The Walkmen (Matt Barrick – drums, Pete Bauer – multi-instrumentalist, Hamilton Leithauser – vocals, Paul Maroon – guitar, and Walter Martin – bass) have managed to stay together, with the same lineup, for over a decade, a remarkable feat in and of itself. Over that time, the D.C. via Philadelphia/NYC collective may have taken the long way around, but in doing so have crafted a unique atmosphere and sound with their music. Following a brief anniversary celebration, the band has readied its next full-length, Heaven. Produced by Phil Elks (Fleet Foxes, The Shins), the album reveals a more mature band, comfortable in its skin and as described by vocalist Leithauser, “a bigger, more generous statement.”
This week, Consequence of Sound caught up with original bass player and now organist and occasional guitarist, Pete Bauer, as he was helping lay a new floor at drummer Matt Barrick’s Philadelphia home. We talked about Heaven, the presence (or absence) of rock throughout the album, working with Phil Elks and Fleet Foxes, moving to New York, and what was behind switching to organ, the instrument he’s played for the last five years.
What’s that you’re up to?
I’m just helping our drummer lay a floor.
In his apartment or house?
His house. He bought this house, and it’s a fixer-upper.
In New York?
No, in Philadelphia. Yeah, we live down here; me and him live in Philly.
Oh, you know, affordable living. It’s a little easier going. It’s a cool town. I don’t know. I love it down here.
And it’s midway between D.C. and New York, too. Do you still have family in D.C.?
Yeah, it’s nice. We’re all east coast guys from birth. It’s like kind of the last place on the east coast you can live and have some space and hang out and everything.
Maybe you can cut an album with The Roots. Congratulations on the new album, but I have to say congratulations even more so on staying together with the same five people for 10 years. That’s pretty impressive. How do you account for that?
Yeah, we’re very proud of that. I don’t really know. It hasn’t been like… there’s been parts that have been really hard. And in the last couple years, I feel like we’ve kind’ve… just everything’s evened out. We’re in it for the long haul. I mean, I think we always were, but it seems less like you’re worried about “Is this it?” And I think it’s probably a reflection of getting better at what we do, and we’ve all really cared about that the whole time. We’ve always been trying to get better, and so that’s helped a lot.
The heaviness heard on albums like Bow + Arrows and You & Me seems a million miles away from the quiet nature of this album, Heaven. But even on previous albums, like Lisbon, you delved into the quiet areas, so you’re no stranger to it. But I want to say you almost shed all the rock and roll on this album for almost an alt-country folk vibe at times.
Really? I keep hearing that, and it’s shocking to me, because I thought we were really rocking.
Seriously, you don’t think that you guys are chilled out on this?
I think it’s calmer in the sense that Ham is singing more in his range. But I mean to me, I feel like we have actually more rock songs on this record than we’ve ever had. More than Bows + Arrows; maybe not A Hundred Miles Off, but definitely more rock & roll tracks on this record. I was very shocked. I thought it was like… you know, because it’s all pretty uptempo. I guess it’s happier music and less dark hell rock. Hell rock that sort of has goofy parts to it like on “The Witch”, but at the same time, I was very surprised when I started hearing that. To me, playing it is a lot more fun and uptempo than the Lisbon stuff.
Maybe it’s just the acoustic nature of some of the songs that set it off. I was going to ask if maybe it was working with Phil Elks [producer, Heaven] and John Congleton [producer, Lisbon].
I think that also we put the stuff at the center we really liked: two slow songs, “Southern Heart” and “Line by Line”. We put them right in the meat and potatoes area when we sequenced it, so maybe it comes across like that because those are really slow. It probably feels like that, but I don’t know. I guess when we’re playing the stuff live, it definitely feels like, you know, much more, kind of like festival rock than sort of laid back. But what do I know? [laughs]
You have Robin Pecknold [of Fleet Foxes] guesting on this. Whose idea was it to bring him in?
I don’t know whose idea it was. I think we were all just excited about them, the band Fleet Foxes and Robin. We knew we’d be out in Seattle, and we’d been hanging out with them all fall on tour, so it was just something that was a natural thing. Ham just asked him to do it, and he was excited. I feel like they had a nice part in the whole thing, so it was great to have him and Morgan on it to play some percussion.
I was looking through the credits, and I noticed you thank a few people, but one name jumped out at me: Simon Raymonde. Is that Cocteau Twins Simon Raymonde?
Yeah, he runs our record label in England. He runs Bella Union.
I was really intrigued when I saw that name. I was thinking, wow, they’re going to be doing a collaboration with some dream pop stuff; this is getting really trippy. All of you are originally from D.C., right, and you were the only one of the five who didn’t attend the same school?
We all grew up in D.C., yeah. I went to a different school down the street that was more for like the druggy kids. We got to know each other in high school. Hamilton and me have known each other since we were 14; the other guys have known each other since they were in fifth grade. Hamilton and me were younger than the other guys, so they were sort of like the cool older kids who had a band that was semi-successful. That was how we ended up kind of copying them.
What was behind the move to New York?
