Slow Burn, Slow Fade: Inside The Walkmen’s Final Days
Somewhere along the line, something went wrong. Things fell out of place, or failed to fall into place to begin with. The general assumption is that Johnny Marr’s set went absurdly long, and that nobody forced Kurt Vile to shorten his in order to get things back on schedule. On subsequent days, photographers and others in and out of the backstage scenes will repeat a rumor that the Walkmen bringing their own sound man along contributed to the issues and the confusion, but no one really knows what that means. Whatever the cause, things don’t go right. Having flown in that morning from their various hometowns — New Orleans, Philadelphia, New York — the Walkmen arrive in Austin on Friday, November 8, for a high-billed set at Fun Fun Fun Fest, and are able to play only six songs.
About an hour before it gets to that point, the band are milling around backstage killing time, frontman Hamilton Leithauser seated on a stone wall idly strumming a guitar while guitarist/organist Pete Bauer paces back and forth creating their planned setlist. He punches in the twelve song selection as a note on his iPhone, the fifth or sixth in a lineage of vodka tonics cradled in a little clear plastic cup in his other hand. When he’s done he hurriedly scrawls the setlist on a scrap manila envelope. It reads like a mini-Walkmen greatest hits: “We’ve Been Had” a call-back to their debut, 2002’s Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, warhorses like “The Rat” and “In The New Year” dutifully present, more recent classics like dual Lisbon tracks “Stranded” and “Angela Surf City” fleshing out the middle of a set that’s bracketed by “We Can’t Be Beat” and “Heaven,” two highlights from 2012’s Heaven. There’s a freewheeling quality to the lack of preparation; earlier that afternoon Bauer had ended a phone call, turned to the band, and said “I just told the horn players we’re going to go for it. That sounds about right, right? No one wants to teach the horn players anything?” Everyone’s fine with that. They’ve been at this for a while.
It’s only once they’re onstage setting up that they’re first told the set will have to be shortened. Everyone gathers to the side for a bit of last minute deliberation, Bauer putting it up to a group vote as to what should be omitted. “Aw, man, I don’t want to play ‘Angela,'” bassist Walter Martin says off-handedly, and with a shrug of affirmation everyone agrees to axe it first. The idea of doing away with “The Rat” is briefly floated, before Leithauser says — calmly, but with some degree of finality — that they should do it.
From the side of the stage, it seems to start off well. Guitarist Paul Maroon has briefly relocated to piano for the reorganized setlist’s new opener “We’ve Been Had,” but otherwise all the expected facets of a Walkmen performance are on display. Martin hangs back, almost stock-still, his head nodding with each beat, while Matt Barrick, long one of the more visually kinetic members of the Walkmen, near bounces off his drum throne with each pointed snare hit. Bauer stands off to the side, swaying a few steps forward and then back, bent halfway over his guitar so that a few strands of his swept-back dark hair fall loose over his forehead. From a distance he could seem holed up in his own world, but he’s always peering out from under, always attuned to Leithauser’s movements and cues. Leithauser, for his part, seems to echo two very different traditions, one moment standing with his hands firmly planted in the pockets of his jeans, playing to their image as a supposedly archetypal angst-ridden New York band, and at another pacing across the front of the stage, mic in one hand and the other pointing out for emphasis in the way of old crooners.
This is how it plays out, a Walkmen performance as you’ve come to expect it, even as the situation grinds to a halt around them. Four songs in, someone informs Leithauser they’re being kicked off even sooner than they’d expected. “Aw, man,” he addresses the audience, “We came all this way and they just told us we have ten minutes left. What do we do for ten minutes? I guess we play ‘The Rat’, right?” he says, the slightest note of exasperation invading his voice. But they do it, that furiously strummed opening chord sounding, as it always has, oddly abstract — not like one sustained note, though not like any sort of sequence of anything either, but almost like one frozen moment of anguish looped so cleanly as to have no borders whatsoever — and then there’s Barrick’s moment to thrash as well as bounce, and to underline just how underrated a drummer he’s been these last fourteen years. They close with “Heaven,” and that’s it.
The band exits the stage swiftly and silently, making their way down the ramps to load their things into a van and leave. While there had been some talk of going to see Thee Oh Sees play a post-festival night show at a club called Beerland, there’s a vague air of wearied defeat hanging over everything now. Nobody’s pissed, nobody’s complaining or even really talking about the set. But everyone looks drawn, having picked up no endorphin rush from a good set to compensate for having been up for twenty hours. Collectively, it amounts to a tired, ambivalent shrug. Things haven’t worked out to plan. It wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t right. Everyone sprawls out in the van and it coasts quietly into the night, back to their hotel so they can get a few hours sleep before boarding early morning flights back home. A shrug seemed the most appropriate response, really.
“Heaven” makes for maybe the best closer the Walkmen could ask for. It feels like them, but has a muted triumph, a contentment they’d rarely exhibited before, that can make for something bordering on jubilant when belted out across a festival ground. The song sticks in my head the rest of the night, its bridge and refrain echoing over and over — “Don’t leave me now/ You’re my best friend/ All of my life/ You’ve always been/ Remember, remember/ All we fight for.” There’s something heartbreaking about it this time around: As the night wanes, I’ve slowly become convinced that this may be the last Walkmen performance I’ll ever see.
