“I retired from my fight / I retired from my war,” Hamilton Leithauser sings on “I Retired”, his croon still as rich as ever, his blood still as blue. “No one knows what I was fighting for, and I don’t even know myself anymore.”
It’s tempting to read these words as a eulogy of sorts for the Walkmen, Leithauser band for the last fourteen years. Despite a certain regal nonchalance projected by the five-piece, it was never known as a group for whom things came easily. The group made six albums for four labels, and each one came packaged with a tales of torturous sessions, of recording songs and drums and guitar parts over and over to no avail. “It sounds terrible all of the time,” Leithauser told the Guardian in 2004. “You take what you can get with the band. Getting something good… it’s one in a million. Every once in a blue moon we come up with something we like, I do the singing on top of it, and then that’s a song.”
“It was a lot of banging our heads against the wall,” Leithauser says now of those experiences, speaking with BYT from his home in Brooklyn last Thursday. After over a dozen years of that, who could blame the Walkmen for going on a “pretty extreme hiatus“?
Of course, there has always been a strong current of bitterness and resignation to Leithauser’s songwriting. After all, the first words out of his mouth on the band’s classic 2002 debut LP, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, were: “They’re winning / I know its not fair, but what is? / I’ve given up hope.”
But there is hope on “I Retired”. In its back half, the song breaks into a twangy shoo-bi-doo-wap shuffle and the mood markedly lightens. “As long as I can keep the train rolling, then all my friends will always know they’ll never be alone,” Leithauser sings, backed vocally by a huddle of such friends: Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, Fleet Foxes’ Morgan Henderson, studio ace Richard Swift, and the Walkmen’s Paul Maroon.
These are the players who assist Leithauser throughout his first solo effort, Black Hours, an absolutely winning collection of ten songs that run the aesthetical gamut: the aforementioned country & western, snappy big band orchestration, dour ballads, hard-swinging pop, melodramatic dirges. If the Walkmen carved out a distinct sound – and it would be near impossible to argue it didn’t – then Leithauser sounds determined to prove all of the ways he can not replicate it. The result is perhaps the most enjoyable front-to-back listening experience he’s crafted – a greatest hits LP without antecedent recordings.
Working with a stable of friends and not a steady band poses its challenges, though, mainly when it comes to taking the music on the road. “I’ve had kind of a rotating cast, because everybody else has their own bands,” Leithauser said when we spoke. On this particular day, he’d spent the afternoon teaching Black Hours‘ songs to Fleet Foxes’ Skyler Skjelset, who’ll fill in on bass for a string of tour dates in August.
“I don’t need anyone,” he sings on Black Hours, but we know that’s not true.
Is it freeing to perform and not have to sing the Walkmen’s staples? To not have to play “The Rat” for the 500th time?
Yeah, I didn’t want to do that anymore. That’s one of the reasons I’m doing this. I’m very much glad to not be doing it.
I read your “occupational hazards” post for The Talkhouse. I’m surprised your vocal chords are in good shape. I was always shocked you didn’t shred them on a regular basis.
I’m genuinely surprised that I didn’t do any damage there either. I went to a throat doctor a few years ago, not because I had any particular problem, but because I figured something was probably wrong. If I had hearing loss, I could only imagine what I had done to my throat. But I didn’t have any major problems at all. I was surprised too.
You’ve settled down as a vocalist as the years have gone by. How has your approach to singing changed over time?
It’s still pretty hard stuff, man. Maybe it comes across a little tamer, but I still have to really get warmed up and go hard to make the songs on this record work.
I think I have a lot more control over what I do now. On this record, since it was the singer solo record, I just wanted to make sure that I had a diverse collection of approaches. I wanted a lot of different attitudes and sounds in the singing itself. That first song, “5 AM”, was written as a vocals first song. The strings came second, and the band third.
But then I wanted to get to songs like “I Retired” and “I Don’t Need Anyone”, which I thought were more rock ‘n’ roll band songs – even though they weren’t really written as a band. I was just happy that there could be a wide variety on this record. I thought that was honestly the most important thing.
