I apologized immediately upon calling Peter Matthew Bauer. The reason for this pre-apology? I needed to geek out for a minute. It was non-optional, necessary geekage—and I was sorry in advance. I asked him, “Is it okay if I tell you a little story before we start this?” He said yes. And so, the story:
I told Peter about the first time I heard of his previous band, the now defunct group The Walkmen. It was on The O.C., and I was in middle school. I remember everything about hearing them so very clearly—for whatever reason (probably talent) the music had instant staying power. I remember sitting on the floor, watching Ryan Atwood and Marissa Cooper doing their thing(s), and hearing The Walkmen perform on the show. I fell in love. And so, the next morning, I was eager to discuss the previous night’s episode with my friend. I sat down at my usual seat on the school bus and waited for my O.C.-confidante to get on at the next stop. Once she took her seat next to me we started our usual rundown. I began, “Did you hear that band yesterday? Oh my god, they were so good!” To which she responded, “Yes. One of them actually comes to my Christmas parties.”
Which brings me back to the reason for my pre-interview apology. I had to know if Peter was the member of The Walkmen who attended Christmas parties with my middle school friend from the school bus.
Turns out, not him.
That’s okay, though. We shared a laugh and bonded over growing up in the D.C. metro area. (Neither of us are big fans of Landon. Sorry, Landon.) After 13 years with The Walkmen, Peter Matthew Bauer has embarked on a self-titled solo project. The first album from this project, Liberation!, is an incredibly soulful, lyrically-powerful, and straight up Rock & Roll record. Besides talking about my school bus friend from middle school, Peter and I discussed his amicable, yet—understandably—uncertain departure into solo work. We talked about the inspiration for this album: summers spent in an Ashram in upstate New York and Jorge Luis Borges, among them. And, we talked about growing up, developing, and coming into his own as a musician. Mostly, though, we discussed mysticism, “spirituality,” and really the root of “it” all. In essence; It gets trippy.
Be sure to see Peter at Rock & Roll Hotel in D.C. tonight. Find yourself a little farther north? Well then see him tomorrow at Rough Trade NYC. Before any of that, though, check out our chat—conveniently located right on this here webpage.
So before we talk about your new project, I want to talk a little bit about the transition from being in a band for so many years to doing things on your own. Why was it that The Walkmen decided to go their separate ways?
I guess I’d say that we were together for a long time. And we’re all really good friends, but I think it was time to do something else and move on. You know, it was a weird band because I feel like we’re all very good friends and it was very much a democracy. but it’s hard when you have five people who want to function independently and not be part of a gang, necessarily—to carry on with that for so many years. So it was great, but I think it’s also a good time to not be doing that anymore.
And I imagine it’s a totally new process when you’ve been working with people for so many years and, like you were saying, it’s a democracy—so, not in a bad way but everyone compromises and figures out how to work together. And then, all of a sudden, you’re doing things on your own—without those four other people giving you feedback. What is that like?
It’s both fun, and also a little scary at times—but it’s fun. It’s a lot more your own thing. At a certain point, probably when I was 20, I wasn’t ready to write songs and do those things by myself. So I think it was a very good experience to be in these bands all these years. I mean you wish you had been ready earlier, but at the same time I certainly felt like I was at a point where I didn’t want to be in a group anymore, you know? Does that make sense?
Yeah, without a doubt. As a creative person it’s definitely interesting and a good thing to be collaborative, but personally—as a writer—I also understand wanting to do things on your own.
Yeah. And I also think it’s good to collaborate with a bunch of different people, which I’ll probably do. I’m not a loner. Even though I did this [album] that way—I still had, and have, friends to rely on. And I think it’s fun when [you’re working with] those friendships and not an organization. I think when it becomes sort of an organizational thing, that’s when you lose creativity. And I think it relates to what the record is about, in a sense, in terms of organized religion. It’s sort of the same idea.
Yeah, I wanted to talk about that.
Yeah. Once you get past the point of it being somewhat of an energetic and creative thing, then you enter this scarier phase of it. You know? It’s the same thing with bands.
So the first song on the album is “I Was Born in an Ashram,” but you weren’t born in an Ashram?
No, I wasn’t actually. When I was a little kid I lived in India for a while and then we’d go to an Ashram every summer in upstate New York. But my house was a meditation center—so that was the idea. Every night we’d have a big chant in the basement, and that sort of thing. So it’s about that experience. But I think “I grew up in an Ashram” is a little less poetic. [Laughs]
So tell me about that! Tell me about your upbringing and participating in these things every night.
Well, you know, it’s just sort of what you’re surrounded by and so it informs everything that you do. And I think in making this I thought “You’re making a solo record, you should have the first thing you do be about formative ideas,” as sort of the classic thing you do as a writer. So that’s something that never really interested me much, autobiography, but I figured I could use these autobiographical experiences to make things that sounded universal, but were also specific. So that’s what I tried to do. And I was really excited when I had any luck with that at all.
You do. I think the record is great, I really do.
Thank you. Thanks a lot, I appreciate that. So, yeah, that was the idea. It wasn’t to be kind of whining and crying about your autobiography, but to try and get something out of a personal experience that expressed anything at all to other people.
So have you always written lyrics?
No, actually, I never wrote any lyrics. I didn’t really know how to sing. I rarely wrote words for Ham [Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen] and that was always a disaster. I think I wrote words for maybe two songs for The Walkmen. I would try, and it would just never work.
How does it feel, then, having these personal songs out there for really the first time?
It’s interesting. It’s very scary—you sort of feel like a fraud, for a while. And then as you go through these little experiences you feel less like a fraud, but you’re still checking yourself. It’s a really different experience and it’s a lot of fun. You feel like you’re alive, as opposed to dead. [Laughs]
[Laughs] That’s always good! Alive, as opposed to dead!
