Interview: The Walkmen, elder statesmen of nerdy cool, lead the Tom Tom lineup

The Walkmen and Walter Martin (second from left) are co-headlining the Tom Tom Founder’s Festival where they are performing on Friday at the Main Street Arena. (Photo by Arno Frugier)

You may have caught The Walkmen on NPR’s World Cafe last Friday, as they introduced the release of their upcoming album, Heaven, to a national audience. Three tracks are already available in one form or another on the Internet, and the title track was shared through Pitchfork Media’s website last month. For longstanding fans, the upbeat single comes as no surprise, drawing its strength from drummer Matt Barrick’s Larry Mullen-style sixteenth beat rhythms, Paul Maroon’s careening guitar, and frontman Hamilton Leithauser’s vocal chord bursting phrasings.

The Walkmen formed in 2000 in New York City out of two Washington D.C.-based bands, Jonathan Fire*Eater and the Recoys. Their first album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone was a critical success, and their second album Bows + Arrows contained the hit single “The Rat,” which Pitchfork Media ranked the 20th best song of the 2000s. Often compared to bands like U2 and The Cure, the Walkmen rose to prominence alongside New York indie icons the Strokes, but never reached the same commercial success. The band carved out a space as the elder statesmen of the indie rock intelligentsia, in part because of their studio in Harlem that helped launch a number of other bands and in part because of the nerdy, cool approach that led them to remake Harry Nillson and John Lennon’s drug-addled cover classic Pussy Cats.

Walter Martin, one of the band’s primary songwriters and a musical jack-of-all-trades, took time out to talk to C-VILLE about his songwriting process, his take on UVA, and the current state of the music industry. The Walkmen share the headline bill at the Tom Tom Founder’s Fest with their Friday, May 11 show at the Main Street Arena.

C-VILLE Weekly: Do you guys still consider yourselves a New York band even though you don’t all live there anymore?
Walter Martin: “I look at the pictures when we were first playing, and I feel like for the first six or seven years when we all lived in New York, we were very much a New York band. As people have moved away, we definitely identify less with New York, but I think at heart we are a New York band because that’s how we formed.”

You’ve been in the music business for almost two decades now. Do you remember what went into deciding that you could make a career out of rock music?

“When we were young, we sort of were cocky and felt like we were good and that gave us focus. With Matt and Paul in our first band, when we first dropped out of college and stuff, it was very much like ‘We are really great, so we’re just going to do this.’ I don’t know how the hell it worked out and we’re still playing music, but I just think it was sort of the arrogance of youth that made us go for it.”

The members of the band live in New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York. How do you collaborate on songwriting?
“There’s sort of two different ways it works. Some of the time, Paul and I play together and he plays guitar and I play drums and we come up with musical pieces that are about a minute long, usually me putting a rhythm track to a guitar part of Paul’s. And then we submit it to Hamilton and he puts a vocal melody onto it that sounds like a song that the Walkmen could play. If it’s passed that step, then me and Hamilton put lyrics on it and we go to the studio and just try to bang it into the shape of a song. More recently since we’re more separate, Paul sends a guitar part to Ham and he puts a melody on it and once that’s done, he and I go over to the space and put a beat on it. We’ve gotten better at the process over the course of the last three records. Paul is just continuing to send fantastic stuff up from New Orleans.”

Your dad went to UVA. What are your associations with the place?
“I remember staying in his room on the Lawn, in room No. 7, I think, and going to a pep rally and tailgating and stuff. I thought that was cool, but I was really young. Then I remember going back to look at it to possibly go to college there, and I was like in a really asshole, 18-year-old rebellious phase, so since my dad liked it, I totally did not like it. But going back there as an adult I was like ‘Man this place is fantastic. I wish I would have gone here.’ I probably wouldn’t have gotten in.”

What current music do you listen to?
“Some of the big ones. I really like the Fleet Foxes, Kurt Vile, Cass McCombs, Thee Oh Sees.”

What advice do you have for young musicians trying to break in?
“I don’t know. I never know what to say when people ask that. It’s probably a very different thing now. The thought of it scares me to death. There are so many bands now and so much competition. It really does scare me to death just thinking about it.”

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