Interview with Peter Bauer of the Walkmen

He talks to us about making a new album, the capital of Portugal and the difficulties of performing at 1 p.m.

by Josh Kurp   |   Jul 29, 2010

Interview with Peter Bauer of the Walkmen

Photo: Billy Pavone

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The first time I listened to the Walkmen, I could only think of one word: “ambitious.” The band—composed of Hamilton Leithauser, Paul Maroon, Walter Martin, Peter Bauer and Matt Barrick—have always had a big sound (referred to as “melodramatic popular song” on their MySpace) and, because they tend to favor vintage instruments, they’re predisposed to feelings of nostalgia. Their albums, especially Bows + Arrows and You & Me, work better as a whole, rather than as individual songs. Although the Walkmen only released their first album eight years, they already sound like a classic band, and deserve to be treated as such. Casual listeners aren’t acceptable when Hamilton’s singing.

The Walkmen have a new album, Lisbon, coming out on September 14 through Fat Possum Records. Before that, they’re playing Osheaga Arts and Music Festival in Montreal on July 31, and after some time spent in Chicago for Lollapalooza, they return to New York, where most of the members live now, for an August 12 show with Grizzly Bear on Governors Island.

Encore recently had a chance to the band’s organ player, Peter Bauer.

What’s it like in the studio for the band when you’re working on a new album? Do you know the general plan going in or is it on the fly?
Do you mean when we’re writing or recording music?

We did half of the album in New York at this place called Gigantic, an old record label’s studio. And the rest we did in Dallas. Most of the record is from there. You feel like after making five records, you should know what it’s going to be like and you can imagine what things sound like. You expect things to go one way, and it’s really kind of incredible how often they don’t go that way. It’s always a real surprise.

I heard a stream of the album, and it sounds a little looser, a little more rock ‘n’ roll, than on the previous albums.
Going in, it was not. Going in, we had a lot of really quiet music. We made so much music for this thing that it’s really kind of weird that the actual album is pretty short. That was the intention, though, to have more of a short, succinct album. We went through a lot of different phases and types of songs and sounds, and the way it was recorded was different. We re-did a lot of things. It definitely made a lot of shifts. The stuff that we did in Dallas was the last stuff that we did, and that’s where a lot of the rock stuff came from. I think it worked out quite well that way.

I read in an interview that while roughly 30 songs were recorded for Lisbon, only 10 made the album. How did you guys pare down?
We definitely had an idea that we wanted to have a 10 song record. There was kind of a battle over whether we were going to have this tenth song or if it was just going to be nine songs with a little snippet of a song. All we knew is that we wanted to organize the record differently than how we had in the past. Our last record was 14 or 15 songs, and it was organized in a way that made it seem like this big, sloppy thing. And we wanted to do this one very differently. It was very important to have 10 songs and everyone was agreeable on cutting the things they liked. We have a lot of B-sides that are a lot better than our usual B-sides. There are five or six that are as good as anything on the record.

Do you plan on playing those during the live shows?
Probably not at first. As time goes by, I think we might. You just kind of cycle through what’s interesting, and someone might eventually say, “Oh, a B-side, we haven’t played that yet.”

How much of the new album do you think you’ll play during your upcoming shows?
As much as we can do live, which is a lot of it. There are a couple of songs that have some extra voices and stuff that may be difficult, but other than that, we can pretty much do everything. A lot of times we’ll carry horns with us, so we can do those. We can pretty much play all the music.

Why did you decide to name the record after the capital of Portugal?
We took two trips there last year, and they were both great. They were very welcoming to us. It was while we were writing the record and I think it rubbed off on us. The city itself captures something that’s related to the music. I don’t really know how to put it into words, I guess. The city just had this quality that was similar to what we were going for.

I’ve never been.
That’s another thing. It’s not a place that everyone gets to go to, so it’s exciting to go there. It’s not somewhere where you’d save up all your money and go to. It’s not a first choice, like Tahiti or something, but at the same time, it’s an interesting place that’s in one sense a very real city, but also it’s got great architecture and things happening.

Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone came out in 2002 and since then, you’ve released an album every other year. Is this intentional?
If it was intentionally, we would release one every year. But we just can’t seem to get our act together that fast. We always think we’re on the verge of having a record out about a year before we actually have the record out. We’re always aiming for the following year.

How long have you been working on Lisbon?
As soon as we mastered You & Me, we started writing it. We never stopped.

At this point, do you just want the album to come out so you can start on something new?
Yeah, very much. We’re always starting on a lot of new things, and we already have a couple of songs recorded since we finished Lisbon a month ago. We’ve been working on some weird, slow music the last few weeks. It’s different; we’re just trying to keep moving and having some forward momentum for the future. Maybe we’ll finally actually release an album next year as opposed to the year after.

You & Me is your best selling album to date. Do you feel any added pressure because of that?
We always feel a lot of pressure because this is our livelihood and what we want to do with our lives.

I guess I meant more outside of the regular jitters, just because the last one did sell so well.
The last album got us back, I think, to where we were before we released the one before, which was a bomb. People really hated it. It’s nice to be back in the same spot you were, and it felt like that record, people didn’t really love. It’s the first one we weren’t very proud of. I guess it has a lot riding on it, in terms of you really want to keep going.

Is the bomb you’re referring to A Hundred Miles Off?
That, and “Pussycat Cats Starring the Walkmen,” which people hated. I had no problem with them. I didn’t think they were offensive.

Which did you learn to play first: bass or organ?
I was a guitar player for years, and when Hamilton told me Paul was playing guitar, I started playing bass for the Walkmen. It’s not that hard, if you can play guitar. And when me and Walter switched for Hundred Miles Off, I had no idea how to play the organ. So, it’s still a little bit of a learning curve for me. I mean, I knew which note was which, things of that nature, but I hadn’t played piano since, like, first grade.

Why did you decide to switch?
I think Walter wanted to play bass pretty badly, and I was fine with it. It sounded like it might be fun.

And has it been?
I’d say it’s a mixed bag. I think it’s a little more fun to play bass, honestly. It’s a little easier. If you’re feeling the song, you can just kind of play along.

On Saturday, you’re playing at Osheaga. What made you guys sign up for the festival?
I think they just called us. It wasn’t much of a process. We’re down for doing anything, y’know.

Do you like playing festivals?
I go back and forth. They’re really fun at night, when it’s better than a regular show. But if you play at, like, 1 p.m., which is usually when we’re playing, in the heat of the summer, it’s hard to figure out how to reach people. But it’s nice to have a different experience every night. It’s nice to play festivals, it’s nice to play nightclubs, it’s nice to play theaters.

Are you going to stay for the rest of the festival? Arcade Fire closes the day you’re playing.
Yeah, I’d like to see them. I haven’t in a long, long time, and I’d like to see what they’re doing these days.

The Walkmen are basically on tour from late-August to November. How do you prepare yourself for something like that?
I don’t know. It’s going to sap the life out of us, I think. We haven’t done this in awhile, so I have no idea how to prepare for that. I think it’s going to hit me like a ton of bricks.

Do you guys ever just pause? You always seem to be making a new album or touring.
A lot of the time when you’re on tour, you’re doing nothing a lot. It’s kind of hard to pause when you get home, but when you’re on the road, you’re waiting to play a show 80 percent of the time. The show’s fun, but the rest of the day, you feel like a slug.

Go see the Walkmen during the 20 percent of the day that they don’t feel like at slugs at Osheaga or Governors Island.