The Walkmen haven’t had it easy since their formation in 2000.
They’ve developed a devoted audience and cultivated critical acclaim, but unlike so many of their New York contemporaries, they’ve never been the ‘it’ band, and they’ve never had a breakthrough record rocket them to real stardom. They’ve struggled for almost every scrap of recognition they’ve received. But sometimes things just work out.
“Well, we got that new Fleet Foxes record,” bassist and lyricist Walter Martin remembers, “which we all loved. Right around the time it came out, we were trying to figure out how to make our next record. We were all in the van together, actually, talking about how we wanted to track [producer] Phil Ek down and meet with him. And then he called our manager that day, saying he wanted to talk about making our next record. The stars aligned, and we just did it.”
The result is Heaven, a gorgeous record that sounds like a logical progression from 2010’s Lisbon, while still wearing the influence of Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues proudly on its sleeve. Not only does it share a producer with that record, but that band’s leader, Robin Pecknold, lends his distinctive vocals to four of the album’s best tracks. “We did a long tour with them last September,” Martin explains, “and we became good buddies with them. Robin said that if we ever wanted him to come sing or anything, he'd love to. So we took him up on that.”
Despite Pecknold’s influence on the record, Martin says those parts weren’t written specifically for him, “but he really made them. He changed the parts a little bit when he came in to sound less like the Fleet Foxes, actually. He was amazing. He was so creative, and he instantly thought of cooler ways to do what we were trying to do.”
While Ek and Pecknold had an obvious impact on the sound of Heaven, other changes came from within. The band’s lyrics have traditionally been somewhat oblique, but this time around, Martin wanted to make an easier connection with audiences.
“Yeah, I think we were aiming to be a little clearer in our message,” he says. “There's a tendency when you're younger to just think that any sort of babble is fine in the context of a rock song, which, a lot of the times, it is. A lot of the songs I love don't make any sense whatsoever. But there comes a point when you've been doing it for a long time and you sort of feel like you're putting a hell of a lot of effort into all the music, so it feels kind of weird to have the thing that's really leading it, which is the lyric, not really mean anything. We worked hard on getting the lyrics to a place where we were excited about them, and also to clarify things, and to make them serve a real purpose in the songs.”
In Martin’s estimation, this new approach makes songs like ‘We Can’t Be Beat’, ‘Love Is Luck’ and the title track — songs built on “very traditional pop structures” — more likely to appeal to listeners who haven’t had much time for The Walkmen before.
“Definitely... it’s a little bit more of an open record, a friendly record, where people might enjoy it more than other Walkmen albums, just because it’s a little more inclusive of people. In the past we tended to exclude people, and stick in one part of the song that made people scratch their heads. I think we did that deliberately a lot when we were younger. I think we sort of got to a point where we were like, ‘you know, maybe we don't need to do that? Maybe it's nice to entertain people.’”
There are no guarantees, of course, that this album will contain the mythical ‘hit record’ that puts The Walkmen over the top. But it sure wouldn’t hurt.
“It'd be nice,” Martin admits. “It would make our lives easier. We do get good reviews and things like that, [but] it gets to a point where it feels like you're playing to the same audience over and over again. Like you're playing to a slightly exclusive club of music nerds. Maybe it's better to try to broaden your horizons a little bit.
“The musical inside jokes and stuff like that we've always liked putting in our music… it gets old after a while. It feels like we go to the same towns, and the same people are there, watching us do the same things. So it's nice to try to reach different people.”
Heaven is out June 8 through Inertia.