Happy New Year. In case you missed it, The Walkmen’s album You & Me was one of our favorite LPs of 2008. As the year closes out we caught up with Walter Martin to discuss, among other things, the critical reaction to the band’s previous two releases, The Velvet Underground, Roy Orbison, recording/production and songwriting, or the lack thereof, on the road. It’s gonna be a good year.
AD: You & Me depends largely on the sound and mixing to capture your band. I describe your sound as ‘haunted’, it is gauzy, woozy yet intoxicating. How much emphasis do you as a band place on the sound of your songs?
WM: In the past we’ve spent endless hours trying to get our recordings to sound right. When we had our own studio, we would spend all day trying to get the drums to sound passable. To get things to sound actually good took months. It was a painful process.
These days this little smart-ass named Chris Zane does all the dirty work. We just set up and play as loud as we want all in the same room knowing that it will make his job really hard. However, we also know that he’ll make it sound just like we want it. He is a master. We try to make it sound big and live and loose.
AD: Often, bands that write anything that remotely sounds different are compared to the Velvet Underground. Yet, with the exception of the third self-titled album, the Velvets wrote very few intimate songs. You & Me sounds like a more-intimate version of VU to me. The reverb gives your songs space to breathe, and the drumming (from Matt Barrick) is majestic and unlike anything else out there. Where do you draw your musical inspiration from, and are you growing tired of the obvious comparisons?
WM: We are definitely influenced by the Velvet Underground. I love their casual quiet songs especially on their live records when everything is slower and emptier. I’d say we are influenced by that.
Paul and Ham and I met Lou Reed once. We were playing at the same festival as him and we decided to take the opportunity to walk into his trailer and introduce ourselves. He was really nice actually. I think he thought it was funny that 3 grown men were acting like such schoolgirls.
AD: You & Me contains a wealth of moments where you conjure some strange magic. Two of my favorites are when the horns elevate the chorus of the lovely “Canadian Girl” sending it soaring the way a Roy Orbison song does and the way that they just emerge from that lilting guitar figure. Was this a planned moment? What moments are you most proud of on the album?
WM: “Canadian Girl” was the last song written for the record and probably my favorite. The horn entrance was a planned moment, yes. But i think we got lucky with the mix and how the horns emerge like they do. The mix we released was actually the rough mix that we swapped in at the last minute during mastering.
As far as moments I’m most proud of on the record–I like the triangle at the end of “On the Water.” And I like Paul’s guitar in “New Country.”
AD: So why isn’t ‘In The New Year’ a hit single?
WM: Because the intro might take too long for radio, or maybe the sound is too echoey, or maybe its too long, there are a lot of reasons I bet. I heard it on the radio once and it sounded like shit actually…that’s probably the main reason. It’s mixed in a way that can’t handle the massive radio compression. So when you hear it on the radio it sounds terrible. We we on tour flipping through stations once and it came on and I didn’t recognize it. It sounded like static with someone screaming in the background. Or like someone operating a chainsaw while screaming at the top of his lungs.
AD: Critics have responded favorably to every album you’ve made so far, does this admiration make things harder for you as a band or do you just “never hear the bad news.”?
WM: We’ve gotten plenty of bad reviews over the years. Nobody liked our A Hundred Miles Off record except, oddly, Rolling Stone. They chose a weird time to get behind us I always thought. And everyone hated our Pussycats tribute album. I stand by the goofy documentary movie that came with the Pussycats CD. I don’t think anyone ever saw it.
AD: Much of You & Me is about missing someone, or something — is it a communique from the road and saying goodbye to the past?
WM: The worst part about being on tour is being away from our families. So I think that come across in the record.
AD: Do you write on the road? What is the process of your writing?
WM: We never write on the road. We’ve tried and we can’t do it. When we’re at home, Paul slaves away in his basement 24 hours a day and I go over to his house and we play in his basement to try to put his ideas with a drum beat or something to give it a little direction. When we get stuff we like we give it to Ham and he tries to sing on it. If all systems are go, the 5 of us work our asses off to finish it before it goes sour.
AD: “It’s back to the battle today,” are you a band that thrives on being on the road. Has it been seven years of holidays?
WM: We spend a lot of time on the road. We love it, and we hate it, as I’m sure every other person with this job does. We are old old friends so we get along really easily and have great times sometimes, then at other times it is an absolute living hell.
AD: Are you planning the next album?
WM: We are writing every moment that we’re not on tour. We have a few songs almost finished. I don’t know what the next album will be like. One of these songs is really, really happy and fun while the other one is really fast and dark.
AD: After years of being friends and now playing in a band, has it become easier to record/tour/promote? Like your music does that familiarity, make creating your music easier?
WM: I think its probably easier in some ways and harder in others. The good side is that we trust each and know how to work together. The bad is that we’re all such old friends that there is no real leader and all 5 of us usually have an opinion about every little detail of what we do. It can drive a person crazy. I think it has actually driven Pete crazy. words/ m. davis