Rick Moody writes about and interviews Peter Bauer of The Walkmen

Rick Moody writes about and interviews Peter Bauer of The Walkmen

Rick Moody is the author of five novels—The Ice Storm is probably the best known. He’s also written extensively about music, including an essay collection called On Celestial Music and a regular column for The Rumpus called “Swinging Modern Sounds.” Here, he waxes rhapsodic about the debut solo album by Peter Matthew Bauer of The Walkmen, then interviews Bauer about his split from the band and finding a voice of his own.

Once upon a time there was a band of upper-middle-class kids from D.C. that had the true rock ’n’ roll spirit, which is to say that they had, in their stew, parts of newts, motor oil, tire irons, pearl-handled revolvers, and homemade acid. Someone had pronounced a curse on them, lifelong, and in their hearts they had fled to the border, and were hanging out on a bayou, listening to Cajun music, stitching up their self-inflicted wounds, waiting for it all to blow over. There were the faint traces of murder or madwomen-of-the-attic in their sound.

There is no reason that a band of upper-middle-class kids from D.C. should have been able to create this particular amalgam of influences, in order that they might resemble juvenile delinquents from the ’50s. But somehow they did. This band made two short recordings, EPs as they used to be called and are still sometimes, and these recordings were sludgy, incoherent, mean, and spooky, all the things rock ’n’ roll should be. Their singer could not sing in any conventional way at all, and he seemed possessed, or devastated, and could write a lyric that seemed effortless, luminous, and funny. After the two short recordings, this band achieved a sudden, instantaneous stardom, owing to the kind of label feeding frenzy that still happened occasionally in a decadent and delusional record business of those bygone times (the later ’90s). But alas, the music-buying public responded to this feeding frenzy with calumny—maybe it was the fashion-magazine spreads the musicians had agreed to. The band then made a long-playing record of negligible quality and parted ways acrimoniously. That was that. It was just one of those stories.

The name of this band was eerily suggestive: Jonathan Fire*Eater. The lead singer went off into a kind of semi-retirement that sounded not dissimilar to the semi-retirement of Syd Barrett (of Pink Floyd), an anguished and desperate retirement, from which he only occasionally emerged, often in states of impairment that did him and no one else any good.

Three members of that band, and two members of another band, all of them more or less acquainted from the Washington, D.C., world of private schools and privilege, some of them even related, then formed a subsequent all-star band (of St. Alban’s alumnae), and this subsequent band, using some of the money from the feeding frenzy aforementioned, built a recording studio, and embarked on a more professional model of making music. The name of this band was The Walkmen. This is a merely serviceable band name, it should be noted.

This subsequent band played fast and loud for a couple of albums, tunefully, but also fast and loud, and then they repented of this, and that was when they began to relinquish the one thing that the ghostly traces of Jonathan Fire*Eater entitled them to: a portion of the true rock ’n’ roll. The new singer talked down the fast and loud early period, described these recordings as less worthy, and then the period of kitschy musical nostalgia set in, when the veneration of particular microphones, and particular studio techniques, and extremely rare guitars set in, and it all became about a curatorial attitude.

Admittedly, this band called The Walkmen had bad luck. They ran through labels, they tried the patience of industry types, they were forever missing out on the big break by just enough that they could, as upper-middle-class kids from accomplished families, look over at excessively praised bands of their vintage and wonder why they too had not been able to dilute their own message to a point of expressive negligence and banality so that they could play bigger festivals and headlining slots from which audience members could walk out in droves because they no longer had anything special to say. Why couldn’t they have those things?

They dashed off incredible albums (like their track-by-track cover of Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats), and then labored over things that perhaps should not have been labored over, making great songs inadvertently, otherwise sounding, on occasion, punctilious, the aural equivalent of one of those hedge fund guys who gets his nails done every week and wears a pinky ring, and who also likes amateur boxing, and who once ran with the bulls in Pamplona. In late 2013, they announced they were on “extreme hiatus,” which is an example of the overuse of extreme that I have come to find denotatively irritating. It’s either a hiatus or it’s not, and it’s only in retrospect that anyone will be able to evaluate the adjectival qualities of this hiatus. While the band has gone to great lengths to say that they are still friends, and to reiterate that they have known each other for a long time (since they were kids), I am not sure that we should entirely believe them. I think that maybe they are interpersonally bored of each other, would love not to see each other for a good decade or so, and then the hiatus will end exactly when it is advantageous for it to do so.