Given the stylistics leaps of the record – the stretching in new directions – were there any songs that were particularly challenging?
When we decided to not work as the Walkmen anymore, I had a bunch of things written that I assumed would be on Walkmen records. But when I suddenly had those songs for myself, my perspective changed. I realized that the vocal was going to be my calling card. I realized that since the record was going to be the first that I write, it’s going to be for me the most scrutinized. I knew people were going to say, “Does the record sound exactly like the Walkmen?” I thought, “How am I going to carry a song when I don’t have, like, Walt writing the drum parts or something?” That was the hardest part: Thinking that I have to come up with a whole sound with just my voice. I really wanted everything else to follow that.
That might sound strange, because a lot of the album is just rock ‘n’ roll songs, but that’s how I was looking at it. The hardest part was building from the vocals down and adding a band that wasn’t there. It was this new perspective on songs that I already had, which made me really uncertain over whether this album was going to be floating in space or whether there was going to be a band backing it up and making songs.
How did the songs progress in such different directions? How does one song end up in big band orchestration and another in country & western? Some of the songs ring truer to the Walkmen’s aesthetic, but there are so many tangents.
In the Walkmen, I was trying to sound as different as possible every time that I wrote a song. You’re always trying to feel like you’re coming from a different direction – that’s what keeps you interested.
It was same goal with this record, but I also had the added the worry that I really can’t sound like the Walkmen. If you’re going to put out music under a different name, there should be a reason why. So, I felt like I couldn’t fall back on the Walkmen stuff. And I know that I’m singing, and Paul is playing guitar on a lot of the stuff, so that sound is going to slip in there, because that’s who we are and we’ve been doing it for twenty years, but I haven’t had a lot of people say, “This sounds like the Walkmen.” I felt like I got past that pretty quickly.
There’s a song, “I’ll Never Love Again”, on the bonus disc, and it’s actually one of my favorite songs, but I didn’t put it on the record simply because it sounds like a Walkmen song at the beginning. If this was a Walkmen record, that song would have been on there no matter what. And the first one on that disc, I think it’s called “Waltz” – for some reason, it just got called “Waltz” – I love that one too, but that one sort of sounded too Walkmen-y to me too.
You seemed to be in a pretty content place on Heaven, but Black Hours reads much darker. What was driving that direction?
Sometimes I think that I do dark stuff the best. There was a lot of sunshine on Heaven, and on Lisbon too – well, a little bit – but I felt like with this record, there was a drama that I could bring out, like with the strings on “5 AM”. I get a little kick out of that. I thought, “I can be as dark as I want to be on this song and I’ll end up getting a little kick out of it.”
I’m not depressed, and it’s not sad, but it’s dark. I thought that maybe I could do that in a strong way and keep it fun enough that you want to listen to it and that it comes off as charming instead of down and out.
How would you describe your relationship with Paul Maroon? Why is he someone who continues to plays an instrumental part in realizing your music?
I’m always writing music, and when we finished Heaven, I still had bits and pieces of stuff that I was working on. Some of it didn’t make it onto Heaven and some of it I wrote right afterwards. I write long distance with Paul a lot, because he lives in New Orleans and I live in New York, and over the last six years or so, we had a pretty productive long-distance songwriting partnership.
A lot of the stuff that the Walkmen did was not necessarily productive – like, getting the five of us getting together was really not a good way of writing music. It was a lot of banging our heads against the wall, and you always have to do that, but there’s not a lot of good that comes from trying to turn it out as a five-piece.
When the Walkmen decided that we were going to not work together, and I was going to do this, Paul and I had a bunch of thing that we had been working on together. I thought, “You know, I’ve been working on this stuff for like eight months, and I don’t want to give up all of that work just because it’s a little awkward.” So I called him and talked to him about it. I had written a lot of stuff on my own, and I was writing with Rostam [Batmanglij], but we figured we could talk to the other guys [in the Walkmen] and make sure it was cool that we kept working on what we had, and they were cool with it. So we kept using the stuff we had, because we liked where we were going, and we ended up writing more, because we just have a good creative partnership.
