by Rob Mair
photo: Gad Girling

Few, if any, albums are born classics. Fewer still drop thanks to nothing but inspiration and intuition: they must be worked on, finessed and cajoled into life over time. Some are no doubt more painful than others, and some never progress from being mediocre, no matter how much graft takes place behind the scenes to cudgel them into shape.

“For the longest time, I hated this album,” sighs Dustin Hayes, the not-quite eponymous Walter from Walter Etc. (the artist formerly known as Walter Mitty and his Makeshift Orchestra). “I thought it was total trash. I remember listening to the first song in my car and punching the steering wheel. For a long time, I didn’t listen to it.”

Today, Hayes is much more relaxed around the record, as we catch up over the phone. In fact, he has every right to be ecstatic about how Dark Comedy Performance Piece of my Life has turned out, especially given its subject matter and testing production. Even then, he’ll joke that there wasn’t ever a single breakthrough moment, just a sense that when he does listen now, he can “laugh at the parts that aren’t good.”

Yet Dark Comedy Performance Piece of my Life is no laughing matter.

Instead, it is a journey of endurance and perseverance – concerning both its composition and significant themes. Like all Walter Mitty and His Makeshift Orchestra or Walter Etc. albums, it retains a breezy charm and a self-deprecating sense of humour, but the overall tone is one of personal upheaval.

A concept album based on the break-up of his long-term relationship, it’s also an acknowledgement of the self-discovery made in this same period. It goes to some dark places but also has a bittersweet reconciliation. It isn’t an album of blame, but instead an analysis of actions and reactions, all told in Hayes’ conversational and laid-back style.

The story starts in 2017, during a hectic period in Hayes’ life, which saw the couple relocate from Oregon to California. At the time Hayes was also touring hard off the back of Walter Etc.’s Gloom Cruise, which would see the band crisscrossing the States, head to Europe for the first time and also to Japan. The first half of the record was written during this period, with the couple making a go of things in a new state.

Yet, their breakup is confirmed on the single ‘I Bought You A Blanket From Mexico’, with the remaining part of the album written after the split in 2018. “I’d actually written most of the album while we were still together,” says Hayes. “I thought I was writing this sad album that was going to be called Cheer Up Walter.

“Then, after the break-up, I realised I’d been writing about this long goodbye for the past year. I have all these songs, and if I put them in this order, they make sense chronologically. So, it was only really the last three or four songs on the album that I wrote knowing this was going to be a concept album. By that point, I knew that I just needed to keep telling the story as it was happening.”

Although it remains a concept album, it’s also a day-to-day account of the couple’s relationship; bringing in friends, neighbours, a cat (Gidget) and a tour van (Baloo) all finding themselves at the centre of the story for brief moments. “I’ve never been very good at fictionalising things too much,” laughs Hayes, estimating a 70/30 split between ‘real life’ and fiction. This extends to the setting of the album, which is based in the city of Ventura, California, but leans into its ‘Ventucky’ nickname. It means, for example, that Hayes’ neighbours are all-night ravers who party with Hell’s Angels, while there’s also a focus on the seedier characters who reside in the city – even if the city isn’t half as bad as it seems in real life, says Hayes.

Similarly, Hayes’ character is something of a caricature of himself, focusing on either being an unabashed beach bum (or “worthless stoner” like on ‘Burritos Alone’), or an artist always striving for perfection. It’s not hard to understand that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, even if these lyrical tropes remain exaggerated. 

As a break-up album there was, of course, the danger that Dark Comedy Performance Piece of my Life could become a toxic retelling of a failed relationship. Yet thanks to Hayes’ smart self-editing, there’s little sense of blame to be found on the album. Of course, the genre – and fans’ expectations of artists in the genre – has moved on from the early 00s, when emo music was so fixated on these sorts of songs with bitter boys writing about girls who broke their hearts, often in unflattering terms. But Hayes was entirely focused on looking at the relationship from a personal, rather than performative, point of view.

“I was definitely influenced by that scene when I was younger,” says Hayes. “Brand New, Saves The Day, Taking Back Sunday, that sort of stuff. But with this, there was always an intention of not wanting to say anything too blaming or ‘girlfriend bashing’.

“Also, I don’t wanna come across as an asshole. I tried to make sure it was focused on my experience. But it was also amazing how different I felt after the break-up and after writing the last song. I felt like the wheel had turned and I’d come back into myself again now that I wasn’t caught up in this painful relationship. I could go back and see the growth that I’ve gone through, and I could only see that more clearly once I was out the other side.”

