It’s been over a decade since The Walkmen first got together in a Harlem recording space, the group of D.C.-area high-school friends reconvening to pick up the pieces of the recently disbanded Jonathan Fire*Eater and The Recoys and figure out their next step. And it’s tempting to read as significant that the first song they ever worked on was “We’ve Been Had,” a tune that encapsulated their warm, vintage aesthetic and ragged dignity, its tinkling upright piano line an ironic counterpoint to Hamilton Leithauser’s declaration that he didn’t “care much for the retro image.” Lyrically, too, it sounded like the shrugging declaration of kids who’d already been chewed up by New York, but were now older, wiser, and learning to live in the moment. In short, it resembled a mission statement when it first turned up on The Walkmen’s self-titled 2001 EP, then again as a standout on the group’s 2002 full-length debut, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone. (In January, the band will celebrate the 10th anniversary of Everyone with its first-ever vinyl release, plus special shows in Chicago and San Francisco.)
Not that Leithauser—or anyone in the group—particularly thinks of it that way. Presented with that interpretation, he simply offers, “That makes sense. I like that,” while agreeing that, yes, it’s “probably autobiographical.” He also allows that it’s possible the implicit diss to the “go-go” maybe had something to do with the omnipresent mod revival at the turn of the millennium, or that “when we were younger, we did all sorts of Stooges covers and garage rock, so maybe it was just a moving on, kinda...” In truth, neither Leithauser nor the song’s main co-writer, pianist/guitarist Paul Maroon, say they think too deeply about meaning, preferring to let the music dictate the direction, and reveling more in the little flourishes of “We’ve Been Had” than anything like significance. “It’s got a lot of details, which is nice,” Maroon says, simply. ”Sometimes our songs don’t have details.” And Leithauser shrugs, “It’s just another song."
In even more truth, we also caught them on a bad day for doing much deep thinking at all. When we visited them at Phil Ek’s studio—where the band is both recording and crashing while working on its forthcoming album—they had all just come off a 3 a.m., alcohol-induced “noise jam” session that Leithauser described as “the loudest thing I have ever heard.” They all looked worse for wear, though were also sheepishly apologetic about it. Asking them to recall specifics on why they wrote such-and-such lyric 12 years ago was kind of a cruel wake-up call.
But when it came to performing, they delivered and then some, warming up with a set of covers that included Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Tonight Will Be Fine” before finally knocking out the performance above. When it was all over, Leithauser and guitarist Peter Bauer insisted we walk up the road with them to the coffee stand they’d been talking about all morning, which was staffed—just as they’d promised—by a teenaged girl wearing nothing but her bra and panties, standing in the middle of a Pacific Northwest winter. It was weird and unexpected, and (later) it made us laugh out loud, but who can say what the significance was? It was just a good memory.
And then The Walkmen got back to work.