Interview with The Walkmen
Two years after their terrific (yet sullen) sophomore effort, Bows + Arrows, the Walkmen are back with another collection of quirky, atmospheric rock that’s a bit more optimistic. Bullz-Eye caught up with bassist Peter Bauer to talk about the new album (A Hundred Miles Off), working under the pressure of a deadline and what it’s like to be evicted by Columbia University.
Bullz-Eye: Where are you today?
Peter Bauer: I’m in Kentucky.
BE: The tour starts in a couple of weeks?
PB: Yeah, it starts on May 24th (at Webster Hall in NYC).
BE: How did the recording of the new album go as compared to the first two?
PB: It was a struggle at first, and then it ended up being a lot easier, once we finally got down to recording. We were really happy that we recorded at Inner Ear mostly in Washington - I thought that was a great place to do it.BE: You had your own studio – Marcata – but it’s closing, right?
PB: It’s closed now. We did a lot of it there as well. It was great while it lasted, but unfortunately we had to close down.BE: Why did you have to close down?
PB: Columbia University was moving farther into Harlem, by the day, and ended up buying the building and was not interested in us being there.
BE: How does the finished product compare to your first two albums?
PB: I think it’s better in a lot of ways. It’s different, there are less slow spots, you know, the kinds of things we’ll regret later.
BE: I noticed that it is more up-tempo than the last couple.
PB: Yeah, the tempo as well, but there has always been certain things that weren’t carried through as well as they could have on the last two records, and so I think on this one, it’s pretty solid straight through. I think it’s got a bit of a different vibe. I think it’s a little happier.
BE: I wanted to ask you a little bit about your sound. You don’t sound like anything else going right now. When I hear a Walkmen song, I know it’s a Walkmen song. Was that a conscious decision or a happy accident – the way you put your sound together?
PB: Well, I don’t think you want to sound like anyone else and I think everyone’s attempting to do the same thing. You’re always attempting to take something that you like and turn it into something that’s your own. I think that’s sort of the whole point.
BE: If you don’t mind, I’m going to throw out a few song titles from your catalog, and maybe you can talk about the song a little bit, what inspired it, memories of writing it or how it is to play it live…
BE: “Wake Up”
PB: “Wake Up” was, I think, the second song we wrote. We still had very little sense of what the band would sound like in general. I think we had an 8-track of “We’ve Been Had,” which was the first thing we did. “Wake Up” was very much like a band project, but Paul (Maroon, guitarist) and Ham (Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer) probably came up with those – I don’t even remember at this point. It was the first time Ham started playing guitar with the Walkmen. I remember thinking that it was very weird sounding before it had the singing on it. It didn’t seem like it was going to be a crowd pleaser when it first started, you know, because it was very strange. I think we had a darker part of it before we had the choruses and stuff like that.
BE: You mentioned “We’ve Been Had.” Those are two pretty good shots right out of the gate.
PB: The first four or five we had we were really, really excited about. I think that happens because it’s probably such a fresh feeling after being in other bands for so long, actually playing with different people in a different situation. It wasn’t really a situation where anyone was counting on us to do anything. We didn’t really have any expectations, so it’s a great way to be doing things – not having any expectations of how things are supposed to be like. It becomes more difficult once you have expectations.
BE: Do people ask you about the Saturn commercial a lot? That’s actually how I first heard the song.
PB: I think a lot of people have asked us about that. (laughs)
BE: That’s a good answer. “What’s in It for Me.”
PB: “What’s in It for Me” was probably the last song we had for Bows + Arrows. It was the last song that we recorded. We recorded it at Marcata by ourselves after everyone else had recorded most of the record at other places. I guess what’s considered the chords – the descending chords – had been floating around the entire time we were writing Bows + Arrows. I think there was a part Paul had, too. We had them in this really horrible song, like much more of a rock song, and it was terrible. We wasted like three days recording it and I think we erased the tape of it. And so we were sort of like, “That’s that” for those chords, because we always really liked them, but then Paul came up with the good verse that he could play on pump organ. We had a really good day where we came up with the drumbeat, and Matt (Harrick, drummer) and Walt (Martin, keyboardist) were playing it, and it came together really well.
BE: I especially like the organ and vocals on it.
