Architecture and Building | Michael Green

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Let there be rock

From the centre of a stage to the bottom of a mountain, heavy rock has formed the soundtrack to Andy Walker’s life.

Smith Journal, Volume 11

ANDY Walker pulls into the kerb to pick me up. Rocky, his bullmastiff, stands watchfully in the back of the ute. “If you’re up for it, I was thinking of taking you to Wollumbin tomorrow,” he says, after I’ve settled in. “Early early. Dark early.”

“Sure,” I say, not sure at all. He explains: Wollumbin – or Mount Warning, as Captain Cook named it – is the old volcano north-west of Byron Bay.

“That’s where the stone comes from, man. That’s the source,” he says. “From there you can see the way the lava flowed; you can see why this area is shaped like it is. It’s all from that mountain. That’s why I’ve got a job here.”

He pauses a moment. “It’s really beautiful up there.”

Walker is a stonemason. He’s also the frontman of a stoner rock band called Fort. They don’t play so often anymore, but he’s still got the look: low-slung, skinny jeans and a metal-studded belt; a surfer’s tan, tatts and a handlebar moustache. His worn, navy t-shirt is printed with the logo for his business – Bay Area Stoneworks – and its tagline: “Let there be rock”.

“Everything we build with is volcanic,” he continues. “Wollumbin erupted and blasted basalt all over this area. Drops of molten lava fell from the sky and landed on flat surfaces and cooled.”

And then, there was rock.

“Little rocks and rocks the size of houses. You get these nice shapes and beautiful flat faces. The rocks get rolled around and weathered and worn over the years. They’re 23 million years old: they look better with age.

“I love the feel of stone,” he goes on. “It’s old. You can’t beat that feeling of working with something that’s older than anything else.”

I’ve only been in the car with Walker five minutes when I find myself thinking this thought: “Maybe I could move to Byron Bay and be a stonemason like him.”

Actually, Walker moved to Bangalow, the small town nearby. It was fifteen years ago, when he was 21 years old. He rented a room in the pub.

The son of an Air Force helicopter pilot, he’d lived “all over” growing up: Townsville, Karratha, Perth, Canberra. Nowhere more than five years.

He inherited a healthy dose of wanderlust. After a long stint overseas, and many months in Melbourne, he loaded up his 1961 Holden sedan and headed north. He wanted warmer weather and open space; he wanted to be outside; and most of all, he wanted to play music.

Walker is telling me all this as we drive. He’s giving me a tour of several jobs completed by Bay Area Stoneworks, all of which seem to be in the most outrageously beautiful places along the coast and scattered through the lush hinterland of the northern rivers.

We’ve just left a big house on Cape Byron overlooking the brilliant blue sweep of the bay, where Walker and his team recently spent six months building large stone terraces down the hill. “It was easy to get used to that view,” he says.

We take the road towards Bangalow and he points at a stone entrance to a driveway, alive with lichen and moss. “That’s the first job I worked on. It looks like it’s been there for a hundred years, right?”

It does – and appropriately so, for this is where Walker’s story takes on a timeless, almost mythical, quality:

The Young Man was travelling and searching, as young men will. Then one day in the alehouse, an Old Tradesman whispered in his ear. The next morning at dawn he took the Young Man to visit the Craftsman, Tom Stonemason, from whom he would learn.

“Instantly, I thought: ‘This is what I want to be doing’,” Walker says. “I stuck by his side for seven years.”

Just as fortuitously, Tom Stonemason loved the other kind of heavy rock, too.

Walker had started a band, inspired by the ’90s Californian stoner-rock band Kyuss. The band members all lived on farms around the hinterland, where they could rehearse long and loud, then drive to the beach and surf whenever they liked.

The guitarist, Stu Hume, began working with Tom Stonemason too. “We’d work for a month, take off for a week. Go touring, go recording. He would always let us come and go, and still keep teaching us.”

Their boss went to their gigs and even kicked in cash for band publicity. “At the bottom of posters it’d say: Proudly Supported by Tom Stonemason,” Walker says.

Fort played Splendor in the Grass, toured all over the country at metal festivals and supported bigger bands like the Black Keys, Fu Manchu, Monster Magnet, Grinspoon and even a reformed Kyuss. A review in Rolling Stone declared: “this NSW quintet wield some serious axe”.

Walker had always played music: a hot trumpet teacher had been his muse in early high school, but when she left, he bought a guitar. His high-school band, Solar Cat, supported some big Australian acts. “I’ve always loved big heavy, guitar-based rock and roll ever since I was little. I like it loud,” he says.

Something else was alluring too: “I like being in the spotlight,” Walker admits. “It’s one thing I miss. Whenever we did a gig it’d be a party, a big blow out. Next day would be like, ‘Fuck, what happened?’ That was fun.”

