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Music writing

A very good year for The Walkmen

interior-walkmenThis article was published in the Guardian, on January 14, 2011

It was the guitar Paul Maroon had been searching for his whole adult life: a Rickenbacker Capri 360, made in 1959, with twin pickups, a rosewood fretboard and a hollow maple body. It had been refinished in black, to look like a larger version of the guitar John Lennon played at the peak of Beatlemania.

Maroon’s band, The Walkmen, were at a low, without a label or a manager. The Rickenbacker’s clanging, chiming tone would be the sound of their comeback. On their critically lauded 2008 album, You & Me, it was the perfect sparring partner for frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s distinctive howl. Until one afternoon, at the Vogue Theatre in Indianapolis, he tripped on a lead, knocking it to the floor and snapping the neck.

The New Yorkers had destroyed instruments before. When they smashed an upright piano outside Birmingham Academy, they left it on the street and bought another one for £50 the next day. This was different. There are so few in circulation that the guitar was impossible to replace. The band’s engineer thought they could never make another record without it. In fact, in keeping with the cussed logic of a career characterised by bad breaks and setbacks, their next album, Lisbon, turned out to be their best yet.

In a decade making music together, the band’s habits and preferences have set hard, becoming what Leithauser calls “stupid unspoken policies”. Rule number one: All equipment must be vintage. Their guitars and amplifiers all date from the golden age of rock’n’roll. Rule number two: However valuable the instrument, it should be carried in a cheap, flimsy bag. Rule number three: No guitar stands, because an antique Fender looks much cooler propped against a speaker.

There are other tacit commandments relating to songwriting, rehearsal and doing business, most of which have backfired at some point, but the more idiosyncratic the rule, the more stubbornly they observe it. It is no coincidence that they have passed through five different record labels in six albums. “I honestly think we’re not difficult to work with, but we’ve been told that so many times it’s difficult to argue,” Leithauser admits. “How can you keep blaming the next guy?”

Leithauser and his cousin, bassist Walter Martin, are intimidatingly tall and handsome, with the patrician self-confidence that comes from being a popular kid at a exclusive school. In some parallel, Mad Men universe, they are decorated fighter pilots and an unbeatable doubles pair at the tennis club. But in Brooklyn, here and now, an affordable, slightly sketchy neighbourhood is the furthest their income will stretch.

“I think we do alright,” says Leithauser, over a glass of red wine in their local. “But we have friends who are in bands that are a lot more successful than us. We toured with Kings Of Leon, Vampire Weekend, Spoon, Interpol, The Black Keys. They’re at a level where they can hire people to do the jobs we do each night, which gets to be a real drag.” A perennial support act, the Walkmen still carry their own amps.

They formed in the ashes of two failed groups. Jonathan Fire*Eater, featuring Martin, Maroon and drummer Matt Barrick, were briefly the hippest band in New York. They opened for Blur, signed a major label deal and inspired The Strokes, but imploded in a welter of drugs and mediocre songwriting. Leithauser and Pete Bauer played in the Recoys, who faithfully recreated a 1960s garage sound, but never released an album.

Leithauser has been preoccupied with the ageing process since he was a teenager. A Recoys track called Roy Orbison begins “Yeah, I’m getting older, that’s what I told her,” picking up a theme he has revisited on every Walkmen album. On their debut, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, he mocked his younger self and concluded “sometimes I’m just happy I’m older.” On breakthrough single, The Rat, he worried that he was becoming anti-social and isolated in his twenties: “When I used to go out I would know everyone that I saw. Now I go out alone if I go out at all.”

Questions about lyrical inspiration are deflected with a stock answer along the lines of “the music always comes first” but in the songs, Leithauser’s world-weary, defiant narrative voice is unmistakable. On their biggest-selling album, 2004’s Bows & Arrows, it’s notable how angry he sounds. “That first line of The Rat – ‘you’ve got a nerve…’ – I had that in about ten seconds. I don’t know if I was feeling like going out and beating someone up, but that’s what it sounds like,” he says.

