Hamilton Leithauser Gets By With a Little Help

Published June 2, 2014

ABOVE: HAMILTON LEITHAUSER. PHOTO COURTESY OF LAUREN DUKOFF

Somewhere in Los Angeles, in the dog days of summer 2013, Hamilton Leithauser found himself at the center of supergroup of his own making. In the process of writing and recording his first album outside of The Walkmen, the singer had enlisted the help of a veritable dream team of musicians, from Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij and The Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman to Fleet Foxes’ Morgan Henderson, The Shins’ Richard Swift, and Walkmen guitarist Paul Maroon. “It’s like the indie Velvet Revolver,” joked one friend.

By fall, Leithauser’s solo debut had become a buzzworthy group effort. The resulting album, Black Hours, drops tomorrow via Ribbon Music, and while it doesn’t boast any Slash-size guitar solos, it does pack a punch. Taking his cues from America’s most iconic crooners, Leithauser’s charming tenor steals the show, bouncing between jumpy pop numbers (“Alexandra”), atmospheric tropicalia (“The Silent Orchestra”), and moody mid-century inspired ballads (“5 A.M.,” “11 O’ Clock Friday Night”). Following The Walkmen’s announcement of an “extreme hiatus” late last year, Black Hours feels like both a welcome return and a wholly new chapter. In place of the brooding guitars and pointed horns bursts that colored much of The Walkmen’s catalog, Black Hours offers up swelling strings, whirling organs, and cymbals that quiver and sizzle. Like its title suggests, the album conjures images of dark city streets, but the feel is more dancing under the moonlight than sinister back alley. Below, we catch up with Leithauser to discuss L.A., long nights, and his new big-band setup.

ALY COMINGORE: I went to see one of the Hotel Café shows last week. It was great.

HAMILTON LEITHAUSER: Thanks. I really enjoyed those. The first ones I played were in New York at Joe’s Pub; I played four shows, but I did something like 30 interviews and a couple radio shows in the mornings and completely blew out my voice. It kind of sucked. Then when I got to L.A. I woke up and I was losing my voice because of the dry air. It was like, “Oh my god, this is going to be Joe’s Pub all over again.”

COMINGORE: I couldn’t tell at all.

LEITHAUSER: Well, so I was staying at my friend’s house and he told me about the drug Prednisone. Have you ever heard of it?

COMINGORE: Oh, yes.

LEITHAUSER: I had never heard of it! But I took it and I felt like I was singing like a choir boy! I loved it.

COMINGORE: I figured all singers knew about that stuff.

LEITHAUSER: Yeah, well, it took me 14 years to discover it. And there are a lot of times that would have helped me out over the years. I can’t believe I’d never even heard of it, though.

COMINGORE: I hope this isn’t the precursor to a downward-spiral Prednisone addiction.

LEITHAUSER: [laughs] Is it addictive? My friends just kept joking about all the horrible physical side effects. I can only imagine that something that works that well has got to be bad for you.

COMINGORE: Probably, yeah. I wanted to start by asking you about your band. You had something like 10 people on stage with you in Los Angeles.

LEITHAUSER: [laughs] Yeah. In New York, it was 14.

COMINGORE: Jeez, man.

LEITHAUSER: It was insane. It was also a small stage and it was really crowded. We had an upright bass player and a grand piano.

COMINGORE: Ironic, considering this is your solo album. At what point did you realize that you were going to need a string section?

LEITHAUSER: I don’t know. I was writing all these songs that had like 35 tracks on them. I definitely started thinking, “Am I ever going to be able to do this live?” I’m really not into the idea of just faking it with a synthesizer. That just isn’t the music I’m making at all. And organizing it was no fun. But doing it was. The great thing is that when you hire string players you always get really great players. I don’t know why that is. In The Walkmen we hired horn players all the time, and we’d get these guys that have had like 10 Dos Equis and are up there fumbling their way through it. But if you hire string players you always get aces. That makes it really fun and it takes a little bit of the pressure off.

COMINGORE: Did you start writing these songs before or after you guys announced The Walkmen hiatus?

LEITHAUSER: Oh, by then they were done. That announcement wasn’t even really an announcement. Pete accidentally slipped it into an interview, to no fault of his own—someone just asked him what he was doing and he told them the truth. But that was just in this one preview for a show. Someone read it and picked it up and it got put all over the Internet and turned into this big story. The whole thing was a little ridiculous. We announced another show after that and it looked like we were having a reunion. [laughs] It was comedy. But I didn’t want it ever to be a story. I wanted it to just kind of fade away, and have my new record be a surprise.

