Their Mileage May Vary

Excessive mileage takes its toll on studio whizzes the Walkmen and their new album A Hundred Miles Off

With the MySpace revolution underway, an MP3 can land a record deal, but one thing hasn’t changed: Touring remains rock’s baptism by fire, frat hazing, and ritual scarification, all in one. It can make you an alcoholic, wreck your voice, dull your talent and, in the grip of extreme boredom, inspire some pretty odd schemes. For a solid year after 2004’s Bows + Arrows propelled the Walkmen from a minor Manhattan cult band to a major national one, the quintet toured, and toured, and toured.

The effects of so much mileage can be heard on the Walkmen’s May 23 release A Hundred Miles Off and at their upcoming shows June 12 and 13 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.

As lead singer Hamilton Leithauser tells it, the road trip to support Bows + Arrows somehow negated the same production skills that helped make that album a critics’ fave. “We hadn’t been in our own studio for so long,” he says, “that when we got in there, we didn’t even know how to turn things on.”

Now, for your average sonic tinkers, this would be no big deal. For the Walkmen, it’s nearly an identity crisis. This is a band that took the remainder of a major label advance from a previous incarnation (Jonathan Fire Eater, ’95-’98) and rather than spend it on cocaine, equipped its own laboratory with vintage equipment, christening it Marcata Recording Studios. Obsessive hours at this one-time Nash car factory in West Harlem lent the band’s 2002 full-length debut, as well as Bows + Arrows, an otherworldly but distinctly retro aura, reflecting a sonic mastery rare for rock bands.

“It was just dreadful,” says Leithauser of the first recording the band attempted after its early-’05 homecoming. “I mean it was horrible, just dull. I think it’s one of the worst recordings we’ve ever made, and that’s including stuff from high school.”

Having grown up together in Washington, DC (Leithauser and bassist Walter Martin are cousins), the band turned to Don Zientara, the sound engineer for Minor Threat, Fugazi, and Shudder to Think. The result, A Hundred Miles Off, sounds looser than the band’s previous releases. The Walkmen sound like they’re having fun, maybe for the first time.

“They are more relaxed on this record and it’s because they didn’t have to push all the buttons and twist all the knobs,” says Zientara. “I wanted them to just feel comfortable singing and playing.”

Not that the Walkmen gave up all that much ground. “Every little part of every song was looked at by every member,” Zientara recalls of the sessions. “We looked at each piece under the microscope, then backed away and looked at it under a telescope. That’s the way they are — they can’t get away from thinking about it like engineers.”

But the album does sound different. The band’s previous records lend themselves to the critical gimmick of genre-melding metaphor — say, “like a British post-punk band tumbling through a time-warp into Tin Pan Alley” — but A Hundred Miles Off is harder to pin down. As ever, it features reverb-soaked guitars, but also examples of hardcore punk, Mexican horns, and Caribbean vibes. The drums are more turbulent than before and the whole palette is somehow rustier and rootsier. The sum of the new sound can be called “folksy,” an effect signaled by something new in Leithauser’s already grainy vocals: a Dylanish frayed edge.

“[Dylan’s] always been one of our favorites, so it’s always on the brain,” Leithauser says. “My voice got a lot scratchier, probably from all the touring. I can’t make it not scratchy anymore. It’s kind of a shame — I hope I’m not getting permanent damage.”

This fatigue in Leithauser’s voice is a living symbol for the new album’s themes, which reflect long days, a panorama of locales, and a distinct jitteriness about relationships. The Southern idyll of the title track’s lyrics (Crossing through Tennessee/watching the sunrise/thinking about a dream) and the blurry stumble of “Lost in Boston” (A hundred thousand blinking lights/making me exhausted) sound like entries in a tour diary.

Fortunately for them, the band didn’t make it through the Bows + Arrows tour without learning some tricks to pass the time. For one thing, the Walkmen began writing a novel. Bassist Walter Martin, keyboardist Pete Bauer, guitarist Paul Maroon and drummer Matt Barrick each take turns writing a chapter. “It’s a great way to kill time because it takes so long and you can do anything you want with it,” says Leithauser of John’s Journey, now on page thirty.

On the road, the band was also inspired to record its own rendition of Pussy Cats, the 1974 collaboration between John Lennon and quirky singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson. “It was one of the only things there was mutual agreement that we could all listen to,” Leithauser says. The band’s song-by-song redux, now completed and due out this fall, is the final recording done at Marcata, which was closed April 1 by its landlord, Columbia University.

“It’s a really fun party record, so it seemed like it would be a fun one to cover,” said Leithauser. “It’s kind of a way to kill time, and then you realize that you’d rather be doing that than anything else, sort of like the novel.”

Though Barrick and Maroon have moved to Philadelphia since the last tour, the Walkmen are once again breathing down each other’s necks in the tour van. Leithauser seems grateful to the band’s new penchant for creative diversion: “It keeps you, momentarily, from drinking yourself to death.”

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