The two years since the Walkmen released their critically hailed second album, Bows + Arrows? Pure joy. The New York City band enjoyed every bit of a lengthy world tour, and along the way, the five members—singer-guitarist Hamilton Leithauser, guitarist Paul Maroon, bassist Walter Martin, drummer Matt Barrick, and keyboardist Pete Bauer—figured out the exact artistic direction in which to steer the group. Returning to Manhattan a tighter, more focused unit with tons of song ideas at the ready, the quintet immediately entered its Harlem recording studio and quickly bashed out its third album, A Hundred Miles Off, in a blur of creative inspiration and ease.
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Or that's the "happy dream sequence" version of events. The reality, as the gregarious Leithauser relates over the phone from his New York apartment, was something else entirely. "It was a total nightmare," he laughs as he waters his plants on the morning of the album's release—a day he repeatedly questioned would ever arrive.
"Basically what happened was we got cornered into touring for far longer than we should have," Leithauser explains. One can hardly blame the band for wanting to build on the buzz that surrounded Bows + Arrows, which staked a stylish, occasionally brooding midpoint between the scruffy chug of the Strokes and the foggy, wide-screen atmospherics of Interpol. But, the singer admits, the excitement and promise of the moment waned long before their van's odometer had logged all that many miles.
"The whole second half of the tour I'd be thinking, 'Hmm, where am I gonna go for dinner?' while I was up there playing. And then when we finally got back home, it had been so long since we'd written a song that we just couldn't do it. You try to write new songs and . . . you know exactly what everyone's trying to do. You feel predictable, and then it gets worse because everyone's trying so hard to do something different and not play the old songs. It was really awkward and it got pretty depressing."
Over four months in the studio, the band attempted every method possible to jump-start the writing process. "At one point, we were doing a dub-reggae version of one of the songs, like full-on King Tubby with all the weird sounds. It was fun, and we thought it was a good way to get things going, you know? But then we finished and listened back to it and were like, 'What the fuck were we thinking?!?'"
Frustrated almost to the point of giving up, the fivesome scrapped the sessions and decamped to Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, Va. Leithauser, a native of nearby Washington, D.C., had interned there during his mid-'90s high-school years, and owner/engineer Don Zientara (known for his work on Minor Threat, Fugazi, and Jawbox albums) is a longtime friend of Leithauser's father. With Zientara's encouragement, the album steadily fell into place as the Walkmen ultimately chose to retain the hazy jangle of its predecessor while lightening and brightening the mood in spots. On breezy opener "Louisiana," for instance, Leithauser plants his raspy, nasal croon over casual, reverbed guitars in a way that suggests Bob Dylan guesting on a Luna tune, at least until the mariachi horns and piano tinkles whisk the whole thing away to a south-of-the-border beach party. The band revisits that easygoing, summery vibe on "Brandy Alexander" and "Good for You's Good for Me" (a brilliant nod to late-'80s New Zealand guitar-pop), but slips into rainy-night-in-the-big-city territory on "Danny's at the Wedding," the organ-painted "All Hands and the Cook," and slinky closer "Another One Goes By."
Listening to the disc, you'd never guess the immense trepidation that went into its creation—A Hundred Miles Off plays like the product of an exceptionally confident, self-assured band, which, Leithauser says, is how the Walkmen are living these days. "I feel great about everything right now," he enthuses, "and we've got a lot of new songs written already for the next record, so luckily for us we're ahead of ourselves. I never wanna go through that hell again!"