Peter Bauer is debating a cigarette.
He is in desperate want of one and has been fidgeting since arriving at The Dead Poet, one of several bars lining Amsterdam Avenue on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
But Bauer, bassist for New York-based band The Walkmen, is making an earnest effort to quit smoking.
“If I buy you a pack of cigarettes,” he asks, “will you give me one and keep the rest?
“All I want is one,” he says with resolution.
It's a tempting-and clever-proposition that he's issued to others before. And as in other instances, it ends accordingly in his favor.
His Walkmen bandmate, vocalist Hamilton Leithauser, is also attempting to kick the habit, but allows himself a couple during the course of the evening.
“I'm not nearly as bad as Peter,” he says while Bauer fetches a pack of Camels. “He's been smoking three packs a day since I met him.”
Considering it's been more than a decade since the day, that's quite a bit of cigarettes.
It's also quite a bit of history. Growing up within blocks from each other in Washington D.C., Bauer and Leithauser, both nearing 25, often took cues from the older half of the Walkmen-guitarist Paul Maroon, organist Walter Martin (Leithauser's cousin), and drummer Matt Barrick.
Though those cues were various and varied, the most important one came in the form of music, where the five shared a vocabulary that included Tom Waits, Fugazi, Joy Division, Nation of Ulysses, Royal Trux and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.
“Most of the records we listen to now are things we've been listening to for the past 10 years,” says Bauer, who at this point is finishing his third cigarette. “There are things-music for instance-that stick with you when you're young, and that you develop an emotional attachment to. When you're older, it's different. It's harder to listen to something and care about it in the same way.
“Needless to say, I have a lot of trouble listening to new music.”
It's no wonder then that the sounds they've injected in many of their incarnations as a band were characterized by something of a classic quality.
It was there in the sound of Bauer and Leithauser's previous band, the Recoys. And it was also there in Jonathan Fire*eater, the much celebrated five-piece that the older half of The Walkmen were once part of, and that disintegrated in the late-'90s after what Leithauser refers to as “a weird sort of success.”
Leithauser's own band wasn't doing any better, though.
“We were so incompetent,” he says of the Recoys. “We were young and didn't know what the hell was going on. We got to the point where we didn't practice, but we'd played shows that were a big mess.”
Even before the Recoys broke up, Leithauser and Bauer approached their older brethren, who by now were focusing their efforts on establishing their own analog studio, an 800-square-foot space in Harlem that's now often used by fellow D.C. transplants The French Kicks and The Natural History.
The congregation, says Leithauser, felt natural, and the resulting sound testifies it well.
“We didn't consciously think about what we would do differently as The Walkmen,” says Leithauser. “But there was one thing we knew we didn't want, and that was to perpetuate the Jonathan Fire*Eater sound.”
Indeed, it's one of the many things they've accomplished successfully. Stripping down much of the over-the-top, sometimes agitated ramblings of their previous outfits, the five Walkmen create an aural setting that's more processional, at times darker and pensive, and distinctly more ethereal.
Punctuated by sparse, dream-like piano melodies, and by Leithauser's lax vocals, which have been justifiably likened to an early-era Bono, theirs is a sound that unravels in a way that is at once together and slightly disheveled.
So far it's served them quite well, and they've established enough of an audience across the globe to tour Europe every now and then.
“We like where we are right now,” says Bauer. “We're not signed to a label, yet we've managed to do everything on our own, and I couldn't ask for anything more. If I could predict that we'd be just as we are now for the next ten years, I would be completely happy with that.”
And on that note, Leithauser takes off for dinner with his girlfriend. Bauer heads home to meet up with his girlfriend (probably not before spritzing some cologne over the cigarette trail). And the box of Camels will go to a homeless man standing on 81st Street.
The Walkmen perform with Hot Hot Heat and the Thermals at the Casbah on Feb 1. 619-232-4355.