Shifting gears 

Off the road, The Walkmen battle songwriter's block

click to enlarge Lunch, it appears, is no match for The Walkmen.
  • Lunch, it appears, is no match for The Walkmen.

For Hamilton Leithauser, singer/guitarist with The Walkmen, his band exists in two separate worlds.

"The touring mode and the songwriting mode, for us, they're just polar opposites," he says. "[Touring] is just like trying to give it your all and keep it a little entertaining for yourself, because night after night, it's just intolerable. Once you do that for two years, like we did, you go back and you try to come up with a new song, you're so used to playing your instrument in this exact way, that doing something new, it's just like [having] to shift gears completely."

Coming into the band's new CD, A Hundred Miles Off, The Walkmen might have wanted to check their creative transmission.

"It took us six months to write a single song," Leithauser says. Once that first song, "Don't Get Me Down (Come On Over Here)," came together, the songwriting process started to roll.

Had The Walkmen not recovered their writing touch, it would have severely disappointed fans who viewed their 2002 arrival as a silver lining to the collapse of one of the best Washington, D.C.-area bands to emerge in the mid-1990s: Jonathan Fire*Eater.

Three members of The Walkmen keyboardist Walter Martin, guitarist/keyboardist Paul Maroon and drummer Matt Barrick were in Jonathan Fire*Eater, which in 1997 landed a seven-figure major-label deal with DreamWorks Records, only to break up a year later.

"The timing makes it seem like it had something to do with the record label," says Leithauser, a friend of Martin's since childhood. "But it was really just coincidence. It had been coming for a long, long time. It just happened when they started doing well, they decided they hated each other too much to continue. It was a real shame."

Leithauser and Walkmen bassist Peter Bauer, meanwhile, were in The Recoys, a band that broke up around the same time as Jonathan Fire*Eater.

Following the demise of Jonathan Fire*Eater, Martin, Maroon and Bauer decided to form a new band and recruited Leithauser and Bauer to form The Walkmen.

In 2002, The Walkmen's debut CD, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone, arrived to considerable acclaim. The 2004 follow-up, Bows & Arrows, was even better, more confident and cohesive. Continued touring, a growing stack of enthusiastic reviews and appearances on "The O.C." and "Late Night with David Letterman" raised the band's profile considerably.

It was against this backdrop that work on A Hundred Miles Off began. With a sound that at times evokes, but doesn't imitate, early Bob Dylan ("All Hands and the Cook") and the Velvet Underground ("Danny's at the Wedding"), two rock legends who Leithauser admits are major influences on the band, A Hundred Miles Off is an evocative work.

The Walkmen's live set is already peppered with the new material, which Leithauser says takes on a slightly more straightforward sound in concert.

"You try to imitate the record as much as possible," Leithauser says, noting that some of the echoing sonics of A Hundred Miles Off can be duplicated live. "But, yeah, I guess there really are things you can't do. I think live, it's a lot more direct and in your face."


The Walkmen with Mazarin and Sybris

Gothic Theatre, 3263 S. Broadway, Englewood

Monday, June 5, 9 p.m.

Tickets: $13-$15, 16-plus; visit nipp.com.


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