August 22nd, 2008 | Interviews

Ian O’Phelan


The Walkmen “In the New Year”

The Walkmen recently covered all of Pussy Cats and donated all their pre-sale proceeds of their most recent You & Me to Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Singer Hamilton Leithauser speaks now to Daiana Feuer.

Let me just ask—have you always been the singer?
Hamilton Leithauser (vocals/guitar): Yeah, I actually was. But it was because nobody else wanted to. Nobody else was willing.
Do you think you’ve grown—just as a singer? Every album, do things change?
I think this is my best-sung record by a long shot. I really got a lot more confident. I like the work a lot better so I really got into it. I could lead the songs with the vocals a lot more. As opposed to them solely being instrument-driven. If you listen to our first couple of records, for the most part the part, the instruments were already determined before the vocals.
I wrote down some of the adjectives I found for you on blogs: ‘Lumbering.’
Lumbering? Like a big beefcake lumbering around?
My favorite is ‘midday drunkenness.’
That’s a little clearer. The concrete stuff sometimes is a little better.
Do you consider yourself a dark person or a light person?
I consider myself a light person.
How does that go into your music? There’s a weight but it’s not dark.
Maybe a couple records back we had a darker streak—a more sour and more mean streak that came off sort of confrontational. And then I think we sort of saw the sunnier side of ourselves when we got to our third record and now on our fourth, it’s a little bit lighter—a little more sun. But I think it comes across just as powerful as the others.
Half of you are in New York and the rest are in Philly—how does that work?
It’s like a two-hour drive to Philadelphia. If it’s in the winter, it’s absolutely so cold—you have to wear all of your outdoor clothing to practice. Then we try to light the kerosene heater and someone always spills so it smells so bad of kerosene. Then it gets all smoky with kerosene and then we try to go through all our stuff but we end up jamming on some metal riff or Santana or something. Finally, we get down to working on a few ideas which come down to nothing. Then we get back down on the Chinatown bus and go all the way home. For two hours.
That’s mittens and hats with flaps?
It is all that stuff. Then in the summer it’s hotter inside than it is outside. It’s insane. I don’t know how the building does it, but it does.
How long did it take to do the new album?
Two years. Basically all of the tracks were a real big fight. We went through a lot of adjustments. Usually when it finally worked out was in this quick little moment where we all were in agreement, but it went through a lot. Maybe the fastest one was the first song, ‘Donde Esta La Playa.’ It may have been fastest from beginning to end but even so…
What do you mean ‘big fight?’
For instance—the song called ‘The Long Time Ahead of Us.’ That one was a rock song for about eight months. It was a huge rock song that we couldn’t finish, but we loved it. We played it live a bunch of times but it didn’t have an ending. We kept trying and then finally we all got sick of it and we stopped playing it, and then a few months later we were like, ‘Oh, that’s a pretty good song.’ So we all loved it as a big rock song, but then once we decided to do it as a slow rock song—slow jam—it was right. But it took eight months to get there. It’s weird how that happens.
Especially if you’re inhaling kerosene and wearing mittens.
And freezing your ass off.
Where did the song order come from?
It was the longest I’ve ever talked about a single subject in my life. It was so boring and awful—it was grueling. The battle that we had! One day during mastering we talked about it for fourteen hours. By the end of it I was lying on the floor. I was almost crying—it was so horrible. It was so boring, it was so tedious—that feeling of desperation where something is so boring you think you’re actually going to die. Oh my God—the worst thing about it is when you finally get settled, two people are fighting about song order. So they come to some common ground. The only way to settle if it works or not is to listen to it and it’s fourteen songs and sometimes someone will have a ten-song order or a fifteen-song order and so you got to just listen to it. So you have this big discussion, then you have to listen to it, play it again, and you’ve heard it so many times, you hear the first note and you think you’re going crazy.
But then it’s done and you can shake hands and walk out.
You don’t even shake hands. You just walk. ‘I’ll see you—TOMORROW.’
You’re about to tour right now?
It is the States and Canada right now, but hopefully we will go to Europe.
Do you have a bus or a van?
A van. Matt drives. Most of the time.
Who sits shotgun?
We have a strict policy of whoever gets there first gets it. You have to have your bag. If you have a key, then you have to have your bag on the seat. If you don’t have a key, then you have to have your bag hanging off the rear view mirror. That is a very carefully orchestrated thing. That is something that has really evolved over time.
You have battles?
We used to but then you have these strict rules that everyone has to obey—because once the system breaks down, everything breaks down.
Boy dynamics are amazing.
You either have them or the band is over.
Do you sing in the shower?
I do. It’s true. I don’t know what I sing in the shower but I do sing. I just went for a jog so I was really worn out and I didn’t sing today, which is weird.
I hate jogging.
I despise jogging. But sometimes in the morning time, you just do it.