Interview: The Walkmen's Peter Bauer on Recording, Songwriting and the Mystery of Lisbon

click to enlarge The Walkmen - Billy Pavone
Billy Pavone
The Walkmen

For the Walkmen's sixth album, Lisbon, the band started out in the same New York studio where it had recorded the 2008 release You & Me. Then, however, the band left New York to take a chance on a studio in Dallas, which organ player Peter Bauer describes as a "small concrete room." The eleven songs that made the final cut are peculiar by Walkmen standards: They're at once more accessible and clearer than anything the band has recorded, with some of Hamilton Leithauser's most emotional singing and some of the best deconstructed (but still beautiful) organ, piano, brass and vocal sounds. The group will be in town for a show at Off Broadway on Wednesday, October 20, and Roy Kasten caught up with Bauer, who was co-piloting a rental car across the Midwestern plains.

Roy Kasten: Can you talk about the decision to record in Dallas?
Peter Bauer: We'd done about half our record in New York to start, the same place we recorded our previous record You & Me, and we just kept going in and recording 10 songs and then leaving and thinking, "Well, that wasn't done." There wasn't much of a deadline to it. We were playing Texas and on a whim we went up to this studio in Dallas to see a new room, record with somebody, change things up basically. We ended up loving it and doing the rest of the record there.

Roy Kasten: In a way, Texas seems about as far away from any world I might associate with the Walkmen.
Peter Bauer: There's definitely not a strong association between us and Texas.

Even now after that recording experience?
I would say, even now. Everyone seemed to like Dallas. We do well recording in the South for some weird reason. We've recorded some records in Memphis and Mississippi. There's a sequestered feeling.

Did spending time in Texas influence the sound at all?
Probably not. It's really just a room. Things sound totally different when you record in a different room with a different engineer. It was a little concrete room. We always tend to do well in those rooms. It gives it this harder edge. The place in New York is wonderful, with a rich kind of sound, but this room had a trashier edge that we all liked.

This is your first album for Fat Possum, a label that's been pretty aggressive in the last couple of years in signing rock bands and moving beyond the blues. How did that come about?
They were interested. We chose between them and a couple of other people. The guy [Matthew Johnson] who runs it is really interesting. He seems to have some real ideas about how to sell music. He was an interesting character.

Is he going to tell the world how to sell music? The rest of the world wants to know.
I think he's just a nuts and bolts guy. He's not trying to do some goofy thing that gets you nowhere. He's a smart guy; it feels like a good match.

You began working on songs pretty quickly after finishing your last album, You & Me. It was just continuous.
We haven't really stopped in a long time. After Bows + Arrows, we toured for two years. Getting back into writing songs after that was horrible. Ever since then we've tried to not stop the production thing completely. Even if you take some time off there's something in the works, as opposed to saying, we'll meet up in two years. That's a bad way of doing things.

And you had how many drafts of songs for Lisbon?
We ran through 30 recordings for this record. I'd say 20 had a shot.

Do any of the discarded songs still gnaw at you, in the sense of missing the song, wanting to give it another chance?
Maybe a few of them we could try to record again. I'm more open to that than some of the other guys. There's always stuff I think we should go back to, but there's always someone who never wants to talk about it again. That's a fair attitude. A lot of them came out as b-sides. There are a couple of real dogs that will never see the light of day.

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