COLUMBIA—It’s just a few hours until show time in Columbia, South Carolina, at an unassuming club in the historic Congaree Vista district. Set back from the road, the club—Headliners— is one of several in the complex. Walking out of the humid, rainy night, through a set of doors and down a wood-paneled hallway, it’s hard to imagine this will be the site of some serious indie rock tonight. Rounding a corner and down yet another hallway, it’s starting to look more like a hotel conference area until the sounds of loud guitars and drum beats become audible. The Walkmen are just starting their sound check on the stage in the cavernous, two-story bar.
The five band members are dressed in a preppy meets New York hipster kind of way, which makes sense because these guys met some 15 years ago while attending prep school in Washington, D.C., and later moved to New York. Three of them still call New York home and the other two (Paul Maroon and Matt Barrick) now live in Philly.
At the end of sound check, guitarist and piano player Maroon gets off the stage and decides he wants to visit the mechanical bull next door. Maroon and bandmate Peter Bauer head into the other bar that has a country-western theme and both jump up on the bull with Bauer sitting in the front.
Eventually, Maroon and Bauer hop down off the bull and begin talking about their summer, which was spent touring and vacationing together in Spain. “Yes, we even vacation together,” Maroon says. “I think we’re probably friendlier than your average band,” Bauer adds.
Being so close seems to be an advantage for The Walkmen, who just put out their third record, A Hundred Miles Off, in May. “We’re not at odds musically. Really, if all five of us can agree on something musically, it’s usually pretty good,” Maroon says.
But all the time they spend together can also be a source of embarrassment, Bauer says. “Take the gas station earlier. They were like, ‘Are you guys in a band?’ Cuz if you really think about it, there’s absolutely no reason for five grown men to be walking around by themselves, dressed the same way.”
Perhaps not but they’re by no means the stereotypical band anyway. The guys are at a stage in their lives where they’re also serious about things other than music and being on the road. Bauer has a son and drummer Matt Barrick just had a daughter recently. “He’s gonna start taking some time off. He’s been on paternity leave—paid I might add (laughs). The Walkmen are pretty progressive,” Bauer says.
As for maintaining a balance between personal and professional life, “It’s a welcome challenge,” Maroon says. “You can’t be like 50 years old and have been in a band your whole life and don’t have any kids and don’t have anything to show for yourself.” In agreement, Bauer adds, “We’re the least band-like band possible.”
The members of that “least band-like band” still tour in a van they own and pay homage to it on their website, giving the van its own section on the site. “It’s the sixth man,” Bauer says. “We just put a lot of stupid things on our website and this is just the latest. We used to have a thing where band members would morph into animals—like I’d turn into an ostrich.” As long as it’s not a mechanical bull.
With the mention of the sixth and final member of the band, the guys head backstage to prepare for their show that’s about to draw quite a crowd on a lazy, Wednesday night. People begin filtering in as The Specs hit the stage. A mix of long, scraggly-haired hipsters and clean-cut South Carolina preppies begin moving to the tunes of the Charleston-based band. Bobby Bare, Jr., takes the stage next to a more packed crowd. “It’s really groovy to be here—wherever we are,” Bare says and the crowd responds with laughs and cheers.
With his curly mop of hair bouncing around, Bare energetically plows through a 50-minute set of tunes. Dave, a Columbia resident, cheers after Bare plays “Valentine,” saying “I’m digging Bobby Bare but I’m looking forward to The Walkmen. They’re a little harder and I’ve heard they put on a great show.”
Dave doesn’t have to wait much longer. The Walkmen take the stage soon after, sounding like something straight out of the garage. With a guitar slung over his shoulder that appears to be there as much for looks as for playing, frontman Hamilton Leithauser delivers Bob Dylanesque vocals from song to song. Bauer and Walter Martin trade off on the guitar and organ and the boys perform their ode to Beantown, “Lost in Boston.”
The group’s rendition of “Louisiana” (which was written before Hurricane Katrina) adds another element to the show. Maroon switches between guitar and trumpet on the song and Bare’s bari-sax player Deanna Varagona joins in on the Spanish-sounding choruses. It’s a different sound for the band, but they’ve been trying some new things out recently. This fall, they’re releasing a cover album of the 1974 “Pussy Cats” album by Harry Nilsson, which will have a string orchestra on it.
Speaking of covers, The Walkmen bring down the house on their version of Mazarin’s “Another One Goes By.” Starting it off with 50s style guitar chords, the drums come in and hips begin swaying to the melancholy tune. Eyes close and it feels like the kind of song someone could get lost in. It could in fact be the perfect song for a rainy, summer night in South Carolina—or even somewhere a hundred miles off.