COMNIGORE: So did you start writing with a solo record in mind?

LEITHAUSER: I’m always writing music. I sort of do it obsessively, for good or for bad. It’s good that it keeps me going, but it’s bad because it really is sort of like an obsession where you can’t stop sometimes and it’ll keep you up at night and ruin your weekend. I was writing music when we finished the last Walkmen record, Heaven, and a few of these songs may have even been started before Heaven was done. With The Walkmen we all wrote a lot of stuff alone, but then we’d start collaborating with each other. When we got to the step when we’d normally start collaborating, we started having these talks about how it was not worth getting together. Getting together just didn’t feel very inspired, and doing it alone did.

COMINGORE: But you ultimately ended up collaborating with a lot of people.

LEITHAUSER: Yeah. Ironically, I like working with people. [laughs] It doesn’t make that much sense on paper, but I do. The reason we didn’t do it with the Walkmen lineup is simply because we’d done it so many times. It was like, “What are we going to do differently?” Last time we brought a producer in and the end result of that was a record that I really liked, but that I felt a step away from. I really don’t feel as connected to Heaven as I do to the ones where I was there from start to finish. And on this record I was there for every moment.

COMINGORE: Were you at all worried about making something that sounded like a Walkmen album?

LEITHAUSER: Definitely. I mean, I’m singing it. On some of the songs, Paul’s playing guitar. I had to be careful of that. But honestly the music didn’t sound that similar from the get go. On the whole, once we brought in Morgan Henderson and Richard Swift and they started playing, it was sounding so different to us that it really wasn’t much of a concern. It was more something we worried about in the very beginning.

COMINGORE: What brought you out to Los Angeles?

LEITHAUSER: The studio. I had no plans to go there, but Rostam was really giving me a hard sell on this place where Vampire Weekend had just done the Modern Vampires record. It’s this semi-private studio run by this oddball. It’s one of those things where somebody has to know somebody; it took some getting in.

COMINGORE: That sounds like Los Angeles.

LEITHAUSER: It’s so L.A. It was frighteningly L.A. But the place was just unbelievable. And honestly I had such a good time while we were out there. We made such a big network of friends. I’d never really loved it before and I really came to enjoy it.

COMINGORE: Do you feel like there’s a story arc to Black Hours?

LEITHAUSER: It’s tough to say. I feel really personally connected to all of the songs, so stepping back is really hard. I feel like there’s this classic nightclub feel, but it also has a lightness to it. It’s not a drunken, crazy night vibe. I like to say it has a late-night feel without the mess. That’s why I felt like I could get away with calling it Black Hours. That could easily be the most depressing record ever written, but because there is this sense of fun throughout the whole thing I felt like I could get away with it. Like “5 A.M.”; that song’s in a minor key and I’m just wailing away and it could have been just wallowing depression, but it’s not.

COMINGORE: I wanted to ask you about the relationship between the sound and the art direction for the album. Just looking at it there seems to be a nod to early ’20s and ’30s singers…

LEITHAUSER: Definitely. I mean, that was the direction that I thought the record was going when we decided that we weren’t doing The Walkmen. I wrote “5 A.M.” and “The Silent Orchestra” and I thought that was what my record was going to sound like. If I hadn’t started to work with Rostam and do rock-‘n’-roll, I think it would have been a lot less drums and a lot less driving guitar. The picture on the cover has a specific vibe to it, and it’s definitely a nod to all the records that would have inspired that type of stuff. The funny thing is that the studio that we recorded in was the same studio that Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole used to warm up their voices in before they went across the street to CBS Radio. The owner has preserved it exactly the way it was in 1925. It was such a perfect coincidence that we were doing music inspired by that stuff in that room. It was incredible.

COMINGORE: Do you feel like that’s something that you want to continue injecting into your solo stuff?

LEITHAUSER: Yeah. I mean, you want to change it up as much as possible, but I’m not a band anymore. When I write songs now I look at my strengths and I start there. In The Walkmen, we’d start with the live stuff. We’d go in and we’d play really loud. We’d have the drums and the bass and the guitar going and we’d write a song out of that. I used to put the vocals on top and piece it together. Now I start with the vocals and the string parts I write; the drums are kind of an afterthought. And who knows, maybe that will get boring, but right now that’s the most interesting way for me. And because I don’t have a band, maybe it’s the only way.

BLACK HOURS COMES OUT JUNE 3 VIA RIBBON MUSIC. FOR MORE ON HAMILTON LEITHAUSER, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.