With the release of their seventh album, Heaven, The Walkmen present a grown-up, cooled down version of their former selves. The band has been making music together for over a decade now, and, with so much time and experimentation passed, it’s no surprise they have pulled in the reigns and put forth a cleaner, tighter album than ever heard from them before.
A standout act amongst a generation of top-notch indie artists, these guys are an example of thoroughly hard working musicians, dedicated to their craft. It’s apparent to ears (especially if you have one of the 1000 copies of the band’s recent limited edition 7″ featuring previously unreleased tracks from Heaven including “Dance With Your Partner” and “Vermeer ’65″) that the group has evolved over the years, and so have its members, who now have families spread across the country. Although they have been forced to adapt their creative process to shifts in their everyday lives, The Walkmen’s roots were firmly planted many years ago, and are only getting stronger from the sounds of Heaven.
We caught up with bassist Pete Bauer, before the band set out on tour with Father John Misty, to talk about his thoughts on how The Walkmen have progressed, the band’s creative process, and their place in the rapidly changing music industry.
So it’s been over ten years since The Walkmen began paying; what is the biggest change since your first album, and what remains the same in your opinion?
I think we have sort of a sound that has been there from the start…or a feel of playing together that came together pretty quickly…where you get a sense of the basic makeup of our band. We were really comfortable playing together pretty quickly. So that’s really hung around. That’s always there, but we are always trying to do something different or get away from it, but then once you start getting too far away, you start falling back on what you need to get the point — of whatever you are doing — across. It’s nothing tangible…I don’t know…there probably are tangible parts to it, but it’s just the instruments and playing together.
I get it, it’s more of a feeling during the creative process. How do you like playing the new stuff compared to some of your older material at shows?
Nothing feels older or newer anymore, but sometimes when someone says will you play this or that song, and we play it, it’s just awful. I mean we just don’t know what were doing or…there is a song called “Little house of Savages” we tried to play recently, which was just so bad. It sounded incredibly bad.
Do you think that is a practice thing or a not-your-thing-anymore kind of thing?
I think its like an it’s-not-the-kind-of-thing-we-are-into thing. (Laughing). I mean, no one was doing the wrong thing, but it certainly didn’t sound like it was supposed to. You couldn’t point at the guy screwing up, and blame him. It was just like, something is genuinely wrong here, and I don’t know what it is. So some of the old — essentially the really loud stuff — feels like that, where you cannot fully feel responsible for it.
It makes sense to outgrow a song or sound. I read that you were listening to some current indie bands, as well as Frank Sinatra, while recording Heaven; think this played into the final product?
I don’t know, it’s just sort of what we are listening to, I don’t think it has too much bearing on what we were doing, you know? I kind of feel like this record is its own thing. I really ended up listening to a lot of this record. I felt like it was kind of its own world, but I do think the Frank Sinatra thing has some bearing because of some technical things that kind of follow that.
Singing with really good diction, and incredibly strongly with a full voice; that’s a very Frank Sinatra thing, that maybe in the grand scheme of people singing in this day, just doesn’t really happen anymore…especially in rock music.
What are some current bands that you guys dig right now?
There is no one brand new that I can think of that I am really feeling that much. We just played with Vampire Weekend yesterday and a couple of other people, so that was really fun.
The Hurricane Sandy Relief Concert, right?
Yep. I listen to them a lot, and Hamilton was saying the same thing, that he has been listening to them a lot recently. They’re a good band.
How was that show? As a fixture in the indie scene, what is it like at a show like that, playing with some of the newer bands on the scene?
I really loved it, I had a great time. It was a lot of fun, and I think everyone did really fun things. I had never seen the Dirty Projectors play before, and I really liked what they did.
Seemed like a great festival.
I like being at those things when they are very homegrown, and you are playing with a lot of likeminded bands that you end up getting along with. [...] I mean sometimes festivals are like that, where you run into a couple of people and have a big gang of folk, but it’s rare, so it was fun. You look forward to that stuff. If you travel all the time, you are excited to see other bands, [whose music] you enjoy and are friends with.
Back to the new album, “Jerry Jr.’s Tune” has so much going on, I’m really curious as to how one even writes a song like that?
Well, originally that had proper singing on it I think, and it was just a regular song. For the recording of it, we decided to do it instrumentally with only some of the backend vocal stuff. It was still four and a half minutes long. So, I think the last thing we did when we mixed it was just sliced up the section where the most stuff was happening. It was very on purpose, right at the beginning of the guitar solo, we just fade the song up and fade it out as fast as possible. It’s a really cool song.
Pretty interesting creative process. What’s the song writing/recording process like for you guys ordinarily, is it a group dynamic?
It has always been a group thing. I think it has gotten more individualized over the years. Paul usually will do the first step by himself now, and then Ham will write the words, and then we will turn it into band music on the spot in the studio. Whereas it used to be five guys all messing around. Everyone has to like everything still, which I think is a good thing. It’s a good way of making sure that you don’t end up with stuff that is really struggling.
Is there one song that’s a standout for you on the album?
I like the song “We Can’t Be Beat,” and I had virtually nothing to do with that song. (Laughing). I think I like stomping my feet…but I like that song the best. That one, Ham wrote the whole thing before and had it all planned out before. I think it’s the best song on the album. It’s really fun to play because it’s fun to get into it and sing along.
With the experience the band’s gained over the years, was the experience of putting this record together different?
I think we did it the old-fashioned way, with a record radio and tried to get on the radio.
Do you think the industry is in your favour at this point?
God no. If it were 1978, I would be a millionaire. I would be sailing on a see full of money in a boat full of money. (Laughing). It’s terrible. It couldn’t be worse. It’s not in anybody’s favour, it’s the opposite of good for anyone. There is nobody who would say it is better for them.
That sounds bleak! Is it that bad out there?
I like that some of the bigger bands out there are weirder than they were 20 years ago. There is less masculine backgroundness to everything mainstream, which is nice. And I think that probably has to do with there being so much diversity of options, but beyond that, it’s nice for people to be able to make money doing what they are doing, and live somewhat not stressed about doing it again.
You mean the pressure to record album after album?
It’s not a good thing that most artists are stressing out about stuff like that. But maybe it’s a good thing…we are always stressing about making our next record, and making sure we can keep making records, and maybe that’s better than being blasé about it, and thinking you have the right to make a record because you don’t. I think if you want to do this for the rest of your life, you have to be very passionate about it.Published January 16, 2012