The gas gauge was not the most precise piece of machinery, but when it was dipping below the big orange “E,” it was time to filler up. John downshifted and brought the car to 45 mph before breaking to a gentle 20 mph — then at 15 mph he cut the wheel right and eased into an empty Exxon station..
This is how Chapter Four of New York rockers the Walkmen’s novel, John’s Journey, begins — and, coincidentally, it is a description of the very sort of pit-stop singer Hamilton Leithauser’s standing at when he picks up his phone to talk to Rolling Stone.
At first, of course, fans didn’t really believe the Walkmen were writing a book inspired by life on the road — a sort of Kerouacian adventure in touring. “It’s like a collective, mutual experience,” Leithauser says of the tome, still many pages from completion. “Every single experience in the book is what happened to somebody earlier that day. [Bassist] Pete [Bauer] describes it as writing everything he did earlier that day in as much detail as possible — and eliminating any reference to rock & roll.”
This week, however, the band has plenty of rock & roll on its plate, with the release of their third album, A Hundred Miles Off. It’s their most mature, complex and even Dylanesque effort to date, and definitely not their easiest to lay down, a process riddled with writer’s block and multiple relocations.
“We started it at Marcata, and it wasn’t really happening,” explains Leithauser, referencing the band’s now-defunct Harlem studio, where they recorded 2004’s Bows and Arrows. “We were just not doing a good job engineering it. We’d been touring for a real long time, playing the same thing over and over again, and really got out of the habit of trying to come up with stuff.”
So the crew tried again at Inner Ear Studios just outside Washington, D.C., working with sound engineer Don Zientara (Fugazi, Minor Threat). “Inner Ear is like a D.C. studio staple,” says Leithauser, a native of that city along with his cousin, keyboardist Walter Martin. “Growing up in D.C., it was sort of the destination place for a band.”
In addition to the new focus Zientara brought, the group found fresh creative inspiration in their record collections, dipping into the Doors, the Pogues, some reggae and, yes, Bob Dylan — The Basement Tapes, to be precise. And to really shake things up, Martin yanked Bauer’s bass, forcing him to sit down at his signature organ.
A more layered, cohesive sound emerged, as on the hypnotic, organ-heavy track “All Hands and the Cook” and the single “Louisiana,” with its rambling guitar, a saxophone and trumpet contributing to a mariachi-style chorus. Leithauser got even more freewheeling with his lyrics than usual, as on the pop-rocker “Emma, Get Me a Lemon,” with its opening lines “Emma, get me a lemon/And if there are none/Get me a lime!” “I know one girl name Emma, but I can’t say it’s about her,” Leithauser says with a shrug. “I just like the way the words go.”
Renewed and amped-up, the Walkmen returned to Marcata to wrap their new album. That’s when they discovered that the building housing their recording studio was being bought out by nearby Columbia University. “If we wanted to stay they would make our lives a living hell,” says the singer, still ticked-off.
Facing eviction from its creative headquarters, the band started selling off its recording equipment and preparing to hit the road behind A Hundred Miles Off. The Walkmen kick off that tour this Wednesday.