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For the Walkmen, A Change Of Pace

The Walkmen (from left Peter Bauer, Paul Maroon, Walt Martin, Matt Barrick and Hamilton Leithauser) sound happy on
The Walkmen (from left Peter Bauer, Paul Maroon, Walt Martin, Matt Barrick and Hamilton Leithauser) sound happy on "A Hundred Miles Off." (By Greg Morris)

Part of that was the Walkmen's decision to come home to record the album. All five members have strong Washington roots: Leithauser and Martin are first cousins who grew up across the street from each other in Tenleytown. (The new album's "Tenley Town" salutes the early '80s hard-core punk of D.C. bands Bad Brains and Minor Threat.) Four of the five band members graduated from the prestigious St. Albans School, which so far has produced more successful politicians and media bigwigs than successful rockers. (OK Go singer Damian Kulash also went there.)

"I've known him since the day he was born," Martin says of Leithauser, three years Martin's junior. "[Guitarist] Paul Maroon I knew before St. Albans -- since nursery school. [Drummer] Matt Barrick I met in seventh grade, and Peter was a friend of Ham's in high school."

"Walt started his first band when he was in fifth grade," Leithauser says. "I would have been in second grade." They all played in high school bands (Martin, Maroon and Barrick in a ska band called the Ignobles) before heading to college in New York and very different follow-ups. Leithauser and Bauer formed garage-band rockers the Recoys and stayed well under the radar. Martin, Maroon and Barrick joined two other Washingtonians, singer Stewart Lupton and Tom Frank, to form Jonathan Fire*Eater, one of the more spectacular New York-rooted indie-rock flameouts of the '90s.

Jonathan Fire*Eater was the next-big-thing hotly pursued by major labels and in 1996 signed a three-album, million-dollar deal with then-new (now-defunct) DreamWorks, the label started by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen. The band's debut, "Wolf Songs for Lambs," was also its finale; the single "The Shape of Things That Never Come" seemed prophetically titled, particularly after Lupton's personal problems led the band to dissolve in 1998. (Lupton, recently studying poetry at George Washington University, now fronts the Childballads; the band performs occasionally around town and recently released "Cheekbone Hollows" on the English label Loog.)

Soon after, the Fire*Eater alums regrouped with their Recoys mates and opened Marcata Recording Studio, a rehearsal space and 24-track analog recording studio in a former car showroom in West Harlem in New York cluttered with vintage instruments and equipment.

"It's always been said that we smartly kept our Jonathan Fire*Eater money and put it into the studio, but that didn't happen," Martin says. "I wish it had, but we didn't actually have any money after Jonathan Fire*Eater; we got investors to pitch in and help us build the studio."

Marcata is where they recorded various self-produced EPs and "Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone." The latter's success (critics lumped the band in with other New York acts such as the Strokes and Interpol) got the Walkmen a deal with Record Collection, a Warner Bros. imprint. But "Bows + Arrows" ended up being recorded in Memphis with outside producers Stuart Sikes (the White Stripes) and Dave Sardy (System of a Down), resulting in a more mainstream rock sound.

For "A Hundred Miles Off," sessions took place at Marcata and at Arlington's Inner Ear Studios, where the band worked with engineer Don Zientara; pretty much every local punk and indie-rock band has recorded there at one time or another. Leithauser apprenticed at Inner Ear while at St. Albans, and his father and Zientara have been friends since before Leithauser was born; both once worked at the National Gallery of Art and even played together in a party band, the Del Ray Desperados with Fred Parker, owner of the Hard Times Cafe chili parlor chain.

"We've had our ups and downs working with other people in the studio," Leithauser says. "We started out doing everything ourselves and then started doing tracks with other people; sometimes it's worked out well, sometimes it hasn't. We really weren't doing as good a job ourselves anymore -- our engineering skills were just lacking -- and I knew we'd get along with Don."

"A Hundred Miles Off" was released last spring, followed in the fall by "Pussy Cats," a song-by-song interpretation of Harry Nilsson's 1974 studio frolic with John Lennon during the latter's famous "lost weekend" separation from Yoko Ono. Nilsson and Lennon gathered several friends (Ringo Starr, Keith Moon) and studio musicians intent on having a good time in the studio, hammering out covers ("Rock Around the Clock," "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Save the Last Dance for Me") along with seven Nilsson originals.

"It was something we listened to while touring," Martin explains, calling "Pussy Cats" "light and fun. They were probably in their 30s, where you're maybe feeling like you're a little old to be in a rock band, so the goofiness of it is something we really related to."

According to Leithauser, the project started simply as a way to have some covers and extra tracks for B-sides. "It was free studio time, and it's always handy to have things around."

Sadly, "Pussy Cats" turned into a farewell party for Marcata after Columbia University bought the building as part of its campus expansion plans. By then, the Walkmen had invited some guests, including singers Ian Svenonius (the Nation of Ulysses, Weird War) and Quentin Stoltzfus (Mazarin), a string quartet and the 41-voice-strong Saturday Night Marcata BBQ Chorus on a shambolic reading of the New Orleans party romp "Loop de Loop."

"We didn't think it was something until we got the string players and upright bass and things like that," Leithauser says. "Then it started not sounding like our band anymore, and it was something that might be worth letting other people hear."

The Walkmen Appearing Friday at the Rock and Roll Hotel with the Broken West and Ferraby Lionheart; April 7 at the 9:30 club with the Kaiser Chiefs Voce: Hamilton Leithauser's grainy, gravelly vocals certainly add authenticity to the Walkmen's cover of "Pussy Cats." Harry Nilsson famously ruptured his vocal cords during the original 1974 recording sessions but didn't tell his drinking buddy-producer John Lennon; his soaring 3 1/2 -octave voice was forever altered. Leithauser got his raspy voice the old-fashioned way: overzealous singing. "I worry about my own voice sometimes," he admits. "I blow it out probably 15 times a year, completely, [to the point of] not being able to speak. I don't know what long-term effects that will have."

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