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Hamilton Leithauser: Walking Onward

on May 05, 2014, 3:09am

On March 31st, 12.9 million viewers tuned in to the series finale of the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Roughly 72 hours earlier, Hamilton Leithauser was approached about lending one of his songs, the title track of The Walkmen’s 2012 LP Heaven, for the show’s final scene and closing credits. Leithauser was at home in Brooklyn when it aired and remembered it was on with three minutes left in the episode. He made it to his TV just in time to see the show’s main character make a grand, romantic gesture to a woman outside her window as his own song played overhead: “Our children will always hear/ Romantic tales of distant years.”

“I had never seen [the show] before,” he tells me over the phone from his home, surprisingly. “I mean, it works.”

When I then informed him that — SPOILER ALERT — the series’ “mother” character didn’t actually make it out of the finale alive, but rather that he was watching – and soundtracking – a widower winding up with a friend in a twist ending, he luckily wasn’t too shaken up. (“Really? Oh man, that’s dark. It looked like it was all sentimental, at night. That’s OK. I’ll get over it.”) Ends of eras, it turns out, are things Leithauser tries not to get too sentimental over.

Right now, Leithauser’s at the same crossroads James Murphy shuffled around a couple years back. His fellow New Yorker and possessor of one of the 21st century’s most gravelly rock and roll howls hung up his outfit amid his late 30’s, following a string of A-grade albums no less. What separates the two, however, is their perception of what a finale should entail.

In February, The Walkmen performed their final show prior to an “extreme hiatus” at One Eyed Jack’s in New Orleans as part of the NBA All-Star Weekend festivities. It was a semi-improvised dismount, and the first memory Leithauser recalls to me about that weekend isn’t actually of the show itself, but of meeting Golden State Warriors guard Steph Curry, who happened to be dooming his fantasy team at that time.

Each member of The Walkmen, now split between New York, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, is currently working on an individual album or artistic endeavor. Leithauser’s debut solo LP, Black Hours, surfaces first and features its own all-star team of collaborators, including Morgan Henderson (Fleet Foxes, Blood Brothers, Cave Singers), Richard Swift (The Shins), Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), Amber Coffman (Dirty Projectors), and The Walkmen’s own Paul Maroon.

hamiltonblackhours001 Hamilton Leithauser: Walking Onward

When you were writing and recording Black Hours, how careful did you have to be about keeping it from sounding like another Walkmen album?

I had been writing songs for a while before we decided we weren’t going to be doing it as a group, and I definitely had that moment where I suddenly had to look at the songs and be like, “If this is gonna be under a different name, something has to change. I gotta be a lot more careful.” I mean, there’s got to be a reason that it’s coming out under a different name. It’s my voice, so that was the first trick. But it’s hard enough to try and sound different than the Walkmen. I continuously write music; I’m just sort of always doing it, so it’s hard to constantly have to give yourself a voice. It’s just hard enough to write songs, so to have that obstacle, too, makes it all the harder.

The personnel on Black Hours is pretty stacked with familiar names from bands of The Walkmen’s stature. Did they help with that?

Oh, definitely. The stuff was pretty much written by the time the band had got together. But when you get into a room playing with Morgan Henderson and Richard Swift, dudes who can play anything, you can sort of just turn them loose, and that’s why I wanted them around. Morgan will play the marimba or something like that, and it’ll replace my guitar line, and I’m all the happier to have less of me playing the guitar. It’s just great, so that was the reason to get all those people in there. Amber came in and sang, and I wish I had even more of her, looking back.

Did you develop any special connections with anyone that you could see going beyond this solo album?

Without a doubt. I’ll definitely keep working with Rostam and all the guys. We really hit it off. It’s very different and really fun bringing in new people. I was so lucky that anybody was willing to do it, and then I had such a great group of friends who turned up. It’s unbelievable, really. And each guy has a very different way of doing it. I had been doing it with the dudes from The Walkmen for my whole life; I’ve been playing with Pete [Bauer] since I was 14 or 15 or something and with the other guys for at least like 12 years. So seeing how other people work is really interesting and really can be inspiring. It’s the biggest kick-start you can ask for, honestly.

Benefits of living in Brooklyn, too, and not Philadelphia or New Orleans.

Right, totally, it really is. I mean, I could just go walk over to Rostam’s house whenever I want. That was sort of one of the big problems with The Walkmen. There’s this pressure on bands, it becomes like a business. It used to just be our friends, and you get together whenever you want, and we all lived in the same place. And then once everybody started moving away…it’s not really that hard to get together, but it is a trip down the Jersey Turnpike. Or once Paul [Maroon] got to New Orleans, it was a flight, and once there’s a flight, you can keep it as casual as you want, but there’s pressure on that.

You’ve said before that the toughest phase for The Walkmen was around the time of A Hundred Miles Off, and that you had doubts as to whether your band had a future after that. Then you ended up lasting twice as long. Do you ever wonder where you all might be today if you’d walked away then?

I don’t know if I would’ve continued playing music if I’d left then. Maybe someday I would have returned to it. But I haven’t really had that sense, honestly, even when we had our ups and downs. I mean, making an album like Lisbon was so frustrating, I remember. Just bashing our heads into the wall and spending money on studios. But for some reason, I always thought, “We’re gonna make this work. Somehow, it’s gonna happen.” And we finally did, in a sort of quick moment, which was really lucky in the end. But I guess we were just lucky because we’d kept at it for so long. But I dunno, I’ve never had that “I want to throw in the towel” moment.