Does any part of you wish that you had made this sort of record on your own sooner?
We did the Walkmen for so many years, and you’re always thinking of that. Especially when you move to different cities, the grass is always greener. You start thinking, “What if I try something on my own or with someone else?” Or you could do something else – not music. That’s always been on everyone’s mind.
I’m glad we stuck with it as long as we did, because it was fun. It was hard, but we got a lot done and I’m proud of what we did. Maybe we should have gone our separate ways a long time ago, but who knows. I’m happy with our last three records. I really liked them a lot.
The cover of the record looks like something from the Blue Note Records catalogue.
There are so many records in the world with so many covers, and after you’ve seen 100 million, sometimes they can start feeling a little random. I thought that I’d just put myself on the cover, and maybe it’ll be some big shot of my ugly mug, but it’ll be me and I can stand behind it, like, what you see is what you get.
Maybe it looks old. I thought one of the vibes of the record was a classic nightclub scene, so I took that shot at the El Ray Theatre in L.A. I like that font – I had a friend design it and I thought he did a good job. It does look like sort of a classic Johnny Cash record to me, or maybe Frank [Sinatra]. But it actually doesn’t look like Frank. That’s the comparison that everyone draws, but I can’t think of a cover of his that actually looks like that. Frank had some really weird looking covers – really ugly stuff.
Maybe mine is too classic? I don’t know – I don’t want to project some lost retro world. I don’t think the music comes across that way at all.
I can’t think of a lot of times that I’ve seen you perform where you weren’t wearing a blazer and tie.
When we were younger, it actually wasn’t like that at all. You see really old pictures of the Walkmen and we don’t look at all like that. At some point, after I was doing it professionally for a couple of years, I just felt like I didn’t even have a job anymore. And I felt like if you put on a shirt and a blazer, you sot of tell yourself that you’re putting effort into something.
When you play in a band full-time, you have no schedule. There’s never a Monday morning. You start living in this free-flowing, non-schedule world. I don’t like it. I like a little more rigidity and scheduling. When I’m home and I’m writing music, I try to keep a real schedule.
Dressing up makes you feel like you have a job. I think it communicates to people that you put in a little effort. It’s kind of funny, because I guess I do end up dressing conservatively, which is really just not me if you know me. I don’t care though – better that than something else.
You went to private school in DC, right? I assume you had to dress up for that.
Yeah, we had a dress code however many years I was there – I think it was nine years. I guess I got used to wearing a blazer every day.
Is most of your family still in the area?
Yeah, I have a lot of family in DC. And my new drummer is my old drummer from my high school band, and in a twist of fate, he’s now my brother-in-law. He married my sister. He lives down there.
Is there anywhere you make the rounds when you’re back?
I have kids now, you know? Once you have kids and you go to your parents’ hometown, every second needs to be accounted for. You have to get that visiting time in. When we’re there, we’re sort of under surveillance.
You said you’re always writing. Is there new material on the back burner already?
I’ve already written stuff for what will be my next record. I write obsessively.
Is the approach of Black Hours – a kind of a stylistic grab bag – something you think you’d want to recreate?
You know, I don’t have a band anymore. I wrote Black Hours with two different guys, and I did a lot on my own, and at first I thought that I was writing two different records and they wouldn’t be able to be on the same thing. I thought I’d have to go for one specific vibe.
But after a while, I started to think that I needed to get my own personality, I don’t really want to pigeonhole myself into one style. I want to sing and have the music follow the voice. I want to have different sounding stuff on a record. That’s where I am right now. Maybe down the line, I’ll want to streamline it into one band, but right now, I think it’s really important to have variety.
I was in a band for so many years where everybody played one way. We tried to be different, but we are the same guys on all the records. I’d like to have records with varied playing on different song, and just different people.
You sound happy with the situation you’re in.
I love it, to be honest.
Additional contributions by Andrew Hamilton.