After 14 years fronting acclaimed US indie band The Walkmen, Hamilton Leithauser will release his debut solo album, The Black Hours, next month (2 June). Speaking to Q the singer explains why it was time for him – along with bandmates Walter Martin and Peter Matthew Bauer who also have their own solo projects out this summer – to take the plunge and make his own record with a little help from Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes… and Frank Sinatra.
How the devil are you?
I’m great. How are you?
Let’s start with The Walkmen. Looking in from the outside as three of you are doing solo records roughly at the same time you’d assume everyone hates each other, yet that doesn’t seem to be the case…
Right! Does it look like stiff competition? [laughs] That’s what my sister says. No! We don’t hate each other at all. We are doing this because we got to a point where we didn’t know how we were going to create a record with the gang again. We all live in different cities. I’d been writing a lot of songs from the moment we finished [last album] Heaven, I had a big batch and the idea of putting it through the same gammit, the same group just seemed impossible. It seemed like it wouldn’t work. I talked to the other guys and they agreed. They had songs they wanted to try. Walt was writing songs that really wouldn’t have worked with me singing and our band wouldn’t have worked with it so it seemed like the right thing to do.
And then you did the worst hiatus ever because you reformed a couple of weeks after announcing the break to play a gig for the NBA.
[laughs] We weren’t going to tell anybody! Then all of a sudden it got out. We weren’t going to announce it [the hiatus], I’d do a solo record and people might ask me about it in hindsight. Then it got out we were breaking-up or hiatusing, but we’d already booked that other charity show. The timing was just so impossibly stupid. The thing that sucks is I didn’t care at the time but I’ve realised it becomes the story… You get a bit out of favour with the way it’s going. I understand that now. I don’t usually pay any attention to that, but now I realise it sucks. But maybe we can all move past it.
So the songs were there and you wanted to make a record? Going ‘solo’ wasn’t the motivation?
Yeah. It seemed like musically it was going there. I had that song 5AM and I wanted it to be just vocals and strings. I really got into writing the strings. I live in New York and Paul [Maroon, Walkmen guitarist] lives in New Orleans, some of the guys in Philly and getting the band together was hard. There was pressure on band practice now because someone had to fly in or drive on the New Jersey Turnpike! So there’s not much fun in that and writing songs has gotta be fun. So I thought “Why would we do that? I don’t see the reason”.
But you looked at what you did have…
Yeah and thought “God damn! I like this!” I did yeah. I thought this is done I don’t want to change and I want to do this how it is.
You’ve been in bands all your adult life, was there no sense of being intimidated about making a record by yourself?
Yeah it’s scary. Mostly the thing that’s good about it is when you’re sitting there writing the song, which you’ve been doing by yourself anyhow, you have this knowledge that the finished product will be something that’s within your control. You have the ultimate say. It’s not going to run through the same machine that we had for years. It’s not one person’s fault at all, you’re as much to blame anybody, but it gets into the same group dynamic which can get out of hand and things get crushed. So there is that feeling when you’re writing something you think “I can just do it like this, I can just hire the guy from the Fleet Foxes [Morgen Henderson] to play this” and luckily he did. It’s pretty exciting, honestly.
It’s interesting, although you’ve made a solo record it’s quite a collaborative record.
Yeah! That’s funny how it ended-up being that way. I like working with other people which is ironic because I wanted to do a solo record! [laughs] I do! I do a lot by myself, most of it is me by myself, I’m sitting there in a room by myself every day of the week. But I work with Paul from our band a lot still because we have a really good songwriting partnership and he’s a great musician to have in a studio. I hired Morgan because he’s the greatest musician I’ve ever seen live, he was the first person who came to mind when I thought “who can I bring in who can really kick ass?” [Shins] Richard Swift is a friend from a long time ago who can play everything. He can do it all so we got him to play drums. They were just guys that when you have them in the room it makes good things happen.
“It’s supposed to be dark but funny…”
It feels like these elements has meant you’ve made an quite organically record. Is that how you see it?