On Black Friday, news breaks that the Walkmen would be embarking on what Pete Bauer deems an “extreme hiatus.” Three weeks prior, I’m sitting at a picnic table across from Bauer and Leithauser on the afternoon of the ill-fated Fun Fun Fun Fest performance, talking about their plans for the near future. Everyone’s been referencing a break post-Heaven, and as the hours pass it’s becoming clearer that it’s something more severe than your typical few months off so everyone can wrap up some side projects. Over the course of the day, the band presents what might’ve been a paradox for a rock band in the past: everyone seems entirely exhausted with being the Walkmen, and yet there are no hard feelings. These people are still best friends, family. This is not a portrait of a band fraying at the edges.
Instead, when I first come across Leithauser and Bauer backstage they’re joking about a free pair of sunglasses Leithauser has received from one of the vendors backstage. The lenses are a more squared-off Wayfarer look (black plastic, of course), but it’s the combination with the temples — a tortoiseshell pattern that from afar sort of looks like leopard print — that seems to be eliciting Bauer’s barbs. Leithauser shrugs it off with a smile, explaining that the woman at the stand had decided for him. Despite having woken up early that morning to fly down from New York, Leithauser’s in a good mood. After deliberation on the glasses is over, he says “Let’s go get a drink!” with a sense of magnanimity and an insistence on treating everyone with the free drink chips the festival gifts to artists. Once seated, Leithauser sips a murky green vodka concoction, and the glasses make occasional forays to and from his face, little self-conscious test rides. The remaining three members of the Walkmen arrive one by one in the ensuing hours, along with some friends of the band, and the first topic of discussion is typically Leithauser polling everyone once more on the glasses.
This has been the way of the band for some time now. After touring in support of Heaven, they’ve fallen into a rhythm of one shot gigs — everyone flies in that morning, plays the show, leaves before lunch the next day. Coupled with news of the band’s hiatus, this obviously projects the image of a group no longer really functioning; everybody shows up and does their job, gets out, and then they don’t have much to do with each other. Part of that’s true, but it’s had the opposite effect on their friendships as one might expect. This recent approach has lead to something of a full circle. “It’s like a big bachelor party now,” Bauer says, talking about how fun it’s become for everyone to meet, play, go out for a drink, and head back to their families and their own lives. “It’s like the boys’ club, it’s like meeting up with the guys,” Leithauser will add in a different conversation, agreeing that the separation means that when they are all together, it’s more like the old days than any recent tour.
In some ways, it’s like any other group of old friends hanging around, most of the anecdotes revolving around their young kids. They can seem like any other set of dads, until the conversation veers towards topics only people who have been in the music industry for fifteen to twenty years would think about. Leithauser talks of when he was involved in the D.C. hardcore scene, and the fact that he was an uncredited assistant engineer for Fugazi’s Red Medicine. Bauer jokes about how a conversation the previous night had led him to conclude that the Walkmen would go on to occupy a Love & Rockets-type status in history: “Oh, yeah I’ve heard of that,” he laughs, “I think I’ve heard of that.” When Maroon arrives, he recounts his morning of having traveled outside Austin, into the woods, and to a castle to visit a man who makes replicas of expensive mics. “It’s literally like walking into the House Of Parliament,” he says, raising his eyebrows bemusedly, “And it’s just him and his manservant.” Leithauser mentions he’s getting a particular mic on loan from Robin Pecknold, whom he seems friendly with after the Walkmen toured with Fleet Foxes a few years ago. A conversation ensues in which everyone’s trading notes on mics and preamps, and this is perhaps the moment where you see the drift. Where five or six years ago this sort of talk would inevitably lead back towards the band and their recording together, now it spreads outward to their separate endeavors. Because the Walkmen have no future plans, this is the only direction it can go — everyone can still relate on this familiar footing, but the topics at hand are solo projects one or the other member might not have any idea about.
The highest profile of these is Leithauser’s, simply by virtue of the fact that he’s the frontman, but also because he’s accumulated a handful of supporting players from other respected indie bands — Fleet Foxes’ Morgan Henderson plays all over the record, and Leithauser co-wrote some of it with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij. Bauer’s already completed his solo album as well, though he’s yet to select a release date or a label. He flew into Austin the night before, quickly assembled a band, and debuted his songs live for the first time, meaning he’s somewhat fatigued at Fun Fun Fun Fest, but also visibly energized by the previous night’s experience.
Perhaps the least expected is Martin, who’s just finished working on an album of music for kids, an idea that predates both that of the hiatus, and the birth of his own children. “It’s kids’ songs that are very cleverly done,” Leithauser describes. “An adult could sit and listen to it, because it isn’t corny. It’s fun.” Martin is one of the quieter members of the Walkmen — not at all unfriendly, just noticeably reserved in a band full of reserved men — but he glows a bit when discussing the project. “I’m really in love with it,” he says, and you can tell he’s already excited to play it for his newborn daughter.
The paths for Maroon and Barrick are a little less defined. Maroon is working on a score — primarily guitar and piano music — for a documentary he can’t yet discuss. “I like rock music less than I used to,” he says, reflecting on what’s changed for him after moving to New Orleans. “I’ve had enough of it. I’m sure it’s affected the music I write.” Barrick, aside from occasionally sitting in with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, seems another degree removed than Maroon — his main focus now is photography. Over the years, he’s taken photos of the various locales the band’s travels have taken him to, and he’s considering the possibility of a second career outside of music altogether.
Even as they pursue other ventures, the band hasn’t walked away from working with each other in different capacities. Martin’s album features a contribution from Barrick — who also played percussion all over Bauer’s record — as well as backup vocals from Leithauser. Long the core songwriters of the Walkmen, Leithauser and Maroon didn’t deviate entirely; even though Leithauser worked quite a bit with Batmanglij, Maroon was still heavily involved in his solo album, and they’ve talked of him accompanying Leithauser when it’s time to tour in support of it. Leithauser and Bauer didn’t really have anything to do with each other’s albums, but being the two younger members — and the two that hailed from the Recoys before the Walkmen, while the other three were in Jonathan Fire*Eater — they seem to have a close bond, and played their new solo music for each other along the way.
