"We used to be, definitely, but not anymore," says lead singer and guitarist Hamilton Leithauser. "When I was younger, that's all we did -- play Stooges covers and Cramps covers."
But those days of stomping three-chord jams were long gone by the time Leithauser and his four bandmates got together back in 2000. And it's obvious from one listen to their latest CD -- which evokes early U2, no-wave noise, and even hints of Tom Waits -- that the Walkmen don't stick to any blues-based garage-punk formula.
Still, for the past few years -- ever since New York became a hotbed of rock revivalism -- the Walkmen have been name-dropped as part of a new generation of fashionable Big Apple bands. As if that automatically says something about their sound.
"I don't really know how we fit in, in New York," Leithauser says, adding that he does not consider the group to be part of the so-called garage rock resurgence that the media have been quick to hype. "I think it was probably a bad thing for us. At first, there were always these big magazines calling, and they'd quote you in these big articles that they never would've called you about before. So it was kind of fun to see your name in print," he says. "But then you realize that that didn't really mean anything. Then it just becomes your name associated with some weird idea that all these people have, and you really can't shake it."
"When I think of a New York band," Leithauser adds, "I think of the Ramones."
Manhattan mystique aside, the Walkmen really do have an altogether different feel than their city peers. For one thing, they're more difficult to peg. On their second album, Bows + Arrows, which was released in February on the Record Collection label, they manage to glide among diverse musical influences -- in particular, late-'60s psychedelic rock ("Thinking of a Dream I Had," "Bows + Arrows") and early-'80s post-punk ("No Christmas While I'm Talking") -- without dwelling on anything long enough to sound blatantly retro. A few of the songs are restrained and almost delicate; behind Leithauser's melancholy vocals on "Hang On, Siobhan" are a vague vibration of drum, a simple, lonely piano melody, and a barely audible guitar. In sharp contrast, "The Rat" and "Little House of Savages" are irresistible anthems, building up intensity with layers of urgent guitar and atmospheric keyboard.
Bob Dylan and U2 are frequently referenced to describe Bows + Arrows (especially the vocals), and Leithauser doesn't disagree. "Those are fine influences. I mean, I would not consciously say U2, but I would consciously say Bob Dylan," he says. "The ones that we were always really trying to rip off were Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground, and Leonard Cohen, actually. There's a million others -- I listen to a whole lot of stuff. The Modern Lovers are one that we ripped off on that record pretty successfully."
Apart from the band's influences, the Walkmen's occasional lapses into vintage sounds come from antique equipment as well. "I don't think we own a single thing from after 1970. The record company, just this morning, approved all of our new instruments, so we're all happy about that," Leithauser says. "We're gonna buy some new 'very old stuff' that will all break very soon."
At the Marcata Recording Studio in Harlem, co-owned by drummer Matt Barrick, guitarist Paul Maroon, and organist Walter Martin (all formerly of Jonathan Fire*Eater, one of the most talked-about New York bands in the late '90s), the Walkmen can play cool old instruments to their hearts' content. That's what led to their 2002 debut album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, which they recorded before they had ever played a live show together.
For most musicians, it would be nearly impossible to click so easily with a new band. But along with bassist Peter Bauer, these guys grew up together in Washington, D.C., and were good friends long before they became the Walkmen. In fact, Martin and Leithauser are cousins. Being close-knit, it seems, is a strength disguised as a weakness. "You definitely want to kill some of the other guys sometimes. Walt and I can just get so mad at each other, but then you just have to get over it. It's probably because you've done it your whole life," says Leithauser, laughing.
That hidden strength certainly helped the band clear the hurdles in recording Bows + Arrows, which was as complicated as recording Everyone was trouble-free.
After writing and recording their first album, and then writing the second album -- all at the Marcata Recording Studio -- the Walkmen jumped at a friend's invitation to stay at his farmhouse in upstate New York. "We went and tried to write songs there, but just ended up making each other dinner and sitting by the fire," Leithauser says. Once back at the Marcata, they couldn't function. "We had spent so much time in that room together it was driving us crazy."
The guys thought it would be fun to record their new songs at a studio in Memphis, and they were right -- to a point. The first session went smoothly, but when they returned to make the second half of the record, a tornado blew through town, causing a major power outage. The Walkmen relocated to Oxford, Miss., and then went back to Memphis when the power returned. After all that, the power cut out again, so the band packed up and headed to New Jersey to finish mixing.
Right around then, the entire Northeastern power grid went out.What are the chances of completing a record after three blackouts?
"It definitely drew it out for a longer time," Leithauser deadpans, "so we could get much sicker of the songs by the time the record was done."