Interview: Walter Martin

It's not rare these days for a musician who's made their living making music for adults to try their hand at making music for kids.  Nor is it rare for bands to break up and have the individual members release solo albums.

Combining those two?  That's way more unusual.  But it's exactly that path that Walter Martin has chosen.  In the wake of the "extreme hiatus" of The Walkmen, which he'd played in since helping to found the band in 2000, Martin, the father of 2 young kids, decided to release an album of family music, the delightful We're All Young Together, which will be released on May 13 (you can pre-order on iTunes, pre-order on vinyl, or pre-order the old-school CD).  We chatted by phone last week about his musical memories, his decision to record music for families, and why it's hard for a lot of 25-year-olds to write music for kids.

Zooglobble: What are your first musical memories?

Walter Martin:  I have a very vague recollection of listening to my parents' Pete Seeger records.  But I'm not sure if that's something I invented after the fact -- I have those records now.

I remember going on long car trips over Spring Break, listening to the Beatles' greatest hits collections -- you know those, the red and blue ones?

Yeah, one was, like '62 through '65 and the other '66 through '70, or something like that?

Yes, those.  I wasn't a big enough fan yet and I thought it was one guy doing lots of different voices -- "why does Ringo sound so different on 'A Little Help from my Friends'?"

Were your parents musical in terms of playing music, or just big fans?

Both, I guess.  My mother's mother, who died before I was born, was a kids' music teacher.  She passed down piano playing skills to my mom.  My dad didn't play an instrument, but he was a big rock 'n' roll fan -- so was my mom.

You've been making music for -- I haven't done the math, but it must for more than half your life...

[Pauses] I think it's two-thirds, actually.  Stewart [Lupton] and I -- we started our previous band, Jonathan Fire*Eater -- we took guitar lessons together.  We sang "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" by The Clash at a girl's 12th birthday party.  Matt [Barrick] joined us in 7th grade -- it's really all I've ever done.

When The Walkmen went on hiatus, you obviously had to think about what to do next, and while recording a solo album is an obvious choice, making that album a family album is not.  What led you to do this?

Like a lot of people, when you're in your mid-30s, you need to think about what you'll be doing in your 40s -- what is Plan B?  After our last [Walkmen] album Heaven, I knew that I wanted to do a record of my own.  I wrote lots of different things, "Walkmen"-y things.  But after I wrote the first couple songs that ended up on this record, I knew, that's me.

What were your musical inspirations in writing and recording We're All Young Together?

While I was focusing on the writing, I was hanging around the house in the kitchen a lot.  We listen to '50s rock, tons of that.  It had a very "light" tone, and I thought, why don't I make music like this?  Stuff like the Coasters, or Lieber & Stoller.  Or Jonathan Richman -- his solo stuff is whimsical and sweet.  His cool Modern Lovers persona goes out the window, and he's singing a song about a flower.

Is it the innocence and lack of cynicism that draws you to that type of music?

Yeah, the innocence is hugely appealing.  It appeals to the carefree side, which I think is valuable.  I've been surrounded by brainy and serious music.  The innocence [in those '50s songs] makes you want to listen with your family.  Also, at the end of the night, it's what you put on at a party -- it's got a great dance beat, everybody wants to dance to it.

Were there differences in the recording process for this new album compared to your prior ones?

For the first Walkmen album, we had just started our own recording studio, so we were figuring out equipment and our own music.  So it was not a great technical recording.  For this album, I tied to rerecord some of the first kids' tracks and it totally lost its spark.  I wanted the recording to be tied to the personalities.

You have a lot of guest artists [Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Matt Beringer from the National, and more] from the indie rock world on the album -- was it hard to convince them to join you?

No.  When I sent them e-mails, I told them that I was attempting to make the sweetest, funniest family record ever -- set the bar high, right?  But everybody was into it.  In fact, I think it was probably easier than if I wanted to make an "indie rock" record, be all like "I'm Mr. Cool Guy, come hang with me."  That would've been lame.  That might have made sense when I was 22, but now...

Yeah, I think there's something about setting aside the need to be "cool" that is hard to do at 25 and much easier at 35 that may make it harder to write family music for a lot of people at the age of 25.

That's why I asked who I did to be on the album.  They're into a different thing now.

I'm going to ask a questions that's probably on the list of Top 10 Most Annoying Questions asked of musicians, but do you have a favorite song from the album?

I really like "Hey Sister." 

On the album, some are funny, and some are sweet.  I tried to make the funny songs sweet, and the sweet songs funny, but I think on "Hey Sister" it's a perfect blend.

It's a great track -- the chemistry comes through.

Kat Edmonson, who sings with me, I love her voice.  I sort of sound like Elmer Fudd, but she's great.

Changing gears a bit, I'm curious about your perceptions of the world of kids music before you started and what you think now.

I really knew nothing about kids music before starting this.  I had albums from Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, that Johnny Cash children's album.  But it was just mixed in with the rest of my music, and didn't know any albums.  So when I started on the album, I did some research, and immediately found Dan Zanes.  He lived in Brooklyn, played old songs on real instruments, started after his daughter was born -- there were just so many parallels with me.  But I haven't done that much research -- I've now got 2 kids under the age of 21 months, so...

Any favorites among those old kids music albums?

That Woody Guthrie album, Songs to Grow On [For Mother and Child] -- it's so off-key, but like I said before, that's fine.  It's so great, so funny, and it's so in line with his other stuff.

The Johnny Cash Children's Album is more thrown together, maybe 3 new songs along with other songs recorded elsewhere, but that song -- "I Got a Boy and His Name Is John" -- it's so great and funny and sweet.

Do you have a musical house?

Oh, there's a lot of music playing constantly on all the floors.  We listen endlessly.  I think it's rubbed off on my older daughter.  She likes "Goober Peas," from Burl Ives.  She's just learned to talk, so she calls "Aba Daba Honeymoon," "Aba Baba Honeymoon."  She also likes this Ella Jenkins album we got after we started the kids music process.

We definitely sing with our kids -- my wife probably sings more to them than I do.  We've got lots of instruments -- it's a loud house, I don't know how our neighbors stand it.

Would you think about doing another family music album?

If people like this, then... when I play this for close friends like the other members of The Walkmen, or my parents, they realize that this is me.  It's what I really want to do.  I've already written another album, I just need to record it.

You know, there are other kids music artists who made music for adults for which this started maybe as a lark, but once they started it, they realized it was their true calling.  Dan Zanes, for example, passing out cassettes in a New York City park.  Or Chris Ballew, who several times, has talked about his work writing songs for preschoolers as Caspar Babypants as being his best songwriting work, what he wants to do even as he occasionally does Presidents of the United States of America stuff.  It's possible.

That's exactly how I feel.  There's a lot more creativity than I've had in the past.  People think there are more limits with this, but I feel like there are more limits with adult rock and roll.  You can ditch the "cool factor."

That's definitely one of the things that keeps it interesting.  There are so many more subjects available to sing and write about.

When I realized that, it was really exciting.  I can write a song about a tiger, and a love song, and both at once.  I'm really into it -- it's very creative.