Hamilton Leithauser Hamilton Leithauser is a New York-based singer/songwriter who formerly fronted the acclaimed indie rock troupe The Walkmen before announcing their so-called “extreme hiatus” back in 2013. These days Leithauser is best known for his three acclaimed solo efforts, well I say solo, but two of them were actually collaborations; one with Walkmen bandmate Paul Maroon, the other with ex-Vampire Weekend man Rostam Batmanglij. Since the release of his last record, the aforementioned LP with Rostam (2016’s I Had a Dream That You Were Mine), and all the touring commitments that ensued, Leithauser set to work on, not only his new album, but building a home studio to record it in. The resulting effort: the just released The Loves of Your Life, is a quite perfect sequel to I Had a Dream That You Were Mine in that it capitalizes on everything that made that previous record so successful; female backing vocals, tape loops, and slightly more rich musical arrangements. The major talking points of the new album seem to focus on the fact that Hamilton wrote, recorded and produced everything by himself, as well as that every song on the record is about an actual person that he has either met or knows.
chorusVERSEchorus caught up with Hamilton while he was taking a break from overseeing his daughters’ COVID 19 induced online schooling to talk about everything from his new record; the glory days of The Walkmen; the humble beginnings of The Recoys, and the pains of recording in New York City. Check it out!
chorusVERSEchorus: So my first question was going to be what was it like recording everything by yourself for this record, but then I quickly realized that you have almost always recorded by yourself…aside from Phil Ek’s work on The Walkmen’s last LP Heaven.
Hamilton Leithauser:Well, with The Walkmen we recorded by ourselves, but there were always five of us there in the room and we always had a house engineer. But, yeah we were always very much in charge and before that I used to work in a recording studio as a kid, so I know my way around recording. What was different with this situation was just not having a friend in there; either giving you encouragement or maybe just shutting you down.
cVc: You mentioned working in a studio as a kid; this didn’t happen to be Washington DC’s legendary Inner Ear Studio, did it?
HL: It was! Are you from the DC area?
cVc: No, I’m from Toronto, but I knew you were from DC and I interviewed Eli Janney from Girls Against Boys a few years back and he’s from DC and he spoke about how he would intern at Inner Ear and how it ultimately allowed him to record his future bands there.
HL: Yeah, my father has been friends with Don Zientara (Producer and Inner Ear’s owner) since the 70s, so I knew Don as I was growing up and when I wanted to get a job in my teens, he would hire me to be an assistant at the studio.
cVc: That is so incredible! So what were your duties? Who was recording while you were working there…Fugazi?
HL:Most of the time I was just getting people coffee, but I would do all the jobs that nobody else wanted to do. It was a teenager type of job. Yeah, I got to see Fugazi record, which was real cool.
cVc: Amazing! What record would they have been working on at that time?
HL:They were recording Red Medicine. Yeah, I’d be shocked if they would remember me, I was the kid that was just hiding in the back.
cVc: So you obviously know your way around a recording studio and I gather you were able to put all that knowledge into what you wanted for your own home studio, right?
HL: You know, I’ve been in New York for over half my life and I’ve paid my dues by playing in idiots’ basements or closet-sized practice spaces with a drummer right next to the wall and it either being too hot or too cold…just miserable spots. They always promise you that it’s sound-proofed, but it never is…it’s impossible to find a place in New York City where you can be loud and the band next door can be loud. The last time I was in one was a couple of years ago and I remember thinking to myself: ‘I can’t do this anymore. If I’m gonna stay in music and stay in New York, I gotta change this around.’ So I found a neighbourhood that I could afford to buy a house in and I built it there….(laughing) and now it’s all gone because I moved out of the city!
cVc: The Walkmen did a lot of recording at Marcata Studio in New York; was that something that you guys setup yourselves or was that someone else’s studio?
HL: We set it up. Technically, it was setup right before The Walkmen started by the three older guys in the band…me and Pete (Bauer, keyboardist inThe Walkmen)) are four years younger. So they technically owned it, but The Walkmen paid the bills.
cVc: What was it like recording there?
HL:It’s funny because I knew more about recording than anyone else in the band, but I deferred to them because they were the older guys. It’s funny to look back on it now, because they had no idea what they were doing. It was cool because it was actually an old Rambler car factory and it had two floors and a ramp in-between them and it was concrete box…you just don’t ever find a space like that in New York. It was so cool and I really like the sound of the records we made there. Now it’s condos or whatever.
cVc: Who else recorded there?
HL:A ton of people, actually. So many New York bands…Interpol…and other bands like Gogol Bordello and The Kills…we would throw parties and all the New York bands of that generation were there. It’s funny because I haven’t talked about it in so many years, I’m actually getting misty eyed thinking about it…usually I’m always trashing it in my mind.
cVc: You’ve worked with guys like Don Zientara, John Agnello, and Phil Ek who are now kind of legendary at this point. Have you stolen any recording techniques that you would have learned from them initially?
