The Walkmen with the Uncut at Lee's Palace (529 Bloor West), tonight (Thursday, August 5). $13.50. 416-532-1598. Rating: NNNNN
Certain topics can put a metallic taste in your mouth. It's two or three stages away from a dead faint. Hamilton Leithauser, guitarist, singer and songwriter of NYC's the Walkmen, is dishing on just such a topic over the phone from Milwaukee - and I'm at least one stage past metal mouth.
"The doctor in the emergency room explained it to us," Leithauser says, giving me an instant physics lesson. "Apparently, it's not that uncommon. When you're arm wrestling, if your arms aren't properly lined up, then the pressure is transferred to the person with the shorter arm, to the bone instead of the muscle. And you can't feel the pressure on the bone so you don't realize until it's too late."
"My arm was extended farther than his. Paul's (Paul Maroon, Walkmen guitarist and pianist) bone was carrying all the pressure, and he didn't even know. I mean, we're of equal strength. Suddenly there's this CRACK! Paul's hand went limp, and I slammed it down on the piano bench.
"When I looked up, he had this stunned expression and the arm was all twisted up and swinging loose. It was completely disconnected - broken clean through."
Leithauser gives an audible shudder.
How the hell do you get to the point of tearing off someone's arm? Just innocent horsing around apparently, a way for the boys to blow off steam after cutting the last track on the Walkmen's first album, Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone. On the whole, it was a totally mundane act, albeit one with big consequences.
Funny thing is, it's just that sort of thing that makes the Walkmen's music so startlingly infectious - making big things out of little ones.
When Everyone came out, a lot was made of the album's inconsistencies.
"We hadn't even played a show when we recorded it," Leithauser admits. "The album really was just a way of exploring different sounds. It wasn't meant to be very tight."
Even so, it was clear from that album that the Walkmen were onto something sharp. Leithauser's knack for capturing the nearly routine angst of daily life - with the directness of his words and the creakiness of his voice - was impressive. Factor in the band's ability to amplify the moody pop rock of those experiences into strangely uplifting anthems and it's a recipe for gold.
"I actually come up with the lyrics after the music has been figured out," says Leithauser. "I don't know how that affects what comes across, except that maybe the lyrics are close to how the music makes me feel, as opposed to writing music that's there to accommodate the words."
We've Been Had, the song off Everyone that became the soundtrack to the Saturn Ion's famous "Now Leaving Childhood" ad, is the Walkmen at their most effective. Their newest album, Bows And Arrows, adheres to the lessons of that song, keeping the message tight and the music simple.
"After we released Everyone, people said we sounded like two different bands - one on the recording and another live," offers Leithauser. "On Bows And Arrows we really wanted to bring the two together. Everything was recorded more or less like we would play it on a stage."
A smart move, since Leithauser and his cohorts have been on tour since Bows And Arrows came out and may have to be playing live well into the new year.
"Yeah, this two-day stop in Milwaukee could well be our longest break for the next month," Leithauser says with a sigh. "It'd be nice if we weren't on the road quite so much."
Suddenly, I feel guilty for keeping him on the phone so long. I leave Leithauser with one last question. Have you arm wrestled since the incident?
"No. I'll never arm wrestle again in my life. I'll never let my kids arm wrestle. I tell people not to arm wrestle. It was literally the most horrifying thing I've ever experienced."