Walking Beyond the Walkmen: Peter Bauer Starts Over
The former bassist of the Walkmen launches his career as a solo artist with 'Liberation!' and we have the premiere of his new video for "Philadelphia Raga."
Down one of those Philadelphia streets that looks like it should be an alleyway, Peter Matthew Bauer—formerly known as Pete Bauer of the Walkmen—has found refuge in an Irish pub called Fergie's. It took a while to get here. To Fergie's itself, sure, because on this early Saturday in March, Philly has this thing going on called the Philadelphia Flower Show, which is apparently the world's largest indoor exhibition of, you know, flowers, and which clogs up Center City to the point that there are hour-long waits at restaurants at three in the afternoon, which is exactly the kind of thing that is more annoying when you have to put up with it in Philly. Driving a tour van through such conditions is not optimal, so that took some time.
But it took awhile to arrive here, to here—here—to this conversation, with Pete Bauer talking to me about becoming Peter Matthew Bauer, the solo artist, about to release his first bit of new music since the Walkmen disbanded, a record called Liberation!. There were those months of dealing with people realizing the Walkmen, the legendary New York City band that were among those that defined the culture of indie rock in the aughts, were finished. And now he's here, meditating on the process of starting a second career at the age of 35.
Bauer, typically a fast talker anyway, seems anxious. Maybe it's the pressure he feels from trying to make going solo a success, but it's probably the fact that this evening, he'll perform only the fourth show or so as a frontman. So dude has a right to be nervous. Going solo is not an easy task—and his doing, along with ex-Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser's doing the same, might be challenged by aging fans.
But Bauer hopes for something different. Liberation! has little to nothing to do with the past decade of his life, and everything to do with what came before. Opening with "I Was Born In An Ashram," the record reaches back to when Bauer's family would visit various ashrams—in India as well as in America—when he was a child. As a young man, he spent time with various gurus, and later studied under an old Indian astrologer who taught him the intricacies of Hindu philosophy and how to read and interpret a Hindu astrological calendar. He may understand and practice astrology, but he's deeply skeptical of it and religions as a whole. Instead, Bauer came out of an intensely religious upbringing but has formed his own worldview by combining elements of Eastern philosophy with intellectual agnosticism and Jungian psychology. His roots are still part of his being, though, to the point that he reads people's astrological calendars as a side job.
"It's definitely the subject of this record," Bauer allows as a Guinness is placed in front of him. An Irish folk band fiddles incredibly loudly in the corner. "I put it in because the general subject is something that really is important to me."
A week later, I meet with Bauer in Austin at SXSW. It's barely 5 PM, but Sixth Street has already turned into a drunken apocalypse: people walking through the road, stepping over garbage at the curb, slurring their orders for street sausages. Bauer's set is at Buffalo Billiards, a place that's weirdly massive, a different vibe than New York or Philly, littered with a dozen or so pool tables. Bauer's set is upstairs, performing at one of the multiple bars in the joint.
Above is the Noisey Premiere of Peter Matthew Bauer's video for "Philadelphia Raga."
In a pre-show ritual, Bauer has placed a ziploc bag on one of the tables in the bar, and begins pulling out hair products. He takes something he calls "hair cocaine"—because it smells and feels like coke, and makes your hair stand up—and works it liberally into his dark hair, forcing it to pop up. His bandmates whir around him. Visibly nervous, he keeps checking to see how many people have shown up. This is his third show in as many nights, and he's also excited. I'm reminded of something he said the previous week in Philly: "I want this whole thing to be terrifying. And I want the next thing I do to be terrifying. I want that quality of not knowing what's going to happen."
This is a recurring theme in the various conversations I've had with Bauer. He keeps comparing the "meticulousness" of the Walkmen's latter days with how he does things now. Having recorded much of Liberation! in a factory space in Philly's industrial Port Richmond neighborhood, and performing live sets that are sweatier and rawer and more shambolic than anything the Walkmen approached towards the end of their run, it's clear Bauer prizes a little bit of messiness in this new phase. At Buffalo Billards, he takes the stage dressed in a three-piece black suit, with a tieless and unbuttoned white dress shirt, like he's seeking out some intangible classic sense of rock music that's always on the verge of breaking down. He's chasing that feeling of things on the edge—and now he plays songs that sound like it, too.
Liberation! was born from a place of desperation and frustration, Bauer tells me back in Philly over that same Guinness. Much of it written in a five-month period last year, starting while the Walkmen were touring Europe in support of 2012'sHeaven, the band's final record.
"I wrote the songs out of forced sleep-deprivation," Bauer explains. "I wrote them alone in hotel rooms at three in the morning, and then I'd sleep on the van the next day. I was like, 'I'm getting out of here and I'm never coming back.'" He had to teach himself to sing and to write lyrics. Having not contributed any major songwriting to the Walkmen since the early days when they'd all write together at their studio in Harlem, he needed to find his voice again as a songwriter. "I was trying to make sure I was doing five people's worth of effort immediately," he says. "If it doesn't feel hard, it's probably not going to be good."
That sort of exertion betrays the degree to which Bauer seeks to differentiate himself from his past in the Walkmen. Before the show in Philly, his band is soundchecking. His guitarists tune up and run through a few riffs together—Led Zeppelin's "The Ocean," snippets of the Strokes' "Modern Age" and "Last Nite." Eventually, with a grin on his face, one of them begins that indelible opening guitar roar of the Walkmen's "The Rat" and Bauer's head whips around from the back of the stage, emotions sprawled across his face. "No, no, no, too soon," he says, and mock grimaces, but there is clear discomfort, like even in this context he's not going to be able to shake the Walkmen. But then he smiles and cracks a joke into the mic: "How's that song go again?"
At its core, Liberation! is an escape route. As the Walkmen rolled past the decade mark of their first record's release, the band had become a suffocating situation for Bauer. There was too much predictability and rigidity. "If you're at a point where you spend fifteen minutes debating what an organ should sound like without just recording it and seeing what happens, you're no longer in a healthy place," he says with a half-smile. The process of writing and recording Liberation! was intended to be a destructive antidote to all that, to break him out of the way he'd been doing things for over a decade.
"My hope is that at the end of the year," he says, with conviction, "I don't remember being in the Walkmen."
Ryan Leas used to go out and knew everyone he saw and now he goes out alone if he goes out at all. He's on Twitter — @RyanLeas