The last couple of months have seen a rash of solo projects from the extreme hiatus. One of these is Walter Martin’s We’re All Young Together, which is a highly accomplished, heartwarming, responsible, respectable kid’s album. I am extremely glad for a respectable kid’s album that has one of the members of The National on it, and I am sure that this is a good kid’s album that many parents in Park Slope will want to play for their kids, but I am not one of those parents. Walter Martin’s album does not, in the main, confuse children’s music and rock ’n’ roll, and therefore it is not a record that needs to be considered further here.

An album by Hamilton Leithauser, the singer of The Walkmen, has also been released recently, entitled Black Hours. This is an album that is arrested, in some ways, in the mid-’60s, in a period of over-arranged, no-hair-out-of-place pop that we might associate with people like Tom Jones or Scott Walker or Jimmy Webb. It is an album of perfection that wants nothing more than to rectify permanently the lack of world domination achieved by The Walkmen. It is an indication of how hard Leithauser has worked at being a great singer, and to me, it is therefore aesthetically admirable, and expressively dead. Indeed, I feel like the single, “Alexandra,” is about Alexander The Great, merely changed to a feminine ending, and is, accordingly, a tribute to the idea of attempting to rule the world. For some reason, I can get no closer to Hamilton Leithauser than this: He’s good looking, he’s confident, he has a withering sense of humor, and his music reminds me of certain guys I knew in prep school who liked to torture underclassmen.

That leaves us, in the present ex-post-facto survey of The Walkmen, with the first solo album by Peter Matthew Bauer, Liberation!, which is the dark horse. Whereas The Walkmen were anal about vintage equipment and techniques, Bauer recorded most of his stuff at home, with whatever equipment was at hand; whereas Leithauser (and Martin) used a brace of guest stars to insure a professional result, Bauer played almost everything himself except the drums; whereas Leithauser has plumbed the love song in pursuit of his first solo release, Bauer has released an entire song cycle about alternative belief systems, religious cults, and the mixed feelings that you might have about them if you were raised with them; whereas Leithauser seems to want to secure his professional status, Bauer is looking for insecurity. He just started singing publicly recently, and yet he wants to be a lead singer on this album, with a neophyte’s fever to tell.

So, let it be said: Liberation! is the one album (excepting, arguably, the album-length cover of Pussy Cats) since the EPs by Jonathan Fire*Eater that has some rock ’n’ roll about it, the wildness, the discovery, the revelation, the dread, and it has these, it seems, because Bauer is the member of The Walkmen who on paper is least likely to make it out of his extreme hiatus alive. He played bass and organ! He didn’t sing! He didn’t write the lyrics! But here he is, in a state of high anxiety, attempting to disprove all those who might bet against him—in the process making the best of the three Walkmen solo albums.

This interview with Bauer took place in a vegetarian joint in New York City in May. I found Bauer nervous, excitable, enthusiastic, exceedingly smart, and withering on occasion, but always in the service of adventure. He’s enormously likeable, like a guy in a business suit who stumbled into your meditation class, thinking it was an accountant’s office, and decided to stay, just to see if anything would happen.

Rick Moody: Let’s start by talking about the title, Liberation! There’s a really obvious interpretation…

Peter Bauer: There is. I had to kind of bite down and realize I was going to take it on the chin, at least a few times. It was one of those things where the title fit the music and the lyrical content. Once you hear the record, it’s not as ridiculous as it would seem. It really relates to the quasi-religious/spiritual aspect of the album. And faced with the other options, I thought it was the funniest title. Whatever the most ridiculous option was is how I wanted to handle all decisions that were conscious. So I just went with it, hoping for the best.

RM: Could I force you to define “ridiculous” in that sense?

