Peter Matthew Bauer thinks a lot about music in terms of his health. Coming off a ten-year stint making music with his lifelong best friends in The Walkmen, he candidly admits that a creative relationship that lasts that long isn’t always the best for the creators’ psyches.
“In a band, you think you’re expressing yourself in a way,” he says. “And you kind of are for a while, you create this group and it’s exciting. Then after a certain point you’re convincing yourself that some organ part is like an artistic expression…I think even Hamilton [Leithauser, singer of The Walkmen] probably felt that way at times. Being in a group for that long is not a healthy dynamic.”
Today, Bauer releases Liberation! on Mexican Summer Records, and he deems it a headphone freakout, a sonic assemblage put together over hurried months of recording and reworking over the course of 2013 – something that, in a way, can also be mentally unhealthy. But right now, he’s okay with that.
Last year The Walkmen announced its indefinite hiatus and the Mount Airy-based Bauer was faced with a decision – was he going to make music for the rest of his life?
“I gave myself two months to write four or five good songs,” he says. “I decided ‘you’ve got to have a song with words and singing, you’ve got to learn how to sing and why to sing, you’ve got to create something that has a reason to exist’. And if I didn’t have that, I was going to do something else.”
Liberation! doesn’t miss a beat, revisiting the lo-fi sonic grit of The Walkmen’s early work but incorporating unique textural elements – field recordings from foreign lands, loosely South Asian guitar patterns – as well as references to places around the globe in lyrics and titles (“I Was Born in an Ashram,” “Latin American Ficciones”). The base beneath these exploratory notes is driving guitar rock beat on by booming, urgent rhythms – a sonic snapshot of a longtime band player at the moment he confidently breaks out on his own.
Tonight, Bauer celebrates the release of Liberation! by headlining Johnny Brenda’s; we caught up with him when he stopped by WXPN before leaving for tour to chat about his artistic evolution.
The Key: This is a set of songs where you can say this is 100% my point of view, versus when you’re in a band. How does that feel from a creative standpoint for you? To know “this is my statement?”
Peter Bauer: It’s much more satisfying. You kind of feel like you’re going down with the ship or not. It’s terrifying. You care about every stupid little thing than more than you ever did, more than with the band’s music even. It’s much more personal thing, a more exciting thing. With all of us, with The Walkmen in the past, it was like, well, what’s the most exciting thing you can do? Well this is the most exciting thing you can do. … Most 70 year old rock musicians seem a little dark when they’re band guys. But you know those guys who do solo stuff? They seem to do a little better in terms of general deterioration.
JV: I saw you were at NomCom. Did you catch Ian MacLagan from Faces?
PB : I missed him.
JV: Ah, he was so enjoyable. Very charismatic, seemed to be having the best time. And it’s just like, dude, that guy’s played with so many different musicians over the years.
PB: But that’s the thing, it’s a lot more fun. Not to say that you have to be in the “man in the world by yourself” type thing. But not to be in that weird group thing that seems to just devour humans.
JV: So the record has a lot of “big” moments. XPN’s Dan Reed was talking about how it had a Tom Petty feeling at moments. And even if it’s not outright anthemic, it’s a very driving thing, very tom heavy.
PB: It’s because I don’t know how to use a snare drum. [laughs] I wrote most song without a snare drum. Would make drum beats on a sampler and had a guy play them. They’re very un-syncopated. “BUM. BUM. BUM. BU-BU-BUM.” I figured if you put a limitation on it, like “this is going for the ultimate Caveman” record, than so be it. And then maybe the next record I’ll learn how to write more difficult drum beat.
JV: So when you were in those few months of “I gotta write these things” – you were layering everything by yourself?
PB: Yeah, I just wrote songs, demo-ed the whole thing. Especially if you don’t know how to sing, you get an idea of what you’re going to do before you go into a recording studio. But now I feel more comfortable. I feel like a singer now in a weird way. This is a big step. “Are you even a singer? No one sent you the membership card yet.”
JV: With the way the vocals on the record sound, I wouldn’t have guessed that you considered yourself otherwise.
PB: No, I haven’t sang a note before a year ago, only oohs and ahhs live for The Walkmen. I took a singing lesson to do that. That was the first time I opened my mouth and sang since I was 12. I did not know how to sing at all.
JV: Do you think that having the previous context with the Walkmen informed how you sing at all?
PB: I’m sure growing up with these guys informs every single stupid thing I do. But you kinda move on, you try to get away from it.
JV: One thing that I noticed, something I wasn’t expecting, is the global scope of the songs, the “world music” vibe for lack of a better term. Is that something you wanted to explore?
PB: No, it came in naturally. Like the “Liberation” song is like a bad fake accent, it’s terrible. [laughs]
JV: “I Was Born in an Ashram”, I think, works really well. I think it’s because it’s kinda more referential than sonic.
PB: The “Liberation” song I was kind of trying to rip off this song came with backups, and I thought it was really funny for me to try to do backups. I had a really simple beat on it, and my friend Drew – A.M. Mills – he came in and played that beat in like five seconds. He had one take and walked out the door. He was like “Let’s do a ‘Peggy Sue’ beat!” and when I said no, he said “Let’s do a Bo Diddley beat!” So he played the fastest, craziest Bo Diddley beat I’ve ever heard. It’s hard to pull off something that sounds wild, and I think that song kinda does. There were a hundred pianos on there, which was like mayhem. And it was in 120 degree heat. I’d still remember that forever. But the first song, I had a mridanga drum and Matt Barrick from The Walkmen came up and overdubbed those. It’s referential and kind of comically done, funny and serious. I wanted everything to be as silly as made it, but not come off as that. We have a harmonium but it’s a good harmonium part.
JV: One of the times I listened was on a pre Broad Street Run jog along Kelly drive. It’s good running music.
PB: Yeah, it’s weird music that’s jacked up, ready to kick butt in a lot of ways. I don’t really like dreary music. Or I like it, but I like it to be done well recording-wise. This is very saturated. Sometimes you make it that way because you’re broke, it comes out like that, very saturated and cheap-sounding. But then you overcome those odds, and it comes out, which is the type of record I really like. It’s hard to keep making those because you’re taking off years of your life doing it. When you have a shot at it and you can do it – time and history and everything lines up – then you can do it. I don’t think I can make another record in the same fashion.
JV: Since these were songs you had written year and half go and worked through quickly, do you have any idea about the next project?
PB: Yeah, recorded a new song with Brain McTear for the Shaking Through thing. We play three new songs already on this tour – which, they’re all new to everybody so it doesn’t really matter – but we’re pretty knee-deep in recording. I also recorded with a band, which is really fun to not pretend I’m a bad by myself. To actually have bass player and drummer play live, and a guitar player. It came out well. Which is something I was hesitant to do. But at the same time, I think if it was a revolving cast of people, with friends – as opposed to a band saying this is how it is – it is more fun, pretty cool. I don’t think I’ll have to do another headphone freak out thing. Which is nice. You run into trouble both ways. You’re giving up a lot of control doing that but it’s probably a little healthier.
Peter Matthew Bauer plays Johnny Brendas, 1201 North Frankford Avenue, tonight at 9 p.m. Tickets for the 21+ show are $12, more info at the XPN Concert Calendar.
Johnny Brenda's, Peter Matthew Bauer, The Walkmen