Veteran post-Y2K indie rockers The Walkmen surprised fans in the blogosphere earlier this year when they celebrated the completion of their latest full-length Heaven by posting a hilariously slapdash recording of themselves plowing through a medley of U2 hits. Singer Hamilton Leithauser is heard fudging the lyrics to "With or Without You" — "Slight of hand and twist of fate / On a dah dah dah dah makes me wait." Carried away with his at-times impressive Bono impression, Leithauser is still crooning "With or Without You" when guitarist Paul Maroon and drummer Matt Barrick have moved on to bashing out "Sunday Bloody Sunday."
The four-minute recording, which The Walkmen proudly described as "embarrassing," was an in-the-moment document of how the band musically communicates, playing off each other in disjointed, disconnected harmony that gels with idiosyncratic accord as Leithauser soars above the fray with a voice that's like a combination of Freddie Mercury and a New Morning-era Bob Dylan. A couple times during the "U2 Medley," The Walkmen truly beat Ireland's finest at their own game. Show up to Mercy Lounge a few hours early tonight, and you might catch an earful of this grand tributary salvo live.
"At soundcheck we always do, like, 'Pride' or something," Leithauser tells the Scene. "We can get that thing rockin'!"
Unlike their heroes in U2, The Walkmen aren't the biggest band in the world. But they are easily one of the best. In January The 'Men commemorated their 10th anniversary with a handful of club shows heavy on staples from their 2002 debut Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone. More importantly, the band had just cut Heaven — a warmer, more finely spun effort that shows a transformative trajectory befitting Bono & Co. "I think we've gotten better at being a little more subtle and playing a little quieter," says Leithauser.
Over the course of a decade and seven acclaimed albums, The Walkmen have evolved from miscategorized New York City garage rockers unfairly cast in the shadow of The Strokes by lazy critics, to indie rock's finest sonic craftsmen — shaping a sound akin to Frank Sinatra fronting Echo and the Bunnymen for a session at Studio One in Jamaica circa 1965. Additionally, the band boasts some of modern rock's most distinctively adept musicians — for an indie-rock drummer, the ability to nail Barrick's stick-shredding marathon 16th notes on "The Rat" is tantamount to a Rush fan pulling off "YYZ." But despite critical acclaim, the hero-worship of their peers and a varied yet consistently excellent catalog, widespread commercial appeal routinely eludes the band.
"It seems like we're on a plane," Leithauser says. "It would be nice to do better than we do. ... We've gotta all pile in the van and travel around to make ends meet."
Nevertheless, Leithauser says the band is happy to play for a select audience of critical listeners — listeners who wear out copies of the propulsive Bows + Arrows, the tropical yet wintry-tinged You & Me, the mournful Lisbon and now Heaven. It's the whole making-music thing that The Walkmen are good at and strive to get better at. The promotional hustle, not so much.
"All we can really, honestly do is just put the effort into the records and the shows," Leithauser says. "It feels like we work really, really hard on the music. Whenever we try and get in to any other territory — you know, people want you to make videos and start doing any promotional stuff, and people tell you you're shooting yourself in the foot by not doing that kind of thing ... I feel like we've always been wrong about that kind of stuff."
What The Walkmen lack in record sales they make up in prestige among their peers. A true "musician's band," The 'Men are influential in their time, counting contemporaries like Arcade Fire, The National, Kings of Leon and Cold War Kids among fans.
"A lot of guys in bands that are a lot more successful than us — if we play in New York they all come and we see them, and it's kind of funny," Leithauser says. "I'm flattered. ... Those guys are harsh critics. We don't break through to a bigger crowd than that. People don't play us on the radio. You're not gonna turn on the rock station and hear The Walkmen. I don't know why we don't really translate to a bigger crowd."
In their ascent to Heaven, The Walkmen — who had long resisted entrusting their sound to a producer — tapped notable knobsmith Phil Ek. Leithauser says the rich sound Ek achieved on Fleet Foxes' two LPs inspired the decision. "We wanted to just do something that was different; that's all we knew," he explains. "Maybe it'll be uncomfortable, but maybe that'll be a good thing."
The producer's drill sergeant-like rule over the band brought Heaven to earth, Leithauser says. "Mostly, with [Ek], it was about playing — being absolutely just so strict about everybody being right on time, and everybody playing right together and making the grooves absolutely perfect. He didn't cut us any slack. ... I think we play better because of him."