Around that time, he began dating his wife, Poppy, who is a filmmaker. It didn’t work out. Walker generally has the makings of a mischievous smile at the ready, and now it breaks out. “We were seeing each other briefly, but she was living a very healthy lifestyle and I was not,” he laughs.

Now, however, his long rock-and-roll locks have gone. “I guess my lifestyle has turned around. I was totally infatuated with her all along. She kept saying, ‘One day I’m going to get you to build me a stone house’. Finally, five years ago she came up here, and I said, ‘Let’s build a stone house’. She’s been here ever since.”

The band stopped touring when he and Hume decided to concentrate on their stonework. But they still play sometimes – Fort supported Monster Magnet again in April – and Walker records and composes music for films. Poppy is pregnant now, and he’s piecing together a kids’ album comprising humorous heavy rock songs, with children’s themes: “Kinda like the anti-Wiggles,” he explains. “I think it’s got legs.”

When he was a boy, Walker had a recurring dream in which he found coins on the ground. “Didn’t everybody have that dream?” he asks me. “It felt so good!”

We’re in a paddock now, collecting rocks. He’s stalking stones about 200 mm thick, with flat faces, to suit the top of a wall. “Every job is like a treasure hunt, looking for the right rock,” he explains.

Rather than buy stone in bulk, and cut it to fit the job, Walker likes to leave the stones whole, and let their shape dictate the work. Everyday, they gather their quarry from nearby fields or farms, with the farmers’ permission.

Shifting rocks is hard work. It can take a quarter of the hours on any given job. Walker is a regular visitor to Mexico – he and Poppy were married there – and when he visits the Mayan ruins, one thing he ponders is how far the stone had to travel, without the benefit of wheels and fossil fuels.

Even so, he wakes happily. Work is no burden. “In the mornings when most people are heading into town to work, I’m heading out to the hills, which is what I love.”

After the treasure hunt comes the puzzle: sifting the pile for the perfect stone for each crevice. The puzzle takes time, and that costs money. The clients of Bay Area Stonework are lawyers, financiers, jetsetters and the sons of steel barons. But unlike stonemasons past, for Walker the trade is not a matter of servitude.

“Without people who really appreciate the work I do, and if they didn’t have the money, I wouldn’t get to indulge in these great projects,” Walker says. “And they usually throw good parties as well.”

Earlier in the day, we’d visited the sumptuous estate of a banker, where the Bay Area crew had built a series of stone tracks and bridges in the forest along a river. And before that, we pulled into an old banana farm where the owner, a Hong Kong–based high-flyer, had commissioned massive stone walls and an epic staircase cutting through a hill, opening up to a panorama of the valleys and sea to the east. “My brief was to make it look like the continuation of the mountain,” Walker had explained, pointing at the cliff above us.

Most times, a one-wall job becomes two, and then a fire-pit, and then a staircase, and on and on. “People get seriously addicted to stonework,” Walker says.

Stone building – carefully constructed, massive and ageless – comprises the perfect combination of order and disorder. “It transforms a house; it can make an ordinary place look really attached to its surroundings. It’s got this way of making a new place have old character.”

Walker bought a house in Bangalow about the time Poppy moved north and the band stopped touring. He always likes to have a project on the go – mostly fixing up old Holdens – but in recent years he’s turned his hands to their house, as promised.

It’s unmistakable. There’s no flimsy front fence, only solid stone walls. Pass through the gate and you enter a large stone courtyard, bordered by stone walls, with a frangipani growing in a circle of stone. Inside, you’ll find a wide, immaculate stone chimney. Out the back, an impressive stone-clad garage.

(Poppy says: “Keep building!” Too much rock is not enough.)

It’s well before dawn, it’s raining, and we’re sitting halfway up the extinct volcano. The local Aboriginal people, the Bundjalung, request others consider not climbing Wollumbin, so we avoid the ascent to its peak.

Walker had picked me up at 3.30 am, earlier than I’d thought possible. Along the path, he paced ahead, stepping lightly through the beam of his torch.

He has been coming here ever since he moved north, usually for sunrise. On a clear day, the mountain receives the first rays to strike the continent. But today isn’t a clear day; instead, the clouds gradually shift from dark to grey to lighter grey.

The rain grows steadier and then becomes a downpour. Walker is only wearing a t-shirt and shorts, but the storm doesn’t trouble him. I remember the recurring childhood dream he’d told me about yesterday – the joyful one about finding a coin. It occurs to me that it doesn’t only explain his pleasure gathering rocks, but neatly sums up his approach to life.

Slowly, the rainforest reveals itself: the tangled roots of figs; the strong, wet smell of bat shit; the bulbous, luminous fungi beneath branches; and high above, the thick green canopy.

For some humans, life is confusing; waking each morning is a rupture that never quite heals. Walker is not burdened with such fears. Sisyphus struggled with his rock. Andy Walker loves his, always has. The heavier the better.

This article was published in Smith Journal, volume 11

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