Eye of the Storm: Walter Martin of The Walkmen

A storm has seized the streets of Brooklyn.  Vanderbilt Avenue through Prospect Heights is a ghost town—windows shutter and awnings snap in the epic gusts.  But Walter Martin, bassist and organist of the band The Walkmen, lights into a quiet coffee shop the very picture of serenity.  His waxed-cotton biker jacket shows hardly a drop of the beating rain outside and his bemused expression less still of the prevailing chill and chaos without.

“It’s crazy out there,” he says, briefly acknowledging the howling outside the room before shrugging it off, so much water off his back.  As we chat I am to discover that this aplomb is no accident or put-on—indeed, Martin seems to handle the metaphorical maelstrom of recording an album too with similar savoir-faire.

Even as the accolades for 2008’s You & Me were pouring over them (The album garnered 4 and 5 stars from just about everyone and NPR named the single “Canadian Girl” among its top ten tracks of the year), The Walkmen had already begun writing and recording an as yet untitled follow up.  “We always just start right away after we finish an album,” Martin says.  “Our last album came out a year and a half ago and we started writing immediately then and now we have twenty-five songs total—maybe fifteen of them recorded.”  Free of any label-imposed deadline the band were able to use their touring over the last year to weed and refine the new work.  “You can really get a feel for what works and what doesn’t,” Martin says of audience response to live shows.  “So some of the songs survived, some were completely tossed and some were reworked.”

Though they set the bar exceptionally high with You & Me and fans’ expectations for the new album are roughly stratospheric, Martin thinks they’ve got it easy this go-round.  “We felt a ton of pressure on the last one.  Before that—the record we put out before that (2006’s A Hundred Miles Off)—I don’t think anyone really liked, so we felt like we had to prove ourselves.  We sort of bought ourselves a pass with [You & Me], by putting out a solid one.  Now we just want to do two solid albums in a row.”

Though they’ve known one another since forever—all five members of The Walkmen grew up within shouting distance of one another (give or take) in Washington D.C., and lead singer Hamilton Leithauser is Martin’s first cousin—they were not always the band we see before us today.  Until the late 90s Martin, drummer Matt Barrick and guitarist Paul Maroon were in the band Jonathan Fire*Eater, while Leithauser and bassist Peter Bauer played in The Recoys.  And even after the dissolution of those acts The Walkmen were not yet a sure thing.  “After that happened,” Martin says of the break-ups, “we all went back to college.  But then finally we came back and built our studio uptown—in Harlem where we were all living at the time—as like a pact to stick with it.”  United in their studio, which they called Marcata, they recorded their breakthrough album Bows + Arrows which, due in large part to the hugely successful single, “The Rat,” a song full of their now signature jangly, softly diffuse sound, vaulted them into mainstream consciousness.

Around this time Barrick, Maroon and Bauer moved to Philly while Martin and Leithauser remained in New York.  Martin half-heartedly blames the growing pains of this new spatial schism for the band’s struggles with A Hundred Miles Off (“We weren’t very organized”) but says they got it figured out on You & Me and explains how:  “We’re down in Philly a lot.  We have a rehearsal space there and one up here so we go back and forth.  We all record tidbits of music all week and then email little mp3s to each other—it’s a really dorky way to do it but I imagine everyone is doing it that way now.”  And, on the band’s make-up: “It’s very much a little family.  There isn’t much bickering about who has to go to which city on what date.  We all know what has to happen and it is all very agreeable.”

The band hope to turn in the new album in two months before kicking off another tour at All Tomorrow’s Parties Festival put together by Pavement in London in May.  But even as they enter the final stages of mixing, editing and sequencing of the tracks—which he acknowledges elicits the most tempestuous interactions among the band members—Martin remains unruffled.  “I’ve been playing in a band with (drummer) Matt and (guitarist) Paul since we were in the seventh grade.  That’s a long time.  That’s like 25 years now.  We’re really old friends.  The strongest opinions come out when we’re deciding which song goes where on a record—it’s the only time we get heated.  But I think everyone understands at this point how easy it is make little band disagreements go away.”

And with that Martin dons his hat and coat and heads back to work, back once more into the storm.

The Walkmen are (from left) singer Hamilton Leithauser, Peter Bauer, Martin, Matt Barrick and Paul Maroon.

2 Comments

  1. Marc
    Posted February 16, 2010 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    Nice interview and write-up… great to hear such a positive attitude about the new record. I can’t wait.

  2. Posted July 18, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    great interview, I’m off to listen to the album now :o )

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