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Portuguese Men of War

The Walkmen used the simplicity of early Sun Records as a guide for their latest batch of songs.
Billy Pavone

New York rockers The Walkmen introduced their bare-boned vintage-rock sound on their impressive debut album, 2002's Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone. Refreshingly, 2004 follow-up Bows & Arrows was equally strong and contained eventual indie anthem "The Rat," which remains unquestionably their most lauded song to date.

But the quartet, whose members have grown up playing in various bands together since fifth grade, sometimes seems to get lost in the indie-rock shuffle. They are not dysfunctional, erratic or dramatic. On the contrary, and as far as rock bands go, The Walkmen are consistent, hardworking, and fairly normal: They release a quality record every two years or so, tour to support it, then restart the writing and recording process.

Dare we say, The Walkmen could be the Perfect Band?

Sometimes, however, people tire of being so perfect. Perhaps The Walkmen anticipated such an inevitability, as they seem to have pre-emptively approached their sixth album, last year's Lisbon, somewhat differently. Inspired by a string of trips the band took to the Portugese capitol, Lisbon was recorded over a two-year period between Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Dallas, a departure from their usual New York-based recording.

"The city of Lisbon gives us a feeling of hope," muses Walkmen bassist/organist Walter Martin from his New York home. "We've seemed to struggle in Europe in the past, but Lisbon has always been an exception — fans there have been so supportive of us." After the band wrote the LP's closer and title track as an homage to the city, according to Martin, they decided to "sort of optimistically name the whole record after it."

Over the past decade, The Walkmen have painted themselves as the sort of middle child of the fickle indie-rock family. While Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone and Bows & Arrows built great, splashing tidal waves of indie credibility, the mid-'00s brought diminishing returns.

Though 2006's A Hundred Miles Off and 2007's Pussy Cats — a track-by-track cover of Harry Nilsson and John Lennon's 1974 album — were both generally strong records, they rode considerably lower on the radar than their celebrated predecessors. In the period between the momentous hype brought on by "The Rat" and 2008's You & Me, The Walkmen gradually became overlooked and underappreciated. Basically, the group mirrored the all-too-familiar woes of a slighted middle child.

But the well-received You & Me restored some of that post-"Rat" buzz, which has now carried over to the new album. Lisbon scanned more than 13,000 units its first week of release and entered the Billboard 200 at No. 27, making it The Walkmen's highest chart debut thus far. Still, the band isn't reading too much into their renewed success.

"It's hard to say why Lisbon has been successful for us," Martin says as he collects his thoughts.

(It should be noted that the way Martin collects his thoughts is not with the normal moment of pensive silence. Instead, he sputters around, spewing fast strings of words until he finds a sentence that fits. In other words, he's a total Yankee.)

"I think people are just paying attention to us again because they liked You & Me, so we're back on the radar more so than we were in the past."

If The Walkmen have a trademark sound, it's one of intentionally rickety minimalism. They're often categorized as vintage garage-rock, but would more appropriately fit in the (so far nonexistent) genre of Living Room rock. The band's recordings are often so sparse they promote an aura of listeners sharing studio space with the musicians, but sometimes those listeners interpret that rawness as sadness.

"People have been saying Lisbon sounds depressing, but to us, we think the more listeners digest it, they'll realize that a lot of its songs are optimistic and pretty happy," Martin says.

While Lisbon indeed has its low-key moments ("While I Shovel the Snow," "Lisbon"), even presumed downer tracks like "Woe Is Me" — with its swinging surf-rock beat and singsong chorus — couldn't sound further from "depressing." And supposed loner track "Stranded" is confidently and deliberately wobbly, boasting full-on mariachi horn accompaniment.

Fundamentally, Lisbon symbolizes a dichotomy for The Walkmen. While it is certainly the band's most stripped-down record to date, it arguably doubles as their richest and most outwardly poignant. "We wanted to strip Lisbon," Martin explains, "and have its remaining elements make it strong and very expressive."

In other words, they made a whole lot of something from a whole lot of nothing. Lisbon sounds like definitive Walkmen but with a fresh flair, very much what the band had in mind.

"We began recording a lot of songs in Manhattan," Martin recalls of Lisbon's early recording process. "But we're a very tight-knit little group, and when we work with someone we know well, we get too comfortable."

While trusted You & Me engineer Chris Zane (Passion Pit, Les Savy Fav) began Lisbon's recording process in New York, The Walkmen decided to change course and finished the album with Dallas-based producer/engineer John Congleton (Modest Mouse, The Polyphonic Spree). Though one might think the sunnier Southern climate would affect The Walkmen's usual East Coast perspective, Martin claims the opposite.

"Writing is the heart and soul of what we do," he explains emphatically. "Ninety-nine percent of the album process is writing, and we allowed ourselves a year and a half to write everything. When it comes to going into the studio, we're usually very prepared to just record, so the setting didn't necessarily play a part in recording."

Instead, Martin maintains it was Congleton's influence and his "garage-y, minimal studio" that primarily shaped the album. So did a writing approach inspired by the '50s-era Sun Records recordings of early Elvis and Roy Orbison.

"We used the idea [of Sun Records] as a guide during our writing process. If we strip everything down to guitar, a simple rhythm part, bass and a big voice, then that makes us rely more on the lyrics, melodies and musical parts," Martin explains. "We wanted everything we used to be top-notch, rather than using old recording and production tricks — which we've done in the past and can be really fun — but we wanted to shift the focus a bit."

Of course, a band that places such worth on songwriting is bound to end up with a song surplus, and The Walkmen recorded nearly 30 songs that didn't make Lisbon's final cut. "They do sound similar to Lisbon," Martin says of the album's outtakes. "The songs we liked a lot are out there in some capacity, whether in UK or Japanese B-sides or iTunes-exclusive tracks. But there were ten or so that weren't so good, so we hid them."

Minus those "ten or so" tracks, The Walkmen generally seem to be proud of Lisbon. Martin claims fans' responses have also been positive — especially in Houston. One might assume cities and venues become homogeneous to touring rock bands, but Martin himself initiated chatter about the band's last trip here for a 2008 show at Walter's on Washington.

"That place...what's that place called...?" Martin wondered aloud. "Walter's, that's what it's called! We had the wildest crowd there that we've ever had in our entire career."

"It was insane!" he recalled with a laugh. "It felt like the building was going to explode. People were dancing on top of the bar, like something out of a movie!"

After the tour, Martin says, The Walkmen will take a short break before immediately reigniting the writing process. "We're writing again, and full-time," he says, releasing a sigh uncharacteristically full of hope and excitement.

"We're just trying to keep the songs coming."

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