The Walkmen: “You Put On This Suit And You Feel Like You’re Doing Something”

We spoke with Pete Bauer so that he could explain to us how the group works

They are performing tonight at the opening concerts of San Miguel Primavera Sound and presenting the very recently-released “Heaven”, a mature, sensitive, masculine album sure to become a classic. We’re speaking with Pete Bauer so that he can tell us The Walkmen’s secrets.

Heaven could act as a sort of compendium of the distinguished group The Walkmen’s entire career. It brings together everything sown in their fertile early albums, and spreads it all out to dry over the ground won in Lisbon and “You & Me”, their masterpieces of maturity. In a sense, it is also the definitive comeback of an entirely grown-up band. A band that has thoroughly mastered their instruments and learned to channel the scope of their sensitivity perfectly; always rocking back and forth between anxiety and calm, seemingly begging for the strength necessary to get to their feet. I still think that as a group they are much less well-known than they should be and for years I have been singing their praises at every given opportunity. Now I have finally got my chance to talk to the group, and I’m a bit nervous.

On the other side of the conversation is Pete Bauer, who plays various instruments in the group, with whom I have scheduled the interview to take place via my Jurassic Nokia telephone. The connection looks to be complicated: it’s hard to guess whether the speaker on my mobile phone is connected or not, and to top it all off, the battery of the recorder—which is supposedly fine—starts giving me trouble just minutes after I start talking to Bauer (who will go on the Arc de Triomf stage in Barcelona to officiate the opening—and free—day of San Miguel Primavera Sound). I pray that the interview won’t go down the drain due to technical difficulties, but when they put me through to Pete on the other side of the ocean I have somehow managed to get everything ready, without knowing how. However, I’m still afraid that something will go wrong at any moment, so I decide to cut directly to the chase.

"We wanted to make something that we can be very proud of, but that also reached out to people"

“Heaven”, the title, sounds totally big and pure, with this cover in totally immaculate white. Can we say that as a band, The Walkmen have reached their own heaven, musically speaking?

Yes, I guess there are parts of that. Yeah, I think we were really proud of how it came out. It’s a hard title, ‘cause sometimos I think it comes across as sort of trite. But at the same time, we didn’t mean it that way. It seems like a very serious kind of feeling, as well as sort of “they are trying to put what?” But, well, we’re so much happier with the record than anything we’ve made before. But I don’t know, it seems like a good, big kind of feeling for the music on that. Does that make sense to you?

In what sense did you want to continue with the “Lisbon” style?

I think we’re trying to get away from that. I think that in the last two records, “ You & Me” and “ Lisbon”, we learnt a lot about how to play together and became a really good band in terms of playing with each other and working on songs and everything like that, and so we wanted to try to do something different and have a much fuller sound now—“Lisbon” was purposely quite sparse.

It sounds dirtier than “Lisbon”. How was recording with Phil Ek?

I think that the songs themselves had a very defined sound, a lot of parts to them. There’s a lot of stuff that we didn’t know we were gonna do beforehand and when Phil came in, he recorded it in a way that we could continue to add to it, and it would ease and nothing ever felt full or overwrought. That’s a really difficult thing for someone recording to do with us. I think he did a fantastic job in that sense. Like I notice when I was overdubbing, I could always find a place to make it fit, as opposed to in the past, when I tried to overdub, it was impossible to put it on the basic music. So that was a good feeling.

Where were you recording it? Was the place an influence?

It was a really kind of wet and snowy Pacific Northwest winter, so yes, that probably had some sort of influence. You know, that was where you spent days and nights, but mostly we were in the studio the whole time. It probably has more that Northwest feel to it than our past music does, just by virtue of the people we were hanging out with and the place.

You recorded in Mississippi and Memphis before, and it’s curious to see how the musical heritage of the place can get into the sound.

I think maybe there’s something to that. There’s definitely a feel to the actual place you’re at. It’s always been great to get away and not to do it in New York, at home, or somehing like that. It’s really different. You feel like you’re really working on the record.

