For the past decade, New York rockers The Walkmen have been slowly and steadily perfecting their sound: a building mix of layered ‘50s-style guitars, epic horns, whip-like drum cracks, and frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s unmistakable wails. On Lisbon, the band’s stunning sixth record, there are themes that carry over from past efforts: fears of growing up and growing old, notions of being a stranger in a strange land, and insecurities that range from the personal to the public. But there’s also a comfort that seems to radiate from the album’s ten tracks, as if to say that The Walkmen has hit its stride — even if that stride is marked by self-conscious introspection.
Like fellow NYC-ers The National, The Walkmen has figured out how to age gracefully, and nowhere has it been more obvious than on Lisbon. (See the tense mid-album track “Victory,” or the oddly listenable self-pity anthem “Woe Is Me” for a taste.) There’s a sadness that pours from this collection, but it’s a confident sadness, and one that’s immediately relatable and truth-filled. This Tuesday The Walkmen take to the stage at the Santa Barbara Bowl supporting Seattle folkies Fleet Foxes.
Below, I catch up with bassist/organist Pete Bauer about Lisbon, iCloud, and growing up in indie rock.
Can you tell me a bit about your time in Lisbon and how those trips helped to inform the most recent record? Well, when we made the record we’d only really been there for like 48 hours. It was really just [vested in] this feeling you get when you travel some place new that feels sort of strange to you. It really had nothing to do with Lisbon itself, probably. It’s just that feeling you get as a traveler, that things have a little bit more mystery to them than usual. But that’s also reflected in what our songs tend to be about. Since then we’ve gone back, though, and we’ve had a great interaction with everybody there. I really love it. It’s a wonderful place.
I read somewhere that you guys had amassed something like 30 songs for this album. Yeah. It was a very longwinded process. I think we had this idea that we’d just finish everything we start, and we really finished some garbage. [Laughs] There were 18 songs that were useful, and we really wanted to make a short record with like ten songs. Right now we have like 20 songs for our new record and it’s sort of daunting. Hopefully out of those 20 we can make a pretty good album, which were hopefully going to record in November and then just be done with it.
Do you guys take breaks in between albums, or is everyone kind of constantly writing? You want to at least keep going on some level because if you take a year off, or six months off, your brain atrophies or something. [Laughs.] Even if you take a month off or two months off, which we kind of did this time, getting back into things is sort of confusing for a little while.
The five of you are living in different cities nowadays. How does that work when it comes time to start putting a record together? Yeah, I’m in Philadelphia and so is our drummer. Our singer and our bass player live in New York and our guitar player lives in New Orleans. We’re really excited about all this “Cloud talk.” I thought I downloaded the iCloud, but it turned out to be a total rip-off version, like when The Titanic came out and somebody decided to make a documentary called Titanic and put it straight to video. But we just email stuff back and forth wildly. Of course internet doesn’t work, so I’m sitting on my neighbor’s porch all the time feverishly trying to steal his connection. There’s a lot of computers involved — a lot more than you want them to be.
How is that working so far with the new album? Good. We just got together last week and we’re going to have Phil Ek produce [the next record]. We’ve never really had a producer start a record with us from the ground up, so it was really helpful to have him there. It was really different. I feel like we’re going to cook along a high speed. Hopefully it works.
On Lisbon you guys employed two producers. How did that work out? I feel like we were kind of feeling our way through that whole thing. Chris Zane, who did You and Me and the first half of Lisbon, did a great job, but we just got too comfortable. We were in the same studio for too long, and I think we started thinking we’d come in every month and record ten songs until we grew old and died and never released another record. We had to change just because we fell into this hole of writing songs, recording them, and never really finishing anything. Then we went down to Dallas with John Congleton and we started having deadlines. He did a great job really making it sound different, which made us feel like we were really doing something again, as opposed to that weird process we had gotten ourselves into. But both of those guys are really great and totally different. It definitely helped to give us a more well-rounded [sound].
How’s working with Phil so far? He’s got some place that he’s recommending outside of Seattle called Bear Creek. I think we’ll start recording there, and if he wants us to move somewhere else we’ll do that. I think we’re really just trusting him to know what’s best for us at this point, which is very very different than anything we’ve ever done before.