[Laughs] Yeah, I mean that’s kind of what you’re aiming for. Just to not run out of gas.
And that must be exciting as a musician to experience all these things again. You’re a born-again virgin, kind of. [Laughs]
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs] Very much so. You know I’ve always been the sort of guy who has been waiting to get to this age where you can pretend you know what you’re talking about. So it works quite well. I never really trusted teenagers or 20-year-olds. [Laughs]
Like, even when you were a teenager and twenty-year-old.
I mean I definitely draw from the archetypal “old man.” Like Leonard Cohen. Those are always the kind of guys I looked up to. So, you know, it’s hard to know exactly where you stand when you’re twenty five and want to emulate those guys. It’s kind of like when you see a kid with a funny hat on and you’re just like “You can’t quite pull that off,” you know? [Laughs]
Definitely! There is an air of confidence and life experience that, you know, there is no replacement for. Only with age.
Right, exactly. And then you find out you’re still totally bluffing. [Laughs]
So something else I wanted to talk about was Jorge Luis Borges, who I read was a source of inspiration for this album. He’s one of my favorites, so I kind of just want to nerd out for a little bit and ask you about him.
Yeah, I mean he’s a big influence on, really, the way I think. In terms of that song, him and this guy Roberto Bolaño—who’s another big writer; he’s from Chile and writes a lot about Spain and Mexico—are really different writers. But I think both of them have this very peculiar way of coming through on every single page they’ve ever written. Not just their personalities, or what they care about, necessarily. But like, for example, when Borges is reviewing a film or doing some vague essay about something you don’t even know about, you still get his presence on just a basic level of awareness and consciousness. His presence is always there. And Bolaño is the same way, to me. And I really think that is what they’re aiming for. I think a lot of people misread both those guys as trying to do anything else. Really I think most of what Borges is writing is a bluff to get that basic presence out there. Him as a being. It’s not a “personality” thing—it’s different. That idea is really how I tried to find a way to sing songs. I don’t know if that comes across in the slightest, but that was the idea. That whatever words you’re putting down, whatever comes out, is basically trying to push this presence across.
Which kind of goes back to what we were saying earlier. How everybody has different experiences, but that doesn’t change the human relationship to emotion, people, and the world.
Yeah—and it’s pretty emotional. Basically what the record is about is trying to see [intelligible] angry, but also to find that vibration of joy behind everything.
We then talked a bit about a specific story of Borges’ “The Other,” a story in which two incarnations of Borges at different times in his life find themselves sharing a bench. This got us talking about duality—in lyric writing and, well, life in general. And so we continued…
I think that’s a really good and interesting that as a lyricist you’re pulling from these influences that may not be directly related to music.
But, you know, they still are. You’re trying to walk in other people’s shoes and play music based on other people’s things. And it’s not emulating, it’s trying to draw from the tradition. It’s not a linear thing; It’s a pre-intellectual thing. It’s hard to explain, but influences are just way more important than something like, “Oh, this sounds like this because the hi-hats sound like this.”
That’s garbage, you know?
Totally. Because what you’re talking about is really the core of the thing. The essence—where everything else comes from.
It’s a mythic field. And part of Rock & Roll music is a bunch of different myths. Popular music is like that. And you’re supposed to be in this mythic field if you’re going to be doing this because you’re trying to get into popular consciousness. You’re trying to interact with that and create something that has a new sound.
So do you think your relationship and your understanding of this public consciousness is, or was, formed by your sort of “spiritual” upbringing? And are you sort of “spiritual,” still?
Definitely. I mean, look, it’s what my father does for a living. And I think he’s a brilliant dude.
What does he do?
He’s a psychologist, but he teaches meditation and things like that. He’s just a very intellectual, incredibly smart person. That’s where my background comes from, and that’s a lot of what I think about personally. So, yeah, it’s totally informed by who you are and what you think about. [Laughs] It’s just sort of finding the right language to talk about it that’s interesting and doesn’t come off as New Age, or something like that. And then, at the same time, am I spiritual? No more than anyone else, I guess. I mean, yeah, I’m obsessed with that kind of question, but I also don’t know how to interact with it. And I think if you grow up in an environment where you’re surrounded by this kind of stuff you lash out at it when you’re young. And then you try to find a way for it to be authentic to your experiences when you get older. But I find myself being a little bit disabled at points with that, and I think that actually writing this record was a big part of it. Because I think my equivalent version of mysticism or anything like that is music. Even with The Walkmen, which are definitely not considered a spiritual band [laughs]. I like music, and I like performance, and I think that the immediacy of that—playing shows, now especially, which is this incredible wild, scary, crazy thing where you’re throwing your whole body into it—that, to me, is literally no different than anything anyone has ever talked about with spirituality….for lack of a better word.
Yeah! As I’m sure you’re well aware as a meditative man; It’s all one in the end, isn’t it?
Yeah. And it’s hard to hold that. Some nights you feel that, and then some nights you don’t. I mean we played in Belgium last night and every damn thing went wrong. And it’s hard to stay in the awareness, it’s hard to hold that, and that’s really what you’re trying to do on stage. But that’s exciting. To me, that’s enough. I’m happy with that.
We then talked about books for a bit. He’s gonna read Just Kids, I’m going to read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. (And you guys all should, too.) Besides that, be sure to pick up Peter Matthew Bauer’s debut solo album Liberation!, available now. Also follow him on Twitter and like him on Facebook. And, of course, be sure to catch him live tonight or tomorrow in DC and NYC respectively.