High school marked my musical awakening, a time when I started to really construct my own identity outside of my mom's water-damaged Cat Stevens records, my dad's old Johnny Cash, and the popular boy bands of the early 1990s (I'll never live that down). It was then I discovered my affinity for Nick Cave's poetic brutality, Morrissey's dramatic flair, Billy Bragg's political fortitude, and of course, The Walkmen's confident frontman Hamilton Leithauser who made every note seem essential. They were all there, continually producing new music for me to breathe in as I rapidly devoured and discarded all the bands that never stuck. Naturally, after some 15 years together, I was a little thrown when late last year The Walkmen announced they were going on an "extreme hiatus," but sometimes the best thing a band can do is know when to make a change and shift gears, even if that means going separate ways to pursue individual creative endeavors—which is what Hamilton Leithauser did when he released his first solo record Black Hours.
Black Hours was a risky move for Leithauser since it meant he was stepping out on his own without The Walkmen name for instant recognition—more often than not, his distinct voice is recognized before his name is. Luckily (and unsurprisingly), Black Hours is an absolutely beautiful 10-song record that's full of dynamic sound and successfully shines a spotlight on the artist as a lasting force in the industry. Leithauser was kind enough to chat on the phone with me while enjoying a short break on his European tour last week, taking a mini vacation in the south of Portugal with his family before heading to England. Sure, we talked about The Walkmen's hiatus, but he also took me through his writing process, Black Hours' dynamic sound, what it was like working with new artists, his favorite poets, getting yelled at by a cross-eyed man in Germany, and why he would love to work with the Coen brothers.
Mila Pantovich: Did going on hiatus from The Walkmen free up a lot of tension within yourself and the band?
Hamilton Leithauser: When we finished the record Heaven and [were touring], [...] I sort of always write music, so I was already writing new stuff by the time that record came out. And we all live in different cities now. I was writing songs just from my own perspective; I didn't really see a way of doing it with the same group that was going to be exciting. I just didn't want my songs to go through that whole process again and so it's not a matter of anybody in particular, it's just sort of like…if I'm going to keep doing this, I want to do it in a different way now. So, that's basically what it boiled down to for me.
It's exciting 'cause it does have that feeling of a new band and things are brand new again and you got to figure out how to write songs again. But it's scary 'cause you don't have The Walkmen name, which can […] get you in the door of places a lot more than Hamilton Leithauser can. I don't regret it.
MP: Black Hours seems so deliberate in its construction, with a very wide range of dynamic sound; what was your overall artistic intention behind the album?
HL: I spent a long time working on it so it's hard [articulating] one thing in mind. I guess the elephant in the room was that I was not doing it with my band for the first time, so the thing I really knew I wanted to do was to make sure I didn't sound like The Walkmen. I wrote it with two different people and I brought in all sorts of different friends and different personalities [including Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, The Shins’ Richard Swift, and Morgan Henderson of Fleet Foxes] in an attempt to try and get away from my own sound as much as possible. So for that reason you get a lot of different styles of music on it.
I feel like there's a range, the songs don't really sound that much alike, but that's sort of exactly what I wanted to have; a record with a lot of diverse music that was really centered around the vocals, all of it. Most of the songs were really written vocals first, where that wasn't really the case with The Walkmen. And so I guess it's just a vocal record; that may not sound…like that big of deal to an outsider, but to me it was.
MP: Then starting it with 5 AM seems like the perfect choice to set the tone apart from Walkmen right from the start.
HL: Yeah and that was the first thing completed so it sort of felt like that was the first moment where I was like, "Okay, I might have a different sound going here." And I thought it made a sort of nice dramatic opener. I figured that was going to set it up for the way the whole record was going to be at the beginning when I was working on it, but it ended up going a lot of different directions unexpectedly, which is always good so I'm glad that happened.
MP: What was your thought process behind the title Black Hours?
