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The Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser: “I wanted something strong, bold, and classic”

The Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser: “I wanted something strong, bold, and classic”

17 April 2014, 15:00

“I don’t have my friends with me, and I don’t have anything else to fall back on.”

It’s only a couple of years since The Walkmen released the finest record of their career and, in doing so, seemed as close as they’d ever been to making a genuine breakthrough into the alternative mainstream – something only “The Rat” had allowed them to flirt with previously. I think you can probably draw parallels between the New Yorkers and pre-2008 Elbow; a slew of critically-acclaimed records, a well-established cult fanbase and a constant sense that they were treating their transition to bigger things as a marathon, and not a sprint.

Heaven, granted, might not have had quite as cataclysmic an impact on the careers of its creators as The Seldom Seen Kid, but it’d certainly bumped them up a level. The praise was lavish and unanimous. In Britain, at least, the adjustment to larger rooms was seamless. Finally, it seemed, The Walkmen had something to build on, a platform, and one that it was widely assumed they’d use for a leg up, to continue their steady climb.

Instead, they jumped off of it. Last October saw them make an announcement that was stunning in every sense – the timing, the gravity, the sheer audacity of turning their backs on the world just as they seemed to have it at their feet. “Out of every one hundred people that know The Walkmen, probably one knows my name.” Their frontman, Hamilton Leithauser, is back where he started, as he steps out on his own – ostensibly.

“There’s so little stability in a musical career anyhow, that to walk away from the only foundation we maybe had was pretty scary, to be honest. It still is now. The truth is, we made the decision to do our own thing a long time ago – we just didn’t tell anybody. We all live in different cities now, and the original plan was to try to make another Walkmen record work that way; we’d all work on our own songs and then try to throw them together. I think it became obvious pretty quickly, though, that we really weren’t compatible with making music that way.”

Leithauser’s solo record, Black Hours, does at least prove that, even if he can’t trade off of his band’s name anymore, he can make use of the fact that Heaven has left the stock of the individual members pretty high. He’s speaking to me from the London offices of Domino – a label you suspect wouldn’t have been putting out his album pre-Walkmen – and discusses, in detail, a slew of high-profile favours he was able to call in; some real indie rock heavyweights lent their talents to the Black Hours sessions.

“I actually carried on writing with Paul (Maroon) from The Walkmen, just because we have a great partnership in that respect. We were working on stuff long distance, as had kind of been the plan for the band, and we carried on with that after we decided the material would be for my own record instead. It was going pretty well, just sending ideas back and forth between myself in New York and him out in New Orleans, and we didn’t see any reason to ditch everything we’d done. It wasn’t like it was getting in the way of anything.”

Leithauser is fairly candid about the fact that making his own record afforded him a greater degree of creative control than he was used to in the band. “I just don’t think this record would’ve gotten made with The Walkmen,” he says. “I mean, the songs definitely would’ve taken on a different shape if I’d put them to the band. There’s so many other ideas on the table, and often songs turn out completely differently to how you’d imagined. Plus, I don’t think I ever would’ve had as much freedom to collaborate with other people as I did with this album.”

Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij is one of the most prominent contributors to Black Hours, having co-written and produced two tracks – including the lead single, the pop stomper “Alexandra”. “Rostam actually just cold-called me, totally out of the blue,” Leithauser recalls. “He’d somehow gotten wind of the fact that I was making my own record, and wanted to see if I’d be up for trying something together. We hit it off really well, personally and musically, and we got “I Retired” down super quickly. It was all very new to me, doing things that way. I mean, I’ve been with my guys since I was a kid, really, but it turned out to be super fun.”

Batmanglij’s involvement marked the beginning of a process that would eventually see Leithauser effectively forming a supergroup around him to record with. He pitched in plenty on the instrumental side of things himself, of course – “I recorded a lot of the guitars, electric and acoustic, and I arranged all of the string parts” – but he was also able to call upon The Shins’ Richard Swift and Morgan Henderson of Fleet Foxes for backup.

“Richard’s an old friend, and he came in and played drums on the record. Morgan came down too, and played a bunch of different stuff, like he does in Fleet Foxes. Rostam, I guess, is technically the producer on those two tracks we wrote together, but I kind of saw him as being part of this gang in the studio; it was like we put a whole new band together, inadvertently.”

