Lisbon breeds inspiration. The coastal capital of Portugal thrives with cultural history, picture-perfect landscapes and infectious energy. It served as Noah Lennox of Panda Bear’s muse when he created his 2007 electronic masterpiece, Person Pitch. One can see why The Walkmen found the city a relief during the songwriting process of their latest album, aptly titled Lisbon.
“[The title] feels sort of appropriate because while we were in the real depths of writing, we were there twice,” explains frontman Hamilton Leithauser. “It motivated us to keep going. Not that we were throwing in the towel or anything, but it was one of those things where you feel like it can keep you going.”
Ironically, the song that seems to sum up Lisbon most, “Angela Surf City,” wasn’t recorded in Lisbon, or in New York, where the band began working on the album, but in surf-less Dallas, Texas. It starts with a marching drumbeat – a signature of the band – and builds into a breakneck chorus, and it stands as one of the best songs the band has ever written, highlighting both Leithauser’s voice and drummer Matt Barrick’s furious drumming.
“[‘Angela Surf City’] sort of defines the whole way we did the record, actually,” says Leithauser. “We did it twice in New York, at Gigantic Studios. And we all knew that we liked the song but it was just not getting off the ground.”
The band knew from playing “Angela Surf City” live that it was a great song. So, some time after the New York sessions, the band found themselves in a nondescript concrete studio outside Dallas with producer John Congleton.
“I had no expectations,” says Leithauser about recording in Texas. “We were going in with a song that we had basically failed at twice.” The band clicked with Congleton, though, who played the more traditional role of a producer.
After the success of 2008’s You & Me, which sold well digitally due in a large part to a savvy online promotion on AmieStreet.com, The Walkmen signed to the independent label Fat Possum to release Lisbon. The Oxford, Mississippi-based label, home to both indie surf-punk phenom Wavves and southern rockers Band of Horses, made the band’s decision very simple.
“Everything they said just made sense,” says Leithauser of Fat Possum, which marks the band’s fourth label over six releases. Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone debuted on Startime International back in 2002. Bows + Arrows, A Hundred Miles Off and “Pussy Cats” Starring the Walkmen were all released over a two-year stint at Record Collection, a subsidiary of Warner. You & Me came out in the U.K. on the label Fierce Panda, and in the U.S. on the smaller Gigantic label.
The vagabond experience of hopping around labels has had an effect on the band’s success, though Leithauser doesn’t see the point in specifically throwing stones. “Looking back you definitely see who did a good job and who didn’t, and who works and who doesn’t,” he says of his former labels. “Some people I think just don’t work very hard and some people probably do.”
Another element that influenced the making of Lisbon was the band’s living conditions, with members currently split between Brooklyn (Leithauser and bassist Walter Martin), Philadelphia (keyboardist Peter Bauer and drummer Matt Barrick), and New Orleans (multi-instrumentalist Paul Maroon). For Leithauser, Maroon and Martin, the three principal songwriters, that meant finding a new method from what had worked when they all lived together during You & Me.
“We got [You & Me] down to sort of a science because three dudes live in Philly,” says Leithauser. But with members now having to make special arrangements to work together, Leithauser says part of the challenge was “to figure out how the groupings work best and how to maximize time when we made the trip down to Philly for the day or Paul came up for the day.”
Despite their geographical differences, Lisbon and You & Me seem to come from a similar creative place. Not surprisingly, the band took very little time off between the two albums. “We really just kept writing,” Leithauser remembers. “We finished You & Me and that last song I wrote was ‘Canadian Girl.’ And then I went and bought a Telecaster and started writing ‘Blue As Your Blood.’ It was only a month later. And Paul had a great thing going on with the horns with some of the songs on You & Me. We had five or six horns songs at the beginning of this record and only one of them made it, and that was ‘Stranded.’ Those two songs were the only early ones that survived.”