After ten years, do you feel like writing, recording, or being in a band has gotten any easier? Well, no. I mean, you really feel like you’re on the edge of the great abyss with this sort of thing, being a musician. I think we would love to feel comfortable, and I think we would do something really different if we were comfortable, but I think we all feel like we’re constantly battling just to stay alive. Hopefully that works out and we won’t feel that way anymore, but I also think it keeps you in fighting shape, and maybe that’s a good thing. I definitely feel more like the old guy on the scene now with all these young bands. I feel like we’ve seen three rounds of people come and go.
It’s a long time to be doing this, and you definitely need to figure out a new angle on it every single time. It’s a young person’s thing to be in a band, I think, and as you get older you become musicians, and you’ve got to react to that. You can’t have the same kind of swagger and attitude — you’ve got to find something new that makes it worthwhile. I think we were able to do that because we kind of always wanted to be old. [Laughs] Any sort of youth that we had was sort of a put-on.
Are there bands that you guys look to as models of how to age gracefully? It’s really hard because there isn’t one! [Laughs] Even bands that we love, there’s all these steel wheels involved in it now. It’s like, ‘whoa, what happened, guys?’ There’s just something inherently embarrassing about five grown men all hanging out together, as opposed to one guy getting old and kind of weird, like Bob Dylan. Tom Waits makes sense. But five guys pretending they’re in a gang — you’re constantly thinking ‘Why don’t you go home and hang out with your family?’ It feels like a mid-life crisis or something. [Laughs] My wife is yelling at me and saying we’re not that old, but I’m not saying it’s us — I’m talking about anybody. When you take a picture of five grown men — like, when you need a new press shot, it’s just impossible. Five guys together in a picture is a bad picture. There’s no good picture that looks like that, you know? Five 18-year-old boys in leather jackets, that’s cool. Five 30-year-old men, though, that’s just too bad.
As a musician, how do you negotiate that? You really have to really figure out what kind of music is true to your life and how you’re living and who you are. I think we’ve done that, and that’s an admirable thing. I think that’s a hard thing to do and I think we’ve done it in a way where we feel like we all live lives we can be proud of and we’re not just ‘dudes in a band.’ That’s always been very important to us. And hopefully that means we could be lifers, like some of these guys who have been around for 30 years and are still making interesting records. I feel like we still have another two or three that could still be really good and really different from what we’ve done so far.
I also think we’re negative enough about other people’s stuff to know when we’ve really just done ourselves in. [Laughs] I look back to our first tour, and even when the songs were bad it still sounded kind of cool. Now there’s definitely times when we play something and go ‘that is definitely not cool — someone press erase on that.’
I heard that you guys made a pact to never play tours longer than ten days. Is that true? Yeah, we failed. We failed miserably. When it’s up to us that’s true, but the problem is it’s very rarely up to us. For instance, we’re going to do 30 days with Fleet Foxes, but that’s up to them. But they’re also in a bus — we’re too cheap to buy a bus, so we’re going to drive in rental cars behind ‘em.
Speaking of, this is quite the bill. How did you hook up with the Fleet Foxes guys? They asked us. We met them one time a long time ago and we just really love their band. I think they like our band a lot, too. It was just a really good match-up. Even though our bands don’t sound very much alike I think they think about things in a way that we do. I don’t know how to put it into words exactly, but I get that sixth sense that they’re the real deal and I love ‘em, so… I couldn’t be happier.
Any secrets in store for these dates? Are there any elements of the live show you’re especially excited about? It’s definitely a challenge for us because we’re doing something with a band that’s a lot more laidback than we’re used to. Usually when we’re opening for somebody we’re always opening for, like, Incubus. [Laughs] We’ve never played these big places where I feel like we can play the songs we actually like, and I feel like we have that option with [Fleet Foxes] and their crowd. I think we can play quieter music and have people pay attention who don’t know us. That’s kind of really exciting for us.
We’re also all learning the trumpet and we’re all playing the trombone. We have all these horn songs, so we figured we’d just see if we could play them ourselves. We’ll see if by Santa Barbara we can get it down. I feel like by the time we hit the West Coast we’re still not going to be quite good enough yet. We’re getting close, but there are a couple squawks in there that are pretty embarrassing. We want to make sure we’re squawk-free before we bring those out.
The Walkmen play the Santa Barbara Bowl with Fleet Foxes this Tuesday, September 13 at 7 p.m. Call ) 962-7411 or visit sbbowl.com for tickets.