There’s no drama, no in-fighting. Just a collective agreement: This thing is over. At least for now. When the Walkmen’s legacy or their most recent work comes up, they’ll answer questions, but with a worn-out professionalism. The lines on their faces seem to etch a little deeper as they grasp for words to describe experiences or songs they don’t seem to know (or care) how they feel about anymore. Blame it partially on the early morning flights, but it’s in these moments that the band members almost look wan. When the conversation turns to their future plans outside of the Walkmen, you can almost see everyone’s postures straightening with the weight lifted, with fresh enthusiasm. “It’s time for a break. It’s definitely time for a break,” Maroon muses, appearing relieved. “There’s something about the steadiness…” Leithauser searches, and Bauer — as a further testament to everyone’s continuing friendships — is able to finish his thought. “You can’t make really good things unless there’s a real uncertainty. No matter how good a song you have for the Walkmen, it’s going to be this way or that way. You know exactly what’ll happen,” he starts. “I have no idea what’s going to happen to me next year. I could just fall off the face of the earth. I could probably just go to jail. I’m pretty sure I’m going to go to jail.”
Even with the customary Walkmen-esque dark humor, there’s a rising intensity and clarity to what Bauer’s saying. His tone quickens and sharpens, perhaps with the energy of finally saying things he’s been waiting a very long time to say. There’s catharsis in verbalizing that the Walkmen have come to feel like a dead end. He looks off to the side for a moment, and then says what seems to be on everyone’s mind. “At this point in my life, I’d love to not know what’s going to happen.”
The Walkmen’s arc was a weird one, at times flirting with the sort of rock stardom whose era they arrived at the very tail end of, but always skewing it with a false start or a broken left turn. Some things just failed to fall into place to begin with. Fittingly, they have the sort of origin story that would, at first glance, appear a paradigmatic rock ‘n’ roll creation myth, but it’s shot through with rogue angles — disclaimers for an indie generation.
Everyone in the band has the same roots in Washington, D.C., and all attended the prep school St. Albans save for Bauer. The older three members — Maroon, Martin, and Barrick — had been playing in bands in some form or another together since 6th grade; Leithauser and Bauer had been doing the same since they were thirteen. Describing them as their “older brothers,” Bauer remembers when the elder three moved to New York and lived on Suffolk St., and how different Manhattan’s Lower East Side was back then. “It was just terrifying,” he recalls. “They were getting mugged all the time. It was a very heavily nasty place at that point. Really kinda druggy, scuzzball people.” This was when Maroon, Barrick, and Martin were in Jonathan Fire*Eater, their first brush-up against hype and fame that wound up fizzling out after their first record. Around that same time, Bauer and Leithauser started the Recoys in Boston, but quickly grew frustrated with the lack of opportunities there. Like countless others before and after them, Leithauser and Bauer found themselves in New York’s gravitational pull, decamping from Boston after a handful of shows at venues like TT The Bear’s and the Middle East, they began to explore New York instead. When Jonathan Fire*Eater and the Recoys both folded, the Walkmen began.
Right there from the start is the asterisk — classic imagery of the childhood friends and longtime bandmates striking out to the big city to chase their dream, only it’s tweaked. By the time they’d arrived at the Walkmen, everyone had already danced with failure and disillusionment, three of them on a pretty public scale. Even so, the new situation was promising, and each band member worked a day job that allowed them the reliability of finishing in the early evening and being able to make it uptown to the Marcata, their studio in Harlem, to write and practice. Leithauser worked in the education department at the Metropolitan Museum Of Art on a web project entitled The Timeline Of Art History, while Barrick worked further downtown at the Museum Of Sex. Bauer’s job was in the Office Of Racial Justice at a Methodist church, cataloguing “police brutality and hate crimes and stuff.” Martin was a temp in his office. Maroon worked at a drug company. They would jam and write at night, rework new songs in their heads the next day at the office, then reconvene and do it over. “You’re a lot younger. You can go there all night and go to work the next day,” Leithauser says. “We’d be like a group.” This was how the Walkmen crafted their first record, and about half of their second.
In another era, this story would extend out a bit further. The band might live as one big gang in an apartment for a while, then find enough success to get their own places, become local luminaries. Soon, though, the Walkmen began to disperse. Maroon was the first to leave New York, right around the time of their third album, A Hundred Miles Off. In the last five years, both Barrick and Bauer have followed, each settling in Philadelphia. In another era, this story would likely end there, a young band fracturing and spreading out, the gang dissolving before they had attained enough success to keep them glued together even as their homes became more far-flung. Thanks to email, the band kept going, their dynamic was just altered.
Where once they composed in concentrated bursts, as a collective, much of the work then fell to Leithauser and Maroon. Leithauser would work on chord progressions, words, melodies — always in the morning, he has never been able to write in the afternoon — and email back and forth with Maroon, who wrote piano and guitar parts. When things were coming along, he might get together with Martin, who now lives down the street from him, and start fleshing things out, with him playing guitar and singing and Martin writing drum patterns. When the time came Maroon would fly to New York for a little chunk of time to finalize everything with Martin and Leithauser, see what would work and what wouldn’t. When they had enough songs, they made a record. One every two years, from 2002 to 2012. By the time 2012’s Heaven came around, the band never really practiced anymore. Much of the process could be done virtually. It all seemed very efficient, harmonious, very 21st century. The only thing it lacked, maybe, was the romance and tumultuousness of the archetypal rock band story the Walkmen had once seemed to be.
