Thursday, July 17, 2014

Interview: Peter Matthew Bauer Embraces Chaos After The Walkmen

Peter Matthew Bauer
Photo Credit: Matt Barrick

Last November, long-time favorites The Walkmen announced their indefinite hiatus, leaving behind 13 years of some of the greatest modern American rock music.

When the news struck, I can't say I wasn't surprised, but that doesn't mean it had no affect. The group's 2011 album, Lisbon, is one of my favorites of all time, not to mention the previous albums all shaped my perspective of music; the band released their first album alongside the arrival of great NYC bands like The Strokes and Interpol, but managed to hold their grounds as one of the city's finest (despite hailing from Philadelphia).

But in 2012, with the release of Heaven, the "human" side of the group really started to take form. Family members made their way onto the album art, and the songs began to feel more interpersonal. Thus, when the "hiatus" was announced, it seemed that the band was ready to step aside from music, and focus on relishing in this "human" side a little more.

But that wasn't necessarily the case. This year, three members of The Walkmen have released solo projects. Frontman Hamilton Leithauser released Black Hours, an album that contains some of the same character as The Walkmen's previous two albums, and echoes what the group was trying to
accomplish, but instead with more jazzy vocal pop and old folk influences, noting heavy influences of Frank Sinatra, Randy Newman and Bob Dylan, amongst others.

Multi-instrumentalist Walter Martin released a more family-oriented album, We're All Young Together earlier this year as well. Martin stated that he created the album with his daughter in mind - he began writing the album while his wife was pregnant with their first child, and the results clearly reflect this. There's even room for a novelty song, which features The National's Matt Berninger, called "We Like The Zoo ('Cause We're Animals Too)".

Where these two albums falter, it's The Walkmen's former bassist and multi-instrumentalist Peter Matthew Bauer who picks up the slack. His album, entitled Liberation!, focuses heavily on Bauer's religious experiences growing up, and translating them into brilliant, light-hearted pop-folk songs. I recently had the chance to speak with Peter about his album, and the transition to becoming a solo artist.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I made sure to tread lightly, when talking about The Walkmen with Peter Matthew Bauer, the band's former bassist & organist - although, as they progressed as musicians, the members all became multi-instrumentalists. This may be a sign of the growth of the band members over their 13-plus-year career, or it may have been a sign of the quintet grasping for thrill in a project that could have become trite and arbitrary. In an interview with Noisey, Bauer said, "My hope is that by the end of the year I won't remember being in The Walkmen." So I did my best to avoid the subject.

But I had to get one question in...

"It seemed like people cared," Bauer says when addressing my only inquiry that mentioned the words "The Walkmen," about how he viewed the fans' reaction to the hiatus, "but it was kind of fun breaking up the band.

"When you're in a group, you're constantly trying to play certain roles. Whoever is in the group, no matter the dynamic," he says speaking generally, "you're constantly compromising, which can be a good thing when you're young, or in certain scenarios. But in other scenarios it can be a really bad thing. It's not like groups don't work, because obviously they do, but leaving the group - leaving that dynamic is a very... very interesting thing.

"It's certainly [emancipating], but you're looking for life in whatever you're doing, that's the point of this stuff: you look for this raw energy to things. And... everything dies, y'know? That moment in time-- it dies off, and that's the case.

"I was talking about this to someone else, too. Where, you know those guys that have been in bands for like, 50 years - you know, those kind of "old-timer" bands? And you can see the physical deterioration in people who have been a proper band member for that long. They just look terrible. Like something has just gone haywire, physically; versus, you know, there's plenty of lifer [solo] musicians who kind of keep it together and things get better. So it's an unhealthy thing, really. A band is basically an art project- it's a project. You can't consume your life to it forever. And as soon as it stops being an art project, and starts being more of an organization, it loses the basic reason to exist that it once had, and it becomes more about feeding people... it has a time limit."

Bauer maintained a very light-hearted tone throughout our chat. He may have sensed my nervousness, talking to a key member in one of my favorite bands. But then again, it seems like that's just his personality... his album is filled with charm and humor, despite its overtones of religion and spirituality.

"I would hope most people on earth think about that sort of thing," he says laughing, speaking of the themes of Liberation!, "It's sort of a basic human idea, as people say 'Write what you know' -- you know that old hogwash thing? But it ends up being true, when you're trying to find a way to express something sort of universal to people. 

"This is obviously what I care and think about, the books I read, and things that matter to me. Those are my experiences."

But Bauer never admits to being as wise as he comes across, another reason I went in to the interview cautious to not get over my head. The opening track on Liberation!, "I Was Born In An Ashram" is actually written based around his life, as is most of the album. Raised by his family visiting various Hindu places of worship and study, Peter spent a lot of his "formative" years studying under gurus and an Indian astrologer, learning intricacies within the Hindu religion.

"Those are my experiences, [but] it's not like I'm trying to solve anything, or tell anyone anything, because I don't have any resolutions to anything that arises from it. But I do feel a lot better doing it, and a lot less angry about things of that nature.

"I've been really lucky, being able to meet sort of 'walking saints' and healers and all these people that, in a very strange manner, most people don't get to relate to. It's very [important] to who I am, I studied with these people that spend their whole lives trying to get to be, without feeling like a sort of disciple to anybody."

