The Walkmen's Peter Bauer: "Skrillex makes me feel like I don't understand what's happening"
The Walkmen + Otis.
The Walkmen's first album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, came out ten years and two months before its latest -- and perhaps loveliest -- Heaven. For the greatest symbol of the band's change in perspective over the last decade, look no further than its promotional art, in which the New York-D.C.-Philly guys showcase their roles as fathers, not rock stars. While their debut heralded youth and experimentation in New York, a sort of dudes-in-a-dorm mentality, their latest has grown with the guys to become an introspective look at life after moving, marrying, giving birth and, eventually, growing up. We recently caught up with organist Peter Bauer to discuss children, longevity, bath salts, dubstep and what heaven really means.
Westword: You've played Red Rocks before. What do you remember of that show?
Peter Bauer: We played this festival there and it was really pouring. All the people were just suffering. It was only like forty degrees, but the rain was cold, and it gets colder up there. There was no inside to go to, and it was just bad. But you know that guy MF Doom? We were leaving the stage and MF Doom just pulls up in a car, leaves the keys in the car with the car running and walks onstage. I thought that was a great way of coming to a festival because usually you get stuck in these situations where it's nine hours of waiting and you're sitting in a room while it's raining. But with MF Doom, he just gets off, walks back to his car, which is still running, and goes. It's not very green of him -- he could have turned the car off -- but nonetheless, I liked it a lot.
You've mentioned that this latest album, Heaven, came about almost by accident. Is that a good thing?
We started off with the idea of just writing a single. We were worn out from the last record and had just finished, and we thought, "Why don't we put out a song?", something different as opposed to another full-length album. But everything came together so quickly -- there were so many ideas -- that we realized we had another record. I don't know if it was doing that -- taking the pressure of by saying we're not going to write a whole album -- but everything came much faster. We were all separated in different cities, so we would basically email tracks back and forth, most of which Paul writes and Ham [Leithauser] sings on and then we put them together as a band later.
How many emails does it take on average to finish one song?
That's a good question. It can be like one and then it's done, but back two records ago, we'd have like 75 versions of each song, all in a slightly different genre. One would be kind of country, then there'd be an acoustic version, who knows. But now I think it's gotten to the point where we have an idea and it either works or doesn't, which is a much better way of going about it.
How do you temper your communication via email? You can't just write, "I hate this. It sucks."
To be honest, the way it works is that when you send a song around, people either respond to it or they don't. If people don't like it you just get radio silence. But sometimes your emails don't go through and you just sit there and think everybody hates you when it's really just that your email didn't get through. You feel like you got cut out of the loop or something later when everyone's talking about a song and you're like, "No one sent me that." But it's nothing personal.
What was your intention with the single, and did it come across on the whole album?
I think we just wanted to write a stand-alone song. With some of our records, there's just one thing that goes into the next thing that goes into the next thing to create an overall feeling five songs in. We wanted to write a couple songs that could just breathe by themselves and be like, "This is the whole kit and caboodle." Like a full statement in one song. I think there are a couple songs on there that come across that way. In general, it can become kind of overbearing when those songs stand on their own six in a row, so I think it worked out to expand.
It worked like clockwork in a way that has never happened to us. Usually we record in several different studios and there's a power outage somewhere and some horrible thing happens and someone goes home. This time it was six weeks straight through and that was it.
What motivated the amount of acoustic sound on this album?
That was something we actually wanted to do more than we ended up being able to [put] on the record. Every time we do a record, we like to have a new instrument. We've used horns on the last two and a lot before that. We used pianos before that sort of as a way to change all the space on the songs. With an acoustic instrument, whether it's a guitar or a piano or whatever, it cuts through and changes the space of everything around it, these electric guitars and the drum set. That's basically the main reason: It gave us a new way of playing. It changes the frequency of Ham's voice, things like that. I think a new way of coming up with something is always an important thing.
One of my favorite lyrics on the album is the line, "I don't need perfection / I love the whole." Does that sentiment apply to the way you guys created the album?
I love that line that Ham wrote a lot. I think it applies to everything we do. The things I like in the world are these beautiful and comfortable albums, and there's this false notion of perfection where everything is dead and no longer alive. A lot of people expect that of music and pop music and especially relevant pop music, and it's really stupid. I don't know what it's based on, and it's this sort of false threat. It's really nice not to feel like that, to realize that's a false notion and this whole scene and world is still very much alive.
What about the concept of Heaven, then, as a kind of perception? Is heaven also a false notion?
No, I think to me it's just an interesting idea. The way you're living your life should be about your own experience and awareness, and your own perception of the world is what heaven is to me. So that was just very much in this time as something I was dealing with. It's not happiness or sadness; it's just being. That's why I really liked the idea of heaven for this record. I don't think we're writing songs about psychological things or whining about them. It's more a phenomenal experience, and I mean phenomenal as in phenomena. That's what heaven is to me -- just this purely phenomenal level. You achieve heaven by virtue of being aware of the world around you. Does that make any sense to you?
Well, that's more than some. [Laughs.]
It's been more than ten years. What continues to surprise you about the band?
What continues to surprise me is that you feel like you're going to run out of gas somewhere along the line, and you just don't. Then you get another track in your email and someone's working on something you're really excited about. I think that's a huge success for us, that we're still making things that we're excited about and enjoy doing. This seems impossible that we're doing so many things together, but for us it feels like it's getting more and more open as opposed to closed. There were points where it felt like, "Well, that's probably all we're going to do," but even now, we don't want to make another record like this. We still want to do something, though, and we'll know it when we hear it.
Page down for the rest of the interview.