Indeed, this is one of the most striking aspects of Dark Comedy Performance Piece of my Life. Yes, it’s a sad break-up album, but it’s also an album about endings and beginnings, of rediscovery and personal growth – ideas that stretch far beyond the initial concept. Still, it’s left Hayes with the worry that people won’t find a way to make such a lyrically downbeat – and personal – album relatable to their own life. For instance, I’ve just moved to a new house – and the sadness of an ending and excitement at future possibilities are wrapped up in similar emotions to the ones explored by Hayes.

“I sometimes wonder if anyone will really like the record if they’re not going through the exact specific thing at the same time,” he considers. “I mean, you could probably listen to the record and think ‘Wow, I bet this was cathartic for the guy who wrote it’, but I’m not sure if this is universally relatable.

“But it’s always interesting to see how people can take something so specific and cathartic for me, and then apply their own lives to it. I like that. It’s about the changing of an era and how life moves on – and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.”

This two-way interaction makes up a big part of Walter Etc. There’s often little delineation between artist and fan. Hayes encourages open dialogue with fans on social media, and mails out most of the records himself – sold through his Making New Enemies label – and these often include handwritten notes or sketches and drawings.  Meanwhile, seeing dialled-in audience members show up to gigs with kazoos gives fans some ownership over the live experience. 

Over the last 18-24 months things have gone further still, following the launch of Walter’s Patreon: giving people access to demos, live sessions, exclusive merchandise and more. For Hayes, it has proven to be a great way to take control of his art. He’s now looking at ways to grow it, offering different tiers of rewards for people who support him.

“I wish I’d done it sooner,” he laughs, somewhat ruefully. “No regrets or anything, but I feel like it has added a whole new dimension to my life and my music career that I didn’t realise I was missing. But even more than having a little bit of extra income every month, it’s been great to have that emotional support there for me, especially while I’ve been trying to get through this album.

“A lot of times in the Walter world, it feels like no one really cares. We’re not the biggest band in the world, and there’s not a lot of people talking about us. So, to have this group of 100 or so people on Patreon who are accepting of me and excited to hear anything I had to give them… they’re just so supportive.” 

Buoyed by this experience, Hayes took the release of Dark Comedy Performance Piece… back into his own hands, having previously released albums and EPs on Lauren Records, Counter Intuitive and Lame-O – all of which have released keystone albums for the emo revival scene. No stranger to releasing records through Making New Enemies anyway, this was an ideal chance for Hayes to manage the release of such a personal album – even if it’s pushed him outside of his comfort zone.

“It’s a relief to see the money start to come back in from pre-orders,” he laughs. “It’s nice to know I’m not throwing myself down a hole on a silly dream. And although it has been fun, there’s definitely challenges. I don’t like asking people to do me any favours, so reaching out has been difficult. But I’m stoked that people feel happy to support and pre-save the album; and then when the single came out [‘Punk with an Ex’], people listened to it and shared it. 

“Then again, I don’t know if people really like the song or are just being really supportive,” he jokes.

This humour finds its way into many songs on Dark Comedy Performance Piece…, including The Office reference in ‘Punk With An Ex’ (itself a riff off an early Walter Mitty & His Makeshift Orchestra song ‘Punk with an X’), where he compares their relationship to that of Jim and Pam, before sadly concluding that he is, in fact, the sidelined jerk, Roy. Combined with Hayes’ carefree style and folk-punk stylings, it often feels like an odd juxtaposition against the dark tone of the album.

Yet, while Hayes chides himself as a free-spirited dilettante who bikes to get burritos and paints between his musical endeavours, there’s another person central to the dynamic of the album – his ex-partner. Hayes says he’s been in touch to say he’s written the album, and even sent it over to her to listen to, but as yet does not know what she makes of it.

“I told her a long time ago that I was making this album, and I told her when it was done because I didn’t want this looming break-up album hanging over her giving her anxiety,” he says. “I’ve sent it to her, but I have not heard if she has heard it. Knowing her, I think she would probably avoid it and not listen, then one day, maybe years from now, I’ll probably get a text, and she’ll be rolling her eyes or something.”

And this is ultimately the crux of personal, confessional relationship albums. From Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours through to Cursive’s Domestica, it’s perhaps easy to forget that there’s someone else’s story wrapped up in the narrative.

Dark Comedy Performance Piece… is no different, even if the sepia shades have washed out much of the anger and vitriol. Instead, it’s a considered rumination of two people slowly drifting apart, set against some startlingly bright set-pieces and with an array of characters that give it the warmth and pace of a telenovela. Hayes’ lyrics have always excelled when focused on the minutiae of suburban living. Here, with the lens turned inwards, it reaches a whole new level. It may be darkly comic, and it may be a performance piece, but the emotions it conjures are still just as real.