IMAGE COURTESY OF ARNO FRUGIER
Backstage at Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, past the scrum of concertgoers stomping out their smokes in time to see The Walkmen play BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House, the silver-haired David Byrne—who basically invented all of this—towered over the entryway to the loading dock.
"I said hello to him, but he has no idea who I am," shrugged Hamilton Leithauser, The Walkmen's lead singer. "He probably thought I worked here."
The wry defeat is nothing new for Leithauser and his bandmates—though it's anything but deserved. Over the last eleven years, The Walkmen—Leithauser, who sings and plays guitar, drummer Matt Barrick, guitarist Paul Maroon, and Walter Martin and Peter Bauer, who switch both off between bass and organs—have churned out album after album of sorrow-tinged but triumphant bursts of wit, all set to distinctively American rock-'n'-roll.
All of them but Bauer met as teenagers at St. Albans, a private school in Washington, D.C., and they've done a lot since that time. Over seven albums, The Walkmen have given the world songs that carom from searing indie-gone-arena guitar anthems ("The Rat"), to boozy brass-inflected melodies ("Louisiana"), to raw emotional ballads ("I Lost You"), to punked-up Dick Dale insanity ("Angela Surf City"). Their new album, Heaven, out this month on Fat Possum Records, is steeped in different elements of the band's self-spun legend, tying everything together to make an album of tight, straight-ahead songs that have all the bravado, vim, acidity and heart that populate their entire catalogue. It might be their best album yet.
We talked to the band before they took the stage at Crossing Brooklyn Ferry. Much of the audience was hearing Heaven for the first time, limiting the sing-along factor in the best way—they were rapt, with their full attention on the band. Plus, the songs already sound road-ready, which is a good thing: they're going on a massive stadium tour with Florence + The Machine this summer.
To close out the set, Leithauser readied the intro to a track the crowd knew well. "This is the first song we ever wrote," he said, introducing "We've Been Had," the classic from his band's first record. It's about moving to a big city when you're too young to know any better. Then he said goodbye, and thank you: "New York is still a hometown show for us."
FREEMAN: How's the new stuff sounding on the road?
LEITHAUSER: Oh, it's sounding all right. We're gonna take some risks tonight.
FREEMAN: You wanna clue me in?
LEITHAUSER: Well, for the first time, these dudes [points to Martin and Bauer] are gonna step up to the mic.
FREEMAN: For a new song?
LEITHAUSER: Yeah, the lead-off song from our new record.
FREEMAN: Oh, "We Can't Be Beat." I've been listening to new record for a while, and that song sounds fantastic, I understand why you need all the backup singers. Was it a conscious effort to make this record have a bigger sound?
LEITHAUSER: Well, we decided to work with Phil [Ek], who recorded the Fleet Foxes record, and they sound clean, bigger than us. And we were hoping he would bring some of that to us, and he really did.
FREEMAN: Last time I saw you guys wasn't too far from here. It was at the Masonic Temple, in 2008, right after You & Me came out. It was the first time I heard those songs live—onstage, you guys come into your own with each record. Like with "We Can't Be Beat," it'll be interesting to see if you guys can pull it off.
LEITHAUSER: Oh, the guys will be great. As long as they have the monitors working. Er, yeah, it could be a real shitshow real fast up there.
FREEMAN: And with the recording process, you guys were deciding whether or not to include "Heaven," right? And now it's the first single.
LEITHAUSER: No, it was just the last thing that we finished. We gave it to Phil at the last second, and he wasn't too pleased about that one.
FREEMAN: Did you guys have a good relationship?
LEITHAUSER: Well, he was a bit of a slave driver, but that was good; he whipped us into shape.
FREEMAN: So the first time I saw you guys, it must have been 2005, you guys played at your old school, St. Albans. Do you remember that show?
LEITHAUSER: Yeah! Are you from D.C.?
FREEMAN: Yeah, I went to Walt Whitman High School.
LEITHAUSER: Oh really! When did you graduate?
LEITHAUSER: Oh, that's a little after our time.
FREEMAN: Yeah, so my buddy asked if I wanted to see The Walkmen and I said sure, but apparently I had to sneak in because it was only for St. Albans students, and we were from the public school. I had to get some St. Albans guy to sneak me in, and you guys were so great. You covered The Modern Lovers with—
MAROON: With our biology teacher!
FREEMAN: Yeah! So, you think there's another record? Or two? Five?
LEITHAUSER: Yeah, we'll have at least another one.
FREEMAN: This is your first time in New York for a while playing a show. Do you guys still live in the city? I know back in the day you guys all were up in Harlem.
LEITHAUSER: Only two of us do now. Two of us are in Philly, and Paul's in New Orleans. I live about six blocks from here, actually.
FREEMAN: Do you have a favorite spot nearby?
LEITHAUSER: I love The Smoke Joint around here [in Fort Greene], and those guys have three other restaurants around Bed-Stuy that are really good.
FREEMAN: I went to some great barbecue place on Clinton and Fulton tonight.
LEITHAUSER: Oh, what's it called?
FREEMAN: Um, it's called Little Brother.
LEITHAUSER: Oh that's the same people!
FREEMAN: Is it really?
LEITHAUSER: That's the Smoke Joint people.
FREEMAN: And it's right next to Hot Bird, so you can have a beer while you eat it.
LEITHAUSER: Don't they only have, like, hot dogs there?
FREEMAN: No, but it is chopped barbecue, so it's a little different.
LEITHAUSER: Oh, cool.
FREEMAN: So what were you guys listening to when you were writing and recording Heaven? Were there any major touch points? I was trying to pick them out myself—it sounds like you guys, but bigger and tighter.
BAUER: Weren't we all listening to a lot of Frank Sinatra?
LEITHAUSER: Yeah, I read a Frank Sinatra biography, and I was listening to a lot of Frank records.
BARRICK: You know, Nate, we still have a bunch of shirts from that St. Albans show...
LEITHAUSER: Oh, yeah, we do!
FREEMAN: You guys wanna send me one?
LEITHAUSER: How about we send you a trash bag full of them! We can send you, like, 300.
BAUER: We probably left them in Marcata [their old studio in Harlem, which they had to sell in 2007].
BARRICK: Or, hold on—did we use them to clean up the vegetable oil the other day?
BAUER: Oh, yeah, I don't think we have any more of those left.
FREEMAN: Well, if you have any, send me some. Time for you guys to start setting up for the show. You guys ready to go on?
LEITHAUSER: Well, we have to warm up. Gotta warm up our voices for "We Can't Be Beat," practice until the second we come on.
THE WALKMEN'S HEAVEN IS OUT NOW. THE BAND WILL PLAY BOWERY BALLROOM TOMORROW NIGHT. FOR MORE, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.