PB: Whatever was humorous or over the top, musically. There are certain songs, like [the title track] or “You Are The Chapel,” that I thought were sort of funny from the start. I have this kind of disco-y sound in “You Are The Chapel,” and the choruses are very big. Should I do this kind of music or not? How do I deal with this? Or is it just garbage? The vocal is dead dry on that one because I wanted it to be really loud. It’s funnier that way. It was important to just not be very staid. Rock music in general, what we’ve been doing in The Walkmen and the general theme of what’s popular, seemed very staid to me, and I wanted to make it fun. You’re out of your comfort zone.

RM: Which you’ve said frequently you wanted to be.

PB: It’s going to be scary. And then eventually you look back at the song and you think that it’s not that ridiculous at all. It’s just a song. But writing it, I was like, “This is going to be really funny,” and it just comes out as a normal song. Same thing with the title.

RM: As a prose writer, I was interested in the exclamation point.

PB: The reason that came up was because of Dick Swift, Richard Swift, who’s a record producer. He plays in The Shins and he also plays in Black Keys now and he’s a session guy, too, and he played drums on Ham’s [Hamiton Leithauser’s] record. I had him record the backing vocals on the “Liberation!” song and I was like, “Do whatever you want, and we’ll see if we use any of it or not.” So when he sent me everything back he kept putting an exclamation point on it and kept texting me “Liberation!” with an exclamation point. It stuck. It was making fun of the idea that liberation takes a thousand years or a thousand lifetimes and you’ve got to put all this work and effort into it and it’s this very linear process. That was one of the opening ideas. When you’re actually writing the song, it just becomes something else.

RM: According to that view, the song is ambiguous with respect to liberation as a project.

PB: Probably. The song started becoming about all sorts of weird mumbo jumbo that was floating around in my head. I was reading The Master And Margarita at the time, and I think that had an effect on it. I wanted it to be the one very polemical song on the record where it was going to be making fun of things and really aggressively making sense the whole time. And then every verse sort of fit and floated into some weird ether that’s just a little crazier. The original idea was that I was going to try to do these I Threes backups myself. There’s a song called “Destiny” by The Wailers; I was just trying to do that gag and having these very jubilant backups, with me doing it in falsetto. I’m actually still in there with the girls.

RM: Let’s talk about the singing for a second. You never sang on any Walkmen songs?

PB: I sang on the live stuff, I would do Robin Pecknold’s parts from the last record. Me and Walt [Martin] started to do that and so I took like three singing lessons.

RM: What about on the Harry Nilsson album?

PB: I didn’t sing on that either. It was this weird kind of thing, this group dynamic that gets in your head after however many years. So we had to break free of that in a big way to be able to write any music that was halfway decent in the first place. And then, as silly as it sounds to me, I had to find my voice. A lot of the vocals started out buried in distortion and reverb, and the demos of it are kind of neat. I wish I could have figured out a way to keep that, but as you change and learn how to sing a little bit you decide you actually want to be heard. I thought when I got into recording it properly—even though that means singing into a $60 microphone in my house—you clean it up to a point and it starts to feel more correct intuitively. A lot of this is just intuitive. Just running through it as fast as I could. I did the whole thing in six months, writing and recording it.

RM: So you never even sang when you were 13 playing in a band in the basement?

PB: I had a band when I was 13 before I met Ham and Hugh [MacIntosh], our friend who was in our old band, The Recoys. Before I met them I sang with two other kids and we had this really awful pseudo-Dischord ripoff band. I remember playing at the school fair and people being like, “You should really do something else. Do you like art?” And at that point when I met Ham and Hugh, Ham decided to sing and he wasn’t much better. But he at least wanted to do it, and I didn’t want to do it then, so I just played guitar.

RM: When you decided to do a solo album, did you ever consider not singing?

PB: I definitely wanted to do a record where I was singing. I knew that if I did learn how to sing in some fashion that there would be a whole feeling that came together with it. Or it wouldn’t and I would just give up. But it came together over two months, basically. I had some ideas, wrote some songs, and it started to work out. Songs that had a body and spirit to them. It took a minute.

