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With their newest album, Heaven, released ten years since their debut record, it’s clear The Walkmen have a lot of memories to look back on. Singer and guitarist Hamilton Leithauser, guitarist Paul Maroon, bassist Walter Martin, and drummer Matt Barrick all stopped by the WERS studio for a special live performance (keyboardist Peter Bauer was unable to join with his newborn baby’s recent arrival). The indie rock group formed in 2000 and put out their first album, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, just two years later. Their timeless and simple sound stays true to music’s core, partly due to their craftsmanship and partly due to their instruments, most of which are vintage. On Heaven, they nail this sound without sounding dated.
The performance began with their single and title-track, “Heaven”. An instantly recognizable guitar line, energized drumming, and a gentle bass part all make for a track that slides itself into your heart and cozies up in a corner for permanent residence. It’s simple; it’s catchy; it’s precise – a clear example of how their tracks casually win over listeners. The music video for “Heaven” compiles old photographs and videotapes of the guys performing, creating a scrapbook of memories and progression.
“There’s tons of stuff [in the music video] that I couldn’t believe. The old bass player in our band – who is from Boston, actually – sent me a lot of old videos, of us playing at The Middle East. It was just crazy,” said Leithauser. “ I hadn’t seen it in so many years. It was funny to see us – we looked like little kids.” He was soon shaking his head, laughing, thinking about the footage and images they came across. ”The most embarrassing stuff was from our early twenties; where you’re not young enough to be able to say, ‘I was just a kid,’ but you’re not old enough to have done it for long enough to not be completely and utterly embarrassed.”
“We Can’t Be Beat” was up next, its introduction placing heavy emphasis on the lyrics as the only other sound to be heard is the lullaby-like guitar. ”Lonliness will run you through /All the kids are laughing; I’m laughing too,” Leithauser sings, dipping both into a sad and sinister sound while still scraping about in hopeful nostalgia. Chimes ring out right after to polish his words before the beat increases and the track, now fueled and ready to run its course, lifts off.
“We were pretty happy to finish on time, which we did for a change of pace for us,” said Leithauser of Heaven. “To tell you the truth, [the album] is sort of what we imagined. We hired this guy Phil Ek to come record with us because we really liked what he did with the Fleet Foxes – he gave them a really big, rich sound – and we were hoping he could bring that to us.” Ek did just that. It was the first time The Walkmen “hired a boss”, and producer Phil Ek delivered to make Heaven a seamless listen that’s gotten much praise since its release.
The Walkmen ended their performance with ”The Love You Love”. Leithauser pulls off his yelling lines without hurting his throat or messing up. He just sings, head gently tilted to the side with a voice that’s loud enough to get rasp but not crack. Maroon’s arm furiously moves on the guitar, ripping through the strings yet never sounding abrasive. The whole track fills out perfectly from a band that is clearly united.
“I was doing an interview with someone and they told me that we had been in a band for ten years - that was when I realized that it had been ten years. And then I told everyone else, ‘Did you guys realize we’ve been together for ten years?’ and everyone was like, ‘Holy crap.’” laughed Leithauser. “That was the big moment of realizing our age. It didn’t feel quick; we just never paid attention to the fact that it had been ten years.”
Sure enough, the group have continued rolling through new works up until 2012 and don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. A huge grin slides across Leithauser’s face as he says, “It’s wonderful. I thank God and everyone that we’re still together.” He pauses to look around at his bandmates – his best friends – with a shared happiness. “I always knew we would be together for a long time.”