Earlier this year, the Walkmen hit their 10-year career mark, and on May 29 they’ll give us their sixth studio album, Heaven, produced by Phil Ek (Built to Spill, The Shins, Fleet Foxes) and recorded in Seattle. Through the band’s ups and downs, they’ve elevated to one of the most defining bands in the past ten years’ indie rock scene. After starting as a bunch of dudes living in Harlem, the members now find themselves not only with kids, but spread across the country. With that maturity comes a growth in sound, as well as a clear acceptance of what the band has become. Peter Bauer, who plays bass and organ, chatted with us about recording Heaven, New York’s intimidating music scene, and what it’s like to make music about being a dad, instead of drinking a beer.
In general, how do you feel overall about the new record?
I’m really excited about how it came out to us. I’m sure most people say that when they have a new record out, but I think just the making of it, the way it was made, and how quickly everything went—and how successful we were getting the first idea to work, which doesn’t tend to always happen. Usually, we go around in circles a lot before something good happens. [Laughs.]
Hamilton [Leithauser, frontman and vocals] said in previous interviews that this was the easiest record to make. Do you feel that way?
I definitely feel that way. Not easy because no one was working or cared [laughs], but easy because there just tends to be things that are incredibly frustrating that tend to happen, where you’re quite sure that something sounds great but then you hear it played back and you’re like, “Wow. This is really awful.” [Laughs.] I think that probably a lot of that was always felt as a good thing, but also, I think the songs were really good. Maybe we’ve just learned what we were good at, learned our limitations, learned how to do things a little easier.
Definitely. This is your sixth record, so you have a bit of experience working together. Is it to a point now where you sit down and say to yourselves, “Okay, let’s make a record.” And boom, it happens?
I feel like we did this time. And I’m certain that next time we try to make another one, that won’t happen. [Laughs.] But it definitely felt like that. But as soon as you get confident with that, you end up falling on your face. I think it’s just been the nature of the way things have gone with us, the way we work has kept the fighting spirit up in the band as long as it has. So we’ve been lucky in a way that we’ve learned how to play with each other much longer than most people do, as a group, and at the same time, we’ve never been able to do anything leisurely either. It just sort of works, you know? But I guess that’s yet to be determined still. [Laughs.] You always feel pretty good about these things before [the record release]. In about three years, you’ll know.
Creatively, does working with the same people for so long feel constricting or liberating, with a sense of security?
I think it was probably constricting at some point, like the way past. It goes in cycles. If you stick it out, it tends end up being fantastic playing with the same people for the majority of your life. There have been things that haven’t, and we’ve played with other people which makes you appreciate coming back together. Just doing things here and there with people, hanging out with other bands, those are things we didn’t do for a long time, from the closed off, little world that we had. I think being around other people helped us enjoy our time together again. You’re able to feel comfortable enough that you can do something a little more challenging than if you were incredibly nervous about the situation. There’s definitely positives to it.
With the longevity of your career, how do you write a new album that doesn’t just sound the same as everything you’ve ever done?
I think you start off with really trying to do things differently, you know? Even if it’s just different in your head, and you know you’re bluffing. Because it’s probably going to sound just like everything else. But you have to get to a point where you think you’re doing something new and exciting. And then, you know, you realize that when you can have a new idea, and you can do it, sometimes it ends up sounding the same [laughs], but other times, you get away with it. We had this idea going into the studio to do a lot of acoustic music.
It felt like it was something we hadn’t done, with just acoustic guitars. It felt different. When you use an instrument like that and you’ve had an electric guitar running every song for the past five years, it just feels like the space changes a lot. So you come up with new ideas because of that. So certain things like that worked. We definitely have more acoustic guitar songs on [Heaven], but I wouldn’t call it an acoustic guitar record.
After you released A Hundred Miles Off, you had some trouble…
Yeah, we were spat out of the bottom of the music industry. [Laughs.] I think we messed up. I think they were right.
Your post-Hundred Miles releases have obviously been received well, but do you have any lingering fear that response might happen again?
I don’t think that will happen again at all. I know that the music is a lot better on this record. And it’s also just a different type of music. That is a really weird record, but it’s recorded in such a dry, documented fashion. And I think the people who might’ve embraced it are being weird. [Laughs.] But at the same time, the people that want something a little more palatable didn’t find it palatable. So it wasn’t for everyone. It was for like five people. Which is fine, but I heard the recordings of that record again and I was like, “Holy hell.” [We made that record when] we were in a crazy spot. We were still young. We’d been on Warner Brothers and toured endlessly, and sort of lost track of what we were doing. I think we just shot ourselves in the foot with that one.
