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Q&a The Walkmen - new album Heaven, collaborating for the first time (with Fleet Foxes among others), surviving rock'n'roll, replacing Bjork & more

Q&a The Walkmen - new album Heaven, collaborating for the first time (with Fleet Foxes among others), surviving rock'n'roll, replacing Bjork & more
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Indie’s great survivors The Walkmen have seen it all since the release of their debut album Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone in 2002: hype and ignorance, indifference and acclaim, cult status and relative obscurity. However with their last few albums – 2008’s You & Me and 2010’s Lisbon – the five-piece have steadily cemented their place as one of America’s most independently minded and musically dexterous rock bands. Their new album Heaven, released on Monday (4 June) in the UK, looks set to continue that renaissance if their reviews are anything to go by – get our new issue Q312 now for a preview and review of the new record. We spoke to frontman Hamilton Leithauser about his band’s current ascension.

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How the Devil are you?

“Er…. Good, yeah, good. It seems like everything is going ok.”

It doesn’t feel that long ago that you released Lisbon, why was this such a quick turn around?

“It did come together unusually quickly. It was quicker than anything else we’ve ever done. People ask me, Why, and I think honestly because we’ve got to the point where we live so far away from each other now we’ve really streamlined our writing process. We email each other ideas now. We work individually and all the best stuff we’ve written has been done individually. Whenever we got together over the years we’d be just beating our heads against the wall. We really have just cut that part out of it. It’s weird because it’s very isolating and you’re on your own for over a year working on this stuff but in the end it’s what made it work more smoothly for us.”

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No socialising, just music making?

“Yeah, exactly!”

You still could have stockpiled your songs at home, what was it that made you all meet up in a studio so soon?

“It does get to a point where you think, There’s a lot of shit, and you want to flush it out. When we went into the studio we had 32 songs, Phil Eck [producer] took one look at the board and he looked scared! So the first thing we did was slash eight of them. The other thing we’ve always done over the years is go in with half ideas, writing the stuff right there, driving the engineer absolutely bat shit crazy. Phil was not ready to do that, so we skipped that process too, which was a good idea.”

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You’re almost too efficient now, you’re worrying the producer.

“Yeah, that was definitely a first for us. We’re always scrambling at the last minute so it’s definitely a good direction for us.”

Why was this was the first album you’ve recorded with a producer?

“We’ve never granted anyone any serious creative input before and this time we really signed on the dotted line before we went into the studio. It was a formal agreement that he would have serious control. I’m glad we did it. We did it because we’ve been making records for so long and we’ve always done it on our own terms. Politically and methodically, it can just get a little bit repetitive and you want to try to break out. You’ll always end up sounding like The Walkmen so you want to try as much as you can to do something different.”

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Was it strange having someone saying, No, do it again or, It’s perfect, stop fiddling?

“Yeah, it is weird. Sometimes it’s really frustrating and sometimes it’s really nice to hear, but everyone goes through that. It can be annoying, you know, when you think you’ve got something and he’s telling you, you don’t – you have to keep fighting and there’s this extra guy dragging his feet. We have enough guys dragging their feet as it is [laughs]! Part of the job is to keep everybody in line and moving forward, so it was a helpful pressure. I’m glad we did it.”

Focusing on the songs, what were the inspirations that came to the fore and allowed you to pick an album out of the 32 songs you’d written?

“I thought we had a solid batch, we’d prepared well. We had a bunch of very simple but fun rockers. It’s hard for us to write something that’s happy and like it. Over the years, so many times we’ve tried to write a big happy rock song and we just hate it. To be able to do those big rockers, have those simple lines like, I’m not your heartbreaker, and have this big happy, positive rock song that we like, that was the thing I felt that set them apart for us. It’s simple, it’s not like rocket science, but it’s really hard to get to that point.”

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It’s easy to get those sort of songs wrong.

“Yeah and it’s frustrating, even when you get there and you’re happy with it, you think, I can’t believe it took this many years!”

Listening to those positive lyrics, there seems to be more of a snapshot quality to the songs rather then them having universal themes. Do you feel these songs were different to what you’ve written before?

“Like it’s a smaller thing? Yeah, Heartbreaker for example is supposed to be small. Everything about it is supposed to have a classic and small feel to it. It’s simple, there’s no fluff on it. For one reason or another we wanted it to be like that right now and we like it. It ends up with a huge sound, which I’m really proud of. The guitars are enormous but it starts in a weirdly small place.”

As you mentioned, you sing I’m not your heartbreaker, some tender ballad player. A common accusation you face?

“[laughs] No, that’s fiction.”

On the opening song, We Can’t Be Beat, you’re singing I’m a duke of earl, a doo wop reference, right?

