Interview: The Walkmen's Peter Bauer on Recording, Songwriting and the Mystery of Lisbon

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The Walkmen - BILLY PAVONE
  • Billy Pavone
  • The Walkmen

For the Walkmen's sixth album, Lisbon, the band started out in the same New York studio where it had recorded the 2008 release You & Me. Then, however, the band left New York to take a chance on a studio in Dallas, which organ player Peter Bauer describes as a "small concrete room." The eleven songs that made the final cut are peculiar by Walkmen standards: They're at once more accessible and clearer than anything the band has recorded, with some of Hamilton Leithauser's most emotional singing and some of the best deconstructed (but still beautiful) organ, piano, brass and vocal sounds. The group will be in town for a show at Off Broadway on Wednesday, October 20, and Roy Kasten caught up with Bauer, who was co-piloting a rental car across the Midwestern plains.

Roy Kasten: Can you talk about the decision to record in Dallas?
Peter Bauer: We'd done about half our record in New York to start, the same place we recorded our previous record You & Me, and we just kept going in and recording 10 songs and then leaving and thinking, "Well, that wasn't done." There wasn't much of a deadline to it. We were playing Texas and on a whim we went up to this studio in Dallas to see a new room, record with somebody, change things up basically. We ended up loving it and doing the rest of the record there.

Roy Kasten: In a way, Texas seems about as far away from any world I might associate with the Walkmen.
Peter Bauer: There's definitely not a strong association between us and Texas.

Even now after that recording experience?
I would say, even now. Everyone seemed to like Dallas. We do well recording in the South for some weird reason. We've recorded some records in Memphis and Mississippi. There's a sequestered feeling.

Did spending time in Texas influence the sound at all?
Probably not. It's really just a room. Things sound totally different when you record in a different room with a different engineer. It was a little concrete room. We always tend to do well in those rooms. It gives it this harder edge. The place in New York is wonderful, with a rich kind of sound, but this room had a trashier edge that we all liked.

This is your first album for Fat Possum, a label that's been pretty aggressive in the last couple of years in signing rock bands and moving beyond the blues. How did that come about?
They were interested. We chose between them and a couple of other people. The guy [Matthew Johnson] who runs it is really interesting. He seems to have some real ideas about how to sell music. He was an interesting character.

Is he going to tell the world how to sell music? The rest of the world wants to know.
I think he's just a nuts and bolts guy. He's not trying to do some goofy thing that gets you nowhere. He's a smart guy; it feels like a good match.

You began working on songs pretty quickly after finishing your last album, You & Me. It was just continuous.
We haven't really stopped in a long time. After Bows + Arrows, we toured for two years. Getting back into writing songs after that was horrible. Ever since then we've tried to not stop the production thing completely. Even if you take some time off there's something in the works, as opposed to saying, we'll meet up in two years. That's a bad way of doing things.

And you had how many drafts of songs for Lisbon?
We ran through 30 recordings for this record. I'd say 20 had a shot.

Do any of the discarded songs still gnaw at you, in the sense of missing the song, wanting to give it another chance?
Maybe a few of them we could try to record again. I'm more open to that than some of the other guys. There's always stuff I think we should go back to, but there's always someone who never wants to talk about it again. That's a fair attitude. A lot of them came out as b-sides. There are a couple of real dogs that will never see the light of day.

The Walkmen, "On the Water"

Do you play any of those outtakes live?
We talk about it. But there's always someone who's sour about one of them. Right now, we're still running through the new songs and happy. Once the novelty wears off we might dust off some b-sides.

The songs on Lisbon are all credited as group compositions.
That's how we always do everything.

Is that really how it works?
The majority of songs start with Paul [Maroon] our guitar player writing a melody line, then Walt [Martin] our bass player will play drums, then Ham will sing and make a part of music like that. That's how everything starts. We do a lot by just stepping around 8-tracks. I'll put something on it, whatever instrument I'm playing on it, then we'll make a whole song of it. Then we get together at the last step and see if it will work. It always originates with these simple sounding 8-tracks that Paul and Walt will do. Ham can start to make it an actual song or not.

Does Ham come up with lyrics before hand or is it always music first?
I think on occasion he'll have stuff, but for the most part he's most comfortable writing to a new piece of music. Then he'll come up with lyrics and melodies at the same time. That's when it's good. The best stuff is when there's a piece of music and he gets something from it and works it into a song.

What was the hardest song to finish?
To be honest, most of the songs went through the wringer. That's new for us. Usually the ones that go through the wringer end up in the trash. The first two songs were recorded six times each or something. There were all different parts and ideas. They really did the rounds before they were finished.

Some of the arrangements are really surprising. "Torch Song" has these really interesting shifts and contrasts. Hamilton is doing his full-on desperate croon, and then there are these lovely '50s country background vocals. The emotions on the record seem unguarded or less swallowed up by the sound, if that makes sense.
We wanted to make something more empty sounding, spacious, lighter in its own way.

And there's definitely less reverb on this record.
Paul turned off his reverb in a lot of situations. That's a new idea for us. You try to get the feel of that reverb, not a dry sound, but get it through something else.

And one thing I've always liked about the Walkmen is how you fuck with the natural sound of instruments, without losing the sound of the instrument itself.
The idea is just to find an original way to make the instruments sound. To my mind, the way people process things doesn't sound that original anymore. There's a very small amount of things that have that quality, where it still sounds like you're playing an instrument. Paul doesn't really use any pedals, I don't use any pedals. There are no effects like that. It's like trying to get a new tone out of the same bag.

What song do you think has changed the most from how you recorded it and how you now do it live?
Probably that "All My Great Designs" song, which has all these backup vocals on the record, and because none of us other than Ham can sing, we don't do that, so it has a lot of organ. It has that reggae groove to it. Matt [Barrick] can do more reggae fills.

The band spent some time in Lisbon while you were writing songs for the new record. What did you like best about the city?
As a group, there have been a few places that we've gone where you get a feeling that it's an exotic place, not that Lisbon is that exotic, but to us it was very strange. Growing up, you don't think, I'm going to go to Lisbon one day. It's sort of off the map. It's that feeling of knowing nothing about it. You wander the city, which is incredibly old, interesting, has a tropical quality to it. That's what drew us to naming a song and a record after it. It's sort of a mystery, for lack of a better word. It's like going to Mexico City. You're just wandering, completely ignorant of what's around you. That's a nice feeling. That's how I've been trying to describe that vague, wistful feeling. There's not a story like, I met my wife and crashed my car there. It's that strange quality. I think actually it does relate to our music in a weird way.

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