I wanted to ask about the lyrics. Does Hamilton write them, or do all of you write them together? What are they all about?

Mostly it’s Hamilton and Walter helps him write some of the texts, he writes a bunch of words too… but I think Hamilton kind of comes up with the basic idea and the best ones probably are when he writes the whole thing in one shot.

To what extent do you write them together, talking about it in a democratic way?

It’s not democratic, but it’s more what you’re happier with. Like the songs that you don’t like what he did on them, well, you probably don’t make it. That’s democratic [laughs]… For the most part, I think they did a fantastic job on them. They all came together really well. I think this record was a lot smoother. I think some of the stuff he did is really fantastic.

"“A Hundred Miles Off” was really a struggle, a struggle to make and it really sucked when it came out and then everyone hated it"

Besides the lyrics, the sound is also getting rawer and subtler.

Yes, it’s more natural. We didn’t have this whole idea of making something sparse or making something this way or that. We sort of play to our strengths more.

It’s amazing how it’s minimalistic, but at the same it’s really sensitive and touching, expressing very big emotions.

Yes, that was the thing we really cared about the most. I think that in the past, even if we have not tried to be this way, people have said that we are sort of aloof. They like our music, but they don’t feel attached, like, in the same way as they do to some other things. So we wanted to make something that we can be very proud of, but that also reached out to people, and sort of touched the heartstrings or whatever. So that there could be a real connection, on that very basic level, not in the sense like “I like the drum sounds”.

Nowadays you sound like a band totally trusting your instincts, and in that sense I wanted to ask you about “A Hundred Miles Off”, the album that changed your status as a band. Can we say it that way?

Yeah, it really tanked us, it really killed us. “A Hundred Miles Off” was really a struggle, a struggle to make and it really sucked when it came out and then everyone hated it (he laughs). It really stunk! But I can understand why it was off-putting to people. In “You & Me”, I think we were really, we were sort of down on our luck outside of the band; we had these ideas that we really loved so that record was great in that it was kind of us against everybody. You know, our record label dropped us. Our manager quit. Sort of stuff like that went down which is not very pleasant. And we were able to stick it out and we very much trusted the fact that we had these songs that we loved.

From that record on, it is easier to recognise the influence of music from the 50s. Do you listen to a lot of music from that time? Not a lot of bands nowadays seem to have these influences. It’s really curious.

Yes, I think probably, yeah, I think we went to sort of trying to play music that we—it was like we decided to do what we really like to do and not worry about being a modern rock’n’roll band or whatever… like answering to other people or something. Ever since then, we have more that influence than we did before. We drew on things on the last three records. It’s the heart of rock’n’roll, that sound. I don’t think we’ve made, like, genre music, but I think it’s like a lot of people who’ve done really great things, you draw from there and then each of you make your own thing to do out of it.

Let’s talk about the shows and the light shows, celebrating the 10th anniversary. How does the band see the stuff from the beginning now? How do you feel playing the first songs?

It’s a lot of fun. We did a couple of those shows, where we played like forever, three hours or something, and really played everything. And it was really enjoyable. You know, it’s nice to look back, where maybe in the past, you kind of were running from the past, it’s nice to finally be able to have enough space from it to say “ok we did this, but we’ve also done something else”. You don’t have to worry about being verified anymore. So it is nice to be able to play everything.

And how does the older, noisier stuff fit in with the newer, lighter stuff?

It doesn’t feel that different to us. It feels like a different type of song, maybe Ham’s melodies and words are more different, but it all fits together in the same group of people. Some of it feels more useful and some of it feels more fresh, you know, very present to what we’re doing now. To me it’s all pieces of the same sort of thing. You know? It’s been a lot of fun. I think we’re really gearing up, now, we have a different type of show, and … When we were playing the songs at first, the old ones, they were very stand-offish, sort of very heavy, and as we’ve gotten older, we have figured out a way to play a lot of them so it doesn’t feel that way. It feels more like who we are now. The ones that aren’t like that, we just don’t play, I guess. You have to play what you are feeling.