HL: Of course, you always learn from great people like that…all those guys you mentioned are so good. What’s cool is that they have such different ways of working…they would be setting up the mics in such weird ways and I would be thinking: “Alright, I know this guy has made a lot of records that I love…but what the hell is this guy doing right now?” It’s fun to get in a room with somebody new though and I haven’t done that in a while, aside from working with my friend Rostam.
cVc: Listening to The Loves of Your Life, it really does sound like the natural follow-up to I Had A Dream That You Were Mine. Would you say that Rostam’s influence really rubbed off on you and on this album?
HL: I’m sure! You know, when I made my first record (Black Hours), I was so conscious of not sounding like The Walkmen and it just hung over me and became kind of crippling. It wasn’t until working with Rostam that I started to get over it…he would say: “who cares if it sounds like The Walkmen, it sound good!” Or maybe I just got bored of worrying about it…if I had a guitar part that sounded like The Walkmen, I would just leave it. The interesting thing was that as time went on and I started worrying about it less, the less I wound up sounding like The Walkmen. I’m happy to take influences from whomever I’m working with or wherever they come from.
cVc: You’ve got female backing vocals on almost every track on the new record: what are the chances you would have done that pre-Rostam?
HL: Yeah, I know. Really, before the I Had a Dream record or all those Walkmen records, we never or rarely, rarely had any harmonies… don’t know why, it was just something we overlooked. For all those records I was the only voice in the front, I mean I love that raw sound and everything, but it’s just such a standard rock sound. With this record it was nice to just get away from that and have songs with big singing-led parts and different voices…I think the next record I’ll do it even more of that.
cVc: I read an old interview where you spoke about how tiring it was to always be the front-man and be the focal point. Do you ever dream about doing a Britt Daniel and starting another band where all you do is play bass in it?
HL: Oh my god, like all the time! Of course…it would be amazing, but I just don’t have the time. Every night you get up there and sing so hard, everyone always wants to ask you the all the questions and your name gets dragged through the mud…basically you get the credit, you get the blame, but it is exhausting and you do want to take a step back.
cVc: Do you miss the band? Do you miss the camaraderie of hanging out and playing with those guys?
HL: Of course…I missed the camaraderie as soon as we stopped! Those are your friends and it’s great to spend time with them…that’s the good part. I’m really happy with the way I’m doing it now though, so that doesn’t mean I’m going back to it.
cVc: Do you foresee a time somewhere in the near future where The Walkmen reunite?
HL: I don’t in the near future, but I would think further down the road.
cVc: After listening to these four solo records, there’s no doubt that you have made either a conscious decision, or not, to stay away from electric guitar. First of all: did you consciously avoid electric guitar, and secondly: do you miss it?
HL: You know, The Walkmen had Paul Maroon and he’s amazing and I was very wary of trying to imitate him. I hear people imitating him all the time and they never do it as good as he does…and I don’t do it as good as he does it. So yeah, the guitar was the one instrument that I was conscious of staying away from. The newest stuff I’m working on though has lots more guitar on it…so I’m not afraid anymore!
cVc: I’m glad you mentioned Paul…he’s one of my absolute favourite players!
HL: Mine too!
cVc: Is there a particular song on the new record that you’re most proud of?
HL:So many of them took so long. “Isabella”, as simple as that song sounds now, that was a real slog to put that together. Another one was “Don’t Check the Score”…I probably had that guitar line that’s at the end lying around for four years and I just wanted it to work so badly, I finally got it to where I was happy with it. Those two stick out in my mind as the greatest battles that were won.
cVc: I had read an old interview where you had said that you felt little connection to the songs on The Walkmen’s last LP (Heaven) because you had Phil Ek in there producing and as a result you didn’t have as much control over the finished product. Was that experience key to keeping production to yourself moving forward?
HL:Yes and no. I still feel that way about Heaven because when I look back at the first Walkmen record (Everyone Who Pretended To Like Me is Gone) all I can remember is how all five of us were there for every second of it. You remember the first thing being written for it, all the way through to mixing it and the five of us would be in there pushing faders up and down because we had no automation in our studio…it was like a whole performance just mixing it. With Heaven, I wrote all my parts and then I would sing them ten times, play my guitar ten times and then checkout for twelve hours. Of course you’re not going to feel as connected because you’re hanging out in a bar watching an NFL game or whatever until Phil calls you back in to the studio to show you what he’s done. I’m very wary of handing over the reigns to someone else. I don’t know why I would do it if it just becomes someone else’s project. I can see bringing someone in if you’re in a group dynamic and are having trouble with who should be in-charge or you just want someone to come in and gloss it up. Another reason I like doing it by myself is that I find I work better by not being on the clock in the studio. I like having the ability to come up with parts at random moments and just recording them as they come… that spontaneity creates a little bit of magic!
cVc: What was the recording dynamic like with The Walkmen? If someone was decidedly against something would you just not do it, or was it more a majority rules kind of thing?