RM: Who’s influencing you as a singer? One can’t help but notice how diametrically opposed it is to the kind of crooner thing that Hamilton’s doing now.

PB: I didn’t want it to sound like The Walkmen because you just don’t want to sound like something you’ve been a part of. But then also, at first you’re just putting melodies together and you’re just trying to get by. You’re just learning about your own voice and then it’s such a weird thing because it really is a lot more physical than anything, which is a lot of fun. The reactions of your body and breath and all that. It was neat. It was something new as a musician, which when you’ve done this a long time, is the best thing in the whole world.

RM: It’s an area to make progress.

PB: It’s like you’ve found a whole new world. It feels like this enormously liberating thing where you’re doing something that’s for yourself and you’re expressing something. The vast majority of Walkmen songs, I don’t know, it’s just musical parts. But this actually means something to me. I’m sure those guys all feel that way about everything they’re doing.

RM: So could you point to a singer that’s of interest to you?

PB: Probably early Bob Marley. He does things so quietly, but it comes across really strong. A lot of people have said that “Latin American Ficciones” comes off like Tom Petty, but I was trying to emulate The Stooges when I was doing that song. I wanted the guitar solo be ten times louder than the song, like “Search And Destroy” or something. It’s got the beat from “Wild Thing” and it’s a dumb song, and it’s fun to play. I think I got that across, but I wrote something a little too high for myself so I had to sing it as loud as I could. Maybe I have the same sort of range as Tom Petty.

RM: There’s a slightly punky quality to the whole thing.

PB: That’s actually the kind of music that I like. I don’t like the staid, caring-about-every-single-detail type thing. I can think of very few records in the world that I care about that are like that.

RM: Does that imply that the no-hair-out-of-place last couple of Walkmen records were frustrating to you in that way?

PB: The process of it is frustrating. I think that it’s cool what they come up with. The end result is neat. But to me it’s not my place exactly. That’s not my idea. And I don’t think it ever will be.

RM: Let’s talk about the lyrics a little bit. They have an alternative-spirituality weirdness. It’s as though this image of liberation is hardwired into every crevice.

PB: It’s hardwired into me, too. It’s hard not to write things about the spiritual theme. When I’ve tried to write prose, it comes from that angle. It’s a comfortable place for me, especially where it’s not spelled out. Like the first song [“I Was Born In An Ashram”] is sort of autobiographical in the sense that I grew up in an ashram and so it’s sort of about those experiences, but what was actually important writing the song was that growing up doing that or reading about other religions, other spiritual groups and everything, is that there’s always this dynamic between people having a real experience, you know? Even Scientology or something. Somebody got something out of Dianetics, you know? But there’s also always this undercurrent of scandal. There’s always this real darkness. A lot of people then dismiss something out of hand because of that. There’s a reason those things always go together. It’s all arising from the same field. So I wanted to have this very jubilant song that’s got this real experience in it. At the same time there’s this weird undercurrent to everything.

RM: Can we amplify the autobiographical aspect of this a bit? Your dad’s an analyst of some kind, a Jungian analyst?

PB: I think he calls it existentialist psychotherapy.

RM: Like Fritz Perls.

PB: He studied with him, I think. But he teaches; he’s also very adept at meditation. I grew up with a meditation center.

RM: Where was this ashram?

PB: In upstate New York. I lived in India when I was a kid, too. My parents have done all sorts of different stuff. They’re very Buddhist now versus when I was growing up. They were Taoist. They went to China, to work with Qigong master types. They’re interesting people. They’re very intellectual and it’s not hokey in any way. It’s grounded in very serious ideas. What I agree with them on, even though we don’t do the same thing necessarily, is that none of this has to be beyond your means. Whatever liberation is, it doesn’t have to be a big deal. It doesn’t have to be supernatural.

RM: You’re trying to embody the contradictions in these spiritual systems. Skepticism and belief might coexist.

PB: Entirely. And my personal skepticism goes into that. I just don’t have that cynical edge to me about these types of things. Where for instance, my wife got pretty mad at me because we went to see Amritanandamayi with my parents. And I think Amritanandamayi is amazing.