HL: To me it actually ended up sounding kind of fun, I mean I can totally understand why someone would think of it as bleak or depressing or just…goth or something, but once you listen to the music…to me it's fun and reminds me of a night out—but not like a wild, drunken mess sorta thing that maybe we dabbled in the past, but more sort of like a classic night out. I guess generally it just sort of had a nightclub nighttime feel to me.
MP: There are several lyrics on the album like "don't chase the crowd, 'cause I'm right here" (5 AM) and "when you go dry in your heart, come and find me" (The Silent Orchestra), and the sentiment seems to relate to a poet's voice calling out from a place of isolation. Was poetry an influence on Black Hours and if so, what poets have had an impact on you?
HL: I do read a lot of poetry actually and I do it while I'm working on songs. It's rare that I ever actually just take somebody's line, not like I'm above that, but it doesn't ever really end up happening that way. But I do find that if you read—I read a lot of W.H. Auden and Charles Simić…I like a lot of early 20th century guys—[…] you find yourself writing more stuff that you like. Maybe it just keeps your mind active...
I have no idea if it has a music influence or not, but…I just find that when I read more, I write more. When I read less, I write less. It just happens. It's like, I'm not in school anymore, I don't have any other academic environment. Otherwise you just kind of waste away.
MP: I've heard that you tend to overwrite and had something like 17 or 18 songs penned for the record, ending up with the 10 on the record and four on the bonus CD.
HL: Yeah, which I really like and I wish they saw more of the light of day, honestly. I thought that when we did it this way it would mean that [the bonus tracks] got their time in the sun, but nobody ever knows those songs so I guess they kind of got a little bit swept aside.
MP: What was the editing process like in terms of structuring the final 10 songs?
HL: I mean, it was not easy. I would've really liked that song I'll Never Love Again to make the record, but I just couldn't find a place for it. And I really wanted the record to be short 'cause I thought it was sort of just self-indulgent to include all your songs at the beginning. I thought it would make a clearer package if it was shorter, but I don't know if it did. There's a lot of information on the record so 10 seemed like enough. You don't need more than 10…you really don't.
MP: Was it strange at all to work with The Walkmen's Paul Maroon on Black Hours?
HL: We have a system, a productive songwriting partnership, so honestly working with him…was pretty similar and familiar. We know how to bounce ideas off each other really well and it's constructive. Him and me in the room and not the other guys? That [was] a little funny. We've been doing it for 15 years and suddenly the other guys are gone. We knew it would be a little awkward at first, but by the time The Walkmen had talked about not working together he and I had a lot of bits and pieces together and I didn't want to just throw all that away 'cause it was a little awkward. But it's just the way it shook down. We work really well together so I think it's cool with everybody.
MP: How was working with Rostam Batmanglij from Vampire Weekend?
HL: It was great. It was the first time I'd worked with a new person in like 15 years and at first you kind of […] butt heads 'cause I've got my way of doing things and he's got his and they're not exactly the same, but it's exciting. You see somebody who is really talented, working and showing you how to do things differently. We actually are working together again right now; I just went out to his house for a week to write some more songs because we really got along well.
MP: Is it important for you to have someone to bounce ideas off when you're writing?
HL: It's fantastic to have the option. I do 99 percent of my stuff alone so it's really nice to have the option to go do it with a friend. It's great and I really do like working with people. I have to do a lot of stuff alone, so I will always continue to do that, but I'm so lucky to find someone else I can actually work with.
MP: How do you approach writing? Do you have to set yourself a schedule or do you write whenever inspiration hits?
HL: I like to do a schedule. It doesn't necessarily work out productively that way, but there's no other schedule in being in a band so the writing is the only time you can make your own hours and try to stick to it. Otherwise there's some reason you have to be at a club until three in the morning or you have to fly all night. I work better in the mornings so when I'm home I always try to block off weekday mornings for writing, and that's not necessarily the best time to work on stuff but at least it gives me a semblance of a job or something.
MP: Do you have a favorite song on the record?
