Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen
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It’s no surprise that, among their contemporaries in that ’00s New York scene that was briefly the center of the music universe, The Walkmen have aged the most gracefully—and not just because their penchant for vintage organs and slapback guitars has always made them sound older than their years. While everyone else was singing about dancing and drugs, frontman Hamilton Leithauser was already onto the morning after, crafting groggy odes to growing up, and figuring out what to do now that the party was over. The band named its debut Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me Is Gone, for crying out loud, while the refrain of its most lauded song, “The Rat,” turns the familiar, late-twentysomething lament of not going out much anymore—and not knowing anyone when you do—into a bona fide anthem. Perhaps because the group grew out of a band that was itself a casualty of “cool” (the mega-hyped, then quickly dismissed Jonathan Fire*Eater), The Walkmen have never seemed all that concerned with chasing it, increasingly indulging their antiquarian tastes for stuff like Harry Nilsson and early calypso, while Leithauser’s lyrics have only grown more wistful and reflective. How uncool can you get?
The band’s sixth album, Lisbon, certainly makes no concessions to trends, or even impatient listeners: It’s a measured, masterful record that feels miles away from the spiky, ’60s garage-flecked rock of the group’s beginnings. Yet it’s also a natural growth from the wistful waltzes of its predecessor, You & Me, one informed by a worldly perspective that’s only achieved by hanging around long enough. Inspired in part by a particularly memorable trip to the titular city in Portugal, Lisbon contains far-flung hints of New Orleans brass, Sun Records-era country, and Leonard Cohen stateliness, but as always, its biggest influence remains the band’s own decade-long maturation as musicians. The A.V. Club spoke with Leithauser (who, for someone who so often sings from a point of contemplation, is notoriously reticent) about that 10-year-plus evolution, the specific process that led to Lisbon, and the night he met his unlikely fans in En Vogue.
The A.V Club: I actually wasn’t sure I’d be talking to you today, since the band splits up press duties pretty equally—which seems to be how The Walkmen operate. Even though you’re the one out in front doing the singing, it seems like everyone is on equal footing. Is that indicative of how you operate everywhere else too?
Hamilton Leithauser: Yeah, we’re a democracy. You try to divide things up. It’s not always fair, but that’s what we try to do. Everybody’s got equal power.
AVC: Do you feel comfortable in the role of frontman? As opposed to a lot of other frontmen out there, we don’t know much about you personally, which seems intentional in some ways.
HL: I think we’ve all got our roles down pretty well. I don’t know, I hadn’t really thought about it. Now I feel suddenly uncomfortable. [Laughs.] I’m just kidding.
AVC: What was it about Lisbon and your time there that spoke to you?
HL: Well, have you ever been?
HL: Neither had we. None of us had ever been there, and we went a year and a half, maybe two years ago. It was right toward the beginning of writing this record, and then we went probably nine months ago, when we were three-quarters of the way done. It wasn’t like we were planning on naming the record that we were working on after that at all, but when it came down to it in the end… The last thing we do is name the record. It’s always fighting over what songs are gonna go where, and then trying to get a complete thing together with a title. We had four titles or something like that we were going with, and each one had a different order of songs that added up. [Lisbon] was one that was suggested—I think maybe I suggested it, but I don’t really remember—that was this random thing at first, but it sort of clicked with everybody. It wasn’t like we discussed why, but I think it made sense for us, because we had been there, and it had been sort of a big deal in the band that we had been there twice and had such a great time and sort of discovered a city we all liked. I don’t know why it translated into the name of the record, but it just seemed sort of appropriate—which is weird, because we recorded the record in Dallas. And we were trying to go for this, whatever, “Elvis” sound, so I don’t know why…. In our minds it added up, and we all liked the title.
AVC: What were some of the titles you rejected?
HL: Um… [Pause.] Shit, I can’t remember. I actually have no idea.
AVC: Were those trips like a vacation?
HL: No, we were playing while we were there. Usually when we go on these things, you see the Holiday Inn and the nightclub, and that’s the only part of the town you see. And if you don’t, the other way it usually works is it’s five guys on this weird, forced vacation together. It’s not necessarily that fun. You’re just hanging on the beach or something. But for some reason, both times we went there we had a fantastic time. We’ve been to Europe and we go to a lot of big cities, but this was a brand new one that nobody had been to, and it’s a really fantastic-looking place. It just worked out.
AVC: The press release actually says you wrote a couple of songs while you were there.
HL: We were definitely working on stuff while we were there, that’s true.
AVC: It also says that “set the tone for the rest of the record.”
HL: I guess looking back you can say that. I don’t know. It all adds up in my mind, but I don’t know. It makes sense to me. But we lived it, so I don’t know.
