Interview: The Walkmen

The Walkmen – Photo courtesy of The Walkmen

The Walkmen – Photo courtesy of The Walkmen

It has been 10 years since The Walkmen debuted as a proper album-backed band with 2002’s “Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone.” In the decade that has passed, the East Coast-based quintet has accomplished its fair share of things, including following up the debut with six more full-lengths. However, this year was the first time The Walkmen have played Berlin in 10 years, since the group unintentionally made a name for itself, emerging as leaders of a new indie rock scene in New York City.

Of course a grand affair like returning to the German capital after years of playing Cologne, Hamburg, and Munich–-all while finding it nearly impossible to book gigs in Berlin–didn’t come so easily for the group, who toured Europe throughout June in support of the release of “Heaven.”

In fact, right at the outset, one member had to drop off the tour for family-related issues, leaving the band as a foursome. A quick scramble uncovered a friend who could fill in at the initial festival dates, but the whole band was required to be flexible, not only with instrumentation, but also set lengths and sound expectations.

Even so, all those things are somewhat old hat for the group, which has weathered its fair share of other storms in the 12 years of existence.

“We’ve been spat out of the bottom of the music industry like three times,” member Peter Bauer said in June, while seated on the lawn in front of Volksbühne, hours before the group’s sold out Berlin comeback show at Roter Salon.

He was referencing the fickleness and unpredictability of band life, yet at the same time, he said experiences like that have taught the members to keep their egos in check, pointing to the initial arrogance of the members in the beginning years, when The Walkmen had hopes of being the next Rolling Stones.

“Now we know we’re not [going to be like them], although, still’d like to be,” he said with a laugh. “[But] we’ve definitely been humbled.”

And he’s right. Bauer–along with bandmates Hamilton Leithauser, Paul Maroon, Walter Martin, and Matthew Barrick–have come a long way since those early eager days, a path which brought them to this year’s “Heaven,” a wandering collection of 13 songs boasting warm melodies and earnest lyrical complexity.

Although it’s generally the job of musicians to say their newest album is their best, whether or not they believe it, Bauer shared that “Heaven” is high up on his list; although “You & Me” is his personal favourite, he said “Heaven” is quite possibly the band’s best work.

“I’m a little hesitant about it,” he said. “It’s sort of scary I guess, ’cause to me it felt, like, so much better than all our other records, like, combined…a little bit more open-armed.”

What that feeling comes down to is difficult to pinpoint, although many will suggest it has something to do with the fact that The Walkmen took on a proper producer–-from start to finish–for the first time with “Heaven.” And admittedly, Bauer shared that it did make for a new take on the standard recording process, which is what the members were hoping for.

“[We thought], ‘let’s get a producer and do it like we did the end of the last record, where we have a producer who’s in charge and tells us what to do and tells us what day to show up,” he explained, noting that it brought with it what he referred to as “quality control.”

Yet The Walkmen style dictates that the five won’t take this same path again, at least immediately, favoring the route of new ideas and ways of recording instead, or maybe even a return to the basics.

“In the long run, I’m sure we’ll make that choice again, but I think maybe the next thing we do, maybe we do it completely by ourselves,” Bauer said. “After doing a lot of records, with a lot of different engineers even, I think we’re starting to get a little wary of, like, studio sounds.”

Instead, he hinted at something more immediate and intimate, like an eight-track experimental recording with a live sort of feeling. This would not only change up the sound, but also throw off the predictability of the “every two years” cycle of putting out albums that most bands, including The Walkmen, easily have fallen victim to.

“Hopefully whatever you do different just keeps changing things,” he said. “It’s not sports…you’re not trying to do the same thing but slightly better the next time, you know. You do that and you’re probably in a bit of trouble.”

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