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The list of contemporary artists with at least four great albums is short, and The Walkmen are on it.
If critics assessed music like sports commentators do with pro teams, the (mostly) St. Albans School-bred band would be Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs: efficient pacing, a strong core, limited dysfunction, and an almost boring consistency of output.
“Approaching two nights at 9:30 is hard because D.C. has seen every one of these songs two or three times and it’s trying to find a new angle,” says bass and organ player Peter Bauer. “It’s also hard because your parents are there and you feel funny.”
The Walkmen have written three of the Obama age’s finest records. Beginning with 2008’s You & Me, their emphasis switched from howling, scenester-bender rock to dignified, pleading balladry full of pensive words and restrained craftsmanship. The best songs—-like the ode to emotional unavailability “Angela Surf City,” or the pebbles-at-her-window anthem “In the New Year”—-hitched immature angst to unique and compelling bits of composition (polka drumming, lurching organ). Most impressively, this spring’s Heaven—with its fingerpicking intro and tall tales of true love—is both happy and blissfully untainted by secondhand embarrassment.
“There’s a romantic feeling we always loved and are looking for in music,” says Bauer. “On the You & Me record we started to realize that it’s what we like best. We were trying to make a record that resonated with people in a different way; that wasn’t so enveloping and reverby. [Lead singer Hamilton Leithauser] was trying to be a little bit more direct.” He says, “If it comes off as happy that’s great—but it has nothing to do with our psychological happiness or sadness. It’s weird when people make psychology the point of the music because it’s an experiential, visceral thing that’s the point. ‘The Rat’ wasn’t because Hamilton was pissed, it was just a loud thing and the words reacted to the pace.”
Blame it on the Seattle, then. Recorded in remote parts of Washington state and produced by Built to Spill and Fleet Foxes whisperer Phil Elk, Heaven’s country-road music is suited for a frying-pan breakfast the morning after a fashionable camping trip.
“Every record has a sense of place to me—but that’s because I was there recording it,” Bauer says. “This was the first time we’d spent a lot of time in the Pacific Northwest, and you do get that [stereotypical rainy] feeling from it because those were the surroundings.” Geography has been key to the band’s development: 2010’s Lisbon was a tribute to the Portuguese capital, a place they visited twice while writing the album.
The Walkmen—Bauer, Leithauser, Walter Martin (organ and bass), Paul Maroon (guitar), and Matt Barrick (drums)—all attended high school in D.C. and later bolted for bigger East Coast hubs. “We had a lot of people to look up to growing up—all of the Dischord bands, especially Fugazi,” Bauer said, “But we never felt like we were part of any scene or anything—we never got far enough in D.C. We were making the worst music you ever heard in high school. We never got far enough to figure it out.” In D.C., he says, “There wasn’t a lot happening and I remember that feeling of ‘if you move to New York maybe there would be.'” (For more on Brooklyn’s impact on D.C.’s music scene, see Justin Moyer‘s City Paper cover story on the topic.)
Not that being a “D.C. band” wasn’t somewhat important to them: Early on, the band routinely introduced itself as a D.C. act. When they moved to New York, they lived uptown, a long train ride away from their compatriots in Brooklyn. “There’s a certain amount of careerism that comes with moving to Brooklyn and starting a band,” says Bauer. “You’re part of this thing with all these kids running around. We were up in Harlem the whole time. Once we realized that there would be this big New York scene we were always trying to remain separate and it was always to our detriment.”
Bauer, who grew up at 18th and Swann streets NW and now owns a home in Philadelphia, struggles with the urbanist reconstruction of his hometown. ““I love Washington and the people that came out of Washington … but it feels like a different world altogether. All of the provincial qualities are gone and it’s just nostalgia.”