The Walkmen
A Life Well Played
by Luke Winkie

Reading over the promotional material accompanying the Walkmen’s latest (and totally awesome) record, Lisbon, at one point the band is described as having a “vintage” sound. It hit the nail on the head, for as long as I’ve been trying to explain the Walkmen’s sound to people, I’ve used terms like “depression-era,” “urban Americana” and “folk without the folk,” and I’ve always been met with quizzical looks. The Walkmen define the term “vintage.” They sound rusted, weary, and maybe not at their full capacity, but like anything that’s survived long enough to be called vintage, they’re amazing at what they do, giving off a specific warmth, like a 50-year-old Fender or an old film reel. I recently talked to bass player and organist Peter Bauer about the Walkmen’s songwriting, the new record, and what it’s like to have your adult life defined by a rock band.

The name of the new record is Lisbon, and I read that the name came from several trips to that particular city. What did you find about Lisbon to be so evocative and inspiring?

Peter Bauer: There’s just something about it. It’s a strange place when you first go there. It’s mysterious, like something could happen there at any time. When we’re traveling around as a band, for the most part, you know what you’re getting into. I mean, when you go to Ohio, you have a pretty clear sense of how the night is going to go. And going to Lisbon, it was just a place I never imagined I’d ever be able to go to in my life, and that gives it that sense of mystery. It’s a big city, but at the same time it’s very old and strange, though it’s sure not strange to a lot of people. That’s really all there was to it: we named a song “Lisbon,” and when we were narrowing down titles for the record, that was the best we could come up with.

Do you think the music on the album reflects the city at all?

PB: Yeah, I think it has that quality—it definitely does. We try to make strange music that’s also inviting. It sounds a little sunnier and more beachy, but it still has the same sourness for which we’ve been known.

It seems to be a little less distressed than some of your earlier work.

PB: Yeah, we’re definitely going for less distressed music.

So who is the woman on the cover of the album?

PB: That’s a picture from a photographer named Luigi Ghirri, who we got in contact with. It’s actually half one picture and half another sort of blended together.

How did you choose it?

PB: Well, we were just looking for something that had that same vague quality. I’m sure that doesn’t come across as much as we’d like, but its related to the title and the record’s aesthetic.

So you guys recorded 29 songs during the Lisbon sessions?

PB: Something around there, yeah.

I’m curious if it was hard whittling those songs down to an 11-track record. Do you guys ever run into the problem where certain members cling to certain songs?

PB: There’s a bit of that goes on, especially when you’re deep into the sessions and someone is always sabotaging a particular song you really like as you’re recording it. When you’re in the middle of the creative process and you’re really trying to fight for something you know is a losing battle, that’s a horrible feeling. But when everything is done, we all have a sense for what the final product is supposed to be about, and when you’re choosing tracks, you finally feel like you have a record on your hands. We’re all agreeable at that point as long as we can make something that has form to it. In this case, we all pretty much agreed on nine of the tracks on the first go around, so in the end it wasn’t a big argument. The last time—when we released the You & Me record—it was a disaster in terms of band relations, maybe 72 hours of just talking about it. And there was a lot of that for Lisbon, but it was a lot less contentious, because we were going to have a record by the end of our recording.

So did you have a clearer unified vision in terms of selecting and putting the songs in order than with You & Me?

PB: With You & Me, we put most of the songs on it, and we ended up liking that it was sort of a mess. We liked that it had that quality. We were very aware that it was too long of a record, and I liked it that way. But with Lisbon, we were very sure that we wanted about a 10-song record, and that’s more or less how it came out. There’s a little snippet of a song in there, but that’s more or less an interlude. Other than that there’s only 10 real songs, and that was the idea.

Do you usually end up recording a ton of songs in a session and then build an album out of that or were the Lisbon sessions particularly productive?

PB: We purposely saw things through till the end this time around. Writing songs, you can usually tell early on if there’s something wrong with them and we’d just throw them out immediately. But this time we saw things through, recorded them, and moved on. It was a different way of doing things, because in the past we might not even get as far as having all the words for a song.

How do the Walkmen write songs? Do the lyrics come first or does the music come first?

PB: Usually things start out with a little snippet—like a guitar and a drum of some sort—and from there everything comes together. That’s how it usually happens. From there, either the band will flesh it out or Ham (singer and guitarist Hamilton Leithauser) will start to sing on it, and this time particularly, Ham sung on all the little snippets pretty quickly.

You guys usually produce yourselves, but on Lisbon you did a session with John Cogleton. How did that work out?

PB: That was great. He was a very nice guy, and it was a good change of pace. We had been doing the same things in terms of how we recorded for the last two years, so it was a nice little shift.

Did he bring out anything specific in the mix?

PB: I think he did, but it’s hard to say exactly what, because he wasn’t the kind of guy who’d say, “Alright, this verse stinks. These words are bad,” which we always wondered what it would be like to have a guy be like that. He would say things like “lose the high-hat” or something along those lines. That was the most production-like thing he did, simplifying parts of the songs, and that was helpful. Basically he was just very good at recording and worked incredibly fast, which is something we value. Everything started sounding more like rock music through him. He gave us a rawer sound than what we’ve done before.

Whenever I have seen you play live, you’re always willing to play “The Rat,” which has sort of become the Walkmen’s staple song. Do you ever feel like Zeppelin being asked to play “Stairway” or are you able to get lost in the passion of that song every night?

PB: Oh no, definitely not. A lot of nights, it’s totally fine, like if it’s a fun situation. I mean, if the crowd is going crazy, we’ll play “The Rat” to really set them off. But if it’s a situation where you’re playing at noon at a festival, it’s hard to muster any enthusiasm at all. You feel like Donny Osmond or something. We may talk about not playing a song for a stupid reason, but it doesn’t really matter. If it makes people happy, that’s all it really comes down to.

You guys have been around now for 10 years now. Does it feel like that long of a time?

PB: It does feels long. Imagine where you’re coming from 10 years ago and it’s a totally different place. The Walkmen has been most of my life.

Seems like just yesterday you were on The OC.

PB: Yeah well, that’s... I don’t even remember that (laughs). But the stuff that I do remember is the stuff that I love and that I’m really happy I did, so I hope we continue doing it.