Sunday, January 13, 2008

Interview: Hamilton Leithauser Of The Walkmen

Blending artful songs with pure raw energy, The Walkmen have solidified themselves as one of the best rock bands on the scene today. They will bring their intense live show to Schubas next week (January 20th) for the Tomorrow Never Knows Festival. Since they are never shy about putting on an amazing concert, do what you can to get your hands on some tickets...just know that road will probably take you down craigslist as the show is sold out. I recently caught up with lead singer Hamilton Leithauser on the phone to discuss the album they're currently working on and life on the road. Oh, and he's not that impressed with Washington Redskins' owner, Daniel Snyder.

nql: Hamilton, how you doing?

Hamilton Leithauser: Hey, how’s it going man?

nql: Good. So are you guys at home right now, on the road, where you guys at?

HL: We are at home. We are about to go out next week (and tour).

nql: How’s the new album coming? I think last I read you had 9 tracks down.

HL: Yeah, we still have 9 down but we have written probably seven more or something like that. When we get back from this tour I think we’re going to go into the studio and finish.

nql: Now is it a spring release date?

HL: That’s what we’re shooting for.

nql: Has an album name been picked out yet?

HL: No, I wish, but there’s not.

nql: How did Schubas get into contact with you for the Tomorrow Never Knows Festival?

HL: We’ve done a lot of shows with them over the years and their promoter called and invited us. We always prefer playing there actually to anywhere else. It’s always a good time even though it’s kind of a small room.

nql: I saw you guys play there last March and you had a lot of new songs that had a lot of horns. Is the new album headed in that direction?

HL: Well, we actually aren’t going to bring the horn players with us on this tour because we have written a lot of songs since then that don’t really need them. So we’re just going to do it without the horns but the first batch of songs on the record have horns on them, and strings on a bunch of them.

nql: When your album comes out in the spring, how attentive will you be to the reviews?

HL: It all depends, when you’re happy with the record you’re happy with the record, and you don’t think differently of the music even if you do get slammed. But if we’ve worked really hard for a really long time and someone just writes it off it can be a bit of a bummer.

nql: When you do get slammed, is it possible to take it as constructive criticism or do you usually just take a more instinctive "fuck you" type of approach?

HL: Umm, I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve ever read one where there was a serious criticism and the guy had any idea what he was talking about (laughs).

nql: Your website has a pretty humorous section titled “Reviews” where one would think they would find a review for your records but instead it’s just a bunch of reviews that you guys did of different restaurants or movies that I assume was done when you guys were on the road.

HL: Yeah, that’s exactly it.

nql: Do you have any place in Chicago that you’ve done that for or would like to do that for?

HL: I don’t think we have. I guess I’m usually having too much fun when I’m there. Usually you write a review when there’s nothing really else to do.

nql: You guys have played Chicago a lot. Any one visit stick out?

HL: Umm, nothing comes to mind. We always seem to have a great time while we’re there. But I can’t really come up with an example right now.

nql: One that sticks out in my mind was when you all played Pitchfork and a couple members from Man Man joined you on the stage when you closed with “Louisiana”.

HL: Oh, right, it was about 110 degrees. And our drummer didn’t even show (laughs).

nql: Wasn’t he about to have a baby or something?

HL: Yeah, and she was just due any day, in fact she was overdue, so he was supposed to be there but she just hadn’t given birth yet. So we had our friend fill in and we just tore it up the night before so it was a little rough. I don’t think we were really at the top of our game that day.

nql: I first saw you guys open for the Strokes one time back in probably ’04 and you seemed to instantly connect with a lot of people, even those who hadn’t heard you before. Do you think a lot of your fans come from your live efforts?

HL: Yeah, definitely. A year after we started playing we started to tour. We’ve had periods where we were off but not many. If you don’t tour you really lose the connection with people. It’s great to be home writing new stuff so you have something new to present, but when you’re out and you play every night it’s nice to be able to get a response to what you’ve been working on. When you don’t tour for awhile you can sometimes lose a little focus.

nql: I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but I think one time I saw you guys play you must have gone through so many lemons…

HL: Oh yeah, that’s what I do when I’m losing my voice.

nql: Right. So how do you keep from just flat-out destroying your voice?

HL: (laughs) You know, I’m not sure. We were playing in Cleveland once and I smoked a cigar before we played and I think that’s what must have done it because man I really blew it that night. Blew it to where I don’t think I could speak for a couple of days. I started getting a bit nervous.

nql: I saw you all play once, and my friend who obviously doesn't know you, but even she was getting worried for you. You must have family or friends that plead with you to take it easy when you sing?

HL: Yeah, they worry sometimes. We used to do these just huge rockers where it was fun to just put every ounce of strength you had into every word. But now we have a lot more songs that are string based or what not that are a bit easier on the vocals chords which I appreciate.

nql: Are you guys hitting SXSW again this spring?

HL: No.

nql: Had you been, can I assume you would not have been staying at the same hotel?

HL: (laughs) Yeah, probably not. I really hope someone does something bad to that place for me.

nql: Can you tell me what the scene was like when you were recording “Loop De Loop” for the Pussycats album? It just sounded like a big party.

