Sporting With The Walkmen

There’s a specific ring to singer Hamilton Leithauser’s husky vocals—such as a tea kettle’s alarming howl—that gives a pretty convincing indication of when his nipples have been twisted too far in the wrong direction.


Call The Walkmen the squires of gamesmanship if it’s a suitable sobriquet you’re looking for. They are the fair and the noble, displaying all of the buckling airs of virtue that follow along behind the footfalls of the regal. They are the aristocratic sportsmen with puffy chests, classy active-suits, and musky pipe smoke as their walking fragrances, who spend their afternoons with the foxes and their purebred troupe of scaring hounds. Their sporting is just and an equal opportunity is offered to the hunted. No hand is given and none is taken. It is one against the other on a level surface, with the advantage going to each who is witness to such a display of utter fair play.

So much can be sifted, like golden flakes picked out of a pan-full of pre-colonial Californian riverbed, from the choice of title for a record. In this case, it’s the New York band’s sophomore handiwork of Bows and Arrows that triggers the ontological corruption of identity. These greasy, high-order chemists of pulsating new rock ruptures no more have tailor-made smoking jackets and riding boots for every day of the week as they are active participants of a 19th-century hunting society. But they do seem like the types of old friends who, were you ever to cross them, would give you a running start. And they would track you in a gentlemanly fashion, lifting the strap of their half-filled quiver slowly over one shoulder—counting to 20 Mississippi before drawing back with the first arrow.

The record makes it sound as if The Walkmen have been handicapping a shitload of pursuits. It’s an assembly line chronicle of betrayals and letdowns perpetrated by friends and associates. When enough’s enough, they fill the air with carefully directed attacks. There’s a specific ring to singer Hamilton Leithauser’s husky vocals—such as a tea kettle’s alarming howl—that gives a pretty convincing indication of when his nipples have been twisted too far in the wrong direction.

Bassist Pete Bauer said that the character comparison and their generally dumpy luck with finding and keeping loyal friends wasn’t explored all that deeply when the album was actually christened what it was. But it works.

“I do have a lot of friends like that, but I’ve never really thought about it before,” he said on the afternoon the band was set to meet up with the suddenly meaningful Modest Mouse for a summer replacement tour. “That’s a good idea. It was just sort of a vague title Walt [Martin, organist] came up with. That was sort of the idea, though. And we needed something.”

The group of former D.C. boys gone Apple came out of the Lollapalooza meltdown with the most-prized indie rock tour of the tide, locking up with the Isaac Brock outfit that somehow finally got through to the numbskulls of big business music. The Mousers will now eventually be able to carry health insurance after 11 years. (Okay, so Wolf Eyes, the neurotically noise-tastic confuse-a-tron, scored a slot with Sonic Youth, but nobody counts to second place.) The Walkmen were already going to be playing tour off-dates with Modest Mouse to fill in the holes, so when the bottom dropped free from the Perry Farrell brainchild, there wasn’t much scrambling or panic to be had. This tour—through the rest of the summer—will be the final leg supporting Bows and Arrows, after which they call it quits and let the van engine cool to record a follow-up record.

“We were a little bit worried, but we figured we’d be all right,” Bauer said of the cancellation of the entire 16-city Lollapalooza tour. “Our booking agent had to deal with a lot of crap and he didn’t sleep for a couple nights. It’s too bad it had to happen; it would have been a fun experience. But it’s okay, because our fans aren’t big field people.

“ I think the shows [with Modest Mouse] are going to be great. We played a college with them a long time ago. I don’t really remember much from that show; I do remember they were nice guys.”
Together since their old bands, the barely remembered but memorably swirling almost-rans Jonathan Fire*Easter and Leithauser and Bauer’s group The Recoys, disintegrated in late 1998, the five members (also including drummer Matt Barrick and guitarist Paul Maroon) have known each other much longer. All but Bauer went to the same high school together in the nation’s capital. The strength of brothers—Leithauser and Martin are actually cousins—is with them and it never comes out in bickering or deconstructive ways. If a tiff arises, it’s of no serious consequence and it ends as quickly as it starts with the return to shitty homemade movies, chess grudges, and Scrabble competitions.

“We like to have an activity when we’re on tour. We have a video camera with us, and the other night we had a fake-crying contest. We also had a fake-laughing contest. We also make movies, but they come out a little boring. I think we’re a little hesitant,” Bauer said. “I’m a Scrabble fan. Somehow, just by chance, three people brought travel Scrabble on tour. We played the other day. They think that words they don’t know are out of the spirit of the game. They’re very close-minded. They complain.”

Even the sportsmen of the year can have a limited patience. When it comes to wooden letter tiles, a man and his temper are quickly parted.

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