Yeah when I was starting out I thought the record was going to sound like the first two songs, 5AM and The Silent Orchestra, that’s why they’re first on the record. I really thought that was going to my vibe. I was going to be solo singer doing something that was very inspired by Frank Sinatra and I was going to write the strings and I was not going to rock. I did not want to rock, that’s the last thing in the world I wanted to do. But halfway through working on the record, like three quarters of the way through, I got this email from Rostam [Batmanglij] from Vampire Weekend. He was like a friend of a friend. I knew him through Ezra [Koenig, Vampire Weekend frontman] a little bit, but not very well. He asked if I wanted to try working together? I didn’t know what that meant but I was like “I like that band”, their latest record was about to come out, I had a copy and thought it was awesome, so I went “of course”. I went over to his house and we just hit it off personally and musically. But he wanted to do all rock’n’roll which I did not want to do. So we really butted heads a lot and it’s funny we still do, but in a very friendly way! He’s like a steamroller! [laughs] So we started playing rock, doing Alexandra on a guitar. It was loud as hell, rocking and for some reason it was really fun again, I don’t know why. So I started writing rock songs, Paul started writing rock songs too and by the end we had half a rock’n’roll record, which is basically the last thing in the world I was expecting. That’s why Alexandra is the third song on the album, it was so unexpected!
Was that strange? You’re supposed to be in charge…
Yeah, but that’s what always makes it good: something surprising. I knew going into it that if you try to limit yourself to a style it just never happens, things get dull. I can’t do that, it doesn’t work for me.
So you went to Los Angeles, got everyone together and made a night time record? Good use of the Sunshine State…
I know! But the night life there is pretty good too. It was really fun to make, honestly. We rented this incredible house, had a great vibe. The gang really clicked. Everybody was there! It was so productive, the [Vox Recording Studios] studio was absolutely incredible. It was just so fun to make. I really want to say I’d go back, there’s no place I’d want to more, but every time you try to go back and recapture something… you know, it doesn’t happens.
It seems quite refreshing that you’ve ended up with a record with such spontaneity, rather than a micro-managed solo album.
Definitely. Things changed so much as I went along. 11 O’Clock Friday Night was a guitar rock song, and meanwhile Morgan was just bored in the corner playing marimba and it was sounding better and better. So all of a sudden it’s “why don’t you do that we’ll turn off all guitars”, he put all his percussion over it and it’s so different and so cool. Stuff like that happened, over and over on the record just from having all those guys in the room. It was fun and it moved quickly, which is always a good sign. If you’re excited and it’s moving quickly you know it’s going well.
It does have a feeling that it’s a record that exists in a place in time, rather than put together piece-by-piece in a studio.
It has the sound of the room. It’s funny but now I can listen to Vampire Weekend or somebody else and I can hear exactly what that particular room sounds like. We tried to do as much as we could together. Morgan and Richard Swift locked! They had never met each other before and they’re very different guys, but they understood each other.
What was it like for you in the middle of this? It’s your name above the door so to speak, so were you like “this is brilliant, get on with it” or “where is this heading…”?
A little of both. The songs were written when we got there, but it’s a new experience for me. In The Walkmen everyone’s got roles worked out, but this time there was that feeling of you get in the room and they’re not playing exactly what you envisioned. But then you think “It’s Morgan, I’ll let him figure it out” that’s the reason I brought him in. The same with Richard Swift, I’ll let him figure out drums, because he’ll do a better job then I’m going to do if I did it myself. And they’re there for their personalities too, that’s why they’re here. They’re great musicians so let them be a bit free. I changed it a lot from the rehearsals a week before to the recording. I was so happy they were willing to show up, honestly!
It’s called the Black Hours and there is that real nocturnal feel to the record, was that something you’d planned or did that come from the sessions too?
