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The Seminal Nostalgiacs
The Walkmen have influenced some of your favorite bands
If you want to know where Cold War Kids get the whole empty-cabaret, upright-piano, Tom Waits thing, look no further than New York's Walkmen. The hipster quintet have been kicking it around since the turn of the century, looking and sounding like they could just as easily have been kicking around at the turn of the previous century.
"You'd like to think you're ahead of your time, that you're the Velvet Underground of 2008. Who doesn't want to be?" says front man Hamilton Leithauser of playing Hot Peace Dads to CWK. He's joking, but at least he's not saying Bob Dylan, to whom his punctuated, nasal voice can bear a certain resemblance. "We listen to mostly stuff from the '60s. That's pretty much when 90 percent of great music was made."
Not that the band was made then. The 'Men started out boys together in suburban D.C. in the thick of the Reagan era. Matt Barrick, Paul Maroon and Walter Martin were in a ska-punk band ("Not like the West Coast kind, more like copying English ska bands," says Leithauser) that turned into Jonathan Fire*Eater, who were hot-shit for five minutes more than 10 years ago. Leithauser and Pete Bauer, meanwhile, were in the Recoys, "trying to sound like the Stooges."
Leithauser and Bauer moved to Boston ("We played the five clubs there 10 times each and figured it was time to leave") before winding up in New York with everybody else, right when things were getting interesting. It was the late '90s, and Jonathan Fire*Eater were all the hype. They made one record, broke up and left the Strokes the task of reigniting New Yawk rawk.
After *Eater ate it, Barrick, Maroon and Martin built a recording studio in Harlem. Leithauser and Bauer joined them, and the Walkmen were born. Their 2002 debut, the perfectly titled Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, was the result of endless tinkering and rethinking to the point that the whole thing holds together like a compilation record, albeit by the same band. Which, by the way, didn't play a single gig to support the record. "When we first started out, I think we were too serious," Leithauser admits.
With their penchant for pianos and suits, though, you could think of the 'Men as a sort of indie Nick Cave: a little more garage-y than Arcade Fire, sure, but Cave-y just the same. Leithauser disagrees: "I always thought Nick Cave sounded so dead serious all the time"-kinda like they used to be.
"The stuff we're doing now has much more personality," he says. "The words and singing are right in there with the instruments. Words have always been secondary; now, they're up front. We're still trying to use all the instruments we can [which, so far, include strings and horn sections] without it sounding like Phantom of the Opera. We're making sure it's coming together as something we love from the get-go. It sounds more fun. Maybe it's a bad idea . . ."
Leithauser isn't worried; the Walkmen have survived worse. Their Harlem recording studio, for instance, went away when Columbia University bought up the block on which it was located. And then there was their appearance on The O.C. during its last season, a gasp for indie cred for the show and a well-dressed, fish-out-of-water moment for them. Even weirder things happened. They got a track on the Spider-Man 3 soundtrack. Which is why, even though they don't have a label for it yet, Leithauser is confident the record they're working on now will drop in June. He can afford to be.
Being godfathers of the upright-piano elite means they're still important enough to be asked to play the new Samueli Theater. Shit, maybe they are the Velvet Underground—with a MySpace page, at least one they're only now aware of. "We didn't even know we had one until recently," Leithauser admits. "I guess our old label [The Record Collection] set it up for us, but now we update it."
It's not surprising a band named after a cassette-based personal listening device sandwiched chronologically between the ghetto blaster and the iPod would be Luddites. "We don't play any gear, really, that was made after 1970," Leithauser states, beaming.
Which is great, until the time comes to load that goddamn upright piano in and out of the van to shows. "The five of us have to carry it," he says with a sigh. "It's brutal! Especially when it's a club up three flights of stairs."
Perhaps Bauer would consider a switch to triangle-or at least a desktop keyboard? Leithauser nixes the notion. "It wouldn't be us," he says.
At least they don't have to lug it to Costa Mesa. "We found one we can use out there."
The Walkmen perform with Delta Spirit and DJ Paul V at the Samueli Theater, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787; www.ocpac.org. Thurs., Feb. 28, 8 p.m. $20-$40.