Back in 2012, New York indie rockers The Walkmen released arguably the best album in their career, Heaven, and soon after announced they would be going on an indefinite hiatus. Two years later, the band’s Walter Martin struck out on his own with a solo album made up of children’s songs, We’re All Young Together, which featured guests like Martin’s Walkmen bandmate Hamilton Leithauser, The National’s Matt Berninger and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O and Nick Zinner. The surprise success of the album ultimately paved the way for this year’s My Kinda Music, which sees Martin back in his “kids music” frame of mind after releasing the more adult-leaning Arts & Leisure in 2016.
Written and recorded simultaneously with another “adult” album—which Martin aims to release early next year— My Kinda Music brims with the songwriter’s playfulness and wry lyricisms, and also features another guest turn from Berninger. Here, Martin discusses what led him to writing music for children (and why he doesn’t really like performing for them), his relationship with The National and his part in their massive Grateful Dead tribute album, what caused The Walkmen’s continued (and possibly permanent) hiatus and why being a solo artist has its ups and downs.
Once the Walkmen hiatus began, did you immediately start working on your own stuff at that point, or had you been working on that previously?
I started working on it pretty soon after we finished Heaven, after the recording process. I had a lot of lyrics and stuff like that leftover from Heaven and the album before that, and I really wanted to try to do something on my own. I never really thought I would do it before. So I just started trying to write things that would make sense for me to sing. It took a while, you know, figuring out what sounds right coming out of my mouth. I was used to writing for Ham [Hamilton Leithhauser] singing, and I didn’t realize how different it was when it was coming out of my mouth. It seems very simple looking back on it, what I should have done was just try to write lyrics the way I talk or the way that I think and have jokes the way that I joke around, and try to be as myself as possible. I didn’t realize that at first, so I went the through process of writing a bunch of stuff that seemed kind of cool, I guess, but listening back I wasn’t proud to play it for people because it seemed kind of phony. So I started doing the songs that became that first record, and I was like, “Even though this is kind of goofball shit, it doesn’t feel phony. I’m cool with it.”
And was the intention to create an album of music geared toward children?
No, not at first. I realized quickly that I really wanted to have a lot of humor in it. Every time I put humor in songs, it started feeling much more natural. I had all of these songs and I was like, “These are all kind of funny songs.” They’re all sort of inspired by ‘50s, like Leiber and Stoller and The Coasters kind of music, which is something I was obsessed with. And I was listening to The Coasters, and I was like, “If you put this out nowadays, it would be like a kids record. Oh wow, that’s a funny idea, maybe I’ll make a kids record.” It was a nice way of doing my own thing. I’m not trying to be cool or compete. I’m doing a fun, weird art project.
So with the new album, My Kinda Music, it’s not necessarily aimed at children, but it still has the same playful spirit.
A lot of those songs were written pretty quickly after the We’re All Young Together songs were written. For some reason, as I’m writing other stuff, those kinds of things just come to me, and I think they’re funny so I just feel like it’s my duty to record them. I really get a kick out of them. I’ve been working on two records simultaneously. I’ve been working on this adult record; I’m actually working on it as we speak. I’m almost finished with it. But while I’ve been doing that, it was a nice sort of breather to do the My Kinda Music stuff. Even when we were doing recording sessions when I had the band in the studio, we would like 3 or 4 of my adult songs, and then 3 or 4 kids songs. It was just a nice little balance.
You’ve said that for this new album, you wanted it to be a record that somebody like you would find in a weird record bin. Do you think you achieved that?
I don’t think I was thinking of it that way when I was making it, but, looking at now, I like to think of it that way. I’m such a record-buyer and I just know the kind of things that I like to find. If I found a record that was made by some guy in some band I kind of like, and it has a cool cover and some funny song titles, I’m just going to grab that.
Can you talk about some of the collaborators on the album like Laura Gibson and Matt Berninger from The National?
Well, Matt sang on the first record, too, and we’re buddies. He’s just a really funny guy. That’s also true about reaching out to Randy Newman [On “Hey Matt,” Martin admits to Berninger that Newman was his first choice for the collaboration]. All the stuff that’s in the song is all true. I reached out to Randy Newman—two times—through my lawyer. I don’t know if Randy heard this or not, so I don’t know if he rejected me or his people rejected me. But anyway, I really liked the song, so I was like, “I’ll get somebody else to do it.” I thought I could get Matt to do it, but then I felt kind of bad not telling him that I already asked somebody else. Then I got really into the idea of the full disclosure.
I’m curious about your relationship with Matt and The National guys, because you were also a part of the Day of the Dead band, that huge Grateful Dead tribute project.
I’ve known them for a long time. We [The Walkmen] started right about the same time as them in New York. We toured with them. They opened for us very early on, and we’ve just been pals forever. Then I hadn’t seen them for a while, and I ran into some of them and they asked me to do that Grateful Dead stuff, which was really fun because I love the Dead. It was nice to play other people’s music for a while, and to just be a sideman, which is kind of great. I love doing that. I play on the new National record—I think, since I haven’t really heard the full record. Yeah, we’re just like old buddies.
So you were a Dead fan before that project?
Right, yeah. I mean, I love the Dead. I’m a serious, classic-rock roots kind of person. In high school, it was Rolling Stones, Beatles, Velvet Underground, so I was a little bit of a snob about the Grateful Dead because I was more into the Velvet Underground kind of stuff. I fancied myself a little, like, cooler. But then in college, I got really into the Dead. The Dead are fantastic, but it did take me a little while. I just had, like, hang-ups, you know? Once I realized that and I got over all those hang-ups, I realized that there is just so much great stuff.
There’s definitely a kind of stigma there, partly because of them basically launching the jamband scene, which has its own stigma.
A lot of that live stuff, it’s such a big part of their reputation. I just don’t love that live stuff. I love studio albums. The early studio albums, I think, are just as good as anything. But it’s funny how they’re becoming in style now. I feel like they’ve always been the most out-of-style band. I feel like you see hipsters in their 20s now and they’re wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirts and I’m like, “Wow, alright.”
When you were working on that Dead album, being a fan yourself, where there any songs that you were super excited to work on? Or maybe afraid to work on?
All of the singers sort of decided what they want to sing, and singers gravitate towards slow, Jerry songs, which is my favorite stuff too. So it was really nice to play so much slow Jerry. I think that’s the heart and soul of the Dead.
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