Progress Report: The Walkmen
Name: The Walkmen
Progress Report: Band gets to work with Phil Ek on forthcoming studio album.
Aside from taking a victory lap around North America to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their debut album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, members of The Walkmen have been holed up in a studio with Phil Ek working on their seventh studio album. According to frontman Hamilton Leithauser, the follow up to 2010’s Lisbon will be a “very different sounding” record … even if he’s not exactly sure what that means yet.
STEREOGUM: Where are you?
HL: I can’t even remember the name of the town … it’s like 45 minutes north of Seattle.
STEREOGUM: I’m glad this interview is finally happening. Your band is always connected in my mind really closely with when I first moved to New York City, which was in 2000. I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since your first record came out.
HL: No shit, man. You’re preaching to the choir.
STEREOGUM: I mean, no one ever knows what to expect when they start a band or how things are gonna go, but do you find yourself ever surprised that it’s been a decade now?
HL: Oh, definitely. Oh, totally. I mean, when our band started, the first thing that happened … it was right after our two other bands had broken up, and those were all like the childhood bands we’d been doing, like best friends, since we were kids and stuff so our first moment together was like really knowing what it was like when it’s not really working out. We did our first record by recording it first, rather than just going out and playing shows, so that we’d have something tangible to start with.
STEREOGUM: That’s a good plan.
HL: It sort of worked.
STEREOGUM: I know you’re in the thick of making a record now. What stage are you at?
HL: We are on our — today is our fourth day of recording. We wrote more songs than we’ve ever written, in the last whatever, nine months or something. We have 32 songs written up on this whitewash board right now. And honestly we have a little corner of the board for the crap songs and there’s only like four in there. That’s good for us. Usually the corner is the whole thing. The corner is the part we like.
STEREOGUM: Just to take it back for a second, what’s happened with you guys since Lisbon came out? Did you guys tour a ton for that record?
HL: Actually, we didn’t and I think that’s what made it so we could write so many songs this time. In the past we’d always done this … we’d always tried to keep our touring down to not that long, so we just don’t have to be away from home that long at a time, like we’d never do more than ten days or whatever, like fifteen days or something. We put a stop just doing kind of endless touring. Still, the only way to make money is to go on tour — that’s the only money that we make, anyway — so we kind of have to go out and play shows. But we definitely took breaks and like long enough breaks so we could get home and get situated again and decide that you want to start writing songs and so in that way, I think that’s what got us to where we are now. Which I’m really happy that we did. It’s like long term planning. It’s like the smartest thing we’ve ever done. Actually, it’s the only smart thing we’ve ever done.
STEREOGUM: Does everyone live here?
HL: Where? Are you in New York?
STEREOGUM: I‘m in Brooklyn.
HL: No, I live in Brooklyn and my cousin Walt lives in Brooklyn and Pete and Matt live in Philly and Paul lives in New Orleans.
STEREOGUM: That does change things somehow. It takes a real concerted effort for everybody to be in the same place at the same time. Less spontaneous jamming.
HL: Yeah it does but with the internet and being able to email stuff … it’s so much easier to email a song than it used to be to meet when Paul was at Washington Heights and I had to meet him at the A train platform to hand the cassette off at 10 o’clock at night. It was horrible. And it would take weeks to have that meeting.
STEREOGUM: That’s true, that’s absolutely true. In the past, what has been your typical way of working in terms of how everybody makes songs? Does everybody sort of bring their own bits together?
HL: People have their own bits and Paul … it’s sort of gotten down to a system that sort of works where Paul does a lot of the guitars … he does all the guitars, really, and that’s sort of the beginning spark of a song, and then Walt does the all drums, and if they can get a little groove together then I’ll try to sing on it and I’ll try to put things together and write parts and arrange stuff and if that’s working then the three of us try to record something, and if that works, which is rare, then we try to get the whole band together and see what we sound like.
STEREOGUM:Y ou said you guys have a lot of songs this time around … I’m always curious … who generally has to be the ringleader in the band? Who is the person that’s like “All right we’ve got enough songs now, we gotta figure shit out …”
HL: We don’t have one and that’s such a problem for us. It’s like, no boss … like a headless animal kind of thing.
STEREOGUM: Everybody waits for someone else to take the reigns?
HL: Sort of. Yeah there’s a lot of that. As time goes on, you kinda start thinking “Man, we’ve got a lot of stuff” and then I don’t know maybe somebody takes the lead to get things organized. This time Phil called us and said “you guys wanna make a record?” and that Fleet Foxes record had just come out the day before and we all thought it sounded really great. He called us, it sounded interesting, and it worked out.
STEREOGUM: You’ve just sort of started recording but how is it so far? What’s your feeling?
HL: It’s good. The first two days were a nightmare of problems and just technical shit. I just walked in circles around the property. So it was some of the more boring time you could spend. But since then we’ve sort of started rolling, and I don’t know, we’ve gotten a lot done in the last two days.
STEREOGUM: I’m always fascinated by the role the producer plays with bands, how involved it is sometimes and how not involved it is sometimes. Historically, has it been beneficial for you guys to work with a producer?
