In Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys,” the main character is Grady Tripp, the author of a hit first novel who is struggling to finish the long, meandering, and possibly pointless follow-up.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of New York indie-rock hotshots The Walkmen, says he has never read Chabon’s book, but he and his band have found themselves in a similar sort of situation.
Like Tripp, the band is trying to finish, of all things, a novel. And although it’s not fair to call it pointless, talking to Leithauser, you get the sense that the story may not have a clear direction.
For the last few years, anyone who visited the band’s Web site saw a section about “John’s Journey,” a book-in-progress by all five Walkmen: Leithauser, guitarist Paul Maroon, drummer Matt Barrick, keyboardist Pete Bauer and bassist Walter Martin.
Out on the road, when they have time, one of the band members will decide to add to the book. Parts of it, Leithauser admits, are pretty boring. But they have one unbreakable rule. “No editing. You can’t take anything out,” he says during a phone chat from New York City.
The goal is to reach around 800 pages; talking about it, Leithauser seems to enjoy the idea of a Stephen King-sized paperback stacked next to CDs, T-shirts and stickers on the merchandise tables at Walkmen shows. It’s not clear how far along they are; an excerpt on the band Web site comes from Chapter 17, although it reads like an opening chapter.
When it comes to music, however, there’s much less of a struggle. This year has been a productive one for The Walkmen; Leithauser and crew released their third album, “A Hundred Miles Off,” wrote songs for a fourth, recorded a song-for-song cover of the 1974 Harry Nilsson album “Pussy Cats” and vacated their studio, which was slated for demolition. The dynamic of the band changed as well, with two of its members—Barrick and Maroon—moving to Philadelphia.
(All five members are originally from Washington, D.C., and they all moved to New York City around 1998, as they headed to different universities.)
“It’s actually made it better,” says Leithauser. “We work a lot better in small groups.”
With five members in the same room, it was a case of “just too many cooks in the kitchen,” he adds.
As if to underscore his point, Leithauser mentions that The Walkmen have written seven new tunes, “a lot of them horn-based.”
So it seems that the band entered another stage in its evolution. The first two Walkmen albums—2002’s “Everybody Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone” and 2004’s “Bows and Arrows”—had a dark, wintry feel, full of shimmery guitars and moody, mournful organs. With “Hundred Miles,” the band was aiming for “a more casual sound,” Leithauser says.
Following “Hundred Miles,” The Walkmen began work on “Pussy Cats.” At first,the band to just record a few songs. “But,” Leithauser says, “after the fourth one, we said, `Let’s just do them all while we’re here.’”
Nilsson damaged his vocal chords while making “Pussy Cats.” As the story goes, his voice was in bad shape to begin with, but he didn’t want to lose drinking buddy John Lennon as a collaborator, so he ignored the pain and pushed ahead.
Redoing the disc seemed like an oddly appropriate choice for Leithauser, who often pushes the limits of his own voice in concert.
However, Leithauser says there’s no connection, other than being able to sympathize. He says he’s never had a good answer of why The Walkmen decided to remake “Pussy Cats.” But he knows why he likes it.
“It’s just really friendly and funny,” says the singer. “It’s obvious these guys had been in bands for a long time.”