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arno frugier
Indie-rock quintet the Walkmen back up the hype with their latest effort, Heaven.

“We felt like we needed to get serious and try to do something big and elaborate,” says the Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser (above, far right) of the band’s sixth album, Heaven (Fat Possum Records, $13). “I feel like we did.”

Indeed, the New York–based quintet did something they’ve never done before: relinquish control of the production from start to finish to a single person outside of the group. Phil Ek — a producer who has worked with Band of Horses and the Shins in the past — got the honors.

Over a period of nine weeks, Leithauser, guitarist Paul Maroon, multi-instrumentalist Pete Bauer, bassist/organist Walter Martin and drummer Matt Barrick left their East Coast homes and flew to Seattle to record with Ek, who pushed them to perfection. “He rode us hard to stop playing so sloppy,” he says. “I’m really glad he did.”

Formed in 2001, the Walkmen were at one time lumped with other bands from a burgeoning NYC indie-rock scene such as the Strokes and Interpol. But unlike their Big Apple peers, the Walkmen have become a prolific (six albums in 11 years) and boundary-pushing group, a reputation only furthered with Heaven.

Leithauser credits Ek for their most recent game-changer, citing “Song for Leigh,” one of several standouts on Heaven, as proof. “That’s actually the oldest song on the album,” says Leithauser, who notes that the band had long struggled with the song’s sound. “We had always wanted it to be what it is now.”

One of the singer’s favorite moments on the record is one of the simplest: “Southern Heart,” a stripped-down number featuring only acoustic guitar and vocals. “It’s the quietest thing we’ve ever done,” he says.

Another first for the band: the addition of background vocals from a voice other than Leithauser’s. Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes complements four Heaven tracks with sweet and distinct harmonies. “Robin is such a great singer,” Leithauser says. “I was really psyched he said he would do it.”

Despite all of these impressive elements, there was one achievement that was even more noteworthy in Leithauser’s eyes. “We ended on schedule,” he says. “That was maybe Phil’s greatest accomplishment.”