Back to School with Walter Martin

Published February 1, 2016

Known as part of The Walkmen, Walter Martin released his first solo effort We’re All Young Together in 2014. It was an album made for children, but as of Friday, he returned with a more adolescent release, Arts + Leisure. Aptly titled, the record recounts Martin’s gripes with college-level art history (the field in which he majored before dropping out), making prank calls while working at The Met, delivering pizzas, and other relatable experiences from his late teens and early 20s. For example, on “Amsterdam,” Martin sings, “Here I am in Amsterdam / Walking the canals with my old man … Please tell me all about who came from here / Maybe Van Gogh and maybe Vermeer.” One song is bluntly titled “Michelangelo,” and he doesn’t forget architects, naming another “Charles Rennie Mackintosh.”

Martin isn’t ever cynical about experiences, though. Before playing album opener “Jobs I had Before I Got Rich & Famous” at his sold-out record release show in Brooklyn, he half-joked that he still isn’t either of the two. He maintains upbeat tempos, playing everything from the drums and guitar to upright bass, piano, bass harmonica, trombone, organ, mandolin, xylophone, slide whistle, and glockenspiel.

Just before the album’s release, Martin spoke with longtime friend and fellow musician Matt Berninger, frontman of The National and co-founder of his newer band EL VY.

WALTER MARTIN: What’s happening out there [in L.A.], Matt?

MATT BERNINGER: I’m trying to figure out how to record at home because I have a tiny house and a seven-year-old and my wife also works at home. So I can’t work in the house because she’s trying to write, so I pitched a tent in the backyard. I’m literally trying to record in the tent. I have dogs barking and airplanes and helicopters on almost all of the tracks that I’m working on.

MARTIN: I have a lot of that stuff on tracks that I do too, especially with my first record. There are trucks and buses all over it.

BERNINGER: I feel a certain amount of that makes it more genuine. But I have pit bulls barking at me on half of the love songs, so that’s not going to work… So, you live near the Botanical Gardens, near the park?

MARTIN: Yeah, exactly. Right by the Brooklyn Museum.

BERNINGER: I used to live between Underhill and Vanderbilt on Prospect. I’ve lived in eight neighborhoods in Brooklyn, but that was my favorite. I’m trying to remember when we met—I think we opened for you in ’04.

MARTIN: I remember that, you opening for us around 2004. I don’t remember much about it though.

BERNINGER: I think it was at The Khyber and then we did a handful of shows together. We crossed paths again at SXSW, I think, later that same year. I remember trying to go to one of your shows and not being able to get in. That was one of those “holy shit!” realizations that everybody was paying attention to you guys. Then we ended up doing tons of tours together. For the record, it’s been 12 years [since we last toured together].

MARTIN: Yeah, but you sang on my last record.

BERNINGER: Which was a blast. That song gets lots of airtime around my house. I have Sonos now. Do you have Sonos or a sound system like that?

MARTIN: No I don’t. I’m old school. I have a record player. [laughs]

BERNINGER: Mine are in boxes. I sold out. So let’s talk about the new record, Arts & Leisure. I think you and I are in similar positions: We work in bands, mostly collaboratively. So how hard or easy is it to be by yourself, doing a solo project?

MARTIN: The only true reference for me is The Walkmen and so much of it was writing music. We spent so much time doing that. The words were something we would do after. So the big difference for me now is that I do the opposite: I focus on the words and then I have fun putting together the music after.

BERNINGER: That’s cool you write down the words in prose style in notebooks and then figure out how to put that together. Do you find it easier or more fun to start with words and the idea of a song, and then to just see where it goes?

MARTIN: I do. I really like to have subject matter. I usually start with a title. I feel like John Fogerty did that and I really like John Fogerty. He would always say, “That’s a kickass title,” and then he’d write whatever, like “Bad Moon Rising.” It’s really fun, I really enjoy doing it like that.

BERNINGER: Did you write lyrics with Walkmen, too? Have you always treated lyrics like this, or did Ham [Hamilton Leithauser] write most of the stuff? 

MARTIN: At the beginning, Ham wrote all of it. But after the second chapter of The Walkmen, as I like to think about it, we did it together.

BERNINGER: It seems like everybody in The Walkmen had all of the tools, or most of the tools, to be solo artists. You are all songwriters—both musically and lyrically—but none of you really did a solo record [during The Walkmen]. Was it hard to suppress the desire to do a solo album for a decade?

MARTIN: Well, yeah. That was a lot of what made it fun, but also a lot of what made it hard, because it was five guys with a lot of ideas. Once we got older, we found out if we broke into small groups when we were writing, we were more effective. So we started doing that, but also, when email became a big thing, we were able to work by ourselves and email each other. It became a very different process.

BERNINGER: In my head, and maybe I’m the only one who saw it this way, but The Walkmen seemed like the Reservoir Dogs of rock bands. You had this personality on stage that kept everybody at a distance. It was intimidating in all the cool ways you want a rock band to be intimidating. Now, with all of the stuff you’re doing on your own, you have taken away that intimidating aura. You, as a solo artist, have a completely different personality.

MARTIN: When you’re young, in your 20s and early 30s, and you’re shy, I think all of The Walkmen were sort of like that. Our default mode was, “Let’s not perform, let’s just rock out.”

BERNINGER: Off-stage you guys were goofy and on-stage you were distant, cool, and could be badasses. It seems like you all are breaking out of those roles—Pete’s record, Paul’s record, Ham’s record, I can hear The Walkmen, there’s a DNA I recognize, like recognizing the parents of children. With The Walkmen, those records were children of five different parents and now I can recognize the work that each of you did. Have you guys shared your solo records with each other and talked about them?