AVC: One of Lisbon’s supposed claims to fame is that it has one of the mildest climates in Eurasia. Was that your experience?
HL: Really? [Laughs.] It was pissing rain the first time we were there, for like five days. It never stopped. I guess it wasn’t necessarily all that cold. The second time it was sunny and nice—70s and gorgeous. It’s right on the beach, so it’s really set up as an outdoor city.
AVC: “Mild climate” almost describes the feeling of the record—your singing, especially compared to previous albums, is very relaxed, the instrumentation is relatively restrained, and the songs all seem to come from a very comfortable place. What did it feel like on your end while you were making it?
HL: It took so long to do, so you go through all the emotions. The first quarter of it was a little more than a year ago. We were writing the first half in the winter of 2009. We started recording it August 2009, and that whole first half was doing—you know the song “Stranded”? We were doing that kind of stuff. We had a lot of horns and mellowed-out stuff and a big, grand sound. Then the next portion that we did had a lot of country-sounding stuff and a lot of swing beats. I don’t think any of that made it, but there was a long time where it felt like that was gonna be the sound of the record. From there on out, we got a little lost. I think we hit a wall for a while. In the spring, we went down to Texas and did stuff with a more rock sound, stuff that had a lot of presence and was really simple. We just took away all the overdubs we’d been doing and redid a bunch of the songs we had been doing in New York, and just absolutely cut everything out of them, and it was just so much more fun. It allowed us to rock more. And then we did “Angela Surf City,” and that’s as high as I can go right there. It’s like a workout. By the end of it, it felt like we were going to have an upbeat rocker, and that’s what we sort of ended up with.
AVC: You had something like 30 songs, right?
HL: Yeah, we did a lot of stuff.
AVC: What was the process of cutting that huge chunk out and whittling them down to just the 11 on the album?
HL: A lot of them just die right there in the studio, and there’s no doubt. We record pretty quickly. Writing takes forever, but when you get into the studio, you know within three hours, “Okay, I never want to hear this song again in my life.” Then it’s just gone. Some of them were a bit of a battle, but there weren’t that many battles this time. There were more battles over You & Me than there were over which ones to keep on this one.
AVC: You worked with two different producers, Chris Zane and John Congleton. What were the experiences like working with each of them?
HL: The funny little thing that we’ve been talking about but weren’t able to really get a read on was getting one’s opinion of the other. Especially when we went down to Texas and came back, they didn’t really have much to say about each other. But every time they did, there were some quick little negative comments about the other guy’s engineering skills, which we all got a real kick out of. They’ve got nothing nice to say about one another, which I just loved. It was so entertaining. [Laughs.]
[Zane] was strictly an engineer when we were working with him. It’s always weird when you make it official and put it on paper, and then you have to start acting the way that it is on the contract. So he was just officially an engineer, and he would noticeably stay out the way when decisions were being made. But he did all of the engineering, and he got all the sounds, and he’s really great at it.
AVC: Is it important to you guys to have a producer who doesn’t try to wield too much influence over you?
HL: Actually what we did—which I think it really pissed Chris off, and it really didn’t have anything to with him—when we worked with John, we agreed to give him producer power or whatever. We’d only done that this one time before on this one song, so it was definitely like this big unknown. None of us knew John at all, so when we got down there, it was a different dynamic. We did it because we felt like when we were in New York we had hit a wall, and we just wanted a change. And he did it. He brought it. He had a few suggestions at first that I didn’t know how to take. But honestly, man, I really liked what he had to say.
When we went down there, we were playing a concert in Dallas, and we had two days off and he was available, so we went in and we did “Angela,” “Torch Song,” and this other one that’s not on the record. They were all three songs that we had already done in New York. So we were just going in with no expectations, and we were just going to do everything he said—nobody was going to cause any fuss, and we were going to see what we walked out with. It’s not like he had all these drastic ideas, but we loved the sound of the room immediately, and then he had a few suggestions that we did, and it was so much more fun. In one and a half days, we did all three of those songs, and then I think we had more time booked for New York when we got back, but we decided just to cancel that and head back down to Texas.
AVC: How did you like spending all that time in Dallas?
HL: That was brutal. Dallas is so rough. [Laughs.] South Dallas down there? Oh my God. That dry country? That’s… I don’t know. I got a $290 speeding ticket for going 35 in a 25 zone. But it was a big road and just so slow. I drive so much faster than that usually, and I just couldn’t believe it. $290.
AVC: This record, probably rightly, has been called a “grower.” Do you think that puts it at a disadvantage, especially given the way people consume and judge music so quickly these days?
