In a Shoreditch bar, clutching a whisky cocktail, his guitar case sat next to him, Hamilton Leithauser contemplates the question of whether The Walkmen didn’t get the credit they deserved. “Of course,” he says assertively, before pausing. “Well, whatever. We supported five families and we all own houses – not a lot of people get to do that playing music so we did pretty well for ourselves for twelve years… but you’re always going to think that about yourself.”
But it’s not just Hamilton who thinks that. The Walkmen were consistently one of the best bands around for more than a decade. The causal fan may have known them just for ‘that’ song (yes, 'The Rat') but in many ways it’s easy to see The Walkmen as one of the great New York bands of their generation. Over six studio albums (or seven if you include Pussy Cats' 'Starring The Walkmen') their sound went from buzzing, bruising post-punk to stark beautiful ballads. They grabbed you by the lapels and pulled you into their sound. And Leithauser was always at the centre of it, a magnetic frontman prowling the stage and looking deep inside himself at the same time.
"The next thing we knew we had a half rock’n’roll album…"
— Hamilton Leithauser
The time came last year when the band announced they were going on an ‘extreme hiatus’. There was no drama or in-fighting, it was just that the time was right to stop the band. And, as Leithauser prepares to release his debut album as a solo performer, he seems rejuvenated, given a freer role in creating the music he wants to make. There’s a freshness and a new creative energy and that’s easy to recognise in the way he talks – in contrast to the last days of the band. “It’s really hard feeling creative when everyone lives in different cities," he explains, "and everyone gets into a formal role of where you’re at in the band and how you’re going to make songs come together as a five piece. So after doing that as many times as we did I didn’t know how we were going to do it differently, everything felt the same.
“I felt that with the last record we hired a producer – who did a great job – but we hired him because we didn’t know how to do it ourselves and feel new. So the end result of that was that I felt a bit disconnected from the record. I worked my ass off on that record but I didn’t feel the attachment to it that I do to the other ones. Logistically with everyone living in different cities it came to be such a big pain in the ass – I mean now there are other pains in the ass like trying to get the huge band I have now together for a tour… but I was looking for a new pain in the ass, and I got one.”
This new pain in the ass is playing his beautiful new album 'Black Hours', a record of Sinatra balladry and loose, heart-wrenching rock. It’s easy to see where the two influences came from: Leithauser always seemed to bring together the brooding New York band style and the old crooner tradition: just take the suit he wore, those chiseled features and the short back and sides. And the mix of these two styles works perfectly on the record. “I’m thrilled with it, I love it. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. At the outset when I was writing [opener] '5AM' I thought the whole album was going to turn out like that – inspired by Frank Sinatra and 1950s jazz – I guess you call it. I wrote that and then 'The Silent Orchestra', and that’s why they’re first because that’s where I thought the record was going. But then I started working with Rostam [Batmanglij] from Vampire Weekend and he wanted to play rock’n’roll songs and before I knew we’d written two rock songs and it made it fun to do rock’n’roll again. The next thing we knew we had a half rock’n’roll album.”
Vampire Weekend’s Rostam isn’t the only talent Leithauser was able to call on. There’s Paul Maroon from The Walkmen, and Morgan Henderson from Fleet Foxes joins on the marimba and upright bass, while Amber Coffman from Dirty Projectors provides backing vocals on several numbers. “I had a great gang of people,” he admits. “I just called friends and was really lucky that they all said yes. I had a firm grip on the sound but I’d hired those guys for a reason. I hired Morgan because he’s the most incredible musician I’ve ever seen live. And I called him and I was psyched he said yes. Rostam called me and I went to work with him and it was very much stepping on to his turf. It was my record but he wanted to produce and when he produces he wants to be involved so we butted heads a lot, but that’s because he had a vision for what he wants and he’s a really talented guy so it was really fun working with him.”
This cast of luminaries has helped him craft a special album. From the noir, early hours opener ‘5AM’ to the rambunctious ‘Alexandra’ right through to ‘I Retired’s’ effortless barstool-blues arrangement and Elvis inflections. “That’s the first song we did together - day one we were like, what do we do? And I was playing the guitar and he starts playing going crazy on the keyboard and we had that song pretty quick. That and ‘The Silent Orchestra’ are my favourite songs on the record.” And are these songs autobiographical? “I think they are but I always spend so much time thinking how they sound that I don’t usually know. I can look back ten years later and think, ‘Yeah I can understand why I was all bad, like songs on 'Bows and Arrows' or 'You and Me', I can understand why I was feeling a little romantic on that record’. But it’s hard when it’s right in front of you, it’s so personal. Honestly I’d be the last person to ask right now.”
One thing that is a little more certain is the influence of Ol’ Blue Eyes. Sinatra has his influence writ large across the album, right down to its name. “The album title is a straight up nod to the Sinatra albums that inspired the record: ‘September of My Years’ and ‘In the Wee Small Hours’. And I thought it was appropriate as it has a kind of classic nighttime feel. When I was 15 I got a copy of ‘In the Wee Small Hours’ and it was at the time I was listening to The Doors and Guns’n’Roses so I don’t know why I ended up with it but it was one of my favourite records. I came back to it and I started loving the way he sang. I loved the character he plays - this kind of down and out, singing sad songs and he‘s always like, ‘Poor me, look how bad it is for me’ and you don’t believe it. It’s not 'poor me' at all but it’s fun and it‘s funny. You laugh when he says something so bad – you’re like, ‘I getcha’.”
And now he’s out there on his own, like Sinatra. Is he nervous? “I’m a lot less nervous about the shows. My band are so good. And a lot of the time when things mess up live that’s the fun of it. That’s the point of playing live – that things can go wrong. Playing live at festivals to people who don’t know me means I can present it in a different way. That didn’t work so well for The Walkmen because we were as loud as holy hell. And when you’re supporting Florence and the Machine it doesn’t go down so well.” Not as loud maybe, but 'Black Hours' shows he’s lost none of his ability to be mesmerisingly brooding and beautiful: this is a new creative direction, but one just as passionate and powerful as The Walkmen always were.
Taken from the new DIY Weekly, available to download for iPhone, iPad and Android or read online now. Hamilton Leithauser's new album 'Black Hours' is out now via Ribbon Music.