The Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser: I forgo a suit in 105-degree weather
Photo courtesy of the artist
Even if the Walkmen opened their latest album, Heaven, with a song called "We Can't Be Beat," they're still working to get better. The New York-Philadelphia indie-rock act never play the same show twice and eschewed repetition on seven expressive records.
The string of accolades for the group launched just over a decade ago with Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone. Led by Hamilton Leithauser's fractured tenor, the rest of the band -- Paul Maroon, Peter Bauer, Walt Martin, and Matt Barrick -- wrenched atmospheric, embittered melodies out of dusty electric guitars, vintage organs, a haunted piano, and a Ludwig drum set. In the ensuing years Maroon's guitar has softened, glistening brass arrangements have emerged, and that teeth-gritting urgency of their early songs has gradually evolved into a kind of haberdashery folk-rock found on last year's Heaven.
On Saturday, the Walkmen headline City Pages' inaugural 10 Thousand Sounds festival in downtown Minneapolis. Gimme Noise spoke to Leithauser from his home in Brooklyn. We discovered which artist would make him "star-struck and shit," and learned where they're at in preparation for their next album.
Gimme Noise: We're excited you're going to headline our little inaugural festival here.
Hamilton Leithauser: Yeah, it's awesome, I'm really glad to be invited.
How do you guys manage to wear suits when the sun's beating down on you for an outdoor show?
The suits? Well, I forgo a suit in 105-degree weather. Last year we played at Lollapalooza. We were like a small fish in a big pond, and they put us on at like 3 in the afternoon. In Chicago. In August. On a black stage. The bottom of my shoe melted through, and by the end of the set it was burning my foot. It was awful! I'd like to not do that again, if I had the choice. I don't know if I'll have the choice, though.
Where does Heaven stack against the rest of the Walkmen albums for you?
I don't know, that's hard to say because honestly every time we make a record I always find myself at the time when I try to start writing something else, you kind of turn back on it. When we made Heaven I really was just so tired of listening, not that I was just listening to it a lot, but just the idea of it. The other thing after you turn back on it, but now you look back on it and I think, "You know, I like this," and I think we did a pretty good job with it. So right now I feel like I've just turned my back on it, not in the way that I dislike it, but I don't want to think about it. I want to make sure that whatever we do is very different.
Just like your last few, the critics seemed to enjoy it.
It's amazing if people like your album. It sucks when you work your ass off and then everyone just tells you that you suck and then no one wants to listen to you, you know? It will affect you. It'll be nice if you could just roll the punches, but you care. That's your thing, that's your life that you work on for at least 12 months. It doesn't really change. If you get good reviews, it hasn't -- it doesn't generate fame necessarily. Or popularity. So, I mean, that's a whole other ballgame that we haven't really ever totally mastered. We definitely are playing the biggest rooms we've ever played in and have seemed like we've had fairly steady process in our career. So, I don't mean to complain about that -- we do fine.
You had kind of an intense moment last year when you almost got mugged in Europe.
I did, in Lisbon, Portugal. Three guys tried to steal my computer off me. I consider it my most heroic moment of 2012 -- but very out of character. I actually fought all three of them off and then I ended up grabbing one guy's Blackberry. He was like, "Gimme back my Blackberry," and I was like, "Fuck you!" So I ended up mugging them. It's always one of those things that happens where you just go and beat yourself up for how stupidly you reacted. This is like one time when I say, "Yeah, I did exactly what I would've hoped." I don't want to sell that as like a hero story, though. Pete [Bauer] was there. He was like, "Goddamn that was great!" Then we left and got completely drunk to celebrate [laughs].
Do you see "The Rat" as a blessing or a curse?
I mean, you know it paid the bills for a while. I like that song. I got no problem with that song. It is annoying sometimes when people are screaming it when you're trying to play some quiet song. All the drunk guys are just screaming, "Play 'The Rat,'" but you know whatever. It's just another one of our songs.
How do you feel now that there's a level of distance from the drunk guys in the audience that ten years ago you didn't feel quite as much?
[Laughs] I think it's funny, it's a different life. It's a business. We have a family and have to pay the bills, you know? But it's also like, I didn't want this to become just some job that I'm stuck in, that I don't enjoy. So, there did use to be a point where it would be a big blast of a show, a party for us, kind of a wild night and stuff. That doesn't happen as much anymore, but you find other ways of liking it a lot better and you play better. You just have to find different ways to enjoy it, you know? Any one way will get old after a while.
So, how do you characterize the stuff that you're working on right now?
I have a lot of, I guess, big instrumentals. Sort of a big orchestra is what I've really gotten into recently. And then I have much less rock right now, but we do have some fast songs. I guess is stuff more inspired by guys like Lenard Cohen and Frank Sinatra and guys like that. It's still big, loud music. It's not quiet. So, I'm really excited about it actually. It the past two weeks I've seen us have a really big breakthrough. I have a lot of material, I know really know in what incarnation it's going to manifest itself eventually, but right now I'm just stockpiling a lot of stuff, and it's going pretty damn well actually. I think I'm going to record some stuff pretty soon. I think we'll probably be in studio by like July.
Are you still in the same label situation right now?
Um, no. We're actually going to change, we're ironing that out right now.
What drew you to Leonard Cohen in the first place?
Well he's a guy I've listened to since I was like 13 or 14 years old. I have all his records, and he's one of my all-time favorites. The first thing I ever heard was probably like one of his songs like "Suzanne." But I mean he has just so many great songs and lyrics. One thing that was so inspiring about him is Leonard Cohen always says that he worked for like ten years on a song, and that isn't necessarily a complicated song. He's not afraid to pull himself out of the shed 10 or 15 years later to try and make it work again. I always try to remember that it worked for him.
Did you ever get to meet him?
No, I have not met him, I would really like to. Maybe soon, he's getting old. I don't know what I'd say, I'll probably be all like, star-stuck and shit.
So what's left on kind of your career check-list, aside from hollering at Leonard Cohen someday?
We're still not at any level where you can feel like you are going to consistently do things to support yourself. I've always felt like I could drop out at any moment. I bet you that a lot of more popular bands will feel the same way. Otherwise I'm very happy with where we are. We do a lot of our own recordings, last time we did it with Phil Ek, who did a great job. This time we're going to do it on our own terms, by ourselves again, and record a lot of it at home in different non-studio, non-formal places. That's something that I'm really looking forward to right now. More along the lines of our very first record. I feel like we need that. I feel like we need to be like obsessively controlling of our stuff, just for our record. I feel like we have the motivation to do that right now.
10 Thousand Sounds. 21+, $20 in advance, $25 at the door, VIP is $45, 4 p.m. - 10 p.m., Saturday, June 22, 2013. 8th Street and Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Buy tickets here. Afterparty info: 21+, free with 10 Thousand Sounds wristband or $5 at the door. 10 p.m. - 2 a.m. , 111 5th St. N., Minneapolis.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.