There is no mistaking The Walkmen for another band. With ragged melodies, vintage musical instruments, rattle-and-hiss production and caterwauling of lead singer Hamilton Leithauser, the quintet has forged a distinctive path in indie rock.
The New York-based band’s output belies faint traces of many recording artists ” Leonard Cohen, the Pogues and Joy Division, to name a few ” but precious little feels derivative about The Walkmen.
It’s surprising, then, that keyboardist Walter Martin downplays his band’s moody, mesmerizing dissonance.
“I say it’s traditional rock ‘n’ roll,” said the 34-year-old Martin. “There’s not a specific mood we’re trying to evoke. I think the sound of the recording can give it that mood. We record everything live. There’s a lot of room and atmosphere in the final product that we try to keep in, so I think that plays a part. It can make a happy song and a sad song have a similar tone to them. It just sort of happens.”
The Walkmen formed in 2000, but its members ” Leithauser, Martin, guitarist Paul Maroon, bassist Peter Bauer and drummer Matt Barrick ” have been playing together for much longer. Martin, Maroon and Barrick started a rock band back in seventh grade.
Years later, they generated buzz, not to mention a $1 million DreamWorks contract, as three-fifths of the outfit Jonathan Fire*Eater. But that group failed to match its hype and eventually disbanded. The Walkmen evolved when Martin, Maroon and Barrick teamed up with Leithauser and Bauer, both formerly of Boston’s The Recoys.
Martin said the musician’s closeness provides a unique dynamic.
“We find the same sort of new things exciting for the same kinds of reasons, so when a new idea happens, it doesn’t take that much to communicate to the other guys,” he said. “We’re excited about similar things, so that makes it easy.”
Wary of the expectations that dogged Jonathan Fire*Eater, The Walkmen steadfastly resist being pigeonholed. Its 2002 debut garnered critical acclaim and a 2004 follow-up, “Bows + Arrows,” produced a modest college radio hit with the raw-throated rocker, “The Rat.” But then came a gloomier album, “A Hundred Miles Off,” as well as a curious song-by-song cover of Harry Nilsson’s 1974 LP, “Pussy Cats.”
The Walkmen’s most recent release, 2008’s “You & Me,” marks a significant progression in complexity and atmosphere. Drenched in reverb and rife with haunting mid-tempo ballads, it’s the group’s most evocative record to date.
“We wanted to clear out a lot of the clutter and make sure everything that happened was essential to the song,” Martin said. “We let ourselves do what we wanted to do. Usually we feel a lot of pressure to do hard-hitting, fast songs. With this one, we decided to not worry about that, and sort of play the songs that we wanted to.”
The group also did what it wanted to with its profits. The Walkmen devoted all initial proceeds of “You & Me” to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
“We were so glad that we were able to do that,” Martin said. “If something like that could happen again, we would definitely want to do that.”
The Walkmen perform at 8 p.m. Saturday inside Meacham Auditorium at the University of Oklahoma, 900 Asp in Norman. “Phil Bacharach