As everyone spread out, they began setting roots and starting families. That all culminated in Heaven which, for better or for worse, became known as their sort of “familial contentment” record. Around this point, the pejorative “dad rock” got thrown in their direction quite a bit. There seems to have been some weird transition in recent years where dad rock went from being stuff your dad listened to in high school, to rock music made by dads that maybe had a classicist rock bent. Even as it’s ammo for snarky tweets writing off the band, the term doesn’t bother them. “We put that out ourselves when we did that record. I don’t mind that. It’s who we are. We’re all dads,” Leithauser says matter of factly. After all, they had put it out there themselves by including their children in the album’s promotional shots. “We just thought it was a good idea because it was sort of a warm feeling at that point. To have everyone together in a big gang,” Bauer adds.
In hindsight, we probably should’ve picked up on the clues. The video for “Heaven” — made up of hundreds of photos of the band from when they were kids playing together up through all the stages of their career — played as sentimental at the time. “Don’t leave me now/ You’re my best friend/ All of my life/ You’ve always been/ Remember, remember/ All we fight for,” sung over photos of the road that lead to this point. If it was sentimental, it was a rare moment of relaxation and small-scale victory for a band that had so often wallowed in the sardonic and the self-deprecating. Now it turns out it might not have been that at all, but could rather wind up being the Walkmen’s last goodbye. “Don’t leave me now/You’re my best friend,” a plea delivered knowing it’s over, and delivered from people who are happy that it’s over. Bauer half thought they should release the video and quit the next day. “It could’ve saved us a year of our life,” he laughs. Again — a joke, but one with a lot of truth about the band. What else, realistically, was there to say after Heaven? “Yeah, I think it’s a conclusion,” Bauer allows.
The trajectory, in 2013, from wild young rock band to this, the happy family men, is a closed one. With a band like the Walkmen, there’s no dramatic drug busts or scandalous twists and turns. Are there ever, anymore? This is not a portrait of a band fraying at the edges, but more so just how it goes these days. The Walkmen are one of the first of their era and their status to stop what they’re doing, and they perhaps set the template for what we should now expect. Besides the fact that they’re almost caricatures of rock stars, there’s something outmoded about watching someone like the Gallagher brothers have a flare-up and bitterly dissolve Oasis. It seems out of the past. Such stories now scan as inherently forced — we’re either too savvy or too cynical to believe in these developments being entirely permanent, that they’re anything more than a long-game PR-influenced bid towards a return narrative. On the other hand, there just aren’t the same stakes, the same riches, in rock music anymore, making any sort of drama seem quaint.
The Walkmen are going on hiatus, or breaking up, or ceasing to exist, in an era that’s more than a decade removed both from the last time rock music had a stranglehold on mainstream success, and from the boom preceding the record industry’s plummet. Rock music is far from the commercial force where everyone could be total assholes to each other or nurse a flamboyant drug habit and prime themselves for a VH1 special detailing their dramatic breakups and reunions. Artists could get away with that when everyone was rich, and when that story still gripped people. In 2013, the Walkmen seem more indicative of where rock bands are: these are friends and businessmen and rational adults, and they’ve decided to take a long, maybe permanent break. A sabbatical. It’d be passé to definitively draw a line in the sand, and we probably wouldn’t believe it anyway. The hyperbolic tendencies of our fast-paced culture would have you believe it has to be this or it’s that. All big, bloody exclamation points conclusively ending things. But that’s not really how stories unfold in real time, in the big mess of it — that’s not how the Walkmen’s story is unfolding. It’s a slow fade. An ellipsis.
A week after Austin, I’m standing on the corner of S. 17th and Locust in Philadelphia, waiting for Pete Bauer to meet me. He pulls up in a blue Passat. There are two kids’ seats in the back, and a guitar in the trunk. Bauer’s sitting in with his friend Quentin Stoltzfus’ psych-rock band Light Heat tonight at a bar called Ortlieb’s, so we’re headed up to the neighborhood of Northern Liberties. He starts to drive, leaving Rittenhouse, heading up Broad, and angling across Spring Garden. Along the way, the past and present mingle freely. As he drives along Spring Garden, he talks of how the Walkmen used to maintain a rehearsal space here in between discussion of recording his new solo efforts in the Port Richmond section of town. We pass the venue Union Transfer, where the Walkmen will be playing on December 4th. They have nothing scheduled after this show, which means it at least has the potential to be the last ever Walkmen performance.
To some, this seems blasphemous, that the Walkmen would bow out anywhere besides New York. Really, though, it makes sense. They’ll play D.C. to nod to their collective hometown, and then they’ll play Philly, a city that’s in many ways become the adopted hometown of the band. It’s consistent in tone with the rest of their hiatus — enough gravity and personal resonance in case this really is the end, but nothing so momentous or attention-grabbing as a final run of New York shows. And, when it comes down to it, it must be said: the Walkmen were a New York band, and we will all speak of how the end of the Walkmen means the end of a certain version of New York or at least New York rock music, something about that rings false when you talk to the guys themselves. Bauer speaks fondly of his house in Mt. Airy, and readily identifies Philly as his real home. He seems to miss New York about as much as he’ll miss being in the Walkmen. In a way, the Walkmen ending their run in Philly speaks to just how over the Walkmen are as an idea, just how far we’ve traveled from the band with whom we started.