"I think we’re really happy with the choices we’ve made and the people that we spend our lives with; a lot of music is about the people we spend our lives with"

I remember your concert from last year at Primavera, you sounded totally crafted as a band. And I was really surprised by your image, the way you were moving and interacting on stage, wearing suits. Totally elegant and masculine.

Yes, with that sort of thing, we were always very scared of seeming superficial in any way, but at the same time, it’s like, you’re up there sort of doing a job, and it’s nice, you put on this suit and you feel like you’re doing something. If you’re up there in a sweatshirt, you feel like a slob. And things like that, like light shows, we were always very apathetic about anything like that, but it does help. You want to get your point across to people and you’ve got to use every possible asset that you have to do that, because it’s a hard thing to do. So, yeah, I think we wanted to put our show together, so that it seems like we’re trying to convey something to people.

The image totally matches the new music, which is more elegant and subtle. I also wanted to ask you about the promotional photos, where you appear in a dining room, on a sofa, with some children. Do you want to give this domestic impression?

Sort of, yeah. I think there’s something interesting about that to us. ‘Cause that’s how we live our lives. You know, we have like nine kids between all of us now. So we thought it’d be fun to do, that’s where we’re coming from, so we thought we should take pictures that convey that, as opposed to, like, this really boring five guys standing around a room feeling that you get from most bands. I think we’re really happy with the choices we’ve made and the people that we spend our lives with; a lot of music is about the people we spend our lives with. So that was sort of the idea, with having all the kids and the wives and everybody in the pictures, because I think it’s much more reflective of who we are than, like, this gang of jerks who play rock music (he laughs). Definitely, I’m very proud of having my family and I love them very much, so it made more sense to each of us now that we are all sort of at that place.

Getting back to the issue of recording, during “Lisbon” you were discussing the tracklist a lot and redoing things. For “Heaven” were you clearer about the album that you wanted to make from the beginning, or did you figure it out during the recording?

You figure it out as you go, but then it becomes clear. And the songs are affected by that when you start to realise what you want it to be. So like the song, like the title track, it became what it is because of all the other songs around it. It’s, like, the last thing that we finished. And it kind of came from having finished everything else. It was reflective of the album that way.

Can you tell me if there’s a subject, a topic all through the album?

I wouldn’t say there’s a topic all through the album. It’s not like we are singing about very specific things, it’s more a feeling throughout the whole album as opposed to a topic, I guess. I think we are always trying to convey an experience as opposed to, like, an idea. It’s all kind of phenomena-based as opposed to, like, psychology-based.

In some songs, like “Southern Heart”, the pain is really heavier than in other albums.

We were trying to express like a real feeling. We have always been trying to do that, our effort was spent there and in other places, and this time it was like we thought we were comfortable about what we were doing musically and everything. We felt like we were capable of doing that in a stronger sense than we were able to before. I think it’s a matter of comfort or something to be able to have better songs and better recordings of them.

What would you say is the most important element in a Walkmen song?

Probably the singing. I think that everything—Paul comes up with all the basic music, like the first idea. Most of the time, what he’s thinking about is what will be an interesting thing for him to sing on. What would spur him to come up with something interesting, something that would be different from the last thing we did. I think that’s probably the most important element, the point of all our songs, the point of any of the stuff we put on it, the drumbeat, whatever I put on, or whatever—anything—is what sort of spurs the singing forward.

What’s the latest thing you have to learn regarding music?

Oh, I have got a lot to learn [laughs]. Myself and Walter, who plays bass in our band, switched instruments like 5 years ago and at that point I didn’t play piano at all, so it has been a real uphill battle for me just learning what I do know, to play the organ and the piano. Things like that, [laughs] I feel like I’m basically a beginner at all times. Everybody else has been playing their instrument for like 20 years.

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