May 13, 2011

Summer Breeze's Walkmen talk about origins

D.C. natives the Walkmen are one of several great bands to grace this year’s Summer Breeze bill. The Walkmen have become a staple of the American indie rock scene: Early in their career, after playing in many of the same bands throughout middle and high school, they relocated to Harlem and became an influential part of the vibrant New York City rock scene. In the course of 11 years they have crafted a unique take on the oft-diluted genre of contemporary indie music, exploring a spectrum of sounds ranging from soulful ballads and folk elements to the raucous post-punk energy like that of the band’s break-out track “The Rat” (though they refuse to call it a hit).

The Maroon caught up with The Walkmen’s organ and bass player, Walter Martin, to talk about the evolution of the band, Portugal and Lisbon, and the future of the Walkmen.

Chicago Maroon: How did the Walkmen get started? What's your origin story?

Walter Martin: Well, me, Paul, and Matt were in bands together since we were in the seventh grade...and when our band back then broke up and we hadn’t been in bands for a while we sort of joined forces.

CM: What sound did you set out to create after the break-up of Jonathan Fire*Eater and the formation of the Walkmen?

WM: We were trying to sound unlike Jonathan Fire*Eater. We were trying to sound not as garage-rock-y and get away from '60s rock...I think the piano kind of made it more complex, maybe more mellow, which is sort of what we were trying to do.

CM: Was there a point in your career when you felt you found that sound you had been looking for?

WM: I think [there were] moments on our first two records where we achieved it. But I think more so on the last two albums it was more controlled. I think in the last two records, You and Me and Lisbon, we found the sort of sound we had always been hoping to create.

CM: What sort of ground do The Walkmen hope to cover in the future?

WM: I don’t know, we never really decide on our direction, it just sort of happens. But, we’re writing a lot right now and I’d say the new stuff sounds a little more poppy. It’s sort of simple and upbeat. It’s solid and definitely a little more pop.

CM: How was your recent trip to Portugal, and how did it affect the band and the production of Lisbon?

WM: It was great. We had some good times and they are just really nice to us there. Things happened there just they way they were supposed to, the way we had always wanted things to happen. They really like our band and they’re very supportive of us. It’s also just a beautiful and welcoming place. Things just sort of fell into place nicely over there. So, that’s why we called the record Lisbon, because we wanted to reference that sort of positive feeling we took away from the experience.

CM: “The Rat” has become the Walkmen’s sort of hit song. In writing the song, could you predict its success?

WM: I mean, it was never really a hit, you know, it was a Walkmen song. It is our biggest song, but definitely not a hit. But, yeah, the first time we played it I remember thinking people would react to this song a lot more than they do to a lot of our songs. We could tell people would react differently because it’s a little more extreme sounding.

CM: What are some of your favorite and least favorite parts about touring?

WM: It’s nice to go see different parts of the world, like we’re going to Istanbul next week, and I’ve always wanted to go there. So that’s definitely the upside. We get to see a lot of the world and we’re playing music every night, which is something we definitely like to do. It’s good, but, you know, we have to be away from home a lot which sucks.

CM: How was playing at Lollapalooza last year?

WM: It was fun, it was good. It was a nice day and we played early on the main stage, and the crowd was really good. We ended up sticking around all night and saw Lady Gaga play, so it was pretty great, actually.

CM: The band is returning to Chicago for U of C’s Summer Breeze. Are college shows like this different from other shows you play on tour?

WM: They’re nice; they’re always casual and there’s less pressure. It’s more of just, like, a casual and fun atmosphere. We’re looking forward to it.