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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

The Walkmen do whatever it takes to make a song work

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Much has been made of the retro sound of the Walkmen, sometimes to the dismay of the band. "We do everything we can to sound modern," insists singer Hamilton Leithauser. "It's nobody's intention to sound old-fashioned."

But this goes back further than Leithauser ...

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Before the Walkmen, three of these players (guitarist Paul Maroon, organist Walter Martin, drummer Matt Barrick) were in Jonathan Fire*Eater, a band that stocked its stages with vintage equipment -- amps in a wonderful array of faded colors, ringing old hollow-body guitars, that beautiful Farfisa Fast Five organ. Jonathan Fire*Eater raised a ruckus in pre-Strokes New York City. They were signed to DreamWorks, but a rollicking, critically acclaimed debut album tanked.

The vintage equipment, however wasn't going anywhere, and neither did those three. After Fire*Eater singer Stewart Lupton disappeared, they brought in two pals from their Washington, D.C., adolescence -- Leithauser (Matin's cousin) and bassist Peter Bauer, both from a band called the Recoys. The music didn't change much. The singing did. Where Lupton leapt and howled like a wolf, Leithauser stands and screeches like an owl. It's a pinched, Dylanesque wheeze that comes off so much more beautifully than that description of it.

The Walkmen have enjoyed raves for four proper albums thus far (plus a song-for-song re-creation of Harry Nilsson's "Pussy Cats"), but on their latest, "Lisbon," the marriage of Leithauser and the band sounds consummated, comfortable and a role model for romantics to follow. Lighter and livelier than previous records, "Lisbon" combines its big-room sound and classic instruments with some of the loveliest melodies Leithauser has had the pleasure to squeal. When we caught up with him recently, we asked about the voice.

Q. When you sing live, you really push your voice. At Lollapalooza [in August], you were in the sun really squeezing it out. How do you keep it in shape to keep singing night after night?
A. It was after Lollapalooza that was rough. We played again that night at the Double Door. ... They had a bunch of people in there, it was hot and thick and awful. I finished that and got pneumonia. I was sick for a month after that show. ... It happens. At the beginning of a tour, when we have like five nights in a row, at the fifth one I'll sound awful. We usually get a couple of days between shows for me to recover. You hear these old guys, though, like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan -- they can't even talk.

Q. When you joined this band, were you totally on board with the vintage instrument sound?
A. I can't put a finger on what sounds so old to everyone. We use computers now. You can't escape that in the process anymore. There's no discussion of let's make that sound old. We get new amps all the time, but we never like the sound of them, so we go back to the one that's older, that's made so well. We listen to a lot of old records. I guess it's kind of an uphill battle to sound as new as we can.

Q. Does the sound produced by the band ever affect or influence what you write to sing?
A. It all comes from the music. Well, about 90 percent of it. My lyrics are trying to match the mood of the music. We come up with the melodies first, and then I develop a theme that works, that has the right feel for the music going with it. I find that things sometimes come really fast out of the music, things I didn't expect or even want to write about. Things just sound right sometimes and I don't know why. I want to change it because I don't like the wording or it doesn't make sense, but it fits the music. In the last two records, the lyrics have really taken a lead for us.

Q. Give an example of this, a song that gave birth to itself like you're describing.
A. The last song on this album, [the title track] "Lisbon." It was done very quickly, with all the words written in one sitting. We recorded it and hated it. So we didn't discuss it anymore. But then we had a lull in the studio, and someone suggested we try it again. We did it with no expectations, a very casual style, and it was done. And it became the title of the album.

Q. Have you been to Lisbon?
A. We went twice while recording the record. Titling the record that just made sense in our minds. It's such a unique place, so incredible looking. It has its own feel, like nowhere else in the world. It's sort of out of the way, without the big museums and stuff to draw tourists. ... It felt like us, like someplace we could understand.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on October 11, 2010 8:00 AM.

Lupe Fiasco v. Atlantic Records, and a Chicago protest was the previous entry in this blog.

Lupe Fiasco album gets release date; protests still planned is the next entry in this blog.

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