The Walkmen are obsessed with old things, so it stands to reason that they should age well themselves. Leithauser has penned handfuls of songs about settling down, many of them sceptical about whether it’s possible to change, but as the band have married and moved apart (Bauer, Barrick and Maroon have kids and Leithauser’s first is on the way) he’s become an acute observer of doubt and regret, redeemed by his optimistic streak.

Lisbon’s narrator has found a modicum of peace, although he’s still searching for a song to “slow down all the madness” and wondering why his friends are drunk and lonely. The record’s centrepiece, Victory, is a plea for recognition: “My Lord, where’s the satisfaction? It’s all uphill for me… Victory should be mine.”

Leithauser admits to feeling hard done by, but accepts that the Walkmen haven’t made it easy for themselves. Long before he broke Maroon’s guitar, he broke the guitarist’s arm, above the elbow, in a wrestling match to celebrate finishing their first album. “He was facing one way and I had half his arm in my hand, facing the other. In the first white flash of terror, when he started screaming, I thought I’d ripped his arm off.”
They followed up Bows & Arrows with A Hundred Miles Off, which made up for what it lacked in memorable songs with pummelling aggression. “It was the height of our popularity and we sucked,” Leithauser says. “It was pure volume, so fast and loud.” A track by track remake of Harry Nilsson and Lennon’s album of covers, Pussy Cats, alienated as many fans as it confused. At their lowest point, a bill arrived from Heathrow Airport, demanding £1,000 for the destruction of 2,000 copies of their debut album. It was never paid.

In The New Year, a standout track on You & Me, implies there was pressure to quit the band: “My friends and my family, they are asking of me, how long will you ramble, how long will you still repeat?” Instead, Bauer learned to play the trumpet and began writing mariachi horn parts. Maroon found his Rickenbacker. Leithauser calmed down a bit. When they hired Otis Redding’s trumpeter on tour for “$75 and a slice of pizza” it put their struggles in perspective and encouraged them to carry on.

“We hired horn players off Craigslist in Memphis and one guy who showed up was Ben Cauley, from the Bar-Kays,” Leithauser remembers. “He was back to back with Otis when the plane went down – the only survivor.”

Sun Records was a key inspiration for Lisbon, most apparent in the Tennessee Three chug of Blue As Your Blood and the backing vocals on All My Great Designs. Listening to Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison’s early sides persuaded them to give Maroon’s guitar lines plenty of space. The gear was appropriately ancient too, of course, the Rickenbacker having been replaced by a 1957 Gretsch Streamliner. Unlike most bands, the Walkmen tape virtually everything live in the studio. They sometimes joke that they stumbled on their unusual, echoing drum sound because they didn’t know how to mic the snare up close.

Live at New York’s Terminal Five, they open with a slow-burner called While I Shovel The Snow. In his narrow suit, Leithauser could pass for Frank Sinatra, as he croons that he’s “learned a lot of things, but fudged a lot of numbers”. It’s a risky choice and they don’t quite pull it off – even when they pick up the pace, the hometown crowd’s response is tepid, partly because they’ve grown older too and don’t mosh any more.

Leithauser’s stamina is phenomenal. He punishes his vocal cords, giving everything he has, but somehow never goes hoarse. Barrick is a martial artist on the drums, subtle and relentlessly hard-hitting. Maroon is the first electric guitarist I’ve ever seen without a single effects pedal on stage. This sometimes leaves him rather exposed and highlights how much Lisbon’s sparse aesthetic means politely asking Bauer to sit on his hands. His piano and farfisa organ are mostly reserved for the back catalogue.

Maroon finally got his Rickenbacker back last month, after it had been at the menders for two years. “Three days after it was returned to me, New Orleans baggage handlers dropped the Gretsch, so I’ve sent it to be repaired by the same guy,” he says. He has faith that it can be fixed.