INTERVIEW: Catching up with Walter Martin

by | May 24, 2022 | Interviews and Features

Walkmen Founder Takes us Through Latest Solo Journey, ‘The Bear’

There is a certain beauty in simplicity and in a world that seemingly grows in chaos, perhaps simplicity is what many of us long for, either knowingly or unknowingly. In order to process and better understand the turmoil of our time, we increasingly turn to the artists and seek out a commonality in art. Walter Martin’s new album The Bear is a simple yet insightful look into his own life and family, and his own search for meaning. And the simplicity of this album is expressly where the beauty of it can be found.

I’d love to start with your origin story, so to speak. What first drew you into music, and what or who were some of your early influences?

Ah, you know, I started really early, I started doing guitar lessons with my friend Stuart when I was in fifth grade. You know, more so than deciding we wanted to be musicians, I think we decided that we wanted to be, like, cool… or to be different from the people in our school. So, we started writing the names of cool bands on our shoes, skateboarding, getting into music, and getting into playing music. It was really that… we just wanted to be cool. And then, we got lucky in that we actually really love music. And I became totally obsessed with music to this day.

And throughout all of middle school and high school, I played in a lot of bands. One of which became… it was a serious band. And we all ended up going to college for a year and dropping out and then doing that band. So yeah, that was Jonathan Fire*Eater, which went on to get… I don’t know, we did alright, we got a big record deal, and then had problems, and broke up. And then, basically, the same guy that I’ve been playing with since seventh, eighth grade stayed on for the Walkmen, and my friend Matt, and my friend Paul… and got my cousin to do be the singer… and it was just kind of the only thing I’ve ever done, you know, so it’s just what I do.

So, it was never really a conscious decision to pursue music as a career, but rather evolved into that because it was just what you started doing since you were young, is that…

Yeah, I think it was like going down a narrowing path. You know, it was all I really did, all I really put my energy into… there was never anything else I considered doing.

Can you talk about what has been your experience writing collaboratively versus writing music on your own? 

Writing collaboratively is something I just always did, and it was just something that… same with deciding to be a musician, there was never a decision, like, I’m gonna write collaboratively. I was always in a band. And we sort of wrote together and… you know, I love writing collaboratively… especially doing it for so long you learn how to… I learned how to play and write for all the instruments and stuff like that by the time I was doing Walkmen.

At that point, I knew what I liked and I felt like I could write for different niches. I really started writing a ton of lyrics, and writing lyrics collaboratively is really fun. You know, it’s really like you’re creating a sort of collective personality, is the way I used to think of it. And I think that when I decided to do stuff on my own, I maybe didn’t appreciate how hard it is when you’re writing something that you’re singing for yourself and that your name is on.

Can you talk about how that process for you then evolved? What does the songwriting process look like for you now? How do the lyrics and melodies come to you, and do you find that one arrives before the other, or is it all fluid?

Well, they kind of come at the same time.

I mean, I sit down at my desk every day to work, but I’m mostly editing or recording or trying things out. All the ideas that I get usually come from just, regular life… just sort of letting your mind wander and thinking of lyric ideas, or song titles, or a way of saying something that I like.

Or, it’s sitting there and spacing out and playing the guitar until I have a little music… the hardest part for me is really figuring out what the album I want to make is, or… just a larger idea of what I want to be making. And so, once I have that, then I can sort of shape some of those things into a song, and I can use some of the music that I have to sort of help me generate more lyrics. I think I’m explaining it pretty badly…it’s sort of different every time, but it’s a lot of just really being careful about noting every little funny or small idea that I have musically or lyrically, and then spending a lot of time editing and organizing it all.

And then once you have a more solid idea of the direction you want to take your music, can you talk about your process when you take it to the studio? 

Yeah, I mean, it’s different every time, you know… sometimes, like with my first stuff that I did on my own, I really did it mostly myself. I made demos and then I wanted to go into the studio to record them professionally, and I went and did that, and they somehow lost their charm. I don’t know what it was… if I was too uptight in the studio or something, but they weren’t charming to me anymore. So, I ended up just polishing up my demos and that became my first record and then you know, I still do that for other records.

With this record, The Bear, I ended up… I wanted it to be very simple. So, as far as taking it to the studio, I didn’t have any demos or any arrangements. All I had was just voice, I mean just lyrics and guitar parts. So…  I felt like everything could sort of stand on its own like that… I just recorded everything like that, which is guitar and singing and then went to California to LA to work with my friend Sean. We just put together how we wanted it to… you know, to flesh it out, but with some pretty romantic piano, and some lap steel, and some additional guitar. But we really wanted to just keep it simple.

Yeah, sometimes that can be the hardest thing to do once you get to the studio.

For sure, it really can.

Let’s talk more about The Bear. What was the inspiration behind this album?

