A Conversation with the Walkmen’s Walter Martin

The native Washingtonian discusses new material and the band’s upcoming show at Merriweather

By: Matt Carr

The Walkmen will play at the Merriweather Post Pavilion this Friday when they will open for indie band Fleet Foxes. Photograph by Billy Pavone

“It’s a sign of the times,” says Walkmen bassist Walter Martin of his band’s current tour schedule, which has included gigs with Grammy winners The Arcade Fire and indie rock it-boy Bon Iver.  

The Walkmen—who land in Columbia, Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion this Friday, September 23, with the Fleet Foxes—are in the midst of a two-album run containing the band’s richest and most rewarding material to date. “I’m stuck on a winning streak,” croons singer Hamilton Leithauser in the song “While I Shovel the Snow,” and he’s not kidding. The abrasive edges of early singles “The Rat” and “Little House of Savages” are now outliers in a sound that on 2008’s You & Me and 2010’s Lisbon emphasizes self-control and subtle nuance over all-out assault.  

“We’re just more mature,” says Martin, calling from Seattle. “I think we’ve just gotten better at putting songs together and have more restraint in terms of adding all sorts of unnecessary crap into our music. We just make sure the bare bones of the song are solid and we stick with it.”

While Paul Maroon’s trebly guitar and Leithauser’s impassioned vocals remain the group’s signature ingredients, songs like the horn-punctuated waltz “Red Moon” and the 6/8 piano- and doo wop-soaked “Torch Song” suggest the Walkmen have something else up their sleeves: the makings of a truly classic American band.

That band is now gearing up to keep its winning streak alive. In November, the Walkmen will travel back to Seattle to begin recording their seventh LP with Phil Ek, the producer and engineer who helped sculpt the sound of both Fleet Foxes’ records.

“It’s funny, he actually came to us,” says Martin. “We were on tour trying to figure out what we wanted to do. We like to use a different producer or engineer every record to keep things interesting, and we were talking about how fantastic the Fleet Foxes records sounded. The next day, we got a call from our manager saying that Phil had called and wanted to talk to us about doing our next record. It seemed great, so we did it.”

The band has already recorded demos and completed pre-production with Ek, with 15 songs making the grade. But Martin warns that fans shouldn’t look for a new Walkmen record in 2011.

“We always get a really good start, but deciding when a record’s done, that we have the right songs, and everything is all in order—that takes so much time,” Martin says.

If you want to preview the new songs, your best shot is to catch the band live, where a large portion of every set on the current tour is devoted to new material. For folks in the DMV area, that next opportunity will be at Merriweather, where the Walkmen will play on home turf for the first time since last December’s packed show at the 9:30 Club.

“Playing DC is very much a family reunion slash high school reunion. It always feels very different us,” Martin says. “We’re usually all at our parents’ houses for dinner and we get to the show about a second before we play and then we rage onstage. It’s very disorganized. I think last time we played the P.A. was off for the first song.”

All five band members grew up in DC attending Northwest private schools Maret and St. Albans. Although pre-Walkmen bands Jonathan Fire Eater and the Recoys were based out of New York City and Boston, it was at area shows and in high school bands like the Ignobles and Late Breakers that members of the Walkmen first cut their teeth.

“Growing up, all our first experiences seeing live music were in DC, seeing Fugazi and The Nation of Ulysses. DC was important to us as far as helping us get really excited about music and to make us really want to go for it,” Martin says.

The Walkmen have recorded two tracks about the District: “Blizzard of ’96” and “Tenley-Town.” Here’s hoping for one more in record number seven from our favorite former Washingtonians.

The Walkmen open for Fleet Foxes at Merriweather Post Pavilion September 23. Tickets ($25 to $40) available at 930.com.