HL: Maybe. I have come to realize lately how depressing it is that things are consumed so fast. I guess I just never really thought about it so much before, to tell you the truth. I buy vinyl records. I’ve seen it more and more with the MySpace thing, where somebody’s like, “Check out my band,” and then they send you their MySpace and it’s just a song, and you just get the little package and that’s just it. And then people steal music or whatever, and they just skip around on their iPod so fast. There’s definitely something about it that I find unsavory.
AVC: With that in mind, it seems pretty bold that the first song you put out from Lisbon was a very stately one like “Stranded”—especially since it’s pretty different from anything else on the album. Why did you decide to make it the introduction?
HL: I don’t even think that was our decision. I think it was just the dude at NPR wanted to play it on the radio and asked if he could play that first and we said sure. I think he made that decision for us.
AVC: “Stranded,” “Angela Surf City,” “Woe Is Me”—there seem to be a lot of songs about broken relationships this time. Has that been on your mind lately?
HL: I don’t know. Those just seemed to work on those songs for some reason. “Angela,” I think I wrote those words really fast and I tweaked them, but I wrote them in definitely less than a day.
AVC: But do you feel as though your lyrics typically come from a personal place?
HL: Definitely, yeah. I spend more time on the lyrics than I do on anything else by a long shot.
AVC: Something that’s always resonated in your songs is that you’ve—either accidentally or purposely—repeatedly tapped into this theme or feeling of getting older, and that’s a feeling you’ve probably captured better than any of your contemporaries.
HL: [Laughs.] Is that a good thing?
AVC: I think so. It’s interesting how you can trace a timeline from “We’ve Been Had,” where you’re taking your first steps into the big city, to “The Rat,” where you go out and realize you don’t have as many friends as you used to, and then to “In The New Year,” where you’re reaching that point where you’ve grown up, and all your sisters are married off to your best friends. Now, on Lisbon, there’s “While I Shovel The Snow,” which feels as though you’ve maybe retired to the suburbs and are finally just taking things day-by-day.
HL: [Laughs.] I think you’re onto something. I’ve honestly just never really thought about it before.
AVC: So you don’t think about growing up as much as you sing about it?
HL: Well, you sing about what’s on your mind, but it has to be…[Pause.] It’s very rare that I write words that aren’t directly inspired by music. I just can’t do it. I’d love to be able to write poetry like Leonard Cohen—just write it out and then do the song around it and the instruments take a backseat. But I just can’t do that at all. A lot of the times you’ll get these ones where the words will just come right out when you think of your singing melody or right when you hear it, and it’ll just be something that you do and you try to work around that. It’s something that you’re conscious of, but it’s like you’re trying to make it work with the vibe that you’ve got going.
AVC: Do you think the next album will have a song about living in a nursing home and dealing with incontinence?
HL: [Laughs.] Exactly, yeah.
AVC: Musically it definitely seems like you guys have reached that “adult” stage where you’re comfortable in your own skin. Do you think getting to your sixth album has given you the confidence to just trust your instincts?
HL: I actually think that’s true, yeah. I think basically right before we did You & Me, people hadn’t really liked our third record [A Hundred Miles Off] at all. We got there and we didn’t really have a manager and we didn’t have a record label. Nobody wanted to touch us. It was kind of backs against the wall, do or die. When everybody was fleeing, we had this renaissance in our writing. So we did that record, and it felt like we got back on our feet. And we never stopped writing once we finished You & Me. We wrote these other ones—like that song, “Blue As Your Blood,” I was working on that the beginning of 2009, or maybe even the end of 2008, actually. I felt like we had a steady stream of writing, and for the first time it felt like everybody had a role they felt comfortable with but weren’t bored by.
AVC: You’ve been doing this since you were a teenager. Has your attitude changed toward music changed now that it’s your career?
HL: Yeah, it was weird when I first left my job and started doing this full-time. It’s something that you always thought about when you were younger, that it would be just this great party or whatever. And it sort of is, but when you start living with no structure it can get kind of creepy and weird. So, yeah, I think it changes, because it becomes the thing where you have to tour to pay the rent, and there’s that pressure. But that’s about all. We still talk about the same shit we talked about 15 years ago when we’re at band practice. We still bring up the same, “Let’s do something that sounds like some stupid fucking ska or reggae song.”
AVC: You used to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Was that the only “real” job you’ve held?
HL: Yeah, I sort of worked there when I was in college, and I worked there for six years. The whole first portion of the band before anybody ever heard us—which was for eight years—that whole time I was working there, five days a week. It was great. I worked on the [Heilbrunn] Timeline Of Art History, which was something that they completed after I left. It was this project that they started up to build a timeline, which they consequently put onto their website. You can check it out at metmusem.org/toah.
