The Walkmen must be feeling pretty upbeat given the wildly enthusiastic response to the band's seventh album Heaven, a record which also parallels the quintet's tenth anniversary.
It has also been the best of times for The Walkmen personally; all of the guys — singer Hamilton Leithuaser, guitarist Paul Maroon, bassist/keyboardist Walter Martin, organist Peter Bauer, drummer Matthew Barrick and are married with children and that tender, domestic viewpoint is quietly reflected in Heaven's gentler temperament.
The Walkmen, on tour now and returning to New York to play Terminal 5 on October 18, visited The Alternate Side earlier this spring for a live session. Between selections from Heaven, the guys tackled an array of subjects, from the horrible sound of an arm breaking (Paul's arm, to be exact) to working with Phil Ek, the first time The Walkmen have fully worked with an outside producer.
Check out the session this Friday, June 22, on TAS on 91.5 WNYE at 11 a.m. EDT, also streaming on The Alternate Side. Below, read video highlights and watch video of The Walkmen in Studio A.
Eric Holland: On this tour not only do you have songs from the new album, Heaven, to play, but it’s the tenth anniversary of Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone. I imagine you’re going back to that album as well?
Hamilton Leithauser: Yeah, we play some tracks off that as well.
Eric: You guys go back to high school.
Hamilton: Most of us have been playing music together for twenty-five years. Since 1987. How long did the Grateful Dead play together?
Paul Maroon: I don’t know. I don’t think they even know.
Eric: How have you kept it together?
Hamilton: I don’t know how we’ve kept it together. Pete, maybe you should answer that.
Peter Bauer: How we kept it together?
Hamilton: Pete’s the stablizing force so that’s why I turned to him.
Pete: I never heard that before in my whole life. Last night you were calling me a hothead. I think we’ve been really careful to maintain friendships and always stuck it out, miraculously. We never really had that many huge, dramatic moments between us.
Hamilton: Didn’t you punch Matt?
Paul: I’ve punched everyone in this room.
Hamilton: Have you punched Walt?
Paul: No. We’ve had our moments ….
Eric: Hamilton, didn’t you break Paul’s arm once?
Hamilton: I did. That wasn’t out of anger. That was an accident. Arm-wrestling. Just for fun.
Eric: Can you talk about how “Can’t Be Beat” came together lyrically and the ambitious three-part harmony. Is that something that has precedent?
Hamilton: We wanted to do back-up vocals for a really long time, like ten years and finally we worked up the courage to do it. So we started yesterday and they sound pretty good now.
Eric: Ten years, anniversary, can we go through your history and pick out some defining moments in your career? Pick out some moments that are tattooed into your brain.
Hamiton: The first big one for me is breaking Paul’s arm, honestly. That was a long time ago and I think it was right when we finished our first record. I don’t know how many years we spent in that studio that we owned at the time — we had a recording studio up in Harlem — and that’s what I think of when I think of the studio. We were there for six or seven years and that’s the definiting image for me. The sensation of Paul’s arm snapping and his grip going week and his arm feeling cold as I slammed it down on the piano bench. I literally thought I ripped Paul’s arm off. It was so horrible.
Paul: It was a really acoustically bright room so it was like a gunshot.
Hamilton: It was so, so loud. And feeling it was so horrible. It was like Matt hitting the snare.
Paul: I remember talking to the janitor of the building later and saying, “You know, technically I hadn’t lost [the arm-wrestling] yet.” And he said, “No, you lost.” I said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Eric: Where was Marcata [Recording]?
Hamilton: 132nd and Broadway.
Eric: You decided to build that studio when you were very new to the studio, coming up from D.C.?
Pete: No, we’d been here for six or seven years.
Hamilton: It was new for our band and was around the same time of our band starting.
Eric: Was it a leap of faith to plow money into a studio like that?
Pete: It was.
Hamilton: We were trying to figure out what to do and Paul had the idea of building a studio which was a weird idea. And we did it. We did it as a business, to record other people. Then we quickly realized that we didn’t know how to engineer so we were pretending that we knew how to do stuff. We literally had tape spooling on the ground. It was really embarassing. It was sort of like a “Three’s Company” episode where there’s something going on in the kitchen and everyone’s pretending that everything is normal. Basically, it became a great rehearsal studio and we hired an outside engineer to take over.
Paul: We did our first record there.
Eric: And you self-produced it. You had a DIY attitude?
Hamilton: Very much so. We silk-screened our own t-shirts and our own vinyl jackets and record covers.
Eric: It’s just been the last couple of records where you used an outside producer.
Paul: Just this last one. The first where we really went in from step one and handed it over to someone. [For the] last album [Lisbon] we were just dabbling with someone as a co-producer.
Eric: How did it come about with Phil Ek on this new record?
Hamilton: He called us and it was just two or three days after that Fleet Foxes record, Helplessness Blues, had come out and we all had it and thought it just sounded fantastic. We were also trying to figure out how — and with who — we were going to do this record. When our manager told us that the guy who had just done Helplessness Blues had called, wanting to work with us, we thought that was a pretty good coincidence. We went with it.
Eric: Had you already been touring with [Fleet Foxes] at that point?
Hamilton: No, not yet. Paul: We were setting it up.
Eric: You’re all married with children now, aren’t you?
Eric: Talk about how that’s influenced the music.
Hamilton: Well, the lyrics in [“Heaven”] definitely had that in mind. I don’t know. Besides the fact that we’re a lot more efficient with our scheduling now, because you have to be? And maybe it streamlines our songwriting because when you finally get the time to go to the studio and write, you get to the point that it’s all you have and you have to get it done. For me, at least.
Eric: What about the first time a band member got married and there was a married and single push and pull? I got married in November so I feel like it’s the absolute biggest change that has ever been in my life.
Hamilton: Well, if you ever have kids, it’s bigger.
Eric: Were there any bumps in your relationships as working musicians and how did you get over it?
Hamilton: We kept it together pretty well. When there’s five of us in a van, it’s tough living. But honestly, not really. Being married didn’t have much of an effect on our interaction with each other.
Eric: That song “Heaven,” I read that Phil Ek wasn’t that crazy about it.
Hamilton: That was the last thing that we did and it was right at the eleventh hour and I think that maybe psychologically Phil was closing the book on the record. We came in with that and it was a big, very long rock song that we were all excited about. So I don’t know how he feels about it now, but I think in the last two days he wasn’t really ready to take on another huge thing. He was ready to finish up a couple of mixes and get out of there. He wasn’t really with us on that one. It worked out fine.
Eric: Was Phil a taskmaster?
Hamilton: Yes, he was. He was sort of unrelenting.
Eric: Would you work with him again?
Paul: He helped a lot. He whipped us into shape because I think we’re pretty laid back. That was good.
Eric: You guys are all living in the city?
Hamilton: No. Walt and I live here. Pete and Matt live in Philadelphia and Paul lives in New Orleans.
Eric: How do you feel about the Brooklyn vibe these days? On the one hand, there’s a possibility of [it being] overblown, but it seems it could be really helpful with people like [Beirut’s] Zach Condon, Sharon Van Etten and [The National’s] Dessner brothers.
Hamilton: Playing at [Crossing Brooklyn Ferry at Brooklyn Academy of Music felt] very local. It feels like a legitimate community center so I’m glad [we played] there. I live right up the street. It feels a lot more close to home than playing at Terminal 5 or Webster Hall which is a big, flashy, New York thing, but it’s fun. But very different.