HL: I like that song The Silent Orchestra. I spent a lot of time working on it and it was a real fight and I thought I was going to lose, but in the end I really liked how it ended up.
MP: Have any of the songs surprised you live?
HL: Yes, we made that song The Smallest Splinter into something that I think is actually the best part of our set now and I never would have thought that would have happened. And it definitely gets the best reaction every night. It was like a linear song, it didn't really have very many dynamics on the record—it was supposed to be like a drum machine kind of drone when we did it. Now we've made it into this thing that's so much more fun and it has so much more personality. I wish it was like that on the record, to be honest, but we performed it pretty well on the Pitchfork thing, but we actually do it better now. I feel like that one's come the farthest.
MP: Listening to the record and hearing it live are two very different experiences and to have both be of quality is pretty rare nowadays—I went to your show at The Echo in Los Angeles and it blew the record away.
HL: That's awesome, thanks, I'm glad to hear that. I think our shows are going really well, I think we've hit our stride and this European tour we just did was definitely the best thing we've done. It does feel like the live [show] has picked up a lot of momentum nicely. I loved that [show at The Echo], that one was fun. That was the first night I did it with my new band actually and I really liked that lineup 'cause it's only four guys and it's more rock'n'roll than I had anticipated—I didn't realize we were gonna be so rockin', but it's really fun to be rockin' now.
MP: What is it like for you on stage when playing in bar-type venues like The Echo, where people are constantly getting drinks and talking?
HL: It's nice when people are quiet during the quiet songs, but you can't really complain about the people that are just having a drink at the bar. We were playing in Hamburg [Germany] about five days ago and there was this cross-eyed man in the very front row screaming at the top of his lungs in a German accent, "F*** YOU! F*** YOU!" You know, that's a lot harder to ignore [laughs].
MP: Do you ever say anything back or do you just try and play through it?
HL: I was sort of tuning my guitar, we were just setting up and there's all these kids, these 18-year-old girls in the front row and you know, this guy's just pressing up against all them and they're giving him these nasty looks and then the guy sort of slinked off. Then when we came on, they announced us and I just had to say, "Is that guy still around?" [laughs]. And the crowd was like, "Nooooo!" and so we could sort of go about our business.
MP: Can you imagine in the future working with the rest of The Walkmen again in some different capacity?
HL: Yeah, I can. I don't know if we'd ever do it in that big group again. We never really had a great songwriting…process with the five of us. It was always working in small groups that was the most productive, and so getting everybody together was sort of like a chore and once everybody lived in different cities it sort of became very clear-cut on when people were getting together and who you were getting together with. I wrote Heaven with Paul and Walt [Martin]; just like in a small room, the three of us wrote that together. I don’t know why it really didn't work out with the five of us writing together, so I don't see us ever needing to do that [or] try that again—we tried it for long enough.
MP: The Walkmen had some music featured in both film and television; have you ever thought about creating an original score for a film?
HL: I love that idea. If someone would invite me, I'm just waiting for my invitation. That would be a dream job. I would really enjoy doing that, yes.
MP: Is there any filmmaker that you would love to work with specifically?
HL: If I could work with the Coen brothers, I could die happy. That would be my dream project to work with the Coen brothers in some capacity.
MP: Have you ever thought about acting?
HL: I cannot act [laughs]. Actually, in that last video that Paul did for I Don't Need Anyone, that is the extent of my acting. And I gotta say, I would have thought I'd be a lot worse. I was sort of proud of myself. Our sound man is the other actor in that and he was so good that I felt like I was just sort of trying to rise to the occasion to match him, but I was proud of myself. But no, I do not act. I don't know the first thing about it [laughs]. I think it would be a joke, it would be fun to try, but I would just be terrible.
Maybe when you score a project with the Coen brothers you can have a small role.
HL: They can give me a nonspeaking cameo.
* If anyone has connections with the Coen brothers, point them in Hamilton Leithauser's direction.