AVC: So what do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a musician? Would you still be doing that?
HL: No. I don’t know, though. My dad works in a museum, and I do feel at home in the museum world, so I don’t know. Maybe. Being a curator would be pretty sweet, but I think you have to be a billionaire going in the door.
AVC: The Walkmen grew out of the dissolution of Jonathan Fire*Eater, and you’ve known that group’s singer, Stewart Lupton, since you were a kid. Now that The Walkmen has eclipsed that band, has it changed your relationship? Is that awkward?
HL: No, it’s not awkward at all. Our parents are friends, and I see him all the time. When their band broke up and [Leithauser and guitarist Peter Bauer’s band The Recoys] broke up—when bands break up, there’s reasons. The bass player from my old band [Mike Sheehan] and I…[Pause.] I haven’t spoken to him in a very long time, but we’ve known each other for a real long time. It’s weird at first, of course, because we’ve been doing this kind of stuff since we were kids, so it takes years to get used to. But everybody got used to it a long time ago.
AVC: The members of The Walkmen all live in different cities now. How do you guys deal with that?
HL: At the end of this record, to tell you the truth, I was getting really sick of driving down to Conshohocken [Pennsylvania], because it’s like, two hours, and if you hit traffic it can be a nightmare. But we’ve sort of streamlined our process of songwriting. There’s a lot less sitting around and jamming and screwing around for hours. When you get down there you’ve got something to work on—a reason to be having band practice.
AVC: How often are you working up new material? How important is it to you to always be writing?
HL: I guess we always are. We have something done for the next record I think, which is cool.
AVC: Can you tell us about it, or is it too early?
HL: There’s not much to tell, really, except that we’re all into it. It’s a slow jam.
AVC: Like straight-up, R&B slow jam?
HL: [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s got some funky-ass drums.
AVC: You guys have talked in the past about doing a “straight calypso” record. Do you feel that you’ve reached a place yet where you could finally do something like that—or maybe a straight R&B record—and nobody would think twice about it?
HL: [Laughs.] People might bat an eye if we put out an R&B record. Actually, we were in L.A. recently playing at a party, and this is the greatest compliment I’ve ever gotten: We were playing and this girl came up to me afterwards and said, “I really like your voice,” and I said, “Well, thanks a lot.” And her friends came over and she said, “Me and my friends, we just really love the way you sing. We had this band for a long time. We’re called En Vogue.” And I was like, “What did you say?” Three of the girls from En Vogue were at the party. It was really, really cool. Maybe we should break into the R&B world. I’m gonna give them a call.
AVC: Your website normally has a bunch of crazy stuff on it—movie reviews, that culinary blog you did for a while. It doesn’t really have anything right now. Can we expect something on the next tour?
HL: Maybe. You always do that stuff when you’re bored in the van, and we haven’t done a long tour in forever.
AVC: You’ve got one coming up.
HL: We’ve got a fucking huge one. We’ve got one coming up that we swore we’d never do again, actually. A long time ago, we said that we were never going to do anything over 10 days, but it’s definitely gonna be that.
AVC: Ten days seems like an impractical restriction for a band as popular as yours.
HL: Yeah. But it just kind of drives you crazy, you know.
AVC: Should we even ask about John’s Journey, the novel you’ve been writing for a few years now?
HL: [Laughs.] Yeah, same story, it’s been a while since we worked on that. But some dude the other day was asking me about that, and he had printed out a chapter that he found on the Internet and we were reading it, and I honestly thought it was really funny. So yeah, maybe we should write more.
AVC: The Walkmen have been together for a decade now. How much longer do you think you have in you?
HL: I don’t know, man. People keep asking me that question, and it seems kind of dark.
AVC: Like it’s morbid to ask about your mortality?
HL: Yeah. I really like what we’ve been doing the last couple years, and it feels like we’re gonna keep going pretty strong. It hasn’t been easy getting to where we are now, honest to God.
AVC: You’ve been around long enough that now there are bands that claim to draw inspiration from you. Have you noticed that?
HL: People tell you that, yeah. It’s nice. The other day in England some dude who’s in this band was telling me how much we’d influenced him, so it’s nice to hear that. It’s funny, because these guys are 23, 24, 21. I don’t even know. They look so young, and they say, “I’ve been listening to you since I was 13.” It’s like, holy shit, man. I can’t believe we were around when you were 13.
AVC: What’s something that you’ve learned in these 10 years that you could pass on to them?
HL: They wouldn’t want to hear any tips from me, man. I would have no advice to give. I don’t have anything they need to hear.