After parking a few blocks from Ortlieb’s, we duck into a different bar to talk about Bauer’s solo album. The record, called Liberation! and credited to Peter Matthew Bauer, is the most autobiographical piece of art he’s ever put out, reaching back to a youth spent in a series of intense religious environments. His parents were ’60s psychedelic types who began following a guru and his father, a psychoanalyst, still teaches a customized method that combines Western medicine with Eastern philosophy. Bauer spent time in ashrams throughout his youth, was raised practicing meditation, and knows how to read a Hindu astrology calendar, all factors in the eclecticism of the album. Despite being rooted in his upbringing, the more psychedelic strands will come across as “Oh, Pete Bauer started dropping acid and discovered spirituality,” a possibility he laughs off. “That’s fine. Whatever gets you out,” he says. “I will embrace my drug guru phase. That sounds like a blast.”
Of course, it’s tempting to read the album’s title a few different ways. Liberation through a religious transcendental experience, or liberation from a religious practice and set of thinking, sure. But also, inescapably, liberation from the Walkmen and their way of doing things. This means everything from the technical — Bauer compares the meticulousness with which the Walkmen fixated over mic placement and attaining the perfect sonics to the fact that his entire album was recorded into “one crummy microphone” — to the artistic. This was Bauer’s first shot at writing material outside the group mindset, without concerns of whether it’d appeal to or resonate with the band’s tastes and needs.
“I don’t like just being the man with the guitar,” he says, his arms resting on the ancient wooden surface of the bar, his finger barring the mouth of a glass of Dewar’s. He acknowledges the challenges of his situation — 35 years old, trying to start a solo career, no business plans beyond a finished album that has yet to find a home. Regardless, he has a resolve about him. “I’m in it. I’m a solo artist,” he says, discussing his decision to alter his stage name to the full Peter Matthew Bauer. “I don’t want to be in a band. I want to do my own thing.”
Given that Bauer wasn’t one of the main songwriters of the Walkmen, his restlessness is understandable. Yet it seems to go beyond his personal interests, too, and gestures towards the larger situational details of the band. For years now, the Walkmen have steadily accrued near-unanimous critical acclaim, while witnessing little of the commercial rewards some of their peers have as the lines between the indie rock world and the mainstream blurred. After a decade-plus of that, it has to become a somewhat wearying experience. “It’s hard to keep that fight as a healthy fight,” he concedes. “That’s neither here nor there, though. We did great. We had a good time.”
Whatever happens or doesn’t happen in terms of the Walkmen’s future, one thing is certain: everyone agrees that if it comes back, it won’t be in any sort of the same form. “Whatever that was, that was it, through that record,” Bauer says, almost sounding as if he no longer even knows of the band we’re discussing. “Whatever happens next will be very different. It’s good for that. It’s a break. Not a time break. A break from that reality.” That reality, he’ll admit, is a hard one to picture abandoning totally and forever. “This has never happened before. This is the first time we’ve felt like this. We haven’t talked about music in two years,” he says, but in the same breath qualifying, “I think that eventually we’ll do something else again. I think we’re too good of friends not to.” Right now, nobody will venture to guess what that will mean, and Pete Bauer always uses past tense verbs.
Around the halfway point of working on this profile, I took a drive from Ventura, California to Las Vegas, and I put on You & Me. When I moved to New York, You & Me was a little over a year old, and Lisbon would follow in another twelve months. The musically and tonally acerbic Walkmen of yore were growing up, and I’m not sure I ever understood them as the New York band they are always so readily presented to be. Maybe ironically, driving from the beach out into harsh mountains and the California desert served as the best setting I’ve yet found for the band’s music. The clean, piercing guitar lines that have long dominated the Walkmen’s music have a kind of sunburnt quality to them, and combined with their ambling rhythms and Leithauser’s scratchy drawl, the sound of the Walkmen seems less a wild-eyed run through a bitter cold downtown Manhattan than a drunken, woozy shamble through the sand, blinded by the light reflecting up off the tide.
A year and a half ago, I had a similar experience walking the streets of Madrid and Sevilla while listening to Lisbon and the then newly-released Heaven. Neither album had ever resonated as much as they did there, moving through dusty, narrow Spanish streets in the hundred degree blaze of July’s sun. Aridity serves them well. That raggedness in the Walkmen’s music reaches further back than the Americana or New York rock with which they can be most easily associated, something about those last few records suggesting the Old World in a vague, not totally identifiable way. Maybe it’s that wooziness, that bleary-eyed quality — the languorous and depressed and triumphant horn part of “Stranded” more in tune with a winding path in an old European city equally beset by the twin weights of the past and the summer heat than with an East Village corner now adorned by an Au Bon Pain.
These are just personal recollections, but they get at the general sense that the Walkmen have long been a band straddling different times and places in a way that has made them hard to define correctly, and has lead to them often having some story written onto them that didn’t quite gel. The first example would have to be the Walkmen being lumped into the early ’00s retro-rock/garage rock wave. They had their retro elements sure, but they looked further back than their contemporaries, not to late ’70s and early ’80s post-punk and New Wave, but to ’50s and ’60s pop and rock ‘n’ roll. The various members had already dabbled more directly in that in the late ’90s with Jonathan Fire*Eater and the Recoys, maybe being just a bit too early to the retro-rock punch. They’d put in New York time, too, but they didn’t seem apiece with the city’s mythology. Leithauser and Bauer recount, without fondness, Recoys shows at the failing CBGB. “I think of CBGB as seven shitty hardcore bands in a row,” Bauer remembers. Leithauser adds, “I had nothing but hate for that place. The whole time. We were there in the end. There was nothing cool about it. There’s a reason it closed.”
