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.
When was the last time you thought, "That's probably it"?
There was a point where none of us really wanted to write music anymore, when we were doing the A Hundred Miles Off record and that was a struggle to all be together. We were going from being young men who all lived together and had this sort of gang mentality to this huge two-year tour. We were on a major label, and they kept telling us to do these things, and we hated it and felt like it was all really vapid. We were opening for Cake and Incubus and all this sort of stuff, and it was just like, "Good Lord, what am I doing with my life?"
I think there were points, though, when everybody hated us and what we did. Our manager hated us, and our record label did, and it was just all this crap. Everyone around us was telling us, "This is never going to work" and, "We don't like this stuff." There are always people quitting and insulting, but the five of us always believed in it. Since then, at least on a day-to-day basis when we're actually working on songs, we feel excited about them. As long as you have that feeling, then you're doing it. You're doing it right.
Eventually, we just started doing what we wanted to on the side and it became much easier. At the point, though, we already had all these songs started that we thought were great, and a lot of people thought the opposite. We had that You & Me record half done and in our emails, and we decided to keep doing it because it finally became easier to make music and be who we really were.
How has the band's personality changed in that time?
We're all these weird, incredibly cheap 35-year-old men driving around the country in a van with 250,000 miles on it. We definitely don't like anything about that rock-and-roll world and myth. We like doing what we're doing and playing concerts and achieving some sort of shared thing with our crowds. We've always been solely interested in the music and playing it.
Where do your family lives fit into it? That's your son Otis in the promotional material, right?
Yeah, that was something we kind of came up with at the end. We thought we should make this about us, the promotional aspect of it. It seemed like we had finally made music that related to us as people more than embodying something else. The last two records were really about traveling and looking at the world, and this one seems a little more earnest and direct. That's just sort of our luck.
Sometimes you come up with an idea where you feel like you can actually achieve something that's not corny. We thought we'd try to push that earnestness as far as we could. To us, it made sense. We liked how anti-rock-and-roll that whole promotional sentiment is. There were babies crying. That seems to be more real to our experience: We're kind of these boring dads, and that's interesting to us, as opposed to listening to dance music and taking designer drugs. That sounds really, really boring to me.
It differentiates us from other people because we like love and caring about people and experiencing life like human beings as opposed to weird, modern, detached people. Hopefully other people also like children and getting married and love and our record. I think that's an under-served market -- people who aren't taking bath salts. Not everyone who listens to music likes heavy metal or ecstasy.
That's what I'm hoping, anyway. It might not be true. It could be that everyone likes to take bath salts and listen to, like, Bassnectar or something. I don't know what Bassnectar is, but for some reason I keep seeing that name and Skrillex, and it seems so foreign to me. It sounds like some weird European country, and it makes me feel like the world has passed me by. Skrillex makes me feel like I literally don't understand what's happening.
What does Otis think of his role? Does he go to Walkmen shows?
It's easy to get him to go to shows, but it's hard to keep him off the stage. So he always has to carry a guitar onstage or bring out some beer or something. He's got to try and find some gag to run out across the stage. He's the oldest kid, so he's been around this stuff a while now and loves it.
What is the best decision the Walkmen have made recently -- and the worst one?
The best decision? God, I don't know. Our decision-making process is terrible. I don't trust a thing we do. I feel like we know how to write music and we know what we want to do, and we're very centered on that, but as soon as we record music or do anything secondary to that, we've made terrible decisions our whole life. I don't know how to rectify it. We always spend more time than we ought to thinking about that stuff, but we just don't know what we're doing. I'd say they've probably all been bad decisions, other than recording the record. [Laughs.]
So the band's worst decision is not learning how to make decisions?
Yeah. We just always make the wrong one, or at least it looks like it after the fact. We all feel like we should be good at this. I mean, we're smart guys, and it seems like there are people who are dumber than us but make better decisions than us. But I don't know: Maybe we're just idiots. It's terrifying. Every time we talk about something outside of the music, I just don't know what we're doing.
If you could look back now and give a younger Pete Bauer advice, what would you say?
I'd change a lot of things. I have no idea where to start. If you're going to start this now, I think it's not a good idea to be in a band. I think it's probably a mistake. This is not for us. We don't need any more bands. There are plenty of bands, and there's plenty of people making music. [Laughs.] We're just the last people on Earth who should give advice. We've worked really hard, and we've enjoyed ourselves. But if we could change something about our career, we'd change something different every hour. The fact that we've done this as long as we have and we're friends is great. We're very happy with the success in that sentence.
Where do you see the Walkmen ten years from now? Will you still be playing "The Rat?"
Yeah, I think we'll probably always be playing "The Rat." It hangs around because people like it, and we have no problem playing music people like. But it's nice to feel like we've finally made enough music that stands on its own. We can play a lot of songs without it, but then we play a huge opening set like Florence and the Machine at Red Rocks, and you feel like you should just play all the fastest songs you have, which "The Rat" will still always be in the top ten of those. But a lot of people who like us now don't really care, and that's important to us.
But on a larger scale, I feel like we've always been sort of fighting for a place. I'd like to get comfortable enough in where we stand to make some music where we don't care how it comes out. I feel like that's a real detriment to younger bands, who can't afford not to care what people think.
On the reverse side, I do think we've done a good job making these records while fighting to make it in the world, to reach a lot of people, and it's also nice to respect that and stop worrying. Now I feel like maybe, with this record, we've done something that people will either be attached to or they won't, and the next thing will go off in a very different direction. And that's enough.
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