I just finished a lot of commercial projects, which I do, and TV stuff. However, I really have to be super catchy and super user-friendly. And I guess I was just getting a little… I mean, it was a really shitty time in the world, it still is obviously, but you know, it was the winter of 2020. And it just felt like I wanted… I just wasn’t in the mood to be working on that stuff anymore. I just wanted to write stuff that felt more, I don’t know, write about the things that are really important to me, which is my family and art and… stuff like that.

So, it took me a while to figure out how I wanted to express it. And then I just, suddenly, had a couple of songs. And I had a song called “Baseball Diamonds” and that one felt really right to me, like… it was exactly what I wanted to be saying. I wanted all the songs to be like that, I wanted all the songs to be just quiet guitar, and voice with conversational words… and a lot of words, and I don’t care about choruses or anything. I just wanted it to be packed with whatever detail and lyric.

I wanted it to be about family, and about my family, and about my life… you know, whatever things that are important to me. It’s sort of a document. It wasn’t really an idea like, oh, that’s the idea, it just sort of fell into place. And after I wrote it all, I was like, I guess that was the idea.

Was writing this particular album, at all, a cathartic experience for you?

I mean, yeah, I don’t know… It doesn’t feel necessarily cathartic. Maybe it is in some way. It probably is, like, I certainly feel very lost when if, I don’t know… when I’m not working on music… if I’m not working on music that’s important to me. So, I guess in some way, it is cathartic, but I don’t really process it that way.

I’ve read that this album is more autobiographical for you than anything you’ve written before, did you have any reservations about releasing it? 

No, I don’t have any problem with that. I feel like, why not? It’s funny the things that I get notes on from people who respond to the little details that I put about my life, and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a similar thing to something about my life,’ which is sort of the whole point of doing it, you know… I feel like if I’m not willing to do that, then it really limits what I can express, so I don’t really want to limit it.

Circling back to the commercial work you’ve done and the success you’ve had in that realm… I imagine it’s a different kind of headspace and mindset writing commercially versus writing for yourself, can you talk about your experience navigating between the two?

I sort of swing… You know, I really love doing that, so it’s really like a puzzle for me… like rhyming is a really big thing for me, in everything that I do. And doing commercial stuff… you’re writing for 15 or 30 seconds, and sometimes they’re longer, but it’s often really short and you gotta get… it’s like reading a little haiku or something. You have to get information across very efficiently, and get the rhymes perfect, and paint a little picture really quickly, and it’s just a really great exercise. I really do love doing it.

So, it’s nice to swing back and forth between those two different types of writing. And it’s nice to be able to hide behind that it’s a commercial… but sometimes I’m writing things, you know about friendship, that otherwise, I wouldn’t say. Like, I wrote a song for this animated movie called Missing Link, and it’s just a song about friendship. That’s what they wanted, so I wrote a song about friendship. In my real life, I’m not gonna sit down and write a song about friendship. So, it’s nice… it’s nice to have to do that and try to write it in a way that people can get excited about.

Yeah, that’s awesome. I mean, every artist kind of has their own process, but do you feel like you’ve developed, over the years, any habits or have any outside hobbies that you would credit to being able to get into the right headspace for writing music?

I mean, really… running, it helps me so much. I feel like a lot of people who write say that being in motion, for some reason, does spark good ideas. But definitely running, whatever it does to your brain chemistry I think helps, so I run a lot.

I’ve heard from a lot of different artists that walking or running really opens up their mind, so there must be something to it! I do want to come back to your new album, can you talk about what this album, in this particular time period, means to you and what you hope your audience will get from it? 

I mean, you know, it’s just such a hard time. It’s just such a tough time in the world. And it has been for a while, you know, but it seems like it’s only getting tougher and… whatever the state of our government, our country, it’s all just scary. And I have little kids, it’s just a really very terrifying time. And so, I guess that’s why I just try to focus on the things that really have… provable meaning to me, which is my family and my thoughts about my life and about art.

So, you know, I just want it to be about that. And I want people to be able to feel… like, a warmth and a sense of friendship, or a sense of relating to it and understanding it… just the feeling of connection. You know, just the whole reason that people make art in the first place is really… I just want people to feel a connection to it.

I love that. And I think now more than ever in our lifetime, it’s increasingly necessary for us to remember that we are all connected.

Yeah, I mean if I was like sitting, writing about whatever… I don’t know, just like I hear so much pop music, or so much, even like, cool music… and it’s so not warm. I just want something warm said… something real.

I always think of Phoebe Bridgers who does such a great job of really saying something that’s real, and warm, and so human… and I’m so glad that there are people like her, young people who are kicking so much butt you know, because it’s nice that they’re… I feel like it’s a great thing for the world.

Totally, completely agree with you on that. So, I know we’re all still a bit raw from the times, but are you thinking of touring anytime in the near future?

Slowly, yeah, I haven’t done shows in a while. But I’m gonna do a show in LA in June and a show in New York in June. And I’m probably going to do more over the summer. But I’m working on it.

All Photos by Melissa Martin