Then when the moment did come, the Walkmen were sort of passed over in a crop of buzz bands, never reaching the levels of indie-transcending-fame as a band like the Strokes would. “We never had a big boom. We never made a lot of money,” Leithauser explains. Ultimately, this might’ve saved them critically, detaching them from a flash in the pan moment and garnering them credibility amongst critics that allowed them to craft a second chapter to their career as indie rock entered its next act.
“We came all this way and they just told us we have ten minutes left. What do we do for ten minutes? I guess we play ‘The Rat,’ right?” That quote, in a way, can still sum up the Walkmen’s career. From mislabeled origins came years as a band expected of one thing that they were never really about. “The Rat” is one of just a handful of tracks the Walkmen recorded that does capture that ferocious LES post-punk pulse. They did it better than almost anyone else, and it’s still hard to make the argument for any Walkmen composition topping it. Yet “The Rat” remains an outlier in their catalog, and as fervently as they still tear through it, it might still be understandable that it could be the source of resentment.
Because of one of these things or another — that outside definitions of the Walkmen have rarely lined up with the reality of the band, or that true unmitigated commercial success seems to have continually eluded them — or because of nothing at all, the Walkmen’s default setting has apparently always been harsh negativity. Not antagonistic or brooding, but more a persistent faith in the idea that things would not go right, a perennial self-deprecating half-smirk.
There were times where the Walkmen used this energy to their benefit. Bauer feels that the extreme negativity was, for a while, the source of their creative inspiration, the whole “going through a terrible time makes for good art” argument. Eventually — perhaps as everyone aged, moved away, had children — that sort of attitude no longer gave them drive. Rather, it threatened to unspool the band not by inciting disagreements or interpersonal tension, but by boiling over into an overarching atmosphere of listlessness and dejection. “Nobody knew how to make the right decisions, so we’d always make the wrong decisions,” Leithauser admits. “Decisions by committee, but the committee was out to fucking lunch. It was just a shitshow.”
“We always had a chip on our shoulder,” Bauer says. “Us vs. somebody else, anybody else.” This, too, initially gave the band drive. But as they struggled to find breakthrough success, or got caught up in the droll minutiae of band life, it could also start eroding them.
Those early days of not quite fitting into anything quite right seemed to exacerbate their attitude. Part of the thing of being signed to the majors for a while, as being positioned as one of those next up-and-comers, was having to go along with what those major labels demanded of you. That’s what happened when someone figured it would be a good idea to have the Walkmen open for Incubus on tour. “[The singer] would come back out for the encore with his shirt off and play the bongos or something. It was the most amazing thing,” Bauer says, still wide-eyed about the experience in a complete “Can you even believe this shit?” manner. It was the kind of thing the young Walkmen would try to go along with, but while assuming — and in this, perhaps they do live up to the young New York band mold — a perpetual sneer and blanket of sarcasm. Eventually the band faked sick to get off tour. Ten days before Christmas they took off on the highway to get home. “It was the most liberating thing,” Bauer recalls. “We were just like, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.'”
The Walkmen would have their way, in a sense. They weren’t long for that world. After the dual disappointments of A Hundred Miles Off and “Pussy Cats” Starring The Walkmen, they found themselves with their backs against the wall. They’d been miserable making A Hundred Miles Off, and all still remember it as their darkest point and weakest record. They recorded “Pussy Cats,” an album-long cover of the Harry Nilsson/John Lennon collaboration of the same name from 1974, as a way to let loose after the fraught sessions for A Hundred Miles Off, and it wound up seeing release and being marketed as a full-fledged album. “It was just kind of a party that somehow got released,” Leithauser says. “Nobody was paying attention to it and it was a mistake to not pay attention to our own career.” Warner Bros. dropped them, and their manager at the time advised them that maybe they should make music as a hobby. It was the moment where they’d have to face the question: Was being in a band a big mistake?
“We were going through the motions,” Leithauser says. “We got to You & Me and it was a little bit like ‘Let’s try to remember why we started doing this in the first place.'” You & Me found the Walkmen revitalized. Bauer and Leithauser both claim it as their favorite Walkmen record, and it defined their identity more clearly than the early records that first made the band’s name. Songs like “On The Water,” “In The New Year,” or “Red Moon” are all archetypal Walkmen songs, or at least in terms of Walkmen Phase 2. It was a hinge point in their career in more ways than one. They redirected course, finding a new artistic center and starting a three album run of perhaps their most consistent critical acclaim as well as their most consistent quality. It was the half of their career where they claimed territory in a different generation of indie rock. As former peers like the Strokes or Interpol or the White Stripes languished in contentious hiatuses or disbanded entirely, the Walkmen were mentioned in the same breath as late-bloomers the National or younger bands like Fleet Foxes. They proved themselves as a band adept at maintaining a slow burn success that never quite crested into a true crossover.
These assertions are primarily rooted in hindsight, though. In the moment, things always felt askew. That same negative, near-defeatist belief that the band had used as weaponry in the first half of their career would mature into the ever-present feeling like the whole thing was about to come crashing down at any moment. “It felt like everything was about to come off the rails at any second,” Leithauser remembers. “We were a very poorly put together business. The screws had not been tightened on the wheel.” Bauer describes what was once the band’s veneer became the “rote, underlying psychology.” Even when things were going comparatively well, they began to feel as if things were hopeless, or at the very least rudderless. “There was just this weird group dynamic where you just knew it wasn’t going to work out, and that probably made it not work out,” Bauer admits.