RM: The hugging lady?

PB: Yes, she’s the hugging lady. So you hug her and it’s really something else. She’s done more good than most people you’ll ever see on earth. She has this quality to her that’s really interesting. I have a lot of trouble dealing with the cultural aspects of anything, whether it’s Indian or Western or whatever, I buckle. I’m not trying to lead my own…

RM: Crusade?

PB: It’s not like I have an answer.

RM: I’m really interested in “Philadelphia Raga,” because it’s the first one I heard from the album and I really love it a lot.

PB: I think I did everything on that song except for the drums. Most of the record is just me and a drummer. I don’t think there’s much else. Except for women singing.

RM: How does the opening raga section lead into the body of the song for you? How did that come about compositionally?

PB: I wrote that song, a lot of it, at Disney World, the instrumental parts in a condo in Orlando. That beginning instrumental section was just completely out-to-lunch guitar playing. No thought whatsoever. Those were the two things I had up in my brain. The two parts went together in my brain. It was also very early, when I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was still sort of mumbling into a tape recorder versus feeling confident about writing a melody. So it was very natural. The words to that were 25 different experiences on top of each other. I tried to make them very specific vignettes. There are all these experiences floating around together. It definitely has a very negative theological bent to it. I wrote it with this massive hangover. There’s something to that, even, as stupid as that sounds.

RM: What does the whole mean? It’s like there are still traces of appreciation of raga tradition at the same time that the lyric runs in the contrary direction.

PB: This is going to sound pretentious, but the whole idea—and if you decide it’s too pretentious, don’t print it—is sort of like the Kafka story, “The Great Wall Of China,” where all you’re talking about is distance but in the end all you think about is scope. That’s the idea. Do you know that story?

RM: I do.

PB: Or like [Jorge Luis Borges’] “The Library Of Babel” or something. It’s one of these ideas where all you’re ever talking about is the impossibility of God, and then at the same time, I think it’s negative theology. I came back to this thing that I can understand intellectually. I also don’t think that you can remove intellectualism from what you’re doing. That’s dismissive. Rock ’n’ roll’s very anti-intellectual. As are a lot of things.

RM: Are these literary influences part of the solo recording for you? Were they part of The Walkmen?

PB: Those guys are all big readers. Ham, Paul [Maroon] definitely. Very big. Paul’s a Russian literature guy, he’s got a B.A. in it. He’s a heavily Russian-influenced guy. So, no, I don’t think any of us are your classic-rock stereotype people at all.

RM: As long as we’re on literature, can you talk about the “Latin American Ficciones” song? It feels like an episode from One Hundred Years Of Solitude.

PB: There’s definitely a general in there, so that comes from Marquez, but the reason it’s called that…  We went to Europe, The Walkmen. We already knew we were breaking up. I had words to maybe one song, maybe the raga song. So I stayed up all night on this tour. I really like jet lag. No matter what I’ve been doing, I get jet lag and I come up with something. So I’d stay up all night every night trying to write words to this song. I had this little apartment in Utrecht and I wrote that song there. Chris Colbert, who recorded the record—that’s how he became involved. We were sharing this apartment and I was up on the third floor yowling into this computer, and he’s just downstairs like, “Shut the fuck up.” But he’s also like, “Yeah, it sounds pretty good.” The reason I’m talking about this is because two of my favorite writers are Borges and Roberto Bolaño, and I know a lot of people don’t like Roberto Bolaño. Ham hates Roberto Bolaño. But I think the reason I like both those guys so much, even though they seem very unrelated, is because I think they have a sense of who they are. I think they come across as fully realized beings in every page, whether you know what they’re talking about or you don’t. So much about what they’re doing is creating this voice behind everything. And this is just what you’re after when you’re trying to learn how to sing. That’s what that song is sort of about. I tried to use some of the same mindset, or whatever it would be called, that those writers use in literature. And so I named it “Latin American Fiction,” and then I remixed it and changed it to “Ficciones” because it was stupid.

