In 2003 San Francisco ad agency Goodby, Silverstein And Partners launched a new advertising campaign for the Saturn Ion, a compact car meant to appeal to first-time buyers ages 18 to 34. The four TV spots showed a group of 20-something friends cruising in their Ion down roads that led them through rites-of-passage scenes, from prom night to parties on frat row, with a conclusion at marriage, where white dresses and tuxes signified the end of the line. But it all began with the childhood spot, whose shots of kids on swing sets, slides and bouncy horses were introduced with the dreamy toy-like piano of the Walkmen’s “We’ve Been Had.”
The Ion project marked the first time that Goodby’s Todd Porter had ever worked on all of the music for a campaign. He had just started at the agency as an assistant producer when he was assigned to the job, and he was part of the creative team that selected “We’ve Been Had.” Looking back, Porter, now a music supervisor and producer at Goodby, isn’t pleased with everything about the commercial (“The music edit’s kind of shady.”), but he still identifies the Walkmen song as the perfect choice. “The piano line is playful,” he says. “It almost sounds a little bit like a lullaby or a children’s song, but then it has more rock ’n’ roll stuff that comes up.”
The Walkmen formed 12 years ago and have released seven full-length albums since then. Yet “We’ve Been Had,” from the band’s 2002 debut LP, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, remains a crowd favorite, with catcalls erupting at shows at the sound of the opening piano. Porter experienced that firsthand when he went to see the Walkmen at San Francisco’s Bottom Of The Hill shortly after the childhood spot came out. He remembers the band members growing sheepish when they acknowledged that a lot of people might know them because of the Saturn commercial. “I think they were a little embarrassed,” Porter says. “They were like, ‘So here’s this song that a lot of you may know.’”
The Saturn corporation no longer exists. And as guitarist Paul Maroon and bassist Peter Bauer tell me, neither does the original piano that made that charming sound in “We’ve Been Had” (They sold it years ago and have been through about 19 of those 64-key Melodigrand pianos in total.). I’ve been a fan of the Walkmen ever since their first album came out my senior year of high school, so having a conversation with two of the band’s members feels somewhat surreal. The fantastical feeling of this meeting is only accentuated by the fact that the three of us are sitting in the MLB Fan Cave, the Manhattan space where the MLB puts on small concerts, invites baseball players and hosts a group of fans attempting to watch every game of the season. These people are called Cave Dwellers, and they are staring at a TV screen.
The Walkmen will be performing tonight on the Fan Cave’s mini stage as part of a traveling Budweiser event celebrating local brewing. A publicist tells me that the Walkmen were chosen to play as representatives of a “local New York band.” But Maroon and Bauer say they consider themselves more of a Washington, D.C., band, as all five of the group’s members—Bauer, Maroon, Hamilton Leithauser, Matt Barrick and Walter Martin—grew up in or around that city. And as for a baseball connection? Bauer is a Phillies fan. “I played little league,” offers Maroon.
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Walkmen’s debut album, and they spent the early half of 2012 playing shows to commemorate that passage of time. The shows didn’t feel like nostalgia fests, as the Walkmen still play a lot of the Everyone songs regularly. But Maroon says the sets did stir up some good memories of days spent recording that album in the band’s old Harlem-based Marcata studio. “It was the first record we did, and we had a recording studio at our disposal, so it was just fun,” he says. “That’s the way to do it.”
Another good way to do it turned out to be heading to Washington state to record at the Bear Creek and Avast! studios around Seattle. It’s there that the Walkmen, with producer Phil Ek, recorded this year’s Heaven, which Maroon and Bauer agree was the easiest album they ever made. “Not for any particular psychological reason or anything,” Bauer says. “Just because it happened to work. I think a lot more of the original ideas worked, and they weren’t then ruined and re-recorded…”
“And re-ruined,” adds Maroon.
“And re-ruined and then sort of fixed and then ruined again,” says Bauer. “But it’s hard to say if we say, ‘Hey, let’s go make another record,’ if it will be anything like that again.”
Not much in the music-making process has gotten easier for the Walkmen over the years, including the songwriting, which Maroon says, “is the single most frustrating thing in the whole world.” But accomplishing certain things now involves less of a struggle, like keeping the peace in a five-person creative partnership. “It’s easier now,” Maroon says. “We have a way of working, and it’s nice.” Much of this strengthened bond has to do with the fact that the Walkmen have experienced a lot together, from having their manager quit to getting dropped by their label. And then there are the many traumatic yet unifying moments the band has had of moving upright pianos into various studios and homes. Once when moving a piano into Martin’s apartment, “There was a moment where it almost fell on me,” Maroon says. “You can picture your legs sticking out. ‘There he goes. There goes Paul.’”
“And then the upright at 138th Street,” adds Bauer. “I thought we were all going to go right through the stairs.” Trauma has a way of bonding people, as does something slightly less life-threatening: kids.
All of the Walkmen are now dads, with seven girls and one boy among them. “Apparently pilots have mostly girls,” Maroon says. “And we think that there’s some connection between the amount that we fly and the fact that we now have seven girls in a row.” The lone boy is Otis, Bauer’s son, who appeared in the publicity shots for Heaven and in the video for “The Love You Love.” Otis is 7, and according to his dad, “He’s really into very heavy music.”
“Is he gonna get into metal?” asks Maroon.
“I don’t know,” says Bauer. “When Adam Yauch died though, they were playing Beastie Boys on the radio, and he was like, ‘What is this magical sound?’ So I have a feeling at some point he’s going to go through a heavy Beastie Boys phase.” His enthusiasm for joining his dad on stage also suggests that the young Bauer might try the band thing one day. “It’s hard to keep him from coming out on stage when he comes to a concert,” Bauer says. “Like when we did David Letterman, he’s like, ‘Am I coming out?’ Not this time, Otis.”
This article originally appeared in the CMJ 2012 festival guide.