PB: Yeah, it’s one of my favorite ones, I think.BE: “Little House of Savages”
PB: That was another one, everything but the main, beginning riff was sitting around way too long and it was driving us crazy, trying to put it together in a song. The French Kicks had a farm upstate in New York, so we tried to write songs up there for two weeks and it was kind of a disaster, because we didn’t come up with much. That was one of the things that we thought was kind of a dead end, but then we put it with that other kind of heavier part – the beginning riff – and it became a much better song. I think that part of it was from a Jonathan Fire*Eater song (the former band of Martin, Barrick and Maroon) that never worked out.
BE: It’s got a really good beat.
PB: Yeah, that was kind of a surprise too.BE: “New Year’s Eve"
PB: Paul just had that piano part that was done – the whole song was just that piano part. We kind of wanted it to sound like the last song on Rain Dogs, which is a Tom Waits record. The song is called “Anywhere I Lay My Head” and it’s kind of got this long beginning that’s sort of slow and kind of depressing and then a New Orleans brass band comes in at the end. That’s sort of what we were copying – the style – that kicks right at the end and then fades out, like a party right at the end.BE: “Thinking of a Dream"
PB: The melody and the organ were lying around way too long and then we sort of miraculously came up with that at the end of Bows + Arrows, too. And then I think Walt came up with that bass line and then I think the song came together really fast. It was weird, because that was one where we recorded the whole thing – the record version – and we didn’t have any singing on it, and that went very fast up to that point, but then we had a real scare where we had to turn the record in and we still didn’t have any singing on it. Ham had to come up with it. The singing was a very last-minute thing.
BE: It came together nicely.
PB: Yeah, we had the instrumental stuff forever. We were sort of like, “We really need this song to work out.”
PB: “Louisiana” was the first song we wrote for A Hundred Miles Off, but it sounded really, really horrible for a long time. We couldn’t figure out how to record it or how to play it exactly. We definitely wanted to do something with that mariachi horn part and we just did so many bad versions of it – we even did a reggae version of it – we kind of lost the plot for a while. When we went to Inner Ear it was sort of an afterthought that we were going to record that and that it might work. We’re very happy with it.
BE: Hamilton’s vocals have a very Dylan-ish feel to them.
PB: Yeah, I think they do. The song in general does, I think.
BE: It’s an interesting combination with the mariachi interludes.
PB: The concept was sort of to make a Walkmen song that went to a really fun place. It’s better, I think, when things are a little more over the top for us, and it’s actually fun as opposed to studied.BE: “All Hands and the Cook"
PB: That was something Walt and Ham came up with from one of Paul’s parts. The part had been sitting around for a while, and we had a bunch of different versions, and then Walt I think came up with the drums and bass for that, which really changed things so that it could really become a song. That was right at the end of this record. We had already been separated – in different cities and everything – and it ended up being Walt, Ham and me, we went to Marcata one day and recorded it like that because it was so last-minute.
BE: You seem to do some of your best work when the pressure’s on.
PB: It seems like that. It seems like we have a year that’s depressing and slow and nothing’s happening, and then three months where a lot of stuff’s happening. You know, we’re trying really hard and nothing’s happening and then you stop for a little bit and it comes a lot easier.
BE: “Brandy Alexander”
PB: That was the same thing as “All Hands and the Cook.” Those are the two Marcata songs on the record, along with “Another One Goes By.” “Brandy Alexander,” I think it was Walt and Ham that came up with that. And they just recorded that. I came and tried to play something on it, and it didn’t even sound like it should have anything on it. It was supposed to be real scrappy and small.
BE: It kind of feels stripped down, which I like.
PB: Yeah, I like that one a lot.
BE: “Another One Goes By”
PB: That was the last song that we did, we just decided to do that. We had been touring with Mazarin and I thought it was a good idea and I talked to Ham and he thought it was a good idea. We talked to the other guys about it and we decided to record their song – we thought we could do a different kind of version with it. It came out really well I think. It was the very last thing we did at Marcata, after we had already recorded the Pussycats record (the Walkmen have covered Harry Nilsson’s album Pussy Cats song-for-song, which will be released later this year), and Kevin (McMahon), who was our studio engineer at Marcata, did a really fantastic job on it.
BE: It’s a cool way to end the album.
PB: Yeah, we were really happy because we really felt that – the record was mastered at that point without it – and we were thinking it kind of needs a little something different to end it.
BE: That’s about all I have – thanks for your time.
PB: Thank you.