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Hamilton Leithauser

Being surrounded by new musicians afforded Leithauser the opportunity to experiment, too; “11 O’Clock Friday Night”, for example, is driven by a tribal drum beat and a marimba riff that gradually gives way to the guitar. “The way that song turned out is really just a reflection on how much fun we were having in the studio,” he says. “We were going to put that down as a pretty straightforward guitar track, just straight-up rock and roll, but Morgan had brought a marimba in and had been playing around with it all day. He suggested trying to play it on that, and suddenly we were switching the guitars off and building the song around the marimba instead. There’s always the potential for something like that to happen when you’ve got that sort of talent in the room, I think.”

The record’s title, Black Hours, casts some light on the influences behind it, as well as the overall feel that Leithauser was aiming for. “It was kind of a direct nod to the Frank Sinatra album that was inspiring me when I was starting out on this, In the Wee Small Hours. I wanted something that was really strong, bold, and classic, and that captured a vibe of that kind of classic nightclub darkness of years gone by; a fun darkness, if that makes sense.”

There’s certainly a sense of the record being a real throwback, running through everything from the instrumental choices to the black-and-white cover art, dominated by an old-fashioned shot of Leithauser sharp-suited and beaming. It’s due in no small part to the surroundings in which the album was made, at the private Vox Recording Studios in Los Angeles; the place is steeped in history, with the likes of Bing Crosby and Johnny Mercer having frequented it back in their NBC days.

“I’d never heard of the place, actually,” Leithauser admits, “but Rostam recommended it; he made the last Vampire Weekend record there. He kind of got my foot in the door there, because the owner doesn’t let a lot of people use it. It’s been open since the thirties, and honestly, walking in there is like going back in time. It looks and feels as if you’ve stepped back into 1930. There was an incredible atmosphere about the place, and I think some of that rubbed off on the album, for sure.”

You do wonder, of course, whether Leithauser looks to take any cues from modern artists; everything about this record seems to suggest that he’s in thrall to the likes of Sinatra, which perhaps isn’t a total surprise when you consider that, with The Walkmen, you always got the impression that Leithauser was a singer first, and a musician second.

“I don’t know, man. I care more about that music, and it’s hard to say why. It might just be that I’ve been listening to it forever, but I hear Sinatra and there’s a timelessness that is probably what I’m trying to channel when I’m writing. I don’t want to come across as if I’m mired in the past; I’ve just come into the office, and they’re playing Deerhunter, and I love those guys. I dig bands like The Antlers, too, and Vampire Weekend. But I have to say, when I’m sitting down to write a song, it’s those old, classic singers that I have on the brain, to be honest.”

He politely bats away my attempts to extract a more definitive line on the future of The Walkmen than the ‘extreme hiatus’ they mentioned last year; “I didn’t say that, myself. I really don’t know. Right now, I can’t envisage us getting back together. There’s no reason to, and I don’t know if that’s going to change.” He is, however, keen to mark out Black Hours as the beginning of a solo career in earnest, especially given that that he’s yet to follow his original vision for the album.

“Honestly, in a lot of ways, this record didn’t turn out how I thought it would,” he says. “If you listen to the first two tracks, “5 AM” and “The Silent Orchestra”, that kind of sound is what I thought the whole album would be like. That was really the motivation for doing it alone; I wanted to make vocal-led music, stuff that was really symphonic with a lot of big orchestration.”

“I was ready to kind of shy away from the rock thing a little bit, but Rostam was keen to write rock and roll, and eventually I clocked into that mindset, with him and with Paul. By the end, we were breezing through a lot of guitar-oriented shit; you can hear that on “I Don’t Need Anyone” and “The Smallest Splinter”. I ended up playing in a rock band again, which was kind of ironic because that’s what I was trying to get away from at the beginning.”

The immediate plan is to tour behind the record – “I’ve got a ton of shows booked and a huge, ten-piece band, which is a fucking nightmare to organise” – but Leithauser is evidently happy to continue writing his own material well into the future. “I’ve come out the other side of making a solo record now, and I still really like the process; I’ve already written a bunch of other songs, and it’s refreshing to be able to sit down, come up with something and know that it won’t have to kind of run the gamut of having to go through the whole band. That really is very freeing. I’m not under any illusions about the fact that it might get old someday, but right now it’s so fun to know that what you do isn’t subject to four other opinions. I really like that.”

Black Hours is available via Domino on June 2.

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