HL: Depends on who, what, where, when and why…all it takes is one bad apple to spoil the bunch! That’s called a group dynamic and it’s tough to deal with.
cVc: I want to talk a bit about the early days of your career. I’m slightly obsessed right now with your first band, The Recoys! I have heard you say in the past that you guys took yourselves way too seriously…what were your hopes or intentions with The Recoys?
HL:Oh we thought we were The Stooges! It was my high school band that three of us started and Pete later joined. We were in school in Boston and what I remember most is that The Recoys were the first band I was in that was able to get through a forty minute set without anything going wrong or breaking down. We played all the clubs in Boston, but I barely remember that…what I do remember is that we got a gig in New York on Easter Sunday at The Continental and it was a midnight slot and we had about five friends with us and Noel, the bartender, really liked us and invited us back…that’s when we said we gotta get the hell out of Boston and move to New York!
cVc: I’ve been watching a show you guys played at The Middle East in Boston back in ’97 and it’s just awesome! You’ve got the matching suit thing happening,,,hell, you guys were Interpol, four years before they were! I was really struck by how demonstrative you were as a younger performer…you’re really playing to the crowd!
HL: Is that online? Wow, yeah we would get really psyched up. I think we were opening for Jonathan Fire*Eater on that one.
cVc: That was gonna be my next question. I find the similarities between the two bands quite striking. Did this create any kind of tension or rivalry? Were they an influence on The Recoys?
HL:There was no rivalry because they were so much more successful! My cousin Walt (Walter Martin, bassist of The Walkmen) was in Fire*Eater and he’s essentially like my older brother, so I was always looking up to those guys. I was at their first show…I was at all their shows before they were Jonathan Fire*Eater! I was their number one fan. The Recoys would have basically been a distorted funhouse mirror of Jonathan Fire*Eater.
cVc: Were you really going for something on-stage? Was that a character or did all that come very natural to you, because when I think of you fronting The Walkmen or as solo artist, it’s much more a case of like a subdued intensity…I mean your voice is obviously huge, but you tend to be more rooted in place.
HL:I think that was the first time that I could conjure this energy when I was performing a song. …it kind of surprised me. I remember Pete saying: “Wow: you can really sing and perform!” I was like: “Pete, we’ve been doing this for five years…I can’t believe you’re telling me this now!” I think we had a good thing going in The Walkmen when we were doing big loud rock songs… we would just build an energy, build a wall…we would come on the stage and I wouldn’t even talk to the crowd…we’d play twelve songs straight as fast and loud as possible. It was pretty great!
cVc: Yeah, I felt that especially in a song like “All Hands and the Cook.” You, more times than not, would really stare the crowd down on that one and you would almost always push your voice as far as it would go…sometimes it didn’t make it!
HL:Yeah, that was kinda fun for a while. I knew we had the volume, I knew we had the tunes and it felt very aggressive. That was always one of our favourites…that was our best live song! So fun to play that.
cVc: Stewart Lupton (lead singer of Jonathan Fire*Eater) passed away about two years ago and I was wondering if you had any funny or poignant stories about him?
HL:I remember when I was six years-old, there was an Easter parade that would pass through our neighbourhood. I was at my cousin Harry’s house with Stew and we were in Harry’s room on the second floor and I had my basket full of eggs after the easter egg hunt. My sister’s friend Alice, who was about four, I think, was in the front yard down below and Stew sees Alice, looks at my basket, takes an egg and throws it at right on her chest and he dives down onto the floor and I’m still standing there… I can still remember the look of anger on her mom’s face as she’s looking up at me. I don’t even think I said anything, I just stood there.
cVc: Your musical partnership with Paul Maroon is one of my favourites in all of music. Can you describe why it works so well?
HL:We’ve developed a really good system of working together through the years…we compliment each other. We just understand each other so well. When he’s explaining how a certain part should go, I can fully comprehend what he’s getting across, but anyone else would probably be totally perplexed in trying to figure it out what he or I would be talking about. Whenever he sends me something cool and I sing on it, it always ends up being fun…I’m sure we’ll always work together.
cVc: When you look back now on the career arc of The Walkmen is there a particular moment that you are most fond or proud of?
HL:I think my fondest memory is when we started to do well in New York. At one point we did three shows in one night at The Knitting Factory and they all sold out in five minutes or something crazy and it felt like everyone in town was there…that felt like we were really getting somewhere. We were really proud of the way the record sounded, we had Marcata, and we were making a lot of good music, so it was a really good time.
cVc: So what’s next for you? You’ve got this record out and you’ll tour it whenever COVID-19 allows. Knowing you, I’m assuming you’re already writing songs for the next one, right?
HL: Yeah, I am. Hopefully I’l be out on the road soon though.
cVc: You just want to get away from the on-line schooling!