By all accounts, it’s been a fantastic couple of months for The Walkmen. Back in January, they celebrated their tenth anniversary as a band with sold-out shows in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. In May, they released Heaven, one of their most confident efforts yet and one of our favorites of the year thus far.
Today, they kick off the second leg of an international tour that extends all the way into October. We caught up with frontman Hamilton Leithauser during a brief hiatus from touring to talk about taking Heaven on the road, an endeavor that has seen the band leaving their long-cherished organ at home. We also chatted at length about misconceptions about Heaven, goofy press photos, and the good and bad aspects of so-called “maturity.”
You guys just did the first leg of the tour supporting Heaven, which has done fantastically. What has it been like fitting your new material into the live show?
Leithauser: We just did this last leg of the tour without my cousin Walt, because he had to cancel last minute. We did the tour as a four-piece, which really tested our mettle, especially on the new songs that we don’t know all that well. We did sort of a bang-up job, though. It gave us that whole fight or flight thing, when you’ve got to make it work, or else you’re screwed. The newest songs were the ones that went over the best, and they made it feel like we did a good job, honestly.
With this album being more guitar oriented, the mechanics of the live set up must be different.
Leithauser: We’ve barely had to bring the organ. We only had one song where we brought out the organ.
What kind of songs off Heaven are you most enjoying playing over and over?
Leithauser: It’s fun to play “We Can’t Be Beat.” That’s really harder to play, because it’s really different from our other songs. I like playing the guitar the whole time, like on “Heartbreaker” or on “Heaven,” because I get to play lead guitar and sing. It’s a lot of responsibility.
“We Can’t Be Beat” feels like a pretty bold statement of confidence about where the band has been and where it’s heading. I was wondering if you could talk more about the story and the feeling behind it.
Leithauser: That song and “Heaven” were the last that I worked on for the record. Those two songs were done with the knowledge of the whole record behind us. I felt like we really had something that was pretty big, and we wanted to call it Heaven, and we wanted to have this big record. I felt like those two songs were a statement of our “high,” like where we stand right now. And I think we did a pretty good job of that.
Have you found audiences reacting differently to your new music?
Leithauser: I think they like it better. You can always judge, when you’re playing something live right when a record comes out or before it comes out, and you play the new songs. Normally, it’s always, like, more of a questionable response, because the new songs are not what they came to see. They all want to hear “The Rat,” or “Angela Surf City,” stuff like that. But it seems to me like everybody likes the new stuff a lot. It definitely seems pretty immediate.
I don’t know how much of this is fair—maybe you could comment on that—but it seems like people have really wanted to talk about how the experience of having kids and families really shaped the record.
Leithauser: I’m sure that’s true in some way. It seems to me, like at the very end of making the record, when we finished those two songs—“Heaven” and “We Can’t Be Beat”—we were trying to just sort of “package” ourselves. Everybody wants to schedule these press photos and stuff, getting all five of us together to take a dumb photo, and everybody’s looking like a bunch of dorks. We figured, let’s just lay it all out there. We’ll put our families on the cover and try to make it more fun. It’ll be honest, but more importantly, it’ll just be fun, and it’ll make for a funnier picture. It ended up being the album art. It seems like everybody is thinking that photo was the whole inspiration behind the record, but it didn’t feel like that when we were writing the music for a year. At the very end, we had this idea to put our families on the cover, you know, to package it that way, which was really just a funny way of packaging it. But when I really think back to like the music, it’s a little bit unrelated.
There were some people out there saying that being fathers and having families was what Heaven was all about.
Leithauser: I think those people were just so, so swayed by the packaging. We were kind of surprised by that, honestly. I think we were just thinking of that photo as a fun little add-on, but people are thinking that was what we were writing the album about from the beginning, which is untrue.
Have you found misinterpretations like that to just be a frustrating thing with The Walkmen in general?
Leithauser: Yeah. One thing we’re so bad at is taking a picture of the five of us. It’s just so uncomfortable. You get there, everyone’s trying to direct you with what to do, and then we all sort of look dumb, and then we start getting self-conscious. We’re so bad at that aspect of it, but we’ve done this for so long, you begin to understand what it’s like when you’re packaging up a record. You realize that everything you do can have a spin on it. It can get really frustrating, because we want to let the music speak for itself. That’s the thing that we feel like we do well. All the other stuff we don’t really do that well, but it gets so much attention. It can be a little frustrating.
If you could pick what environment you’d most like to play Heaven, or for the album to be heard in, what do you think that would be?
Leithauser: I haven’t thought about it that way, actually. Phil Ek was saying he heard it in a barbeque, just outside, and he said that it worked really well. That works for me. As for me, I don’t really listen to it very much, because I hear it all the time. I’m not going to like, sit down at dinner and put it on.
It seems like there are a lot of warm feelings behind the album in general. The video for “Heaven” kind of shows your friendships over the years.
Leithauser: I really like that video a lot, yeah. It comes from having done it for ten years. The lyrics to “Heaven,” our ten year anniversary. It was definitely a little bit legitimizing. But you don’t want to be patting yourself on the back for too long. It’s fine to do that for a little bit, but you can’t do it all the time.
Got any U2 covers planned for the road?
Leithauser: I’m sure at soundcheck we will. We like to do “Pride” and Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Our sound guy hates when we screw around; and that is how we screw around. Every single day. It drives him crazy.