RM: So you’re sort of talking about the union idea of individuation a little bit. And that would seem to be integral to the whole idea of making this record.

PB: And then you get back into what the title actually is.

RM: And the name of the artist, for that matter. You used your full name, Peter Mathew Bauer.

PB: Exactly. I didn’t want it to have some name like an animal name, the trend of right now. And I couldn’t come up with anything. I felt like it would color everything way too much either way. I didn’t want to start a band. I just wanted it to be me interacting with people. So it had to be my name. Putting the middle name in, I thought it made me sound more like a serial killer than a singer-songwriter.

RM: Middle names are often the romance-novel trope in my business, the exception being David Foster Wallace. Let’s talk briefly, if you don’t mind, about the end of The Walkmen. There’s this long piece on Stereogum about the SXSW show, where you only played six songs or something. And that guy tries to sort of pin the divorce on that moment.

PB: He was just writing that because he was there. I didn’t remember that incident 14 minutes later. I was like, “Well, that sucked.” And then I just looked at the band and was like, “You guys want to get some dinner?” That was way, way early. It was February of last year, me and Ham were talking on the phone about it. He was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Fine by me.

RM: You were already to that point?

PB: No, no, no. At that point I had no idea. It was terrifying to me. I know that they were recording, him and Walt. I guess they were all recording records.

RM: He was already making a solo album then?

PB: I think so. I think he’d been doing it for a long time. I don’t know if he knew it was a solo record or if he just thought, “I’m writing another Walkmen record.” What’s the difference? So those guys called around and said, “Hey, we don’t want to do this.” I think long before he made that record it was like pulling teeth for a while.  Heaven was weird because it felt so, “Hey we all did it, we all love each other,” when it was happening, and then as soon as it was over… You realize it’s probably not going to go anywhere, and then it’s like, “I hate this record.” I like some of that record. I’m not trying to dismiss it out of hand.

RM: Was the issue internal dynamics?

PB: I don’t think so. A group dynamic can only go so far, and we had five people who were creative, smart people who shouldn’t be in a rock ’n’ roll band together. You take a band picture and you’re like, “This is going to look so stupid. Five grown men standing here taking a picture. Why are we doing this?” So we’d put kids in the photograph. “What’s the one way we can not look like complete goons up here?”

RM: “Goons” to you means five disparate people who don’t have anything holding them together beside the fact that they make this music?

PB: Exactly. I mean, we’re all friends. There’s no deep bond, beyond what you would get with anybody you work with for 15 years. Obviously you’re going to really dislike certain things. Music’s pretty easy to make when you’re doing it by yourself and you’re not worried about four other people. Otherwise, it’s one of the hardest things in the whole world. We’re all from D.C. We all grew up together in this environment of us against the world the whole time, and it’s very cynical. And we have a very cynical sense of humor. There’s always a real gallows humor to everything. We were so, “There’s no way this is going to work.” Of course it’s not going to work, because we all think that.

RM: But it’s still an incredibly influential band.

PB: Yeah. It is. We all got by. Five people with 10 kids got by, which is crazy at this point. Looking back I think we just had really high hopes. You get a little cocky about it. And it’s fine. What I like now is interacting with people. I feel very thrown into the world. And I’m excited to actually see what happens with other human beings. Crowds, other musicians, whatever. Life is really complicated, and you can jump into it… It’s hard to do that in this kind of group dynamic after a while. Not to say we didn’t do it at first. That first Walkmen record actually is an influence of mine in the sense that I thought about what was fun about that, and what was exciting.

RM: Is a hiatus, then, just what happens with bands?

PB: I think it was a natural ending. There were no punches thrown at the end. It was like, “That sounds great.” And then we played six months more. We’re like, “Oh, all right, let’s try to rake in some cash so we don’t all die in a gutter before our records come out.” It was all very friendly. Our last show was at the NBA All-Star game. There weren’t a lot of tears. It was good fun. I’ll definitely miss, like, walking around cities with Ham. The last show we played we just drank bloody marys all day and walked around New Orleans. It was really fun. I’ll miss that.

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