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Interview: Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen

"Just because you want to do something different doesn't mean you know how to."

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Interview: Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen

The Walkmen were formed, in 2000, by former members of two separate outfits: The Recoys and Jonathan Fire*Eater. Though the latter are, these days, largely unknown, they were essentially a proto Strokes in the mid-'90s: a crew of carefully-coiffed, private schoolboy rock-revivalists Stonesing their way into the arms of major-label beancounters. Yet, where The Strokes conquered the entire pop-cultural world, Jonathan Fire*Eater's light quickly burnt out. The Walkmen have risen swiftly from those ashes, the quintet's four albums —from their 2002 debut, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, to 2008's regal You & Me— continually refining their shadowy, moody, bristlingly masculine rock balladry. Here, Hamilton Leithauser, the crew's dude-ish vocalist, outlines that evolution.

Now that it exists, as compact disc, how do you feel about You & Me?
“I’m thrilled with it, man. It’s everything I hoped it’d be.”

What did you hope it would be?
“All we knew was that we really wanted to make something that was very different from what we’d done before, that we were all really excited by. You write so many songs over the years, you do it so many times, sometimes it’s hard to get psyched on things. We wrote and wrote and wrote, until we felt like we were all really pumped on it.”

How do you endeavour to do something different?
“You don’t. You do it in the same way, with the same five guys. Just because you know that you want to do something different doesn't mean you know how to. So you just have to keep playing and playing. You just hash it out, and wait until there's something that you all agree is exciting and different-sounding. It takes forever!”

Well, did you try a different approach lyrically?
“I did. The first song I wrote was "The Red Moon." I was really thrilled [that] the words seemed to add so much to the music. I really liked it, it was this vague sort of love-song, and from there, it wasn’t like everything ended up like that, but it gave me a sense of direction.”

Who has inspired your approach to writing words?
“Just guys I’ve listened to for years: Leonard Cohen, Shane MacGowan, the Stones. But you never want to draw too much on other people; it’s hard to do anything when you’re consciously thinking of someone else.”

So, was that debt why you chose to do that set of Leonard Cohen covers for Daytrotter?
“I don’t know where we got that idea. But they wanted us to come in and do a bunch of our songs, and we’d just spent so much time doing them, over and over, in the studio, and it took us a long time to get these songs sounding right. So, going in and doing these pretty rough live versions, that would come out before the album did, that didn’t sound too appealing. So, somehow the idea came up to just do Leonard Cohen songs. And he’s one of our favourite guys, so it sounded like fun. We thought we could put our own spin on him. Or, at the very least, try to do his songs justice, and not embarrass ourselves.”

When did you first start making any kind of music?
“My first band was in 9th grade. Pete [Bauer], who plays piano now, he was also in it. We were really loud; I remember we were really into Jane’s Addiction. We were called Opeth 88. We immediately thought ‘this is it!’, like we’d hit on something great. But our music was pretty terrible. That was the first band, and then it lead into The Recoys, our band in our early 20s. And right when that came to an end, that was when the other guys in the Walkmen, their band [Jonathan Fire*Eater] had just ended. So the timing just worked out: we all just kept going, together. But it wasn’t very intense; it was just what we did on the side, for a long time. We had day-jobs. I worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

Had you followed what those cats were doing in Jonathan Fire*Eater?
“I had known those guys, Walt [Martin] and Stew [Lupton], the singer, since I was five. So, I was there from the get-go.”

How did you feel seeing their band become so embraced, by the biz, whilst The Recoys weren’t?
“Our band, I don’t think we ever had a single person come to one of our shows. I don’t think we ever had a single fan. We never got off the ground. It was more of a matter of trying to book a show. We’d only get the Sunday night slot at the Continental, this dump in the East Village. For us, it was tough getting anything going.”

The Walkmen were born, in New York, about a year before all that Strokes-inspired rock-revival hype set in. Did it feel like something was really going on, at that time? Or was that all media myth-making?
“Well, we were really excited. We had all these new songs we were writing, and it seemed like it was going to work out. We did our first tour in 2000, sleeping on people’s floors, playing for 20 people and stuff. But it felt like something was happening. And for us, all that hype was nice. Because we had a record come out, and instead of sinking into obscurity, a lot of people were really interested in it. It was very exciting for us; I remember it feeling like an exciting time.”

Really? Because the name of that record seemed to suggest the dark side of the rock’n’roll experience.
“What’s that? Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone? That wasn’t supposed to be dark, in as much as it was supposed to be funny-sounding. Something so depressing that it just seemed humorous. I can see that people could interpret it that way, but I didn’t think of it like that.”

Do you still feel like the same band you were back then?
“Yeah. We’re the same five guys, we’re still friends. There’s a lot of differences in the kind of music we’re interested in, and the kind of music we’re interested in making. And I feel like we’ve come a long way. I think we’ve been through a lot of times where we suffered through a couple of years; dark times where we have no songs written, and you’re putting so much effort into it, and you’re not getting anything done. At those times, you think of all the things you could be doing with your life that’re so much easier, not to mention more financially rewarding, but this is what all of us have done for, I don’t know, 20 years. You always remember why it is you started doing this, and, you always go back to what this band is, at essence. So, in that way, yeah, it feels like the exact same band.”

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