From “The Rat” to The Met: Conversation With Walter Martin (of The Walkmen)

by Andy Chan

The Walkmen frontman talks about his new solo record Arts & Leisure, his coverage in The New Yorker, and shares a special playlist of '60s Italian folk.
“I still love the rock ‘n’ roll that I loved in high school,” Walter Martin swears. The soft-spoken Martin is low-key an indie rock star. He used to play in bands like Jonathan Fire*Eater and later for the Walkmen, who released seven albums from 2002 to 2012 with songs like “The Rat” and “Heaven” belonging to a rebel sound definitive of early 2000s indie rock. He is cooking dinner for his girls in his Brooklyn home when we chat with him about his new profile in The New Yorker. His latest solo album Arts & Leisure digresses from the dissident wailing we have come to love to a folky, introspective conversation about one of his first passions—art history.

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According to The New Yorker, Martin used to work the switchboards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when he was 19. When Martin wasn’t pranking rude callers by rerouting their calls for Philipe de Montebello back to his apartment for his unsuspecting band mate, he was sneaking women into the museum for free telling them it was ladies’ night. Aside from finding ways to get into trouble at the Met, Martin was also finding inspiration 15 minutes at a time with strolls through its American Wing.

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In Martin’s song “Watson and the Shark”, named after the painting above, he reflects how the painting “captured my heart, excited my sense of adventure, and gave me my first sweet taste of the magic of art, so I thank [Copley] for that.” Though Arts & Leisure isn't defined by a melodic complexity, Martin’s personal charm invites listeners in to an imagined conversation. Through sharing his memories of art, he expounds the nostalgic wonder that is so relatable—our first encounter with art. It moves us, it grips us, and it strikes us with awe, befuddling us even. This is a record that brings this specific, contextualized emotion to life.

Flaunt: How’s the Met responding to the new record? You used to work there, right?

Martin: [laughs] The Met has approved of “Watson and the Shark.”

Flaunt: Very cool. What inspired you to write about “Daniel in the Lions’ Den?"

Martin: I remember seeing it, probably ten years ago at LACMA. I really loved the painting, so I thought it was a worthy thing to write up. 

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The lyrics for the song go: “Daniel’s serene / and the lions just preen/ and I suddenly see what it all means/ if I’m a good fellow/ and peaceful and mellow/ I’ll have lions protecting me/ I’ll have lions protecting me/ just like Daniel in the lions’ den.”

Martin argues that Tanner’s painting focuses on the struggle of being at peace in a world trying to rip you apart. In a Tao Te Ching manner, Martin suggests that the master stays at the center of the circle.

Flaunt: How do you know when a song is done?

Martin: I’ve done this for so long that I’m good at assessing stuff and being able judge it in an objective way.

Flaunt: Brian Eno, allegedly, knows a composition is ready when his cat purrs near the monitors. You must have some outside referent.

Martin: My wife has very good taste and is very sensible about music. It sounds corny but I don’t feel like it’s done before it gets her seal of approval. Then M., my music nerd friend. Once the two of them have signed off on it, I feel like it’s ready.

Flaunt: Has M. ever shut you down?

Martin: Yes! New song just yesterday M. did not sign off on...[M.] said it was too on the nose.

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Armed with his wife and mysterious music muse M., Arts & Leisure is nowhere near too on the nose. Penetrating the superficial, the album enters the hippocampus as an innocent seed of youthful remembrance.

“I was trying to remember paintings I liked when I was high school,” says Martin.

Across your neurons, it fires off with folk-influenced strumming, whistling, and narration. It then spreads into the cortex, growing into a lush conversation about life and art. Martin’s exploration of his first memories of art is what makes Arts & Leisure such a wonderful bridge between the artist, the listener, and our brains thinking about the art.

Before your brain overloads, though, bookmark Walter Martin's playlist of Italian folk music. It was new to our ears, maybe yours as well. Undoubtedly its sounds find their way into his album and will take your brain from the museum to the coast of the Old Country.

Arts & Leisure by Walter Martin is available here.

Interview by Daniel Warren.

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