The phrase that gets thrown out a few times is “laughing as the ship’s going down.” The reality seems far less dramatic. To talk to the Walkmen now, at the end or beginning of whatever this is, is to talk to a band at one of the least enviable or relatable parts in any artist’s life. They’re at the moment where they’re getting to do the thing millions would kill to do, and the moment where that becomes the banal, day-in day-out slog you get into music thinking you’re going to avoid. They’re at the moment where the crazy dreams of your youth have come at least half true, dulled, and aged into rote occupation. Everyone seems anxious that they’ve painted themselves into a corner, that they couldn’t do anything besides write music.
This is, in some ways, the hardest stuff to swallow, to see a consistently excellent band talk of itself as a failed experiment. It’s difficult to sympathize with a person who gets to play rock music for a living telling you of just how unsatisfying it’s become. That’s not the kind of romance you want spoiled for yourself, but in the end every person’s entitled to his anxieties. The Walkmen appear to feel, at this moment, that they’ve hit a dead end. When it’s come to a point where doing the thing you love becomes a trial, makes you feel trapped, what else is there to do? Blowing it all up, again, seems so dramatic these days. Anyone would want to be able to quietly walk away, leave this thing over there for a bit. That seems sympathetic, especially the more you begin to look at each solo endeavor as a hastily deployed life raft, an escape route from a ride that’s ground to a halt.
Somewhere along the line, something went wrong. Things fell out of place, or failed to fall into place to begin with. Whatever the cause, things didn’t go quite right. Everyone’s fine with that. They’ve been at this for a while. So they call it off calmly, but with some degree of finality. There’s a vague air of wearied defeat hanging over everything now. Nobody’s pissed, nobody’s complaining, but everyone looks drawn. Collectively, it amounts to a tired, ambivalent shrug. Things haven’t worked out to plan. It wasn’t a disaster, but it wasn’t right. A shrug seemed the most appropriate response, really. This is one way to walk away from it.
Hamilton Leithauser is not in the habit of listening to his own music. He simply has no interest in the older stuff, having now heard it hundreds or thousands of times in his life. Tonight, though, he approaches the corner of Fulton and Grand, in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, with a pair of studio headphones on, obsessively listening to his newly mastered solo album before he makes some final corrections in the coming days. In the two weeks since I first met Leithauser in Austin, winter has hit New York suddenly and hard, and he appears across the street exactly as you’d picture him off-duty — pants the color of a pale stone, dark sweater, black wool peacoat.
Inside the corner bar, an absurdly loud soundsystem provides competition even for Leithauser’s booming voice. There’s a gulf between the way Leithauser speaks and the way he sings. The former makes total sense for his tall, somewhat All-American frame, a low drawl always with a hint of gravel at the edges. When he sings, something happens, whether emotionally or physically, to make it come out quite different. More constricted, sharper, raspier, higher. Still a laconic drawl, but occasionally punctuated by a bark. The first time you see him sing in person is jarring. Leithauser’s the kind of guy who can command a room, whether through bodily presence alone or the projection of his speaking voice. When he sings, though, he lets out a desperation that doesn’t seem like it should be emitted from a man of his size.
Occasionally, that speaking drawl gets chopped up into much more rapid, excitable bits, as when Leithauser’s discussing his new record. Being the singer and one of the primary songwriters for the Walkmen, Leithauser is at an automatic advantage and disadvantage. His solo debut will easily be the most visible of any of them, but it will also be the most difficult for him to carve out an identity wholly separate from his old gig. It’s still his voice, after all. To that end, he’s made careful decisions as to avoid any chance of if it coming off as Walkman-esque. Two songs were cut because of this, one a guitar-driven rocker and another a “slow waltz with big horns,” that Bauer loved but immediately warned him that he’d soon have to field comparisons to the Walkmen if he included it on his album.
Maroon describes Leithauser’s album as “Half orchestral, half rock ‘n’ roll,” a split that’s readily evident in the two songs Leithauser plays me through those studio headphones. The first — which will probably be called “Alexandra,” for the repeated evocation of the name in the chorus — is an uptempo, almost exultantly Wall Of Sound-ish track full of horn blasts and jaunty ’60s pop piano. It travels in brighter territory than most Walkmen material save maybe select tracks off Heaven, and is likely the first single. The other is fully-committed orchestral pop, a slower, atmospheric number based entirely on piano, stand-up bass, and noir-ish string swells. In the lead-up to Heaven, Leithauser had spoken of how Frank Sinatra’s vocal phrasing had lately been an influence for him. Here, that inspiration has fully bloomed. He even used half a year’s salary to purchase the same vintage Neumann U47 mic Sinatra used.
While much of the Walkmen’s music made use of horns and strings, Leithauser’s new music is completely reliant on it, to the point that he has no idea yet how he will be able to take it on the road. What’s more, his band is diffuse — spread out between New York, Portland, and Seattle — and otherwise committed — spread out between the Shins, Fleet Foxes, and Vampire Weekend, who will likely just be finishing their tour as Leithauser’s about ready to get started on his own. Still, none of this seems to be weighing on him at this moment. Each possible roadblock is described through a full grin. He’s excited by the challenge.
This seems to be how Leithauser is trying to live right now in general — optimistically. He’s grown tired of the negativity bogging down the Walkmen. “I think we’ve had that since day one,” he confesses. “I’m just as much to blame as anybody, but I just find it fairly exhausting, honestly.” Not that the others haven’t sounded proud of their achievements, but with Leithauser the satisfaction with what they achieved seems to outweigh the ambivalence or apathy of wherever they wound up. “We can complain all we want, but that gets really unattractive after a while. It is an honor to be able to play at these places and have people actually come see you,” he argues.