HL: We’ve never really done it before. I’m trying to think of … I guess when we were doing some of the old songs — “The Rat” I think — and we were making these bad, bad recordings. We did it again and again and kept spending money on it. Then somebody suggested a producer and finally we did another one that sounded like shit and we were like “OK, let’s get someone else to do it.” And he came in and did a much better than we’d done. And then we sort of had the same thing at the end of Lisbon. We had just been doing these songs over and over again. We liked the songs but didn’t like the recordings we were turning in. So we went to Texas and did it with John Connell just blindly and he brought a lot of live sound that we hadn’t been doing. Those were the two times we’ve done it and it really did work out.
STEREOGUM: Lisbon was such a beloved record. This sounds like an insulting question, but were you surprised by how much people liked it?
HL: Did they like it that much?
STEREOGUM: Yes. I feel like they did, it was a very critically beloved record.
HL: It did get good reviews. We were happy with it. We really liked it too. It’s rare. We don’t ever really like love something and then people hate it –- that doesn’t happen too often. In the past. When you don’t … when you have something that’s not that great it’s like “Yeah, it’s not that great.” We usually know.
STEREOGUM: One would hope.
HL: I don’t know. It’s hard not to overthink those things.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting thinking about the time since you guys started, you sort of arrived as a band in New York when there was a lot of exciting shit going on and people were really excited about rock bands again. I’m thinking about how radically the landscape has changed since 2002 when the first record came out. It is amazing to me that anyone can make a living — whatever “a living” is — by being in a band these days. I don’t know where the question is in that statement. I’m just thinking that the longevity of your band is impressive — and kind of a rarity.
HL: Well, it ain’t easy. I remember when we started out you’d go to South by Southwest and they’d have a party and you’d go in and there’d be a full bar and there’d be celebrities and it was like all a very fancy event … and then, like five years later, you’d be in the back of a taco shack. And the labels were just like … it was just this sleazy scene with everybody trying to scrape by.
STEREOGUM: There’s a palpable vibe of desperation to those things now.
HL: Definitely. It’s not a glitzy business at all anymore, in any way.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a sense of when this record will come out?
HL: There’s a plan in place for it to come out in the spring and I’d love to say that’s gonna happen and it really does feel like we’re way, way more prepared for this than we have been in the past. That being said, every single time we’ve done a record, there’s been a problem you didn’t really count on happening. But so far, so good with this one.
STEREOGUM: It may also be way too soon to say about this either, but do you have a sense like the vibe of what this record will be? Does it feel like it’ll be a lot different than the last one?
HL: It will. It will sound very different. I don’t know how exactly because we have so many songs and nobody has any idea of whether we wanna do a short thing or a really long thing or what. We have a lot of rock songs and we have a lot of slower jams, plus a lot of acoustic songs … I don’t know. It depends on what comes out, what we like the best. You never know until you have ‘em.
STEREOGUM: How much time do you have slated to be there right now?
HL: A while. A couple of months? Really, a long time. I don’t think anybody ever checked the schedule with the band.
STEREOGUM: Having spent some time with bands in the studios, I know how amazingly fun and also how incredibly tedious it can be … especially if it’s a day when you’re not the person who needs to be doing anything. For you guys being camped out in some weird city out in the middle of nowhere … how is it?
HL: Well it’s only been four days but I do think there’s something to it. I sort of think we do our best in these situations. Like, we’ve done a lot in Oxford, Mississippi over the years and there’s a studio down there we really like. There ain’t a lot going on in Oxford and what’s going on, you don’t really want to be a part of. Like, huge frat parties downtown on the weekend nights, so that’s really isolating too. We’ve done a lot in New York and it’s definitely like, 8:30 at night, you’re like “You know, I think I’d rather be doing something else right now other than listening to drum sounds.” I’m sure that’s one of the reasons it’s good for us to go away to work.
STEREOGUM: It focuses everybody’s attention.
HL: Definitely. Phil’s scared us before we got here. He said it was like The Shining out here.
STEREOGUM: Is this the place where Phil usually works?
HL: Yeah, he knows the owners. He lives out here.
STEREOGUM: I’ve never actually seen what Phil Ek looks like. He’s always synonymous in my brain with Doug Martsch — that’s who I picture — because I was so obsessed with Built to Spill when I was younger. It’s unfair to Phil Ek because I’m sure they look nothing alike. I’m not saying Doug is ugly, by the way.
HL: Ha! No he doesn’t look anything like Doug Marsh. Phil is great. He has been lending us all this incredible gear. He has the most incredible collection of instruments of anyone I’ve ever heard of. We’re using a lot of his amps and guitars, actually.
STEREOGUM:: That doesn’t surprise me.
HL: It’s unbelievable.
STEREOGUM: That’s cool. I’ll be curious to hear the new record. I was such a fan of Lisbon … and all your early records.
HL: Oh thanks very much, I’m glad to hear that.
STEREOGUM: Good luck getting it done.
HL: Thanks, man. Take it easy.