Have you seen much violence at your shows? Is it more of a presence at indie rock shows than you would think?
—Emile, Toulouse, France
There wasn’t much—an occasional fight maybe. Once in a while some guys would get kicked out.
I spent some time going to hardcore shows when I was a kid, and those were rougher. A club in D.C. called the BBQ Iguana would have Sunday afternoon matinees with eight or 10 bands that always had fights. One Saturday night some guys pulled a truck up to the back door and stole the entire club. I remember walking home the next day, after finding the place gone, and thinking to myself thank God.
A few years later I saw The Jesus Lizard play at CBGB’s. It was one of those shows that was so crowded your arms were pinned at your sides. As soon as the band started, the place erupted. From that point on people were fighting, running onstage, climbing the PA, humping the monitors (me). It was monkeys at the salad bar.
There was a skinhead guy, somewhere in the 200-to-300-pound range, front and center. He got onstage and grabbed David Yow (the singer) in a bear hug and jumped with him in his arms. David Yow is really small, but the other dude was so big that the crowd parted. Straight to the concrete floor they went, and it was brutal. The band stopped, Yow was unconscious, and the skinhead was gone. The band jumped offstage yelling, “Where is that fucking guy?” The crowd parted again, this time to reveal the large skinhead on all fours toward the back of the club, trying to crawl out to the street.
Duane Denison (the guitarist) grabbed a beer bottle and to everyone’s astonishment smashed it over the dude’s bald head. Then the rest of the band started pounding on him. They didn’t damage him permanently or anything—it actually seemed like a reasonable response, considering. Then they went back, picked up Yow, and took him backstage. Ten minutes later they reappeared and started up again. It was all very intense, heightened by The Jesus Lizard’s “time to make the donuts,” all-in-a-day’s-work attitude.
Do you have a favorite melody?
I’ve always loved “Auld Lang Syne.” It’s a cliché to describe music as questions and answers, but there are few melodies that sustain a dialog quite so well. A beautiful, unresolved high in the first 15 seconds is answered in a way that you don’t realize it has been. And it’s done with successive small resolutions, instead of one big one. The cumulative effect is both satisfying and heartbreaking—which is just what you hope for from a sad song in a major key.
The melody is split into three sections, arguably with a chorus at the end, but it all feels like one long part. That, in this and a lot of other timeless songs, has an extraordinary effect. For me, at least. It means I can hear a melody over and over again, much more so than even the best verse/chorus song. Your perception of the repetition changes as it goes on, and by the end you wish the song had even more verses. Some of my absolute favorites are this successive verse structure. Songs like Paul Robeson’s version of “Jacob’s Ladder” or “Amazing Grace” or “Moon River.” Will Oldham’s “I Was Drunk At The Pulpit,” Édith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose,” or “Silver Dagger,” either Robin Pecknold’s great version, or this stunner from Joan Baez:
“Auld Lang Syne” can survive any chord arrangement, any rudimentary chord substitution—ii for IV, or vi for iv, V for I. Or it can be played I/IV/V. Most anything works because the melody is so much stronger than what surrounds it. And any turnaround works as well—ii/IV/V, just a held IV (kinda cheesy) quick I/V/IV. You’ll hear it many ways.
And it can be sung by anyone. The Scottish Parliament, your drunk relatives, these guys:
Jesus Christ, okay, not those guys. But it is more moving sung by amateurs, which is just another feather in its cap. And I feel all this without really knowing the words, or at least understanding them. Did I mention I love “Auld Lang Syne”?
Whats the most people you guys ever performed for?
—Gail Amber, Chicago
We played to big crowds at festivals, but it’s hard to tell. A field of people can look big, but not actually be that dense. Early on, The Walkmen got booked to play something called the Orange Peel, which is the annual Oklahoma State University pep rally in Stillwater.
We followed the comic Jim Breuer, who looked like Bill The Cat. Remember him? The show was in something called Boone Pickens football stadium, which holds nearly 60,000 people, and they set up the stage in the middle, facing one side of stands. So it wasn’t the full stadium, but it was still like 30,000 people on one giant bleacher facing us, families… all generations, sitting down, pre-cellphones, waiting to be entertained. The MC of the night, if memory serves, was an ESPN personality, in charge of getting the crowd pumped. His penultimate line before we went on was, “These guys opened for Modest Mouse!” Try to contain yourself after you hear that. Tell them we have our own van! In the end, however, there was no doubt we broke through, as the student paper’s review could barely contain its enthusiasm:
“Hamilton Leithauser… offered an occasional ‘thank you’ as he roamed the stage screaming lyrics through plumes of purple-tinted smoke.”