When you’re in D.C. and you’re like 18 at that point. I mean, D.C.’s changed a lot since then, I guess. And it’s kind of this place where a lot of young kids go to now, I suppose. But back then, it really wasn’t. It didn’t feel like there was a lot of space to have a band. When we moved to New York, people didn’t really like rock & roll music in the way they like now, where it’s this thing that people talk about. You would be shocked if a girl was at your show. I think when The Walkmen started even, it was very different. It was a much stranger scene back when we had our old bands and stuff than it is now. I don’t know if that’s a reflection on us or like what we were doing or just a reflection in general. I don’t feel like the people… Pavement was like a big band in the 90s, but I don’t feel like it has the same sort of general mainstream quality to it that someone like Animal Collective has probably now to people at the shows. It seems like a very different culture.
Well, early in the band’s career, it’s been said that you guys tried to distance yourself from the New York City rock scene, though. So, you move to New York; you try to distance yourself from the scene. Was that partially behind your moving to Harlem?
No, I think it was when our band started. At that point, when we started The Walkmen, we thought the weirdest thing to do would be to keep making garage rock music because it seemed like that was the last thing anyone wanted to hear, and we were trying to avoid that. We were just trying to do our own thing. I think it was sort of being arrogant and young, and people would say, “You sound like The Strokes” blah blah. And we’d be like, screw that; we sound like our band. You didn’t want to be second to anybody. It was nothing against those bands. I like The Strokes a lot; I like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs a lot. I guess we felt we just wanted to stand on our own, which is probably stupid, and we probably missed out on a lot of things because of it, but that’s sort of what we’ve always done. [laughs] Now, looking back, it’s nicer to see that we were sort of part of something that was interesting and special to other people.
So when Spin describes an album like You & Me as an “emboldened fairy tale of New York City rock,” that doesn’t piss you off or anything?
No, not at all. It’s awesome to be considered anything to do with the biggest in the world, or in America. It’s a nice feeling to be a part of that, whatever lore, even if it’s in a small way.
I definitely think The Walkmen have their own atmosphere and unique sound to automatically distance themselves a little bit from the city you happened to be rooted in.
Our experience when we did Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone was very New York heavy, and then after that, we were in Memphis making Bows + Arrows, and Mississippi. We started becoming a traveling, touring band, and so that was sort of our experience. It wasn’t like going to some bar in New York and your experience changes from there.
I’ve noticed that you do tend to bounce around the country when you’re making your albums. This latest one was recorded in Seattle and, like you said, Bows + Arrows was in Tennessee. How do you guys make your decision as to where you want to go and record?
It’s always kind of like who you’re with. We go to Sweet Tea because we really like that studio in Mississippi. Other than that, this one was just because Phil Elk lives in Seattle and likes working in Seattle, and we’ve found it’s better to have the engineer be some place they’re comfortable. It was great out there.
Why did you want to work with Phil Elk?
We really loved the way Helplessness Blues sounded, and then he called us out of the blue, and so it was just a nice synchronistic sort of thing that happened.
What was behind covering Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats album?
That was just sort of a… mistake. I think we just sort of fell into it just for fun, and we thought it was fun, and it was fun; it was a lot of fun. Just because our studio was closing and we were out of our minds from having recorded A Hundred Miles Off, which was just an absolute drag to record. We wanted to do something that was fun.
Why was that?
I don’t know. I think that we had been on tour for a long time, and we were getting used to this weird lifestyle that we had that we weren’t quite sure how to do, and growing up and not wanting to do what we’re doing. It was just weird. It was an odd time for everybody, and we all lost our minds briefly… I don’t know. It was a weird record.
I noticed D.C. legend Ian Svenonius is on it.
Right. We just wanted to get our friends and acquaintances together and get them on there and have some special guests.
Have you guys ever done anything with Ian before? Or The Make-Up or any of his other bands? Nation of Ulysses…
No. We’ve known them for a long time, and actually, the people in The Make-Up we know somewhat well, at least Michelle [Mae, bass player] and Ian. They’re from the same town as us and everything.
You mentioned A Hundred Miles Off being kind of a drag, but I noticed on that album you and your organist Walter Martin switch instruments.
That’s right. That’s when we started doing that. That was hectic for a while, for me. I thought it was a drag.
Why did you decide to switch instruments? Was it just for the novelty, to see if you could do it?
I think Walt was bored doing what he was doing, and I was totally down to try something new, but I hadn’t actually played piano at that point. It took me a couple of years of really battling to keep up, which is fun, a sort of trial-by-fire routine.
So, when you play those songs live now, you don’t hop on the keys?
No, I play the organ the whole time pretty much. I haven’t played bass in four years, five years. I play guitar mostly on this record.
So, how was that for you? Do you like playing the guitar?
It was a lot more fun. You get to stand up. My legs were getting huge while I was sitting down.
Am I correct in thinking The Walkmen have recorded songs originally meant for your old band The Recoys?
We did, we redid a couple.
So, any thought about doing a tour of The Recoys and Jonathan Fire Eater?
I think there would be a couple of missing links for that, people that would definitely not want to join. [laughs]
We can leave that at that. On a happier note, your 2002 debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, is now out on vinyl. Was this the only album previously unavailable on vinyl?
I think so, yeah. Well, no. It was available in this weird form, but this is the first time it’s available properly on vinyl. That was just the one where we couldn’t convince anyone to put it out.