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.
that we can
be very proud
of, but that
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
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.
Albums The Walkmen - Lisbon
Albums The Walkmen - Heaven
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