There is always room for disappointment when a fan finally meets the artist or artists responsible for creating something considered very special in their own lives. It is this very subjectivity that makes any form of art so valuable and necessary. How many of us have listened to the same song for an entire week straight utterly convinced that the song was written for us? I may not be able to express myself as eloquently as a person with a guitar, a paintbrush, or a camera can but I certainly treasure something as my own when I feel that it somehow speaks to me. The Walkmen are one of those bands whose music I have come to believe I truly understand.
I fell in love with the Walkmen a few years back around the time I was falling in love with a girl and it was their debut—Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone—that sang me to sleep and dreams of her. Two years later it was their sophomore effort Bows & Arrows, riddled with messages of remorse, bitter rejection, and moving on that comforted me when she could only cause me pain. So when I finally sit down with Hamilton Leithauser (vocals, guitar), Paul Maroon (guitars) and Walt Martin (organ, vocals) a few hours before they take the stage for their set at the Austin City Limits festival, I am desperately trying to remain composed and professional as every ounce in my body wants to stand up and shake their hands and tell them just how gosh darn great I think they are. But when we do sit down I find that these are three very normal guys who make music the only way they know how. While I get excited talking about the lyrical majesty of a song like “Bows & Arrows”, they get their rocks off most talking about barbecue. For a band known for making beautiful, shimmering noise, they are a quite soft-spoken group when a reporter is in the room. It isn’t a question of how genuine these guys are (which they are in spades) or what they take personally from their own music, because this is a band that ultimately realizes music is interpreted differently from one person to the next. Music is a gift that can mean whatever we want it to mean—whatever we need it to be. And for this gift I in turn will get them drunk in Harlem.
PopMatters: How you guys doing? It is great to sit down and chat with you guys. I am a big fan.
Hamilton Leithauser: That is great. Thank you.
PM: Can you tell me about the first song you played last night [at the Parish]? Is that a song that will be on the new album?
HL: Yeah, it is called “The Cheetah” because we don’t have a chorus for it yet but we keep saying the word cheetah.
PM: Can we expect to have the organ here tonight? I missed it last night.
Paul Maroon: It is actually a piano. Yeah, we didn’t bring it down on this tour. We have used it already on a few tracks we have done for the new album.
HL: We have gone through like four of those things. Paul used to use it. It is just so hard to carry. It is just really hard to mic it to sound right. And we haven’t really ever found an electric one that will sound the same. So after years and years of playing with it were just kind of used to its sound.
PM: I have always been fascinated with your lyrics. It was a very important album personally because it came out shortly after I graduated from college and many things were ending for me; many things were changing. Were there any circumstances that the band was going through that brought the band’s music to that point?
HL: Not for me… (Martin and Maroon shake their heads)
PM: You guys are breaking my heart here! (Leithauser laughs; Maroon smiles)
HL: I don’t know. I just write lyrics as I go and use what works with the songs. I work over them a thousand times until I get it to fit. But I guess they all have a similar theme.
PM: Your studio Mancarta is up in West Harlem. Have you guys been to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que yet over on 131st and 11th Ave?
HL: Oh, the biker bar?
PM: Yeah. I work there one day a week.
Paul Maroon: When do you work? Is the food good?
PM: Sundays. Yeah we just got voted best barbecue in New York by New York magazine. I am from upstate New York and there are a couple up there. The theme was conceived as a place where bikers and guys in suits would eat together.
HL: I usually go shop at the Fairway down there and I’m on my little scooter with bags of Caesar salads for the band and I feel like such a pussy! [The room laughs.] There are all these big hogs parked outside and I am rolling by on my lil’ Vespa. I wouldn’t want to park that thing next to those bikes—I might get my ass kicked!
PM: I will tell you what. You guys come down there some Sunday and I will buy your first round of drinks.
Paul Maroon: Definitely.
PM: Critics saw Bows & Arrows as being more focused and a natural evolution compared to your debut. Where do you guys see this third album heading?
Walt Martin: We never have a planned concept with an album. It is pretty much the first ten that we come up with that are good, that is the album. There is usually no design. We aren’t sitting around saying we want to make this type of record.
PM: I was asking Pete [Bauer; bass] if you were road-testing the music and he said not really. You’ve all known each other for years. Half of you were in the Recoys, the other half in Jonathan Fire Eater. The obvious question I wanted to ask you guys was why you didn’t start a band early on together?
WM: Ham and Pete are like four years younger than us [pointing to Paul]. Four years is a big difference when you’re growing up.
Paul Maroon: I am a year older than Walt and I was already a big pussy for hanging out with him. (The room laughs.)
PM: Yeah right. It is like, “Am I going to get babysitting money?” Ham I wanted to talk to you about your voice. My friends and I get together and put together a best of list at the end of the year and Bows & Arrows was my second favorite disc of the year.
Paul Maroon: Second? [incredulously] What was first?
PM: Elliott Smith, From a Basement on the Hill. I just kind of lit some candles and cried. But I tell people that you have one of my favorite voices in music today. But I guess it is a little unorthodox because you kind of just lay it out there. Did you always want to be the leading man?
HL: I have been the singer in every band I have ever been in. In earlier bands it was like, “Who is going to sing?” and nobody ever wanted to sing. I just always have.
PM: It seems that a lot of the bands that I have interviewed have some association with The O.C.. Do you feel your involvement with a show like that somehow does damage to your street cred with the hipsters back in New York?
HL: Yeah, we fake performed on the show. We were out on tour and it was pretty brutal at the time and they made us a great offer. It wasn’t painful.
PM: What gave you the idea to start up your own studio? I know that you guys have hosted the French Kicks and other bands but was this to have more creative control over your work?
Paul Maroon: Matt [Barrick, drums], Walt, and I started up the studio because it was a way of keeping us together to do something. It gave us the option of recording bands which we promptly stopped doing [for a time]. We started playing and recording ourselves.
PM: I saw that Pete had a kid.
HL: [smiling] A well-publicized child.
PM: Now that you guys have tasted some success, grown up together, and now become fathers, do you see your music evolving, progressing at all?
HL: I think we are turning into a bunch of softies.
PM: Yeah riding around on your Vespas and eating Caesar salads. I have seen you guys three times now and each time I have seen you I find myself watching you [motioning to Paul] while you are on stage. You have such distinct eye contact with the audience. You look like you are having a great time.
Paul Maroon: It is really boring otherwise. I feel kind of bad when people are singing along with the words. I feel like I should acknowledge them.