In Liberation!, Peter Matthew Bauer's lyrics reflect not only his beliefs and personality, but his process of writing as well. One of my favorite tracks of the album, "You Are The Chapel", Bauer plays up the charm and humor, singing, "I see you lookin' like Oasis / Why does anyone wanna look like Oasis?!". But in the same song, he sings "You are the chapel / and everything is wonder" after the chorus "Here comes the mystery of love / Yeah, I see the mystery / Here comes the mystery of everything".

"... 'You Are The Chapel' [is a] song that is supposed to be trying to haul as much information as I could come up with about disparate situations and trying to get at a very basic expression of something.

"It was just a different way [of writing], y'know, I'm not Hamilton [Leithauser], and he writes songs his way. In a band, you're in a support role to the voice; really, that's the idea, and that's what you should be doing - I think, anyway. This is a different thing, it's a different type of music, it's about something different. And I think what was frustrating to me is I like music that's about something specific, and it's very hard to pull it off without sounding kind of -- silly. It was important that everything was kind of trying to be funny even if it came off as something self-serious, or at least at the time it felt funny for a second [laughs]

"Mysticism and spirituality -- certainly not religion -- but that kind of idea is inherently a really ridiculous thing... and so is rock and roll - so is all music. And that's the most important thing to get to, y'know you think about some of the greatest writers who think about that stuff. Kafka is seen as this very self-serious guy, but when he was reading his stories out loud to his friends, they were all laughing. That stuff is supposed to be funny, all that shit is supposed to be funny; it's absurd. That's what you're aiming for, you don't know what you're gonna get out of it.

"In a sense I was brought up, and this is what I arrived at: you usually kind of go through a lot of things when you're frustrated with hierarchies and intricacies in cultures surrounding religion. But I do feel like my parents were bright people and I was brought up to try not to believe anything - to go past belief at all times. And that's basically the idea behind the record too: any belief you have, if you keep breaking it down, you get to something real. You get to experiences as opposed to beliefs. And it's a process of doing that over and over and over again, and one part of beliefs that I have - the sort of frustration and youthful antagonism towards spirituality. And that in itself is a belief structure, so you have to find a methodology to get your experience and your consciousness.

"It's kind of a normal thing, you know: "Heaven is a far away place" - but it's right here, right now. Liberation is not something that takes a million years, or all your life; it's not a goal it's a basic idea...

"But [the album] is also trying to make fun of that," Bauer says laughing.

When I spoke with Peter, he was on his way to Seattle, playing a show at The Barbosa with Japanese Guy. He'll play Chicago at Lincoln Hall on Saturday, July 19, as part of a Pitchfork Festival Aftershow, and a piece of their new live concert series Nightcap.

I asked him how the shows had been going, something I was honestly interested in: it's not every day you get to relate and talk with someone in Bauer's shoes.

"Good!" he responds emphatically, "you know, you definitely start from scratch, and it's a tough, tough, tough, road. We're driving endlessly, and just throwing money out the window. It's crazy... but a lot more fun. A lot more fun than something where you know what's going to happen -- you basically don't know what's going to happen next, which is a great feeling."

Peter now thrives in a state of chaos, embracing it almost as if he was meant to live in it.

"When we were touring with The Walkmen, you knew you'd get paid and you'd get a hotel room. Now I'm sleeping on an ant hill in like a desert [laughs] it's terrible. I wake up in the morning, basically wondering how I'll make it to the end of the day. But it's a lot of fun.

"With The Walkmen it was very boring: you knew what you were gonna do, you knew who was going to be in the crowd, you knew what people were gonna look like, you knew some guy was gonna yell 'THE RAT!!!" then you'd play 'The Rat' and the guy would still yell 'THE RAT!!!!!' and then you'd go home. It wasn't a lot of fun. But this is a lot of fun, it's a very different thing. All that stuff is a kind of formative experience, being in a group -- and then you don't want to go back."

Peter Matthew Bauer tours with a 7-piece band, which is made up of several friends, including his wife. The group still needs a name or a title, which Bauer admits:

"My wife and another girl sing with me. I think we're on the edge -- we've only played 15 shows or something -- but I think we're on the edge of having a really great band. The people in it, the whole thing, it feels like a band in a different sense. We're not a band, we're not all 20-year-olds trying to start a gang, but instead it's kind of cool: it has its own structures; there's a sort of anarchy to it that I like, politically, where everyone is there and trying to have a good time and enjoy themselves. It's a great group of characters. And I know it's my name but we also need to come up with some sort of backing band name, because they definitely have a vibe -- they're definitely not hired guns by no regard. We're really getting something going, and it's starting to be its own, high-energy thing. I'm excited about it.

"A lot of them are old friends. Some guys, Mickey Walker, a Philadelphia guy, I've been on tour with him since 2001 or 2002. Another guy Matt Oliver, one of our guitar players is from Austin, TX. We toured with [Matt] years ago, and kind of lost touch until making this record. And he ended up mixing a lot of this record. And Sky [Skyler Skjelset] is from Fleet Foxes, and I've known him a couple years and we've become really good friends."

Liberation! is the strongest of any member from The Walkmen's solo endeavors. It's filled with fantastic lyrics that achieve exactly what their author intended, and Bauer surprises you with a voice that pays homage to some of the great solo vocalists who only need one name; Reed, Dylan, Springsteen, et al. Somehow, Bauer has kept all of this a secret for almost 14 years, and if nothing else comes from the void left by The Walkmen's split, Bauer's Liberation! at least makes the absence much smaller. 

No comments:

Post a Comment