Springing forth from two relatively unknown bands, Jonathan Fire*Eater and the Recoys, Brooklyn, by way of Washington, DC, band the Walkmen were at the forefront of New York City's rock renaissance in the early part of the 2000's. By combining the majestic prowess of band's like U2 and the Pixies with the more eclectic singer/songwriter leanings of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, the band has released three albums of reverb-drenched pop that achieves a timelessness that many of their peers have struggled to find.
As previously mentioned, the Walkmen would not see the light of day until the demise of two somewhat unknown, but no less adventurous bands that were connected through family ties. The more visible of the two bands was Jonathan Fire*Eater, who began in Washington, DC in 1995 as a collaboration between Farfisa player Walter Martin, guitarist Paul Maroon, bassist Tom Frank, drummer Matt Barrick and singer Stewart Lupton. After releasing a debut single and two EPs, the band signed to the fledgling major label DreamWorks and released the critically acclaimed, but commercially doomed Wolf Songs for Lambs in 1997. The band released a nine-song self-titled follow up in 1998, but couldn't keep their drug-addled singer Lupton in check to continue.
Elsewhere in DC, Hamilton Leithauser, Peter Bauer, Hugh MacIntosh (who would later part-time drum in the French Kicks), Damon Hege and Mike Sheehan were gauging away as the Recoys, a dramatic pop group that shared a bit of Pavement's slacker-isms and an affinity for Bob Dylan. Much like Jonathan Fire*Eater, the band had a hard time staying intact, and shortly after both groups played New York's Bowery Ballroom together in 1998, they too broke up. A retrospective of Recoys material, called Recoys: Rekoys LP (+3), was released on vinyl as a split between Realistic Records and Troubleman Unlimited in the summer of 2003.
Just before the new millennium hit, the remaining members of Jonathan Fire*Eater moved to New York City and began playing under the moniker Today Okay. Leithauser and Bauer started coming to their gigs to support the former-Fire*Eater friends, and eventually hatched the plan to start playing together. As Today Okay's Martin and the Recoy's Leithauser are cousins, the pairing seemed natural. In the Walkmen's official bio, Leithauser says, "Their band had broken up and ours was sort of on the outs. We just decided to play together because we liked each other's bands." This was somewhat an understatement; in truth, four of the five members that would go on to form the Walkmen attended high school together in Washington, DC.
In a move that was somewhat unorthodox, before the band ever even played a show or wrote a song, they began work on an 800-square-foot studio they purchased with the remaining money from Jonathan Fire*Eater's recording contract with DreamWorks. Barrick, Maroon and Martin built the New York studio in 1999, and once the group started playing together, it functioned as their primary recording space. They called it Marcata Recording, and it would go on to provide a recording space for bands like the French Kicks, the Kills, and the Natural History.
In 2000, the Walkmen's lineup was complete, with Leithauser on vocals and guitar, Martin on organ, the Recoy's Peter Bauer on bass, and Jonathan Fire*Eater/Today Okay's Matt Barrick and Paul Maroon on drums and guitar, respectively. After holing up at Marcata, writing, recording and experimenting after working their collective jobs, the band finally hit the stage at Joe's Pub for their first show in September of 2000. The show would signify the Walkmen's commitment to eclectic instrumentation, as the stage was littered with an upright piano, an organ, a lap steel, two tape machines and the rudimentary guitar/bass/drums set up of more "regular" rock bands.
Though the band would play live on and off before they released their first album, their real commitment was to Marcata and the songwriting and recording experiments that would shape their early releases. The world first got a taste of the Walkmen's efforts via a four-song EP that was released on Startime International in 2001. In 2002, the band continued their do-it-yourself approach by releasing two 8-song LPs that they recorded and silk-screened themselves to sell at shows (both would be later released as a set by Troubleman Unlimited).
Finally, after nearly two years together releasing hard-to-find recordings and experimenting with different instruments and sound in the think-tank they called Marcata, the band finally released their debut album Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone on Star-time International in March of 2002. Largely spacious and improvisational, the album owed much to the band's lifelong friendship (they even reinterpret two Recoys songs, "The Blizzard of '96" and "That's the Punchline") and their dedication to making music by their own rules. Reviews came out, and they all made note of the Walkmen's originality. Delusions of Adequacy said, "The Walkmen's style of rock is odd, a bit unusual, and highly enjoyable. The guitar lines snake one way while the rhythm goes another, the organs and keyboards shimmer underneath, and over it all, Leithauser croon/sings his way between rock and soul. It's unique, which goes a long way in the canons of indie rock."