HL: Oh yeah, it was a blast. We had 50 or so friends in the room and we just tried to get everyone as lubricated as possible and then just taught everyone the song. It was really fun. We did it three times in a row because everyone was having so much fun and I don’t think we even recorded the last one.

nql: I was going to ask you that because it sounds like one of those “alright, let’s just do one take, go crazy, and see what we get” types of thing.

HL: It was kind of like that, but then we got to the end and everyone had so much fun we were just like “Let’s do it again!” We had all the janitors from the building up there who we had gotten to be good friends with over the years and they brought their friends and we just had a blast. It was really good.

nql: And that building is no more, correct?

HL: The building still exists but Columbia University bought it. I think they bought half a square mile of real estate up there so the entire area is really going to turn around.

nql: Gotcha. What spawned the idea to do a remake of Harry Nilsson’s Pussycats record?

HL: Our studio was closing and it was kind of the first time we ever realized that we had a free studio (laughs). And we realized, oh God, we’re going to have to start paying for our studio hours when we get out of here. And we were trying to figure out if there was anything else we could record. We hadn’t written anything and we had just finished this album that took so long to do. We thought maybe we should do some covers just to have them in the future and we did a couple of songs from that record and then it just went really quickly, I mean it was like 15 minutes and we had them done. And we thought we should just do another one and by the time the night was through we had done all the ones we had wanted to do off the record. So then we just thought why don’t we just do the entire thing. Before we knew it, we were finished and we liked the whole product we had, so we decided to put it out. It’s kind of too bad we didn’t put our own spin on it but we weren’t really thinking about it at the time.

nql: So it was kind of a send-off to the studio type of thing.

HL: Yeah, and we just liked it once it was done more than we thought we were going to. So we thought what the hell, we might as well let people hear it.

nql: Being in a band, how would you describe the New York City scene in terms of competitiveness?

HL: I really don’t know. I don’t know that many bands here and I don’t go to concerts very often because I get enough when we tour so when I get home it’s one of the last things in the world I want to do (laughs).

nql: You all are playing with White Rabbits at Schubas and I’ve seen you play with Mazarin before. Do you typically pick your opening act or is that something the label does or how does that work?

HL: With Mazarin, it was more of a thing of us being really close friends with them. So we tour with them whenever we are both available and we always have a good time together. But other than that, usually someone else just comes up with the opening act and we’re just sort of “hey, sure”. We just decide when we want to tour and then someone else figures it out for us.

nql: It seems more often than not when I hear bands asked what new bands they are listening to they usually don’t have an answer because of time constraints or what not. Can you relate?

HL: It’s not that I don’t have time, I’m always trying to listen to new bands and find stuff I like you know, but I really don’t listen to that much rock music, I guess.

nql: So what are you listening to right now?

HL: One thing I’ve really gotten into and kind of rediscovered because I always liked him a lot is Ben E. King. I really wanted to try and copy his sound because I think it’s something we could do very well. So I’ve been listening to a lot of his records recently. And I’ve been listening to a lot of Creedence, I wish we could do some Creedence-style stuff.

nql: I have a Creedence album but it’s just one of those greatest hits with like 20 of their top singles and I’ve always wanted to find one of their classic albums but never know a good place to start. Any suggestions?

HL: Well, the thing is, there really isn’t that much undiscovered Creedence records. They kind of just have one sound which is fantastic, and more power to them to be able to do that many great songs with that sound.

nql: Have you ever had any ideas for any collaborations? I’m thinking maybe a Tom Waits boozey, piano-ballad-y type of thing would go good with your sound.

HL: We would love to do something like that, but we haven’t been approached and I don’t know how we would approach someone because we’re always so busy just writing our songs and once we’re finished we kind of just want to do them. We just don’t have enough surplus material to do another album with someone else right now but I think it would be fun, especially if it was with someone we really admire.

nql: I lived in DC the summer of ’04…

HL: Really, where at?

nql: In Dupont Circle, near 18th & P.

HL: Okay, Pete (Bauer) grew up right at 18th & Swan.

nql: Oh wow, so yeah, I was living there in ’04 right when I began listening to Bows & Arrows and because of that I always think of DC when I hear that record. Is that something you notice when listening to music or something you want people to notice when listening to your music?*

HL: (bit of a pause) Yeah, you know there’s always a record you listen to when you live in certain places that take you back to those places. I was listening to a lot of Pavement when I lived in Boston so whenever I hear Pavement I think of Boston. But that doesn’t really make any sense.

nql: (laughs) I think it was the video for “Little House of Savages” that was actually shot in the Circle (Dupont), right?

HL: It was in Malcolm X Park right off of 14th Street if you go down Florida.

nql: I guess I was thinking of the chess scene, I thought that was in the Circle.

HL: Oh, you’re right, that part was filmed in the Circle.

nql: Okay, I was going to ask you because I have spent some time in that park, were those dudes you were playing chess with the real deal from the Circle?