Still, there was a dissatisfaction eating at Leithauser as much as, if not more than, the others. He’s been mulling over the idea of a solo album since before Heaven, accumulating songs along the way that he felt just weren’t the right fit for the Walkmen. The idea of a hiatus may have come from Leithauser to begin with as well. He and Martin had first discussed it after they had trouble working on new songs together and then brought it up about a year ago, in between tours. When it came time to start work for a new Walkmen record, Leithauser just found it too daunting. They no longer knew how to change it up, and he knew the road that was ahead of him. The band’s current dynamic and hometowns meant he’d be working alone in his apartment for months. “When we were younger we’d all be in band practice, and you try to bring in your ideas and do it with these five guys … [Now], it’s very lonely,” he says. In comparison, he now thrives off of his writing relationship with Batmanglij, who lives not far from him in Brooklyn.
It doesn’t appear that Leithauser regards any of the current situation as anything negative, or less than it should’ve been. “You got us at a pivotal moment. It’s the first time there’s been a major change in twelve years,” he explains, the first change being when they all quit their day jobs. He also seems to like the idea of splitting the Walkmen’s story into chapters: the first goes up until the disappointments following A Hundred Miles Off, the second encompasses the reclamation of purpose of these last five years, and this third one is whatever they’re embarking on now. The solo years. Who knows if there will be a fourth, or what form it will take, but Leithauser finds the idea of a breakup as pointless as the others do. “Nothing happened. We’re not going to play shows for a long time, but there’s no reason why we can’t again. People just sort of fade away a little bit.”
If the Walkmen never come back, Leithauser seems content with the legacy they’ve left behind, with how hard they worked. I float that idea of how some of the others made me feel like they’ve come to regard the Walkmen as a failed experiment. Leithauser scoffs. “It’d be arrogant to say that. We made a living. We supported five families for ten years, and a lot of people don’t get to do that. We got somewhere.” He isn’t content — he’s still searching, still writing songs constantly. But he does seem miles and years removed from the angry young men we once knew. He does seem happy.
“We’re all friends,” he says. “We built this thing that’s still there.”
Ortlieb’s, in many ways, seems the kind of place a musician may wax nostalgic about in hindsight, but is eager to escape in the moment. Long a respected Philly establishment, it isn’t without its charms, its cheap beer and wood paneling giving it the feel of a neighborhood haunt, while a giant screen on the far wall playing an oddly angled, black and white feed of the bands onstage provided a moderately arty quirk. It’s also a narrow space, though, the stage positioned at maybe the narrowest point, between the bar and a small seating area in the back. This the part that’d make it seem like an unpleasant place to play, the fact that the lip of the stage is about five feet from a wall, so you spend your night singing and staring at old flyers and people passing from one end of the bar to the other and restroom doors swinging back and forth. It’s the kind of place you play, you hope, on the way to bigger things. It’s also where Pete Bauer seems to be most comfortable, most at ease.
In between the first establishment and Ortlieb’s, we double back to Bauer’s Volkswagen so he can grab his guitar. He pops the trunk and pulls it out — just a single guitar case, no other gear or bags or anything. That case, it looks like it’s seen a lot of places; it’s frayed at the edges and parts of its black shell peel away to reveal a grey underbelly. If you had no idea that Bauer had spent over a decade in a famous touring band, though, in that moment he’d look like just another local musician walking to a late night bar gig. He claims it’s the only guitar he owns, and you believe him, and there’s something fitting about that. Seeing Bauer walk down a Philly street — years and miles removed from that New York scene and all its baggage — with this beat-up guitar case has a simplicity to it. A cleanliness, in spite of or somehow thriving off of the grunginess with which Philly situates an aged townhouse alongside a maybe-abandoned storage house alongside an empty fenced-in lot.
Playing with Light Heat is a sometimes gig, something Bauer does in exchange for Quentin’s help with Liberation!, which included both engineering and drumming duties. Before their set, there’s some time to kill, and Bauer mingles around Ortlieb’s. He checks in with members of the War On Drugs. He talks to other local musicians he’s become acquainted with in his time here. Seeing him in his element accentuates it: as he rounds the corner into the latter half of his 30s, the world he occupies on a daily basis is entirely detached from that of Leithauser in Brooklyn or that of Maroon in New Orleans. In fact, it seems almost entirely removed from the indie generation his band seemed so inextricably connected to. In a way, he is just another local musician walking to a late-night bar gig.
Even after the realization, right there, of Bauer’s removal — he’s all-in, a solo artist, a solo person — it’s still momentarily jarring to see him onstage there at first, because it’s him. It’s the same. The way he leans over the guitar so that his swept-back dark hair falls over his forehead, the way he stares into the space two feet ahead of his toe, but always up at the singer as well. It’s there from the moment Light Heat opens their set with the first of three Velvet Underground covers in tribute to Lou Reed. As soon as he strikes those initial notes of “Pale Blue Eyes,” all of the familiar Pete Bauer elements — the things that had a week ago been just another facet of all those familiar Walkmen elements — are there. The third song begins. A raw, fast take on “Beginning To See The Light.” A girl next to me jumps and twirls in place, a room full of Philly hipsters nod their heads excitedly. And with Bauer, there’s something different, something that I’d never seen before creeping into that usual stance. He slashes away at the song’s chords, he hunches over, and he still has that stoic staring-off-into nothingness gaze, until something changes, and the Walkmen fall away entirely. The girl’s hair flails around her, everyone sips cheap beer, and the band sweats in spite of the November winds outside, and there it is, for a second, he allows himself. Peter Matthew Bauer is smiling.