I had that song had that song 5AM which was the one I thought was a tone setter for the record. I called it Black Hours because it’s a straight up nod to Frank Sinatra, the records that inspired that song and a some others, In The Wee Small Hours and The September Of My Years. It has a classic, night-clubby feel to me and I thought it was a strong title because. It’s dark, but it’s not sad dark, not depressed dark, it’s nightlife. I think it captured the vibe of what we were doing pretty well. It’s pretty accurate. That studio is the where the vocalists used to warm-up before going on CBS Radio which is directly across the street in LA, the guy hasn’t changed anything in there since 1921 or something. You go in the room and it’s incredible, it’s like you’re out of time when you walk in. They used to have Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. All these guys would come in and record right there in the same room and then walk across the street. Then you’re in the same room playing this music that’s so directly inspired by those guys. That was just a coincidence that we happened to be playing that kind of music in that room but it was good luck.
“All The Walkmen going solo at once? Does it look like stiff competition? That’s what my sister says. No! We don’t hate each other…”
You’re a big Frank fan?
I listen to Frank a lot. I don’t want to get too mired in the past because I’m having all these influences that are 60s years old [laughs], but in the end that’s the stuff I care about the most. I listen to new bands that I think are awesome, but the stuff that really inspired me is the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Frnk. In fact this time I listened a lot to Cole Porter and New Orleans jazz. I don’t know, maybe because it’s been around longer and I’ve listened to it longer, but I just care more. To me my record doesn’t sound old at all. You’re doing it with the classic production and it’s all going to tape, but I think we got a good modern sound on it.
What elements of that era do you hear in your songs then?
It’s like a personality and an aesthetic for the string production and the vocal delivery, maybe. I like that strong man absolutely pitying himself. This fake character of the guy who’s just so down and out. You don’t believe for a second Frank is actually down and out – he’s living the high life – but he’s up there wallowing in everything that’s gone wrong in his life. It’s really funny! That’s what I like the most. I have song called Self Pity on the record, I almost called the album Self Pity, it was the runner up title [laughs]. I wanted to call it that but everyone I told said it was just too much.
You do seem to have a habit of mixing despair with really pretty tunes. There’s a Walkmen song called Woe Is Me that people can dance to…
Yeah! It’s supposed to be dark but funny.
It’s even funnier with Frank when he’s up there singing how alone he is, surrounded by a massive band.
Right, right, right! And he goes “I’m broke!” You’re not broke. [laughs] His fast stuff, his Count Basie stuff, I don’t listen to at all, I couldn’t care less, but the more down and out he gets the more interested I get.
Where do the situations and stories you created come from? How about literature? You now have an online book club.
I do read a lot of books. The more I read it just helps me write the lyrics. There’s no direct connection. I’m never stealing a line – not that I haven’t stolen a line over the years – but it doesn’t seem a clear connection. I just read this huge book on Robert Moses, the guy who built New York City basically, and I wrote a couple of songs while I was reading it. They don’t have anything to do with it but it keeps your mind active. Maybe that’s inspiration. It’s funny you can’t put your finger on why but there’s some correlation.
Looking ahead, how much can you do this live?
I’ve got a ten piece band right now, full string section, I’m travelling with. Let’s see how long I can keep that up. [laughs] It’s not cheap, I can tell you that man. I’m going to run them into the ground.
You recently played your ‘first gig’ with them. Did it feel like a proper first gig?
Yeah it did! It’s so scary. I’m not worried about the actual performance, I feel my guys are so good, so what’s the worst that can go wrong? But it is a new thing, brand new, I’m not up there with my same old gang who’ve I’ve been with for 15 years or whatever. At the beginning it’s going to everyone from the record, but then they’re going to have to go back to their own bands at some point. Right now I’ve got them all!
And you plan to tour?
I’ve got a lot of plans to tour actually. It’s just a logistical nightmare, but we’ll figure it out.
Could you do it properly solo – just you – if you wanted?
Yeah, I’ve thought about that. I think I’ll start with my huge band and then approach it with my rock band because it might be fun, but right now I’ve got to do something different other than The Walkmen. I don’t know if I could hold it down right now, I’m not good enough, but maybe some day. It would be exciting to be able to do that, but it’s tough!
So how’s your inter-song banter? You’re a solo artist now…
Because you’ve got to connect? I don’t know. I’ve started talking a lot these days between songs after a few cocktails. I may need to put the kibosh on the shit I say. I might get myself in trouble.
Paul Stokes @Stokesie
For more head to Hamiltonleithauser.com.