The Walkmen: The Long And Winding Road

In order to deliver the best album of their career, the Walkmen had to grow up, get lost and gain perspective. By David Daley; photo by Dennis Kleiman

Consider, for a moment, the aging hipster. There’s nothing sadder, Lenny Bruce famously observed. But what if he was wrong? What if for every dorky record-store clerk in a Nick Hornby novel, there’s a Jon Stewart: someone who only comes into his own after 15 years on the road, balancing a sublime standup act with the payday of Death To Smoochy?

Think about the Walkmen and the delights of trying to keep a rock band—even a pretty successful one—healthy on the cusp of 30. New York rents start pushing bandmates to Philadelphia. Friends start buying houses and pricing life-insurance policies. Wives and a child or two make five guys, a van and a Tuesday night in a Red Roof Inn outside Chapel Hill seem a little less romantic. Instruments you’ve been playing for a couple decades seem so boring that two of you decide to switch. Columbia University, where you spent a lot of tuition money ages ago, is buying the building that houses your Harlem recording studio.

Oh, and that new album? The recording sessions are going absolutely nowhere, aside from a killer cover of Living Colour’s “Cult Of Personality” worked up to kill time in the most ironic way possible. Sure, you’ve been on The OC, but that’s kind of like dating Winona Ryder or having your video on MTV in 1983. Meanwhile, friends and colleagues who’ve been running in place ever since you all emerged together—when New York briefly became the next Athens—are now minor celebrities. Mere sightings of Julian Casablancas and Carlos D are so exciting to some that reports flood into NYC’s in-the-know Every weekend, you can practically chart their trip from bar to bar to bed to bed. But the Walkmen?

“We never get e-mailed about them,” says Gawker editor Jessica Coen. “Period.”

Yet the Walkmen have just released their third album, the boozy and boisterous A Hundred Miles Off (Record Collection), and it just might be the finest NYC rock album since Daydream Nation. (Oh, save your letters and start a blog.) How about this: If Luna’s Penthouse is your ideal soundtrack to another lost night—to the way the city skyline is both softer and more alive from the back of a cab at 3 a.m.—then A Hundred Miles Off is your next favorite album. And the Walkmen have pulled this off as, yes, part of that disreputable aging-hipster class.

Before they entered into an older demographic, three of the five Walkmen—Paul Maroon, Walter Martin and Matt Barrick—were the heart of a band called Jonathan Fire*Eater. With all apologies to Stephin Merritt, that made them some of the most despised guys on the Lower East Side in the mid-’90s. It wasn’t really their fault. Back then, there was no MySpace, and bands that wanted to be famous became part of things called “major-label bidding wars.” Jonathan Fire*Eater, a group of college dropouts who relocated from the literature-drenched lawns of Columbia, Bard and Sarah Lawrence to the syringe-and-Syrah hipster playground of NYC’s Suffolk Street, needed mere months to spin its mop-topped vintage garage/rock into DreamWorks gold. In 1996, the group signed on for three albums, seven figures and the eternal enmity of the ironic T-shirt set.

It didn’t help that the members of JFE were, well, sort of dicks. Even the wannabe bohemians who got their degrees before slumming it in Pabst junkieville were rubbed the wrong way by a band that made contractual demands (no interviews with cheesy magazines, expensive dental work for its manager) without the sales figures to back them up. JFE actually asked DreamWorks to cap record sales at 500,000. That wouldn’t turn out to be a problem. The band’s 1997 debut, Wolf Songs For Lambs, sold less than 7,000 copies. As the group self-immolated, the New York Observer (“coddled,” “calculated-but-cute”), Los Angeles Times (“the band with the loudest buzz but little real-life bang”) and New York Times (“never had anything as tangible as a hit”) threw gasoline and danced around the embers.

“There were a lot of people who hated us,” says Martin. “And yeah, I think we were very hateable. We had a big record deal, and we seemed very obnoxious. When we broke up, we were ecstatic. It was a great feeling. We went out and celebrated. A lot of what we did for a long time was try and get as far away from Jonathan Fire*Eater as we could.”

We don’t back up that far to embarrass anyone. Or because that was the last time there was serious drama in this story. (OK, maybe a little bit for that last reason.) Maroon, Martin and Barrick simply joined forces with fellow Washington, D.C., natives Hamilton Leithauser and Pete Bauer and started the Walkmen. We go back this far because, in many ways, their story is our story. We all came out of college a little obnoxious, certain we knew best and certain we’d succeed. We’re all a little embarrassed of how we acted at 22, and now we’re all trying to make our way the best we can, negotiating the compromises and the rent money and our integrity and inner sense of ridiculousness, appropriateness and cool.

The Walkmen’s story isn’t sexy. They’re the quintessential no-buzz, no-drama band. If the other members of New York’s class of 2001 want to date movie stars and have their sex lives dissected on the Internet, to hook up with other rockers and lead the high-profile Williamsburg bohemian lifestyle, let them. If they’re content to mimic Joy Division or make the same album three times, fine. The Walkmen will live on the cushy Upper West Side or in comfy Carroll Gardens or even Philadelphia. They’ll make successively more ambitious albums that nod to real songwriters, to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, but with a dark, muscular sexuality all their own. They’ll go from Coachella to playing an outdoor stage sponsored by an organic grocery-store chain.

“We just got offered the Whole Foods festival in Chicago,” says Maroon. “Whole Foods: That’s where we are now.”

The NCAA basketball tournament blares full-tilt from the televisions in the Irish pub, and singer/guitarist Leithauser, bassist Martin and organist Bauer know they’ll have plenty of March madness the next night, opening for the Pogues on St. Patrick’s Day in Times Square. The band members are still buzzed from the night before, when they played their first show with the Pogues at Boston’s historic Orpheum.

