The Walkmen embrace a new path

It’s always heartening to witness a spunky, young band blossom into a sum greater than their whole.

The Walkmen 370 (photo credit: Arno Frugier)
The Walkmen 370
(photo credit: Arno Frugier)
It’s always heartening, whether it was REM and U2 in the post-punk landscape of the 1980s or Arcade Fire and Kings of Leon more recently, to witness a spunky, young band actually blossom into a sum greater than their whole.
Most contenders disintegrate along the way before proving they deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the upper echelon of rocking visionaries.
Others, like The Walkmen, have persevered, and after 10 years skirting the indie rock fringes with their dense brand of passionate, driven music, the American quintet are ready to carry the “rock as salvation” gauntlet into mainstream acceptance.
For a band known for its uncompromising, detached urban squall built on the skeletons of kings of detachment like The Velvet Underground and Television, the East Coast group of 30-somethings who’ve known each other since high school in Washington DC are testing out the different clothing of a more direct and embracing approach to see how it feels.
According to band co-founder and multi-instrumentalist Pete Bauer, it’s a subject of constant discussion.
“It’s a fine line to walk, to find of place of earnest celebration without coming off as corny,” he said last week from the New Jersey shore where he was vacationing with his young family, a short distance from their home in Philadelphia.
“You want to get to a point of inspiring and lifting people up, but you can’t go overboard. I love that kind of music when Springsteen or U2 does it, but it comes from a different place and era from us. When they do it, it doesn’t come off as cloying at all. But we’re not going to go out there with all our guns blazing with 40 pianos and 40 guitars.”
Instead, The Walkmen – consisting of Bauer, enigmatic vocalist Hamilton Leithauser, Paul Maroon (guitar, piano), Walter Martin (organ/bass), and Matt Barrick (drums) – are doing it their way, as exemplified by Heaven, their sixth album, and the first one where they dare to shed the mask of black-clothed irony and shoot for the stars. Whereas they were once fueled by rage and hormones, they’re now powered by exuberance, maturity, and even happiness – without having lost any of their trademark intensity.
“We’ve always had this detachment, as compared to people who really wear their hearts on their sleeves.
But with this album it was exciting trying to get to this earnest place that sounds like it’s not forced and actually have meaning for us and the audience,” said Bauer.
Reviewers have uniformly rated the album as the group’s most accomplished – a sterling compliment considering the excellence of previous efforts like 2004’s Bows and Arrows and 2008’s You and Me. And some sites – like Pitchfork and Stereogum – have labeled it one of the best albums of 2012.
The title song is sure to recall the heyday of ’80s and ’90s college rock with its pulsating intertwined guitars, vintage organ sound and Leithauser’s voice used as another totally versatile musical instrument. But the album also offers a textured sound, with acoustic guitars and gentle moments reflecting that fact that the one-time bohemian garage rockers are now all married with children.
“We’ve been waiting to be old men for most of our lives,” joked Bauer. “All the people we’ve always looked up to and learned from were older artists. But at the same time, you’re playing together in a band – which by definition is like a gang of young men.
“We’ve been playing together since most of us were 14, some since the fifth grade. The trick is to find a way to continue doing something with meaning and with energy when you’re no longer a kid. That’s hard to balance, but we’ve been lucky. We’re making better music now than ever.”
That’s saying a lot, because since forming in 2000 out of the ashes of two semi-successful indie bands – Jonathan Fire Eater and The Recoys – The Walkmen have gone from strength to strength. Their 2002 debut album Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, was strong on atmosphere in instrumentation with vintage pianos, jangly guitars and odd rhythms highlighted by Leithauser’s evocative vocal stylings.
The members had collectively migrated to New York City, where they were invariably lumped in with the burgeoning garage rock scene there exemplified by The Strokes.
“We had all come from this ’60s garage rock ethos, and had all played in bands like that. But with The Walkmen, we decided to focus on very modern music.
So of course, right when we were getting established, all these garage bands like The Strokes suddenly became really popular,” said Bauer.
“At the time, we did think it was an albatross to be labeled part of that New York scene, which is kind of silly looking back on it. But we were young and arrogant and we wanted to stand on our own and not be compared to this guy or that guy. We probably should have been more benevolent, because looking back, it was a very interesting time and some of those bands were great.”
The Walkmen became great as well, honing what Bauer described as “flying by the seat of our pants with raw energy” into craft that developed with each album.
“By You and Me, we had become much better musicians, thinking about what we were doing and learning how to play together better,” he said. “We’ve been really lucky and worked really hard at finding ways to move forward – it’s not something that just happens like it does when you’re 20 and thriving on the excitement of being in a band.”
Instead, the band received a different kind of incentive when it went out tours last year with Arcade Fire and Fleet Foxes – based on a common bond and a sense of kinship centered on the goal of making music that endures.
“You feel like someone else is out there taking music as seriously as you’re taking it,” said Bauer, adding that the band came away with the desire to create an album that reflected that commitment.
Heaven fulfills that desire in spades and is the calling card that should catapult the band into headlining status around the world. That’s why Israeli audiences are lucky that the band’s show in Tel Aviv on August 14 is taking place in the cozy confines of The Barby Club. Next time, it might be Hayarkon Park, and you can say you saw them back when… For Bauer and the rest of The Walkmen, it doesn’t really matter whether they graduated to arenas and stadiums after years in the clubs – they’ve known since they began that the band was a long-term affair.
“When we started out, the musicians and friends that made up The Walkmen were people that wanted to be musicians for life. It’s not a fad or a fashion statement,” said Bauer. “A lot of people aren’t that lucky to get a job they love, and we’re proud that we can live the kind of lives we lead.”
It seems The Walkmen have carved out their own little version of heaven. And luckily, they’re sharing it with the rest of us.