Award with Wallinger's "She's the One."

The World Party frontman says EMI allowed the recording without his permission and, to make matters worse, Williams even enlisted some World Party sidemen to play on it.

"It stung, to say the least," he said, not hiding his opinion of the track: "A bit sugary."

However much he cursed the circumstances, he now admits that Williams' "She's the One" was a blessing in disguise. It earned him a healthy amount in royalty checks while he was sidelined by the aneurysm.

He wittily explained his feelings for Williams in an online posting: "He nicked my pig and killed it, but gave me enough bacon to live on for four years. He kept my kids in school and me in Seaview (his recording studio) and for that I thank him."

Like the Williams debacle, the aneurysm and the eight-year hiatus that resulted are things that Wallinger tries to laugh about now.

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"It's like a Dracula story, back from the dead," he joked, "and I'll be doing my damage until somebody puts a stake in my heart."

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