The Walkmen, whose members mostly trace their beginnings to their time spent as students at Washington’s elite St. Albans School (one went to Maret), formed in 2000, amid the New York rock revival. From left, Peter Bauer, Hamilton Leithauser, Paul Maroon, Matt Barrick and Walter Martin. (Joe Buglewicz)

Are the Walkmen finally back together, or did they never break up?

Members of the beloved early-'00s rock band talk about their first tour in a decade, and why they hit pause

12 min

WESTERLY, R.I. — Let’s get one thing straight: The Walkmen never broke up.

You’d be forgiven if you thought they had. The New York-via-D. C. rockers — consisting of first cousins Hamilton Leithauser and Walter Martin and their childhood friends Paul Maroon, Peter Bauer and Matt Barrick — did stop playing shows and releasing new music in early 2014. But they’re adamant they never broke up. Would that even really be possible for a group of guys who played music together and apart in various iterations and various bands (Jonathan Fire*Eater, the Ignobles, the Recoys) since they were teens bumming around the original 9:30 Club in Washington?

So, no, they never broke up. But, in a 2013 interview with Express, The Washington Post’s now-shuttered commuter paper, Bauer said the band had “no future plans whatsoever. I’d call it a pretty extreme hiatus.” It led to a slew of headlines like AltWire’s “The Walkmen Pretty Much Just Broke Up.” “Slow Burn, Slow Fade: Inside The Walkmen’s Final Days” offered Stereogum.

“Pete spilled the beans to The Washington Post. I never thought we were breaking up,” says Leithauser. “It turned into one of those viral news stories.”

Whatever it was, it’s over. On April 18, the band roared back to life playing their hit song “The Rat” on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” its first public performance in almost a decade.

Now the Walkmen are touring the United States and abroad, but it’s not a reunion tour. Pick a different seven-letter word beginning with R. It’s called the Revenge Tour. Whom are they getting revenge on? Who knows. Maybe us, for printing Bauer’s words so long ago.

“We never meant to break up! I wish that story would catch fire,” says Leithauser. “It started in The Washington Post. Maybe it can end there.”

On a chilly Friday morning a few days after the Colbert performance, the quaint, quiet streets of Westerly fill with the sudden, pummeling and potent sound of “The Rat,” thundering from the United Theatre a few blocks away. “The hell? …” says an old man walking up the steps of the YMCA building as he whips his head around.

“We’re loud,” Leithauser later says. “We’re still loud. We’re one of the loudest bands going.”

The Walkmen, whose members mostly trace their beginnings to their time spent as students at Washington’s elite St. Albans School (one went to Maret), formed in 2000, amid the New York rock revival that produced the Strokes, Interpol, the National, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Hold Steady and seemingly a thousand other guitar-and-drum-driven groups.

“They were the greatest band to come out of that new wave of rock-and-roll,” says the National’s Aaron Dessner, citing the Walkmen as the biggest influence on his band. “We were always the Midwestern, uncool, turtle version of the Walkmen, in a way.”

Their song titles (“Little House of Savages,” “Woe Is Me” and the aforementioned “The Rat,” which was named the 20th best song of the 2000s by Pitchfork) suggest a kind of music best listened to when 2 a.m. gets a little fuzzy and the edges begin to blur. Leithauser’s signature howl and Barrick’s insistent drumming often contrasted with Martin’s and Bauer’s warm organs and plinking pianos, while Maroon’s jangly guitars could attack and comfort in equal measure. They make earsplitting rockers alongside atmospheric dirges and follow their muse anywhere, such as re-creating, in full, Harry Nilsson and John Lennon’s “Pussy Cats.”

In 2012, they released “Heaven,” arguably their warmest album, filled with songs about finding, well, heaven in friends and family and bandmates. No throat-scorching fury here, just a collection of pretty songs to listen to by daylight.

They lived across the country at the time — New Orleans, New York, Philly — had wives and kids and were growing wary of life on the road. “When we were really doing it, we struggled. Always. From the beginning through the highest parts,” Martin says. “Just to keep it going. It’s five people. A lot of time five people living in New York City. A lot of time with families. It was hard, carrying our own stuff and being in the van.”

“Being in a band definitely does a lot of problematic stuff to your psychology. Makes you a mess in like 90 different ways,” Bauer adds. “I think that was one thing for us as adults. Like, why are these five guys driving around in a van? It’s f---ing weird.”

After releasing “Heaven,” they were finally out of fuel and ready for something new, hinted at by the first lines on the record: “I was the Duke of Earl, but it couldn’t last. I was the Pony Express, but I ran out of gas.”

“We just felt like we didn’t need to make another record at that point. We just reached a very logical place to stop,” says Maroon. “We were just exhausted. We were about to turn 40, all of us. We all had little kids, and we didn’t want to be touring so much.”

“We didn’t want the Walkmen to be our entire lives,” he adds.

Bauer started a management company and put out a few records. Barrick tried photography and video work for a while, but soon returned to music as a session drummer for artists like Fleet Foxes, Sharon Van Etten and Craig Finn. “Eventually I wanted to travel less and keep making music, so I decided to build my own studio in Philly,” he says.

Martin, who says he “doesn’t fancy myself a singer,” wanted to write music he could sing (perhaps in the vein of Randy Newman) and found a niche making children’s music. After the death of his friend and Jonathan Fire*Eater bandmate Stewart Lupton, he made contemplative adult music often infused with childlike wonder.

Maroon began writing scores, including the one for the Oscar-winning documentary “Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” and classical music, first focusing on piano compositions with pianist Jenny Lin and moving on to string quartets. “It wasn’t satisfying to write rock-and-roll anymore. I wanted something I’d be comfortable doing when I’m 75 or 80,” he says. “I wanted something I could sit down and do on my own schedule until I drop dead.”