HamiltonLeithauserJoesPubByKevinYatarola041514 03What were some of the definitive turning points in the Walkmen journey to you?

Well, it’s hard to say because I lived it. Each record is kind of like a mile mark. Honestly, I’m sort of always writing music; I sort of do it obsessively. And it’s a good thing in the end because it keeps me going, but sometimes it’s not a good thing because I can’t stop, and it drives me a little bit manic.

But you know, every record is sort of like a milestone in when you got to a big push in a song, so I look at them all as one long process. When I think of turning a corner, I think of a song I was working on where I felt like, “Man, this is something new, I’ve never heard that.” You know, sort of the smaller things that would have guided the whole record.

I remember when we wrote “In the New Year”. We finally were able to do this. We had been trying to do this rock and roll thing for so long, and it was getting so lifeless. It was as loud as it could possibly be, and it was all just spoiled energy. So when we wrote that one in Salt Lake, we got our spark back, and from there we wrote that whole record [You & Me], and that’s my favorite record of them all.

I think if you were to play every Walkmen album out of order to someone who had never heard your band and asked them to guess which one came last, I think it’d be pretty easy to tell that it was Heaven for a number of reasons. At the time, how understood was it, exactly, that you were making your last album?

There was this feeling of, like, “We need to really make an effort to have a different process.” The record before that, Lisbon, was so hard to make on our own, and it was just the five of us in the studio again, and it had been so many years. When we made Heaven, it was like, “We need to make this different, or it’s not gonna work.” So we brought in Phil Ek to produce it, and he had a hand from early on, he had a say. It’s like bringing in a sixth hand. And the purpose of that was to shake it up.

I think Phil did a great job, but whether or not we thought of it…at the time, I didn’t think we were going our separate ways, but there was definitely a feeling that the way we were doing things had run its course. So whatever we’re doing from now on out has to be different. Maybe someday we’ll do it again with the old lineup, but it’s gonna need a lot of time to get back to the point where there’s a reason for doing it with that lineup.

Your last show in New Orleans also wasn’t some big, planned, deliberate finale.

No, to be honest, none of it was. The first time I’d ever talked to Walt [Martin] about it was over a year ago. I remember it was winter, at the beginning of 2013. That was the first time I ever talked to Walt about it seriously, and we came up with this plan, and we really liked it. We were both really into it, and I never wanted it to be public, to be honest. I wanted to keep doing our thing, and I knew Walt was doing his record, and I was doing mine, and we helped each other out with our records, and I thought we’d just release them when it was time, and it didn’t have to be a big surprise.

But then it got somehow quoted in some interview, and it became public knowledge, and then it became a story, and to be honest, I didn’t really like the story that much because it’s a little bit defeated, and it didn’t make sense. Because the story came out when we were playing the last things that we had on the books, but we’d already booked that benefit show for the All-Star Game. So the story came out, and then we had another show we had to announce, so we announced that show, and then it became, like, our reunion show.

The first shows were never supposed to publicly be our final shows. And then the next one wasn’t supposed to be our reunion show; it was just another thing we were offered that we’d said yes to. But we all had known for a long time that we weren’t gonna be playing anymore. It’s just a shame. I kinda wish it didn’t happen that way. I didn’t mind at the time. I thought, Whatever, it’s fine. It’s nice that people cared.

walkmen hamilton leithauser Hamilton Leithauser: Walking Onward

Did the New Orleans show feel as climactic as you were expecting? You did say at the end of it that it would be the last thing you guys would ever do.

Yeah, that got on the Internet and stuff. I said that because I wanted to put a little finale to it because things were getting a little ridiculous. I didn’t like the way the story was going, so I thought, I’m gonna change the story here. I dunno. That one’s gonna bite me in the ass if we ever play a show again. But who knows if we ever will.

But it was a good show?

Yeah, I mean, it was a really fun weekend. We got to meet a bunch of NBA players. It was pretty awesome.

hamilton leithauser album Hamilton Leithauser: Walking OnwardWhat do you see for yourself after this first solo album?

I’ve already written songs for what will most likely be my next solo record, and I’m really into them actually. I’m still working with Paul; we’re sending stuff back and forth. I’ve got time scheduled with Rostam; we’re gonna do stuff again, but he just moved to LA, so now it’s the same old story where you have to schedule it. But I’ll definitely keep working with him because we really hit it off. I dunno, maybe I’ll do stuff on my own, and with those guys, and maybe find someone else. I do like working with people; it’s fun and it’s like a treat. You spend so much time alone working on stuff anyhow, having something that’s worth showing to someone else, it feels like the fun part. You get to hang out with your buddies and make it happen.

Do you have any other collaborators you haven’t worked with yet in mind for the future?

I don’t know. It’s really hard. I was really lucky that I could still work with Paul, and then Rostam sort of came out of the blue, and it was a great thing that we really got along. I can’t imagine finding other people. I was always so lucky because I had my oldest friends right there working with me. And when I was in college and when we were younger, we had all these friends that were trying to start bands with strangers, and it just never worked. It was so hard. So, I dunno. Finding new people is tough.

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