Grammy Day with Al Walser

Al Walser suiting up for the Grammys
Zel McCarthy

How the unexpected nominee spent the last hours of his 15 minutes.

It’s just before 10 a.m. on Sunday, February 10, and Al Walser is in the middle of a small room at the Millennium Biltmore hotel in Los Angeles, unpacking his Grammy outfit: a white space suit.

The first-time Grammy nominee – a virtually unknown until two months ago – has tricked out the rented costume (which he says was used in the movie “Apollo 13”) with badges emblazoned with his name. The suit is designed to generate some media attention on the red carpet, he says, as much as it’s meant to represent his arrival from his faraway home country of Lichtenstein. But a more apt meaning might be that producer and singer Al Walser is hurtling through space, untethered from his craft.

Orbiting around Walser this morning are a reality TV crew filming for German network RTL, his assistant, a publicist hired for the day, Walser’s wife Luana and her hair stylist, a photographer filming for Walser and an assortment of other German speakers. It’s a circus reflective of the swirl of controversy that surrounded Walser’s out-of-nowhere nomination for Best Dance Song.

“[The Grammy nomination] was just one of many things,” Walser says. “I’m always doing something. It’s a trial and error thing. I’m doing a lot of things and a lot of things didn’t work.”

“I Can’t Live Without You” -- the record for which is he is nominated, from his own Cut The Bull label -- is a simple paean to a lifelong romance, but it doesn’t seem to be too personal of a message for Walser. “It’s a beautiful love story packaged into a dance song,” he says, explaining that it wasn’t actually inspired by his wife of 12 years “because I’m not that old yet.”

If it seems like Walser has an almost mercenary attitude toward his work, that’s because he does. Before it became his ticket to the biggest award show in music, the song was the centerpiece for a contest in which Walser searched for a female singer to duet with him, televised in Germany. “At first it wasn’t even intended to have a back and forth with a female vocal,” says Walser. “But I didn’t see any song out there right now that has that thing of going back and forth like ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.’ So I thought that’s a nice cute angle, let’s package it in a dance song.”

The reference to a Diana Ross song might be out of place in context with the other nominees in his category (Calvin Harris, Swedish House Mafia), but not for Walser. He cites Little Richard and Fats Domino as influences, and uses Elvis’ Colonel Tom Parker as a reference point for a Svengali-type manager.

“I met Skrillex a couple hours ago last night,” Walser says when asked about the EDM artists he listens to. “We had a nice chat. I met Avicii two days ago. Great guys. Love them. I started as a DJ, when I was 16 or so.”

For Walser, being a radio DJ helming a countdown show is the same as the art of mixing records for a dance floor. Blithely unaware about what this means, he is equally naïve when it comes to the criticism that’s been flung at him since his nomination.

“The media is doing their job. They need to earn a living and if they get too far and too out of space then of course we have to act accordingly,” he says, alluding to legal action.

It would be hard to determine what is defamatory amid almost universally negative press, let alone what would be actionable. But it’s an attitude that reflects a unique understanding of the music business at large.

“You need to have talent, that’s a given,” Walser says. “But talent alone is just not going to give you the break. Especially not in 2013 where everyone with no money can make music and get distribution. You need to find your break. Some people find their break with sexual favors, money under the table, but the journalists are not going to tell you about it; they’re not going to investigate that. They don’t want a guy like me to come in clean without them getting paid.”

But even with this somewhat dated and skewed view of how “the industry” works, Walser remains undeterred and committed to claiming his moment in the spotlight, critics be damned.

Amid the cacophony of the morning and the past two months, Luana has remained an unwavering supporter of her husband’s. “He really worked his butt off, not for a few months but for years, many years,” she said. “That’s so beautiful to see that he’s nominated.”

In fact, she isn’t even bothered by the negative attention his nomination has won him, asserting “it makes him stronger. He likes it, actually.”

Given Walser’s appetite for attention, this is not hard to believe.

Walser himself distributes the show tickets to his team. As predicted, his space suit causes quite the stir as he walks through the hotel lobby (of course, the camera crew only added to the commotion). While Walser had mentioned a stretch limousine in the days before the awards, today he is riding a mini coach bus the mile to Staples Center (his publicist insists it’s a shuttle, not a bus).

Curiously, the bus driver speaks German but doesn’t know his way around Downtown L.A., and so spends a good 30 minutes driving in circles around the venue while an increasingly (and understandably) agitated Walser barks at him in German, cameras rolling the whole time. Walser is also very concerned that he won’t be allowed on the red carpet or in the venue wearing his suit and holding a flag that bears his name. He’s even brought a backup jacket should he be denied entry.

Throughout it all, Walser’s interactions with Luana are sweet and kind. They call each other “schatz” (sweetie or darling), as she remains poised and calm in contrast to his occasional outbursts.

Even when the driver arrives at the venue, it’s not exactly the right spot, so the space-suited Walser and crew spend another ten minutes looking for proper entrance. Just before he hits the red carpet for the pre-telecast step and repeat, he and Luana share a moment. If the rest of the Walser experience smacks of performance, there is no doubt the love in this partnership is real.

Not too long after his lift off, Walser crashes to earth when he loses the Grammy to Skrillex.

“I think I already won with the nomination,” he said. “What else would I want in 2013? I mean, come on. How arrogant would one be?”