For the Record …
Members include Matt Barrick, drums; Peter Bauer, bass; Hamilton Leithauser, vocals, guitar; Paul Maroon, guitar; Walter Martin, organ.
Barrick, Maroon, and Martin built recording studio Marcata Recordings, 1999; started playing together with other members shortly after that; group officially formed in New York City, 2000; released Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone on Startime, 2002; released Bows + Arrows, 2004; released A Hundred Miles Off, 2006.
After the album's release, the band found themselves lumped in with other groups like Liars, The Rapture, Radio 4, and Interpol as being a part of New York's new school of rock bands that were all gaining some kind of mainstream exposure. In a strange twist of luck, the Walkmen's "We've Been Had" (from Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone) was even featured in a Saturn car commercial, pushing the band's eclectic pop into the homes of America, somewhat unexpectedly.
The band toured quite extensively through the years of 2002 and 2003 with the likes of the French Kicks, and ventured overseas for their first European tours. They released a split EP with fellow New York band Calla in September of 2002 on Troubleman Unlimited (it was later re-released on vinyl in 2004), and found time between tours to work on their next album. Recording it in the Memphis studio Easley-McCain, in Oxford, Mississippi at a studio called Sweet Tea, and finishing back at Marcata in New York, the band set out to make an album that reflected the way the band sounded live, road-testing most of the material before putting anything to tape. The result was Bows + Arrows—released on Record Collection in 2004—an album full of out and out rockers ("The Rat" and "Little House of Savages" being the most rollicking the band has released to date) that features Leithasuer's Bono-esque wails at the forefront. The slight change in sound would benefit the band, as "The Rat" became a bonified hit, even earning them a cameo on popular Fox teen-drama The O.C.. The band's growing popularity didn't affect them critically, however, and reviews of Bows + Arrows were overwhelmingly positive. Pitchforkmedia.com said, "On such a triumphant album, The Walkmen don't succumb to filler. Each of these songs displays a mastery of craft rarely heard, and while not all strike with the same immediacy of its two unbreakable watersheds, each quickly reveals itself as equally forcible and infectious. Beyond this, no grandiose claims warrant stating; Bows + Arrows states them itself."
The band again hit the road to support Bows + Arrows, and also found time to release a Christmas-themed album called Christmas Party in September of 2004. Once their touring commitments subsided, the band returned to their home city of Washington, DC to record the follow up to Bows + Arrows at Inner Ear studios. In May 2006, the band released A Hundred Miles Off, again on Record Collection, and again featuring a slight change of sound for the band. Noting that they hit a rut when writing songs for the album, the band decided to have Martin and Bauer switch instruments on some of the tracks, with Martin taking on the bass duties, and Bauer playing minimal organ and piano, as well as providing percussion and background vocals.
The result was an album that featured some of the band's most rocking songs to date, as well as some of their most laid-back, including the lead single "Louisiana"—a summer-time song littered with jazz-inspired horns. Of the change, Stylus Magazine said, "It's the band's throatiest, most pressing and urgent release to date."
After the release of A Hundred Miles Off, the band received word that they would have to close Marcata Recordings, because Columbia University (who owned much of the Harlem-area that the studio was located in) bought the building, and ordered the band out.
Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, Startime International, 2002.
The Walkmen/Calla (split EP), Troubleman Unlimited, 2002. Bows + Arrows, Record Collection, 2004.
A Hundred Miles Off, Record Collection, 2006.
Entertainment Weekly, February 6, 2004; May 26, 2006.
Interview, February 1, 2004.
Maracata Recordings, http://www.marcata.net/ (June 28, 2006).
"Review: A Hundred Miles Off," Stylus, http://www.stylusmagazine.com/reviews/the-walkmen/a-hundred-miles-off.htm (June 28, 2006).
"Review: Bows + Arrows," Pitchforkmedia.com, http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/record_review/23075/The_Walkmen_Bows_and_Arrows (June 28, 2006).
"Review: Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone," Delusions of Adequacy, http://www.adequacy.net/review.php?reviewID=3743 (June 28, 2006).
Startime International, http://www.startimeintl.com/walkmen.html (June 28, 2006).
"The Walkmen," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (June 28, 2006).
"The Walkmen," Record Collection Music, http://recordcollectionmusic.com/artists_detail.php?ArtistID=1 (June 28, 2006).