Smile Politely

The Walkmen: Focused and looking for purpose

The Walkmen are set for their show with the New Pornographers tomorrow night at the Canopy Club. I recently talked with Walter Martin of The Walkmen, who plays organ and bass, about their tour with The New Pornographers and some new happenings for the band. Here’s our conversation, minus the talk about the weather and all that generic stuff.


Smile Politely:  Where are you now?

Walt Martin: At home in Brooklyn. We’re at home writing these days.

SP: Are you guys working on a new album?

WM: We are, yeah. It’s going pretty well. We’ve got a bunch of good things in the works actually.

SP: I heard you guys had a bunch of stuff left over from Lisbon that didn’t get put on there. Do you think you’re gonna do anything with those tracks?

WM: We sorta have. We used a couple for a 7-inch and we had a couple of iTunes exclusive tracks. As tacky as that sounds, that’s sorta what you do. All the good stuff we got some use out of. There was a lot of stuff not worth doing anything with so we sorta trashed it.

SP: You have to be your toughest critic.

WM: Yeah, exactly.

SP: So the tour is starting. What’s your general take on touring? How do you feel about it? What do you look forward to?

WM: Apart from the shows, nothing about it is very good. It’s a boring way to spend your time. I mean the show is the only interesting part of the day. The rest of it is, you know, either sitting in a car or sitting in a dressing room and it’s pretty boring.

SP: What do you do to keep yourself entertained in those down times?

WM: Just read and stuff like that. Try to be productive.

SP: Do you have any books in mind for this tour that you want to read that have been sitting around on your shelf?

WM: I’m gonna read the new Patti Smith book, actually.

SP: Cool. I saw her on “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report” . . . I don’t remember which one. But she’s kinda awkward in general I guess.

WM: Yeah, my wife says that. It won a national book award or something.

SP: Yeah, that’s what I heard.

WM: I’m not a huge fan, but I’ve been told that the book is really sorta great.

SP: It must be to win that. Do you have any routines or superstitions you do on tour to keep you in line? Anything like that?

WM: No, not really. We’re a very tight-knit group so it’s a lot of sitting around in silence and everyone doing their own thing on their computer or reading. It’s not a very wild backstage. Sometimes our friends come visit us on the road and they go backstage and are like, “Wow, it’s not how I pictured a rock and roll backstage.

SP: Not the crazy rock and roll lifestyle anymore, huh?

WM: No, not at all. I think most rock and roll groups are like that these days. Everyone has gotten tame. We’re among them.

SP: You’re a pretty close-knit group — as you said — a lot of you grew up in the D.C. area. Is that correct?

WM: Yeah, we all grew up in D.C.

SP: Do you think that bond has really helped you guys in the writing process and being stuck with each other on tour? How does that benefit you as a band to continue on together?

WM: We just know each other really well and it allows us to . . . there’s not really any . . . in the writing process everything is very much out on the table. There’s no real boss, which helps. It’s nice that everyone gets to do what they wanna do. It’s tricky because sometimes we definitely have too many cooks in the kitchen. I think we’ve recently gotten much better at focusing on what we need to be doing.

SP: Do you feel like that’s really happening with the new material you’re working on now then?

WM: Yeah. I think with the last two records we’ve gotten better at taking a step back and looking at the song instead of thinking about what we’re doing . . . I think it’s a big step for a band, especially a band that writes together. So, I think that’s really helped us expand our sound and make things stronger and more purposeful.

SP: Yeah. Sounds very unselfish — a team effort.

WM: It doesn’t always work, but in an ideal world it improves that kinda thing, which is good for us.

SP: I read somewhere that you guys love to use vintage instruments. What’s the appeal to you and what’s your favorite instrument that you own?

WM: The initial appeal is looking at pictures of bands you worship in high school. Looking at pictures of the Rolling Stones (or Rolling Stone magazine — it was hard to tell on the recording) and thinking I want that thing that guy has, you know? I think that’s initially what that is — it’s a rock obsession that young people have. For some reason we haven’t been able to shake. And since we were in our teens — we were all playing together back then actually — we were obsessed with old instruments. And they happen to sound a lot better, at least to our ears. They’re a lot more fun to play and collect. So it’s like a collecting kind of thing. They’re really fun to maintain. It’s like a hobby that happens to be part of our professional life also.

SP: It’s the crossroad  where fan and professional musician intertwine then?

WM: Yeah, exactly. It’s one of those things. It’s nice. We know where all the vintage guitars are. When Matt, the drummer, is there he oohs and ahhs stuff that everybody does.

