I listen to The Walkmen, frankly, to feel charged: Tilting his tongue to Bob Dylan's cadence and intonation, frontman Hamilton Leithauser sings and slightly screams with this incredible drunk-on-a-street-corner exuberance. I rarely know exactly what he's saying, but I'm generally sure it's great. The organ, at its best, barrels through pedal points or wobbles like a warped merry-go-round score, powering through the holes between the drums and bass like a tractor trailer squeezing into a tiny metropolitan tunnel. All this to say: My favorite songs by The Walkmen are all exclamation points, all the time.
"In the New Year," then, is my perfect Walkmen jam: Leithauser is howling perfection here, breathless about married sisters and winning by landslides and a general rush toward ambiguous but definite better things ahead. The guitar masters this wide, reverb tone, billowing outward from a one-chord center much like those sported by the new great Scots of The Twilight Sad. And, of course, there's that organ line, unstable and inebriated, breaking down the doors and lifting Leithauser's air like a football coach after a comeback championship.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How far back does "In the New Year" date?
HAMILTON LEITHAUSER: We started recording it, probably, late summer—at the end of the summer or early fall 2007.
What was the writing process like? Lyrics first, or music first?
The first part we had actually was the big organ riff. And Paul [Maroon, guitarist] came up with that. Then we wrote the other parts, the drumless parts, together. Walt [Martin, organist] came up with the drum beats. Then Walt and I did the lyrics together, I think maybe last.
Is that the typical writing method for you?
Yeah, that's actually sort of a textbook example of how we do most of our stuff.
What's the songwriting process like for The Walkmen when it's not a textbook example?
Like the song "Long Time Ahead of Us" from the same record: That was a rock song we were doing for six months or more. It sounded like a big ... it was like Bruce Springsteen or something. It was this big, sort of manly rock song. We got sick of it. It just wasn't that charming after a while. Then we sort of abandoned it, and then we came back. It was lying around, but there's no reason it wouldn't go anywhere. And finally, one day, randomly toward the very end of our record, we were just playing. We thought maybe we should just try it with that sort of reggae beat and just do it really quietly. It just instantly came together. That was a very different process.
Is that textbook process how this band has written from the beginning—writing together or in small groups?
At the very beginning ... we always used to try to write together as five guys. We sort of laugh about it now. We tried to do that for so many years, but it just never, ever worked. But for some reason, I don't know why it never occurred to us to stop doing that. As five, we just don't get a single thing done. It's just a waste of everyone's time.
So, the way we get things accomplished is Paul writes 90% of the original first bits of songs, and he usually comes up with the initial musical idea. ... He makes recordings by himself. Or sometimes he and Walt will do one together. Walt usually does all the drums. So they'll do a thing where Paul and Walt will be playing, and they'll send it to me. I'll do all the melodies and vocals. Walt and I actually do a lot of the lyrics together.
Was the lyrical theme obvious when you first heard the music for this song? What sort of kernel did you start writing from?
Paul made a recording of himself playing that big organ line, and he had a few things on it. Then Walt came up with that big, banging beat. I came up with that melody. It just seemed to me like it was going to be triumphant. Just fun, big, bashy, everything's really happy sounding. I came up with half or maybe three-quarters of the words to the big part—probably like three-quarters or maybe more—just right off the bat. I had a lot of extras because it was just sort of fun sounding. You could say all this dumb stuff and it sounded really fun. Then you just go through and pick out the stuff you really like better than other things.
That doesn't seem like a precious process, you know? You're not sitting down to write a song about your dog when you were seven, or about a girlfriend. You just take the best of what comes out. Do you ever take the other route?
It doesn't ever work. You do it so many times over and over again that you always want to think, "OK, I'm going to do this one differently: I'm going to write about my friend." Or just something stupid. I'm just going to keep it to a subject and no matter what I'm going to stick to it. It just never ends up being that. I'm just not good at doing that. It seems like a lot of people do great that way, but it just never works out for us.
So what's this song about to you, thinking about it after the fact?
To me, it's just a really, sort of happy triumphant [song]. At first it sounds like it's going to be sad and a little bit sappy, but that riff is just so happy and big and bashy.
I was looking at a few versions of the possible lyrics to this song online. One says "Your sister's a medic?" Is that right?
No, my sisters are married. [Laughs.] That's a different sentiment, totally.
So, are you sisters married?
I only have one sister. She got married to my best friend this summer.
I don't want to read too much into words you sort of scrabbled together a year ago, but it's easy to imagine people hearing this song and thinking about America possibly being on the precipice of a new year. How do you feel about that reaction?
Well, it doesn't look like it's going to be such a good new year for the rest of the country right now. I don't know. A lot of it doesn't necessarily—you couldn't write it out and read it as prose. You couldn't really come to some conclusion after writing all those words. But I think there's just a tone about everything that's appropriate to all the words put together.
What was the biggest challenge in recording this track?
Getting the mix of the organ and the guitar in that chorus. For some reason it was so hard to do. It took so long. The mixing of it, we did it so many times.
I can see that, especially since the guitar assumes a wide, reverby character for this track.
It's weird because it seems like it wouldn't be that hard, because it's one of those things where you're just banging away. The guitar's really loud from the get go. When the band kicks in, it's really hard to keep everything, because the guitar and the violins in the beginning have a huge sound. You have to make sure that when the band kicks in, it doesn't just get smaller. So adding that, it was really hard getting it. The organ actually also has a really big, wide sound. You just can't quite tell mostly because it's not playing by itself. You do a whole mix, and you're certain you've got it right. Then you listen to it in a car or something and something's wildly off. It was really a pain in the ass.
Was that problem specific to this song, or is it something you've seen before in this band?
This is the only song that really has that kind of specific problem because I think it's really the only big, banging rocker. Or it just sort of bangs more than the other ones.
Did you mix this record as a five-piece?
This time we had engineer Chris Zane working with us. He did a few mixes and he did such a bang-up job, that honestly, he ended up doing all the mixes. We did a lot of them originally by ourselves. We had them all documented and everything. He was just doing such a good job that we decided to just re-do some of our mixes with him. He just made it so much better that we really have to give him credit. Basically, we were there, but he really did everything.
This song doesn't sound exactly like the rest of the record it's on, You & Me. How do you feel about it being the record's representative?
I'm glad that we had such a happy song be the first song that people heard. It's just part of a whole. The record for me just seems to flow from beginning to end. It might be misrepresenting if you're into like rock—loud, banging rock. You're not going to get that much more on the record. But it's with the other songs. It's not like a different world.
How has this song been translating live?
It's fun. It's so high singing it. You feel like Axl Rose singing it. It's kind of ridiculous. It's definitely a fun one to play live.
The Walkmen plays Cat's Cradle Thursday, Oct. 2, with The Little Ones. Tickets for the 9:30 p.m. show are $12-$14.