Before and after The Strokes

The Walkmen's earlier selves paved the way for the New York garage rock scene
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

MTV viewers will surely be familiar with "The Rat", the tempestuous single from The Walkmen's Bows + Arrows album. It's a tasty number, with Paul Maroon's panicky guitar and Matt Barrick's disgruntled drumming propelling Hamilton Leithauser's bellowing vocals to stormy effect. Are The Walkmen really as antagonistic as it suggests? "Oh, definitely," says Maroon, grinning: "You got a problem with that?"

MTV viewers will surely be familiar with "The Rat", the tempestuous single from The Walkmen's Bows + Arrows album. It's a tasty number, with Paul Maroon's panicky guitar and Matt Barrick's disgruntled drumming propelling Hamilton Leithauser's bellowing vocals to stormy effect. Are The Walkmen really as antagonistic as it suggests? "Oh, definitely," says Maroon, grinning: "You got a problem with that?"

Three fifths of the band - Maroon, Barrick and the organist Walter Martin - were, from 1995 to 1998, in the most talked-about band in New York before The Strokes: in fact, Jonathan Fire*Eater were The Strokes that blew it.

The five-piece came from Washington DC, but there was a definite New York flavour to their well-tailored rock'n'roll clatter. And they looked the part, with their winkle-pickers, sharp shirts, and serious cheek bones. But things went awry. Having caused a buzz with their 1997 mini-album, Tremble Under Boom Lights, they were snapped up by DreamWorks. By the time of their debut album proper, though, Wolf Songs for Lambs, things had started to sour. The album proved a tough sell, and more ambiguous "personal problems" started to rear their heads. As one commentator put it, JF*E's lifespan was nasty, brutish and short. "That's about right, but it wasn't that short," says Martin. "It kind of dragged on..."

They cut their losses and were joined in 2000 by Leithauser and bassist Peter Bauer. Having arguably laid the ground for The Strokes, The Walkmen became caught in The Strokes' slipstream. "It's something we can deal with," Martin says, "but it makes it hard to be your own entity."

Barrick's early-U2-ish drumming aside, they don't quite fit the oft-suggested comparisons with Eighties rockers such as U2, The Pixies and The Cure. "We're more Sixties rock," says Leithauser. "We listen to it constantly and it's what we're always talking about. At every band practice we're trying to rip off Bob Dylan or Velvet Underground or something like that."

So how did so young a band (all in their mid-twenties) became so downbeat and downright spiky? "It's a safety thing," says Bauer, "so we don't get our hopes up. And kind of a humour thing. I mean, we're always optimistic before we go on stage. None of us says, 'We're going to be terrible tonight,' and means it."

They're signed to Warners now, and "The Rat" is doing well for them. Surely success will perk them up? "I think we'd be shocked beyond belief if that happened," says Maroon. "Our whole mindset goes counter to that. I don't think we'd be able to handle it. I think I'd just become a drug addict or something.".

'Bows + Arrows' is out now on Record Collection/Warner Bros; the single 'Little House of Savages' is out on 28 June. The Walkmen play King Tut's, Glasgow, on Friday, then tour to Birmingham, Brighton, Nottingham, Manchester, London and Glastonbury ( www.bowsandarrows.net)

Comments