“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.”