The Walkmen have been a band that’s defined the past ten years of indie rock. How does it feel reaching that type of influence, and how does it contribute to your new work?
I think it’s nice reaching that type of achievement, you know? The 10-year anniversary [of Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, their debut record] came up and our manager suggested doing 10-year anniversary shows and we really didn’t want to do them, because we didn’t want to seem like dinosaurs or make ourselves seem old. Because I think when we were together, the one thing that we have achieved is that we are making better records as we get older. Sometimes there comes a point in where bands don’t make better records, they make worse records than they did before. So I think that’s something to be proud of, I guess. [Laughs.] So we were very wary of being like, “Hi, this is a time and a place and you’ll remember it and be nostalgic.” But at the same time, it was really fun playing those shows and it did make it feel like we’d actually gone somewhere and done something. It’s neat when young bands who are doing well say things like, “I really like the Walkmen.”
I don’t think it affects the songwriting. You’re trying to do something that’s not just fading away or continuing on with something you did, and I think that’s why Heaven very different than You & Me or Lisbon or any of those. It definitely feels different. It’s a bit of an intellectual problem, but it’s certainly an overall, “Okay, how are we going do this and do something that feels worth putting your heart into it.” That’s what you’re thinking. And ultimately, you’re just coming up with songs, and sounds.
What are your thoughts about Hamilton’s songwriting?
I think it’s the best he’s done, especially on “Heaven.” There’s something real about it, without any bells and whistles, you know what I mean? Lyrically, that was the last one he came up. We had recorded the song and we hoped he would come up with something, or if wondered if we would just cut it. And we had mixed most of the record at that point and everything, so that was nice to get that one together and we all loved it.
That was the last song recorded?
Yeah. It sort of worked because it did sum up his vague sentiments that he had over the whole thing, and you don’t really know how to describe it, and so it worked out like that—and things don’t usually work out like that. I remember Phil Ek was really not feeling [“Heaven”] at all. Then we wrapped it and he said, “Never have I worked this hard on something, and it’s very good.” [Laughs.] He was like, “At this point, you always call it, because it’s always bad.” And I was like, “Well, we’re really hard-headed. So give it just another day.” I don’t know if we ever convinced him, but I liked it. [Laughs.]
In the promo picture, that’s your kid, right?
Yeah. We took pictures with all our kids, but the one that’s made it around, that’s my son, Otis.
How has every member of the band being a parent played into the band?
It made it feel a lot more comfortable being able to talk about ourselves, and I think that was sort of the idea. It makes you feel a lot more comfortable in your own shoes, and the way you’re living your life, you’re happy and proud of the way you’re living your life. As opposed to thinking it’s maybe a little self-serious to put yourself out there as the centerpiece of this, like it’s a weird image, like you’re hiding behind something. It’s hard to put into words, but we thought there was something that felt right about that. These five guys with a bunch of kids is very anti-rock and roll kind of sentiment.
Totally. I mean, it’s a little domestic.
Yeah. But I don’t think it’s this—you know, people write that off as if it’s [negative.] But I sure love and appreciate my wife and kids a lot more than anything I’m doing, so why not show that off? It’s another one of those things that’s easy to say, “Great, there’s not much to that.” But there’s a lot more to that than, you know, drinking beer. [Laughs.] And making sounds with synthesizers. It depends what you’re into, unfortunately. A lot of people like drinking beers and synthesizers.
Let’s talk about Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. You’re friends with Bryce and Aaron Dessner, who curated the festival. How does it feel to be doing a festival like this with a bunch of your friends?
It’s nice. They seemed really excited about it, and we had been looking for the right place to play before our record came out, because that’s sort of a weird spot. No one really knows what you’re doing. No one really knows the songs. So it just seemed like the right thing to do because they’re very trustworthy guys, in terms of the things they put together. They’re always curating something, or doing something like that. It was just a fun thing to be part of.
What does a festival like this mean to the city’s music scene?
Oh, I have no idea. [Laughs.] I gotta say, I feel like New York has changed more and more every time I come here. But a lot of us live here, and it’s very close to their heart. It’s always been our hometown in terms of playing, too. When you play in New York, you’re like, “All right, what do we got?” You have to really think about what you’re doing and you have to be careful. Something about it just makes it seem like an exponentially bigger deal than when you’re playing in Los Angeles or Chicago. Not that those aren’t big deals, but in New York, you’re always a little tight, a little careful about what you’re doing because you really want to put your best foot forward here.
The Walkmen headline tonight’s opening concert for Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival, which is taking place at BAM.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 3, 2012