Leithauser, meanwhile, began scoring movies and podcasts but mostly continued down the rock-and-roll path — often with collaborator, fellow D.C. native and former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij — though it wasn’t always an easy road, partially thanks to that whole “extreme hiatus” quote coming out right as he released his first solo album. “Then the whole breakup story became a bigger story than my solo record that I’d been working on for so long,” he says, adding that it overshadowed “everything I was doing for at least two years.”

All anyone asked him about was the band. During his first European tour, “people would say, ‘Oh you’re the guy from the Walkmen! I didn’t know your name, but then I heard your voice.’ I got that message over and over. Nobody knew my name, but they sort of knew the sound of my voice. It was a lot more like starting over than I ever thought it would be.”

Years piled up, and the band’s manager regularly floated the idea of a tour, but no one was particularly interested. “I don’t want to be negative, but no, I honestly didn’t really miss it,” Martin says of the band during those years, a sentiment every member echoed in one way or another.

But as time went on, a pull began forming, and a decade felt like a good time to revisit the band, or reunite, or doing whatever this is. About a year ago, Leithauser’s mom died. “The first time the five of us had ever been in the same room was at her funeral,” he says. “I had the guys come over afterward, and we were all sort of standing there. And then it was funny, we were like ‘Oh my God, it’s the Walkmen.’ We hadn’t even thought of it until it happened. It was just nice to see everybody.”

It sparked something. “Everything changes when something like that happens in your life,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘I know that my mom would have been really psyched to hear the Walkmen.’ I sort of suggested it to my dad and sister and stuff, and they were like, ‘That’d be great! We’d love to see the Walkmen.’ And my little nieces and my daughters, they don’t even know what the Walkmen is, really. I was just thinking about my family and I thought it would be really fun for them to all see it. I think that’s what changed my attitude, to be honest.”

One by one, every member of the Walkmen planted firmly in middle age, 40 in the rearview agreed to a tour, though in typical Walkmen fashion, they never discussed it among themselves. “We have a text chain where we send dumb jokes to each other, and we continued to not talk about it,” Bauer says. “Eventually we had a Zoom meeting or something dumb like that.”

Which soon brought them to Westerly.

That late-morning surprise of “The Rat” ringing throughout Westerly like an air-raid siren was perhaps the band’s first-ever true rehearsal. Certainly the first in nearly 10 years. Which might strike you as odd, given that they played the song on national television only three days earlier, but that’s pretty much what you need to know about the band. They insist they never plan.

So, before the Colbert appearance, “We did not rehearse,” Bauer says. “We had dinner.” Backstage, they just went through their catalogue and named their worst songs. “I didn’t remember half of them,” says Barrick.

The performance went off without a hitch. “We walked right in there. And it was a little messy,” says Maroon. “But I feel like that’s who we are. It’s nice to see a mess every now and then.” Days later, they decided to rehearse. Why not? There’s a first time for everything.

It’s hard not to think it’s all a bit, but that lack of planning becomes obvious while I’m interviewing them. A couple of guys have a camera crew set up to film the interviews for a short documentary about the band (kind of but not really) reuniting. There’s a spotlight and a tripod and everything. It’s very “60 Minutes,” and leads to a version of this convo with the band members:

“Is The Washington Post filming this?”

“Uh, no … those are your guys.”

“Really?! I wonder what for!”

That lack of planning is partially the reason they chose to hold their first show in nearly a decade in this charming, quiet beach town with signs everywhere announcing the following weekend’s rubber-duck race. It’s where Taylor Swift bought that giant seaside house and wrote her umpteenth hit “The Last Great American Dynasty” about it.

Westerly offers a nice juxtaposition to the Walkmen in that it was actually planned, at least somewhat, by a wealth manager named Chuck Royce, the chairman of the board at Royce Funds, who has a passion for revitalizing small towns. “I very much believe a downtown is critical to the success of the entire town,” he says. Though investment, donations and leadership, he’s brought to Westerly restored hotels, independent bookstores, bespoke cocktail bars, high-end restaurants and an enormous education center.

At the heart of the revitalization is the United Theatre, the movie theater and events space where the band’s Revenge Tour begins. Attached to the venue is a cafe named the Café that serves dishes like plump baked oysters under a bed of crusty parmesan and breadcrumbs, well-balanced smash burgers and toastettes topped with chicken liver mousse and pink ribbons of pickled red onions. The kind of place where a Leithauser song pops on, moments after I’ve interviewed him in a corner booth.

The band begins Saturday’s show with “They’re Winning,” the first track on their first album and closed the encore with “We’ve Been Had,” the first song they ever wrote, one of their more recognizable tunes. Onstage, Leithauser still banshee-screams like a wolverine is clawing its way out of his throat. Barrick’s drums still boom louder than the march of an encroaching army. Maroon’s guitars still batter the audience.

“It’s fun. We sound exactly the same,” says Maroon. “I didn’t know what to expect. Honestly, I thought it would be a little bit strange. But being back with the guys is just so comfortable.” The others agree. “It’s like a time capsule,” says Martin. “It’s like I suddenly have my pizza delivery job that I had when I was in college again.”

After Westerly, the band played five nights at Manhattan’s Webster Hall before heading south. Will there be new music? Maroon: “I think this is what it is.” Martin: “I think it’s ‘We’ll see.’ We don’t really plan, and we’ve never talked about doing new music.” Barrick: “There has been no talk of new music. … Who knows what will happen?” Leithauser sidesteps the question. Off-the-record? Bauer: “I don’t care about off-the-record at all. I think probably all four of them would say no, and I would keep it cagey.”

Let the record show that the Walkmen also know when to keep things quiet.