SP: That sounds really cool. You guys are going to a whole lot of places all over the world. I notice that on this tour you’re playing in Turkey.

WM: Yeah, we are. Never been there before. I’ve always wanted to go to Istanbul.

SP: What do you think it’s gonna be like?

WM: I have no idea. I saw a picture of the place we’re playing. It looks . . .It definitely looks different. We played in Greece before and it feels like it’s gonna be the same when you walk in and do the sound check but everything is a little bit off. And the people’s reactions . . . they’re not used to seeing American rock bands. It’s sort of a strange reaction . . .I’m dying to go though.

SP: That sounds really incredible. What’s the coolest place that you’ve played outside of the U.S.?

WM: Lisbon. We all did. That’s why we named our record after the place. It’s just sort of a manageable size and a beautiful city.

SP: Sounds great. I also wanted to ask you about the festivals too. You’ve done Lollapalooza and you’re doing Bonnaroo later this year. That’s a whole different ball game. How do you feel about that?

WM: We played at noon on one of the big stages. It’s hard to really get into the swing of it and feel like you’re having a rock show. It feels like you’re just on display. You don’t know who’s watching you, if they’ve ever heard of you, or if they even care. It’s a pretty weird experience. When we play at Bonnaroo I think it will be different. We’re playing the first night and I guess not all the stages will be open. And Deerhunter is playing right after us, so I think we’ll understand what’s going on a little better.

SP: Is there anybody else you’re dying to see at Bonnaroo?

WM: Dying to see Deerhunter and I’ve never seen them and I adore them.

SP: So you’re going all of these exciting places and then (laughing) you’re coming to Urbana in a week or so. Have you played here?

WM: I don’t think we have, actually.

SP: You’ll be at the Canopy Club with The New Pornographers and Neko Case, which is exciting. Have you played with them before?

WM: It’s our first time playing with them.

SP: Are you excited to see them?

WM: I’m not the leading expert on them. I’ve heard that they’re great.

SP: Yeah, I don’t know much about them either.

WM: I’ve actually never heard them I think.

SP: One of the other things I wanted to ask you about is the Daytrotter Sessions. Last year on the Barnstormer Tour you guys were at the show in Iowa — I can’t remember the name of the venue but it’s supposed to be an awesome barn in Iowa.

WM: Yeah, it was really cool. We did it on the 4th of July last year.

SP: Yeah, you were the secret headliner. What was that experience like?

WM: They did such a good job. We walked through that barn and were like, “Wow, this is just so cool.” It was a lot of fun. We had just finished a lot of songs for Lisbon so we didn’t know how to play them that well. Also, they weren’t serving a lot of food. They were serving straight whiskey.

SP: (Laughing)

WM: Me and Ham (singer Hamilton Leithauser) and Pete (Peter Bauer – bass/organ) sorta drank a lot of the whiskey and I think we had a corn dog or two. And so we got really drunk very accidentally. And I think we put on a pretty terrible show. I don’t know if it was because we were drunk or if because we didn’t really know the songs quite yet. They never put it up on their (Daytrotter) website. I was sorta dreading the day when Daytrotter released that. I hope they never do.

SP: So it’s a good thing (laughing). Okay.

WM: (Laughs) But they did a great job. I love Daytrotter.

SP: (rambling about the awesome Barnstormer show in Monticello last year) So you think we’ll hear any of those new songs in Urbana?

WM: No, they’re not finalized yet. They’re more outlines, sketches of songs . . . We have maybe 15 in place . . .and we need to feel out what kind of record we want to make and complete the ones we wanna complete.

SP: You’ll probably have another year or so before the next album comes out then?

WM: Yeah, we haven’t really sat down with all five of us and played through. I guess we’ve played through a couple of them but yeah, we’re still in the early stages. But it’s sorta the most fun part of the process.

SP: How does the feedback you receive from critics’ reviews affect you? I saw that some of the early comparisons were to bands like U2 and The Cure because of your unique sound. Do you take much stock in the critics’ reviews? Does that affect you as a band or do you ignore that and go on and do your thing?

WM: We definitely pay attention to our reviews and what people think about us. But it doesn’t really change what we’re doing very much. We never know what’s gonna happen when we make a record. When we made the You & Me record . . .it got decent reviews. It got us recharged. It had a lot of atmosphere and we were pleasantly surprised.

SP: Well, I don’t have a whole lot of other questions. Are you doing a series of interviews today?

WM: Yeah, I’m doing three in a row.

SP: Done in time for dinner then.

WM: Exactly.

SP: We’re looking forward to seeing you here.

WM: Yeah. Come say hello. We’ll see you there.

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