HL: Oh yeah, those were the real dudes, I mean those dudes are so good at chess. I was playing one guy and then my friend Ian went up and asked if he could film it. The guy started looking at me sideways and then at Ian with hate in his eyes and I think he then told me to get the hell off the table. I think he had this real paranoia thing going on. Some of those guys are a little shaky.

nql: (laughs) Was there even a single chess play made, or no?

HL: Yeah, I actually played a couple of games against that guy and then I played a couple other guys. We got a little nervous about approaching them because one of them was apparently kind of the great wizard of the park. And he’s the dude that’s actually in the video, and he was cool with it…and absolutely fucking amazing at chess. There’s a place down in Greenwich Village where it’s sort of like a co-op or a store, I really don’t know what it is, some sort of community hangout. And you go in there and there are about 30 dudes just in this harsh, florescent environment, and everybody is smoking cigs and cigars and stuff and drinking beers and it’s 11am and they’ll be in there all day for like nine hours playing chess. It’s a really weird collection of guys from all sorts of walks of life. And it’s just guys, all the time.

nql: No girls allowed?

HL: I mean, I’ve never seen one in there.

nql: Getting away from chess for a bit, when you’re going to be on the road playing a lot of the new songs do you feel pressure, especially if the album hasn’t been released yet, to fall back on some of the older songs that the crowd really knows?

HL: Yeah, you always kind of have to. We played in Austin, Texas the other day and actually I thought we were really great and we introduced some new stuff that was just written. And I got off stage thinking we had only played two new songs but we sort of forgot that all the other ones were new to the crowd, too. By the time we were finished I think we had only played maybe one song that people knew. And I think we realized that that’s just a little much, people want to come hear the songs they know.

nql: Could you sense the crowd wasn’t as receptive?

HL: No, they actually seemed to really like it and were a very enthusiastic bunch but you know it’s just one of those things where you play 8 songs and then someone’s like “Play 'The Rat'!”. So I just think it’s one of those things where people know what they want.

nql: I have a friend who swears the song “The Rat” is about the old baseball player Gary Gaetti.

HL: (laughing) Why?

nql: I don’t know, it may have been his nickname and I think there may have even been a line in the song that he pointed to that he thought referenced him in a way.

HL: That’s hilarious. But no, I didn’t have him in mind when that song was written.

nql: Okay, I will crush his dreams for you. Being from DC and now living in New York, where do your sports loyalties lie?

HL: Redskins. We had a bad day last Saturday.

nql: That was rough. How do you feel about the (Joe) Gibbs departure?

HL: I mean, honestly, I feel bad saying it but I question his senility sometimes. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they cut over to him and he was talking into his shoe or something.

nql: That game seemed to be going the Skins way and I even called my dad to see if he was watching it when they took the 14-13 lead but by the time he turned it on they were down 35-14 or something.

HL: I actually had a huge gang of people over here and I was out when that happened and by the time I got back it was just silent. I missed all the action.

nql: Any optimism for next year?

HL: It depends on who they bring in (as a coach). I guess they won’t lose many players which is good. I thought Todd Collins did a better job at QB than Jason Campbell.

nql: I agree. What’s the word on that situation for next year?

HL: Well I think Jason Campbell is regarded as the future hope for the team, he’s the one who’s supposed to really get the hype but it seems to me once he got injured we started winning a bunch of games which, I mean, is just the goddamn truth.

nql: Any particular coach you’d like to see get the job?

HL: I don’t know, but I was thinking you know what would be funny is if they brought in Andy Reid.

nql: (laughs) Why is that?

HL: I don’t know, it’s just seems like one of those things Dan Snyder (owner of the Washington Redskins) would probably do. I think Dan Snyder does everything he possibly can to try and make you hate the Redskins. He’s up in the booth with Jamie Fox and Tom Cruise. And he had that whole Christian thing going with Mark Brunel. It seems like they are just doing everything they can to make you not like them.

nql: Well, if that happens with Andy Reid, I hope they can keep his kids away from the Circle.

HL: (laughs) I know, I know. But no, bringing in Andy Reid would be terrible, but it just seems like the next logical move.

*This might be the dumbest question I've ever asked. It doesn't even hint at making sense. I appreciated his valliant effort to actually answer it. Just know this question was only left in the final cut for hilarity purposes and because it segued into talk about the video for "Little House of Savages" which I wanted to discuss.


Lior said...

haha it's actually "Ben E. King" not "Benny King!"...shame on you sir!

but thanks for covering The Walkmen they're my (2nd) favorite band!

Alex said...

Oh man, oops. Thank you, thank you. I was a bit surprised by the "Benny King" answer.

Blake F. Ecksnow said...

I don't give a shit what Hamilton says. I can interpret a song however I want--and "The Rat" to me will always be an ode to one of the last players in baseball to wear a helmet to bat with no ear protection.

Alex said...

In my opinion, once the song is the public domain it's ours to do what we want with it. So I'm staying with the Gaetti theory as well.

Anonymous said...

Is he single? Just curious. He seems single. I mean, I would really like to know because he's hot. Why not? It's not like I'm the only girl in the audience who thought about it.

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