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“It’s just a reference to the song [Duke Of Earl by Gene Chandler], because we were doing all this doo wop stuff but the only thing that made it on to the record is that song and some harmony stuff later on. I really would have liked to do more. I was listening to The Belmonts and The Fleetwoods, who are one of my favourite bands of all time. I’ve always wanted to copy their sound. I like that song though for us, it’s a new sound for us. It’s a bit ramshackle and I feel like it’s uplifting but intimate at the beginning. I was really proud of that.”

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It’s an interesting start for the record, quite quiet in a way. Were you not asked to start with something louder?

“We wanted something to build well and we thought that one says a lot in one song. Ten years ago you’d turn in your record order and the record company would have a problem with it because they wanted the single first, these days nobody cares. They’re like Sure, whatever. I guess because nobody listens to the record in order. They probably only hear three songs!”

Another thing that’s different on this album is you have a backing vocalist on a few tracks. Tell us about him.

“Well a lot of it is me, but we also got Robin Pecknold of the Fleet Foxes who we’ve got to know. I really wanted to not have my voice a thousand times on every song and he was willing to do it and he’s got such a great voice we had him come in, he did a great job.”

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Is he as good a Walkmen backing singer as you?

“He’s awesome!”

We’ve seen a few images of The Walkmen with wives and children in the build up to Heaven’s release. A) Are they real or ‘stunt’ families and B) Aren’t you breaking some rock’n’roll rule by not pretending to be heartthrobs well into your 60s?

“[laughs] Extras? No they’re the real deal! It felt like the music was very honest and a good representation of who we are as people. That all came at the end, we weren’t thinking about it when we were writing it, but when we finished we looked at it and thought it captures who we are as people, so instead of having some stupid press photo of the five of us – boring guys sitting around again – we thought we’d do something more likeable and have the whole family there. Bare it all. I guess it’s not so cool or whatever, but I think it makes us look more likeable.”

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You’ve just been added to this week’s Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona (30 May – 3 June), you’re the Bjork replacement right?

“I know. I didn’t want to be billed as that because there will be only disappointment, but I think we sort of are. Do we have a Bjork cover in the set? No, no, I’m avoiding that one.”

You’ve also got your biggest ever UK tour this autumn. As a band once advised never to play in Blighty again that must be satisfying?

“That was our record label over here. As we were signing we asked them if they wanted the British rights and they said, No, you’ll never make it over there! [laughs] I don’t know, it seems like things have picked up a little bit over in the UK for us.”

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From the outside, it does seem You & Me was something of a breakthrough for the band, it seemed to triggered a new phase of creativity. Would you agree?

“I do. We weren’t exactly proud of anything we’d done recently at that point. We were really down in the dumps and people were running for the hills! We didn’t have a record label, a manager, nothing. Paul [Maroon, guitarist] moved to Philadelphia and it felt like, Well that was that, the end of everything we’d known so far. But by bottoming out or whatever we found a new creative spark, but then we had to fight to make You & Me. We had no money, nobody was backing us, no record label advance or anything like that, so everything we did was tough. I do think though that we felt like we had something to fight for. We thought, We do like making music and we don’t have to pretend we don’t like doing it any more, we can try to be something different. So when we did You & Me we felt like we had a new direction and we were all very proud of it. Since then we’ve been a lot more careful to avoid any situation when you don’t care. If you find yourself in that situation you’re going to lose interest, you have to avoid it. It sounds weird saying it, but we know what we mean.”

You need to avoid going through the motions?

“So many people do things they don’t really care about and if you find yourself doing that… you really shouldn’t.”

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Looking back at the struggle to get here, have you enjoyed being in The Walkmen, or would you do it all differently?

“It’s been a struggle, we don’t make much money. I have a lot of friends who did really well, really fast from the get go. You’d watch them and be, Damn those dudes are on Saturday Night Live, again! We play at noon at the festival, they play at midnight. I’ve seen that so many times over the years. Life looks easier for them, particularly when they travel, it can be frustrating all of us jammed into out van. So, it would be nice to do better than we do.”

So what’s the secret, what’s kept you going?

“It’s just something we’ve always done, since seventh grade which I think is 11 years-old or something. The other guys dropped out of college to move to New York to start their first band and I switched colleges to New York because I was more interested in a band than in school. When I had my job, I only had that to pay the bills. We’ve been to the point where we did this too much and got tired of it, but then we figured out we still like doing this and want to do this. So I don’t know, it’s all I’ve ever done. I don’t have any other marketable skills! If we didn’t do the band I would be so unemployable [laughs]!”

Paul Stokes@Stokesie

For more on the band and new album Heaven head to Thewalkmen.com.


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