Unless you've been living under a darkened rock these past ten years, New York based quintet The Walkmen should need no introduction. Having formed in 2000 from the remnants of Jonathan Fire*Eater and The Recoys, the five-piece of Hamilton Leithauser (vocals), Paul Maroon (guitars), Walter Martin (keyboards), Peter Bauer (bass) and Matt Barrick (drums) have recorded six albums, each one receiving a high level of critical acclaim.
While commercial success perhaps hasn't been as forthcoming as their output deserves, their live shows have always become more like events than just your average concert, as anyone present at their recent Primavera, Glastonbury and Latitude festival performances will testify.
This past year has seen the band constantly on the road in support of most recent album 'Lisbon', and when Contactmusic was given the opportunity of a question and answer session with keyboard player Walter Martin, we literally jumped at the chance.
Here's how it went.
You seem to have been almost permanently on the road this past year. How has the relentless touring been and do you find playing live a more fulfilling experience than playing in the studio?
Walter: Yeah we've been touring a lot more than we are used to, but it's been good. People seem to like our last record and we still like it so it's been enjoyable. Playing the 'Lisbon' songs live is a lot more of a bombastic thing than on the album.
You've also played several festivals during this time including Leeds, Reading, Glastonbury, Primavera and Latitude. Which one was the most enjoyable and were there any that didn't quite live up to your expectations?
Walter: Primavera was pretty great. We played for probably the biggest audience we've ever played to and they were very nice to us. It really felt like a special night for The Walkmen. To celebrate, we all got shamefully drunk and made fools of ourselves on the streets of Barcelona!
You seemed to go down well at Latitude. Did you enjoy the show and were there any other bands you managed to check out while you were there?
Walter: We were in and out of there pretty fast. It was a great crowd too. Sometimes those daytime crowds can be tough but we felt very supported. It was cool.
Your most recent album 'Lisbon' received widespread critical acclaim upon its release last year. Were you expecting such a response, and looking back over your career, do you see it as being the definitive Walkmen record up to this point?
Walter: We are always surprised when people like what we do. Sometimes we get confused for a second and think we've made a "poppy" sounding song or bunch of songs that might have more commercial success. But when it comes down to it we don't really make commercial music. As much as things we do sometimes sound catchy to us, I think to the average listener they just sound odd. Unfortunately for our bank accounts, we are drawn over and over to things that are slightly weird!
Songs like 'Juveniles' and 'Woe Is Me' seem to embrace a richer, more textured sound than a lot of your previous material. Was this deliberate on the band's part, and if so, did John Congleton's involvement on the record augment this?
Walter: I hear those two as pretty simple and open sounding. I think maybe they sound more textured because the instrumentation is so simple. John does a great job of keeping the sound big, while letting us get away with using zero overdubs. He used to work under Steve Albini.
Do you see the structures and sounds omnipresent throughout 'Lisbon' as being a course or direction you'll enhance in the future?
Walter: We try to do things differently every time. We want to get as far away from our previous record as possible each time. This time we are writing stuff that has a lot more big drums and "manly" singing.
One of the most impressive facets of The Walkmen is that you've never changed a single band member within the line-up since forming in 2000. Is the bond between all five of you still quite strong, and do you have any major disagreements at any point?
Walter: Yes, we are unusual like that. We are all loyal to a fault to each other and to our band. For better or worse, it's all we know.
Choosing a setlist for your live shows must also be difficult, particularly when you've six albums worth of material to choose from and attempt to slot into a forty-five minute set. How do you go about doing this and are there any songs which will always feature no matter what?
Walter: We usually play 7 or 8 'Lisbon' songs and mix in different older ones to keep it interesting. Most crowds like our loud minor key hell rock so we play those a lot. But a lot of Europeans like our slow jams. Bless them!
At the same time, are there any songs which you'll never play again for whatever reason, and if so why?
Walter: There are a lot we'll never play again because they are terrible. I'm not going to point any fingers but there are definitely some landmines in our back catalogue!
Your breakthrough song in the UK was undoubtedly 'The Rat'. Until recently you dropped it from the live set. Did it ever worry you that it would become some kind of albatross around the band's necks?
Walter: We go through periods of hating songs even if they're OK. 'The Rat' has been good to us. It helps our shows a lot. Occasionally it seems tacky and crude in the middle of a set of our newer songs, but more often it saves our ass.
Looking back, do you think that song has proved more of a hindrance to the band than anything? Even at Latitude there were a few people stood around us that only seemed to know that one song and talked throughout the rest of the set for example.
Walter: There are always loud drunk people yelling for 'The Rat'. We prefer to just assume we're playing for the silent majority who like our other stuff...but who knows?
I have to ask you about 'Pussy Cats', which is a covers album of a record that essentially features many covers. What inspired you to make an album in this way and is it something you'd ever consider doing again?
Walter: There is about as much thought in deciding to go to Burger King or Wendys as there was deciding to do 'Pussy Cats'! We just sort of decided and didn't look back. It's the luxury, or curse, of having your own studio.
I recently watched the David Leaf documentary 'Who Is Harry Nilsson' and found it quite touching, but also beguiling in the sense that he was a very understated songwriter. Is he one of the main inspirations behind the band and what are your favourite Nilsson recordings?
Walter: We loved the spirit of camaraderie in the 'Pussy Cats' record, although I wouldn't say we are diehard Nilsson fans. Saying that, my favourite Nilsson songs are on that record.
Are there any new songs readied for the next album, and if so, do you have a projected release date for the record?
Walter: We are going in for studio time with Phil Ek (Fleet Foxes, Band Of Horses, Mudhoney) in a few weeks. He did 'Helplessness Blues' and a bunch of other great sounding records. I bet it will come out next summer. We're just getting going.
Finally, are there any other bands back in New York that you think we should be checking out, and what do you see as being the most feasible way for new bands to prosper in the current climate of the music industry?
Walter: New bands in NYC? I dunno, I like Kurt Vile a lot but I think he's from Philly? I like Cass McCombs a lot too, who I think lives in New York.
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