Interview: Peter Matthew Bauer – Liberation!

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Peter Matthew Bauer has stepped into the spotlight after 13 years playing various instruments in The Walkmen, who are currently on “extreme hiatus”. It’s not often that the end of a band can be celebrated but judging by the strength of Bauer’s solo debut, Liberation!, being part of a group may well have been holding back an extremely talented songwriter. Liberation! is a spellbinding album, and it is a real album; the sum of it’s parts, the flow and vibe of the full 42-minutes are a joy to behold.

Peter was kind enough to answer a few questions we had regarding the album and you can catch him on tour opening for Delta Spirit at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on the 2nd of October. Liberation! is out now on Mexican Summer, which you purchase here.

Liberation! is one of those rare records that whenever I put it on, I can’t do anything else but pay attention and listen. It sounds like it was a real labour of love, did you agonise over very second during recording?

First off, thank you for listening. I would say that it felt very intuitive to make and I was obsessed with trying to work as fast as I could without thinking too much about sound or detail. I think that always helps and that’s sort of been how I’m trying to go about what I do from here on out. This keeps the agony to a minimum.

The album is sequenced perfectly, did you have to cut any songs in favour of the overall flow?

After I’d written the first four or five songs I had this idea for the whole record- so the rest of it was written to fit the part. Anything that didn’t work kind of fell apart before it was finished. It had a plot that I followed all the way through.

Had you been squirrelled these songs away for some time or did you start from scratch after The Walkmen called it a day?

I’d never sung anything myself so I had to figure out my own voice, how to sing, and then write music that could help that along. Maybe there were a few musical ideas from the old band that came back up but really that stuff feels very far away now, like it was something from a different place and time.

What was it like growing up in an ashram? I imagine most people don’t even know what one is. 

I think it was an important experience for me in terms of how I’ve ended up seeing the world. Most of what I remember about India, when I was very young are certain visceral images- the ashram gardens, this statue of the god hanuman on top of a mountain. Later, my family spent a lot of time in an ashram in upstate New York. I remember this much more clearly as we were there on and off until I was a teenager. So I sort of came of age there. But all this stuff- there was always a meditation center in my parents basement and still is- its very integrated into how it was until I left home. So it’s hard to say what it was like I guess? Some of the people were very strange, some were very needy or troubled, others were wonderful just like anywhere else. I would say I had a lot of trouble when I was younger. I was very bothered by the cultish aspects of the place, by the charlatanism. As I get older I find it all very interesting, and also pretty integral to how these organizations and worlds seem to arise.

I want to touch on some of the religious/spiritual aspects of the record. Sometimes you’re taking swipes, sometimes you’re sympathetic and other times there is ambiguity, I was particularly interested when you said “you can also arrive at some sort of strange, joyful experience right now without believing anything“. As someone who pays close attention to where science and religions clash, I find that message to be very important, that people can have awe, wonder and mystery without having to resort to anything unbelievable. Is that something you wrestle with?

I think I started out with this idea of writing of about varieties of religious experience, mystical phenomena, my own upbringing in all that. So some of it was very angry, some of it was poking fun of things, some of it was using that negativity and absurdism to try to get at some real feeling of joy and expansion without feeling like I was lying to myself or others in any way. I don’t have time for true believers, I don’t mind going after people, trying to break down belief, trying to break down whatever remains of this stuff in myself but I’ve yet to be convinced that this kind of small minded rationalism of mainstream science is anything more than another religion, another kind of half assed construct that is easy to breakthrough. Maybe because of how I was raised, I think I’ve always come from the basic vantage point that anyone who is sure about what they believe is pretty much an asshole. I know I don’t know anything. I can’t imagine how anyone else can be so certain. Since making this record, I feel like I’ve become more and more comfortable just living in the phenomena present around me, making everything up as it happens. Wonder and mystery arise from our own perception and experience.

It didn’t really sound like The Walkmen were having fun anymore, and despite some heavy themes in the lyrics, Liberation! ultimately sounds like a pretty positive record. Was that something you made a conscious decision about or did the songs just come out that way?

I’d say when I’ve tried to write something entirely dark and serious so far, it’s come out pretty damn maudlin. That doesn’t mean I’ve given up. I would be so damn ecstatic if I could write something truly bleak and heartbreaking but for now, I think I’ve found all my entrances into what I want to write about through moments that seemed sort of over the top, theatrical, kind of funny really, at least at the time.

The Walkmen are known as a Brooklyn band, do you now identify as a Philadelphia artist? How has leaving the city affected you as a musician (if at all)?

I think of the Walkmen as a band I was in during my 20s in western Harlem. We had a studio at 132nd and Broadway and I lived on 138th street. Anything after that was a band that worked pretty individually, maybe as a group sometimes but never with a geographical center other than where the group traveled at the time. One record was in Oxford, Mississippi. One in Dallas. Two in Tribeca with Chris Zane. One in Washington State.

I think the record I just made was very Philadelphia centric, but I’m not sure I’ve really set down roots here. I’ve got a lot of friends here, a life, and the musicians on this thing are all Philly folk. I love it here. Having said that, I’m not sure you can make more than one of these things coming from the same place. I like to change everything. It’s useful and gives things a spark. My band is very Austin, Texas oriented right now. And on top of that, I’ve been very much California dreaming recently. I’d love to get out west someday. I think I’ve done my time on the east coast of America.

You’re opening for Delta Spirit at the moment, including a show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on the 2nd of October, what kind of set can people expect who haven’t seen you before?

Everytime I do this these days, there’s different people, new life to the band but also the worry that we’re just gonna fall on our damn faces. So this tour, the band is a different line up than the last and we are all going to get together this week and figure it out. I’ve been singing with 2 or 3 female singers one of whom is my wife Marisa and that will continue. My friend Matt Oliver from Texas will do almost all the guitars, his old drummer Jordan Johns also from Texas will play with us too. Mickey Walker is my old pal from Philadelphia and he plays the bass.

So far, I feel like I’ve started to really stumble on to something with all these folks, a very different energy that is very crazy and chaotic and very joyful and I think it continues to grow. By the end of our last run, I thought we were a damn strange and loud as hell rock and roll band that felt like we had a reason to live and someplace to go. Hopefully, we can get to that again.

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