Interview The Walkmen: ‘We’ve Got A Little Fight Left In Us’

Harriet Jennings gets into ‘Heaven’ with The Walkmen’s Peter Bauer.

“New York, I love you but you’re bringing me down,” or so the LCD Soundsystem track goes. For The Walkmen, it’s an easy sentiment to echo. Constantly tied to a non-existent “scene” in their formative years, the band tired of comparisons to people they simply shared an area code with.
These days, The Walkmen are more than capable of standing on their back catalogue, and with labels Fat Possum and Bella Union at their side, they are preparing to release their finest LP to date.
Peter Bauer talks us through their relationship with New York, falling out with ‘Lisbon’ and finally finding ‘Heaven’.

A lot of people are really excited about the new album. Have you been keeping up with the reactions?
Yeah, our manager sends us clips of everything so it sounds great. We’re very excited about the response so far.

It’s your sixth full-length - was this album more of a personal thing, or one for the fans?
We felt like it was good enough, and that we’d finally gotten our act together enough, that we could make it more about ourselves without feeling like that was a put on. People talk about themselves a lot so we’ve always been very hesitant to because we like to have that distance. We thought it was a little gauche, making something about yourself, but I think we’ve been around long enough so why not make ourselves central to it?

Hamilton previously said that ‘A Hundred Miles Off’ was an album nobody really wanted to make, but ‘Heaven’ feels to sound the opposite of that feeling. Is that a fair summary?
I think it’s very fair. This band’s been around for about twelve years or something but we’ve been doing this, all of us in some capacity, since we were kids, so every time we go to make another record, it’s like “should we really be making another record?” This one came together so fast and so naturally; it just sort of happened. The last record we did, ‘Lisbon’, it felt like we were going to record for five years before it came out so it was nice to have this feeling of finality to everything.

Speaking about ‘Lisbon’, you spent quite a lot of time writing that album and then scrapped a lot of the material, didn’t you?
Yeah, we scrapped an enormous amount of stuff. The sound of the record was totally different at the start than at the finish, it took a long time to see the shape of it. Whereas with this, it felt like immediately it had shape. We knew what was coming, we knew what was and what wasn’t going to work.

Do you think the experiences you had with ‘Lisbon’ impacted the writing and recording this time around?
I don’t know. Every other record we’ve made has taken a long time and had those fits and starts so maybe we finally figured it out, or maybe we just got into a surprisingly lucky groove. I think that Phil Ek helped a lot.

Where did the move to work with Phil Ek come from?
You know, he called us actually. He wanted to do the record, which was weird because we had two names on a list and he was one of them.

Sonically, do you think it’s less aggressive than older material?
I think it’s more aggressive than the last two records. I guess that Hamilton did a really great job of keeping within his range for everything he was writing. But beyond that, the band are kicking a lot more ass than we usually do, straight rock and roll drumming and things like that.

Did you approach writing this album in the same way you did previous records?
We went into this saying that we really wanted to do something that sticks in the mainstream consciousness, really put ourselves out there and try not to be strand-offish jerks like we usually are. That was the idea. We decided that we really liked the last two records that we made a lot, we really feel like those are the best we’d ever done, but to make a third record in the same vein with the same basic spectral feeling and sounds probably wasn’t going to help us. We were trying to just make something that was a bit more immediate and at the same time maybe explains where we’re coming from to more people.

How has the process evolved with experience?
This is a heck of a lot more efficient. We’re fast. We’re always fast. We do everything incredibly fast.

This is the second release through Bella Union/Fat Possum Records. How are you fitting in to your new homes?
They seem a lot better than our usual labels! We really burn through labels, we’ve got through like 11 or something.

You worked with Fleet Foxes a bit on this album, who are also on Bella Union. Did that move come from the label or was that your decision?
We’re just pals with them. We did a tour with them and then Robin, the singer from Fleet Foxes, came and did some backing tracks on our record and then Morgan, who’s another one of Fleet Foxes, did percussion. We just wanted to have them play because we think they’re all just fantastic musicians.

You’ve constantly been linked, despite your objections, to a ‘New York scene’ with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Strokes. You chose to move in a different direction but do you ever wonder what would’ve happened if you’d have gone along with it?
You mean make our songs sound like their songs? That’s not something you can really do, it’s hard enough coming up with any songs. We shared things with them in that we played in the same places and we’re friends with some of the other bands and they’re doing great, some of them aren’t doing great but that’s just the nature of it. We always wanted to do our own thing, maybe to a fault, because when someone said we were like those New York bands, we just said we were from Washington DC instead so people would stop saying that. We just never wanted to be grouped in with anybody else. I don’t know if that was just being stand-offish for the sake of being stand-offish, but it was a stupid thing to do.

The words ‘mature’ and ‘comfortable’ have been bounced around a lot with this record. How do you feel about that?
I think it’s fair because this is a kid’s game, you know? Especially in this day and age. There’s not a lot of people do this their whole life and just stick it out, trying to make something sound fresh after five or six records. We’re at the top of what we’ve done so there’s a maturity there. We care very deeply about what we do, but I don’t know about comfortable. I think of comfort as you don’t really care about what happens but I care a hell of a lot about what happens next, we’ve got a little fight left in us. A lot of bands when they get to this stage, around ten years in or so, they just don’t. That’s why we keep doing it.

The Walkmen’s new album ‘Heaven’ will be released on 4th June via Fat Possum / Bella Union.

Taken from the June 2012 issue of DIY, available now. For more details click here.

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