MARTIN: We were a little awkward with each other about them, just because we did it together for so long. So we know how the other probably feels about the stuff. I would never send [my album] to a member of The Walkmen unsolicited. I would only send it if they were like, “Hey, send me your record.” I would never say, “Here, check out my stuff.” I could never do that.

BERNINGER: [laughs] Everybody in my band graciously told me how much they loved the EL VY record.

MARTIN: [laughs] And that’s the thing—no matter what, that’s what they have to say. When I play stuff for my wife she’ll be like, “No, not that song. No way.” But that’s not going to happen with The Walkmen boys.

BERNINGER: Do you collaborate with your wife? Do you let her listen to stuff early?

MARTIN: Yes, definitely. She is like my right hand man. She edits what I do—she rearranged a couple of songs, actually. I was on tour this summer and I had a song that I wrote on tour and I started playing it because I really liked it. But I was really nervous about playing it because I would be playing it for people before she heard it. That was the first time I had ever done that.

BERNINGER: I’ve always envied Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. She’s credited on everything and that’s such a romantic and fun way of working. If my wife likes it, and if we both like something a lot, I feel really good about putting it out. I feel confident.

MARTIN: I’m the same way. It’s like, I’m a grown man, but if I believe in it and my wife believes in it, then I’m like, “Fuck it.”

BERNINGER: I’m a grown man, exactly. I wanted to ask, do you have a studio at home?

MARTIN: No, I don’t. For my first record I did; I did it all in the basement. But I have a studio over in Gowanus.

BERNINGER: Do you have a schedule? Do you treat it like a job?

MARTIN: Yeah, we have a babysitter. It’s very regimented. I’ll go there Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

BERNINGER: I’m trying to do that, to give myself three hours. I feel like I would get more done knowing I just have three hours, than if I gave myself a whole week.

MARTIN: I feel the same way. I feel more productive, mostly because I feel like my ass is on the line. Before I had kids, I would sit around, drink, I don’t even know what I did with myself…

BERNINGER: You realize how much time you used to have. But oddly, the less time you have, the more you make use of it.  So I want to ask about the themes of this record—a lot of it you’re looking back at yourself as a teenager, sometimes even younger. I found that interesting because I’ve always written about myself, but I never felt the need to write about what it was like to be a teenager when I was in my 20s and 30s. Now I’m in my 40s and I’m really interested in what I was like at 15. I hear that a lot in your record. You talk about childhood and adolescence.

MARTIN: It’s fun to write about myself, but I feel like I would bore people with that. So looking back, you can romanticize the things you did back then. I also like talking about the stupid things I’ve done. In talking about art, I wanted a young person’s perspective on a lot of it.

BERNINGER: I know I was joking to you over email, but what I liked about your record is that you write in this way about art that is so personal. I feel that I’m learning about a young man and his relationship with his dad in one song. I’m learning about you, through this young man, through this prism of arts and leisure.

MARTIN: That was really the idea. I wanted it to feel very personal, so I used this device of art and museums, and traveling, and talking broadly about myself, and stories of the past. Writing about something specific, in my mind, was overwhelming, so I wrote about art because I love art and I know I can say a couple of funny things about art. In college I had to major in something, so I was like, “Okay I like art history, so I will major in that.” I never really had any ambitions to work in museums or anything, though.

BERNINGER: Did you know that rock music was really what you were going for?

MARTIN: Yeah, but no. My first band was when I was 12, with my friend Stuart, and then Matt, from Walkmen, joined in seventh grade. Then Ham and Paul joined in ninth grade. So we always played. We took it very seriously. But then, at then end of high school, we were all like, “I don’t know if we’re going to do this, so see you later.” Right before our last day of college, Stuart was all, “We should do this, we’ve regretted this.” I thought he was crazy, but then I realized quickly that when I stopped doing it, I desperately had to keep doing it. We put our old band together [and] our parents were not happy. We had dropped out of college and they were like, “These kids don’t know what they’re doing”—and we didn’t know what we were doing. We were as surprised as anyone, but now I’m able to say to my parents, “I did know what I was doing, see!” But there’s no way we had a plan, I didn’t have a plan at all. But also it was the only thing I wanted to do. When The Walkmen stopped, we were all of a sudden like, “What are we going to do?” At this point there’s nothing else we can do. Being in a rock band for 20 years is not the best resume for anything else.

BERNINGER: And the thing is, sure you had people coming to see you, but it was hard work. You guys were carrying around that old piano and literally lifting this whole upright piano into the back of your trailer or van every night. It’s grueling work to travel around in a van. It’s kind of an awful lifestyle, unless you were one of those guys doing drugs and meeting ladies, but that was never really the vibe of you guys.

MARTIN: Yeah, Walkmen was the most prudish band ever.

BERNINGER: I remember we did three shows with you and at the end you guys gave us a big box of liquor because you didn’t drink. [Martin laughs] Are you touring with this record?

MARTIN: I’m doing a couple of shows that I think will be fun. I’m going to do a show at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I might do some shows at The Met in New York. I’m going to do some shows in D.C., hopefully, at The National Gallery. But not really a proper tour. I really like opening for people. I’m doing a tour this summer, opening for this guy Josh Rouse. It’s going to be a mature crowd, people in their 40s and 50s, just very pleasant. I get to go up and tell my little jokes and sing my songs.

BERNINGER: That’s awesome. Well, I love the record, man, and I loved the last one too. It’s fun to see you evolving from the last one. It feels like you’re on this really cool journey. Do you feel like you were interviewed enough? Were you sufficiently probed?

MARTIN: Oh yeah, for sure. [laughs]

BERNINGER: Well, it was great talking to you man.

MARTIN: Yeah you too, man. Hopefully I’ll see you around soon.

BERNINGER: See you, Walt.

ARTS + LEISURE IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON WALTER MARTIN, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.