“The Pogues and Bob Dylan are probably the only two people we would want to open for,” says Leithauser. “We steal from a lot of people, but I think we disguise the things we steal from them the least.”

“The crowd was not there for us,” says Bauer. “We were playing to the bar. I could see my brother-in-law very clearly.”

Still, it was a dream way to introduce songs from A Hundred Miles Off: to run through the Pogues-ish rumble of album opener “Louisiana” with Shane MacGowan and Spider Stacey drunk nearby, to nail down the exquisite Leonard Cohen phrasings of “Emma, Get Me A Lemon.” These shows with the Pogues come at the end of a painfully slow writing and recording process for A Hundred Miles Off, a period that began two years ago.

“We toured so long (in support of 2004’s Bows + Arrows),” says Leithauser. “Then we came home, and everybody wanted to give the band a rest. We were tired of the travel and everything. Then we try and get back, but Paul’s in Philadelphia and doesn’t want to travel up. We were trying to do five-man practices, and it was just a series of coming up with nothing.”

“It was our first stuck period, the first time we were at a loss,” says Maroon from his home in Philadelphia, where his wife works and where rents are cheaper than in New York. (Barrick also recently relocated to Philly.) “Maybe it was confusing when I left, a little bit, but we were stuck before that, too.”

Even at Marcata Recording, the Harlem studio that Maroon, Martin and Barrick opened after Jonathan Fire*Eater imploded, nothing felt right for the Walkmen. The drums sounded terrible on tape. When they focused on the engineering, the songs suffered. When they worked on the songs and played them back later, they couldn’t believe how awkwardly they’d set up the microphones.

“When you have nothing, it’s really scary,” says Leithauser. “It’s your career. You know it’s going to be your rent money for the next couple years, and you don’t have anything. Just getting something to tape is always a great thing. But it doesn’t work with that many people. Someone starts playing ‘Cult Of Personality.’ You start talking about dumb stuff.”

“We’ve been doing this for a long time,” says Bauer. “And there are just very few bands, if any, that have made it through a few records and were still actually good. At points, you really think, ‘Maybe we lost our shit.’ There’s definitely a feeling of trying to do something new every time so we’re not bored. But that can turn into, ‘Let’s do a reggae song.’ Then you worry that’s the moment you turn into something terrible.”

In the wake of the critically acclaimed Bows + Arrows, the Walkmen were faced with the prospect of becoming formulaic on A Hundred Miles Off. When they tried upping the tempo and rocking out, their efforts too closely resembled “The Rat,” Bows + Arrows’ hard-charging single.

“The bottom line,” says Leithauser, “is we had absolutely no idea.”

The breakthrough came when Bauer called Martin one night and suggested they swap instruments. Bauer would move to the organ, Martin would take over the bass. Then they decided to take the songs they had and record at Inner Ear in Arlington, Va., the studio where D.C. acts such as Fugazi, Bad Brains and Nation Of Ulysses recorded touchstone indie/punk albums.

“It makes it a lot more fun because [Bauer and Martin] are both nervous again,” says Leithauser. “It means we actually have to talk to each other. I just think everyone got a little tired.”

“Just think about it,” says Maroon. “You play guitar and suddenly it’s your 18th year of looking at it. You just go, ‘Oh, Christ.’”

“The bass is just sitting there, and you just look at it,” says Bauer. “I don’t want to look at it.” The table dissolves in laughter. “Why?” he wails.

Why? Why should I pick up the bass? Why should we have to pay a tour manager to go on the road with us? Why should we hire a producer we’re not friends with? It’s a question the Walkmen ask a lot, one that might seem more suited to fiction writers than an indie-rock band. Perhaps this explains John’s Journey, the novel the band has been collaborating on since a long tour of the Midwest two years ago with Modest Mouse.

“Punch-drunk sitting in a van,” says Maroon, who started the road-trip novel somewhere in Indiana.

“Paul just started writing,” says Bauer. “He was so bored. And then he started laughing like he was crazy.”

A handful of chapters are completed, and several pages have been posted on the band’s Web site. Eventually, according to Leithauser, the Walkmen will publish John’s Journey. The man who kicked off this tag-team story, however, isn’t so sure. “God knows if that will happen,” says Maroon.

It’s not the writing or the band he worries about. It’s the travel, the time away from home, the time apart from his wife. It’s the miles between Champaign and Iowa City on a Wednesday afternoon, wondering if there’s something else you’re supposed to be doing, if it isn’t time to think about what it means to be 30.

“It’s a little boring,” says Maroon of the road. “Pete has a son. Matt’s wife is pregnant. I’ve been married three years. There’s just nothing out there (on tour). Unless you really want to rock—and I’m not that excited to rock—touring itself is not something you want to do for 15 years. We like performing, but we don’t necessarily look forward to the touring part. I’ll probably get in trouble for saying this, but it feels almost incredibly silly to be five guys running around in a van.”

Despite the trouble with A Hundred Miles Off, the Walkmen have already finished its follow-up, a remake of Harry Nilsson’s 1974 Pussy Cats LP that doubles as a farewell to Marcata Recording. It won’t be the album that gets them back on The OC or gets Leithauser John Mayer’s column in Esquire. But like everything the Walkmen do, it will be smart, it will entertain them, it will pay the rent, and they’ll feel good about that.

“I’ve known these guys for five years in some cases and 20 in others,” says Maroon. “The frustrations, and there are some, pale in comparison to not knowing your bandmates and wondering, ‘Why is Bob wearing a Budweiser bandana onstage tonight?’” He laughs. “Although in our band, the question would probably be, ‘Why didn’t you send out the invitations for the baby shower?’”