Hamilton Leithauser needs a jumpstart. The singer for the Walkmen says his 2000 Ford Escape is an otherwise reliable vehicle, but he left his hazard lights on while visiting a friend and the battery died. But if “Heaven” — the brand new Walkmen album, out on Tuesday May 29th — does as well as it seems like it was designed to do, he might not have to be concerned about his Ford for much longer.
“I’m waiting for a Bentley on this one,” says the singer with a laugh.
His laugh is likely because within the first decade of the band’s existence, mainstream success has never presented itself or even seemed to have been a goal for the Walkmen. Beginning as a buzz band that appeared to be unwillingly lumped in with NYC’s leather-clad class of 2002, the band have persevered and watched their cult of believers expand with each of their six original releases. Each effort has displayed a growing sophistication in songwriting and an approach to recording that showcased both an appreciation for classic 1950s sounds and an unadulterated love of punk rock. But with “Heaven,” the band seems to be reaching for something more accessible, something that could even lead to Leithauser buying a rock star car like a Bentley.
We usually speak every time you guys have a new album, and one time we were talking about who the best contemporary band in America was, and I remember you saying it would be a different world if the Walkmen were the biggest contemporary American band.
Now that’s true.
But you guys definitely seem like you’re aiming for something big with this album.
I think we were happy to make a big record, which is not something we always want to do. By “big” I mean that I hope it’s accessible and I hope that people will like it, but I mean more that it’s got big songs and big dynamics and big sounds, and that it’s really bombastic. But that wasn’t even the plan. When we were going into the studio, the ones that I was really excited about were the ones that were really quiet like “We Can’t Be Beat.” And there were a few others that didn’t even make it that were even quieter and actually sort of minor key acoustic stuff, which I really liked the sound of, and I hope we pursue that in the future. I wasn’t expecting what we got when we walked out.
How often does that happen with you guys?
Well, every time we’ve tried to plan, it just ends up pigeonholing us. We just have such trouble writing songs that you sort of take what you can get when you like it. I mean, you work and work and work, but when you say, “OK, we’re going to write all slow songs,” then that’s just another limitation that makes it harder. It’s hard enough.
How do you divide the songwriting duties?
Me and Walt (Martin, bassist and keyboardist) and Paul (Maroon, guitarist) write all of the stuff, basically.
This is the first album where you’ve ever featured a song where it’s just your voice and a guitar. …
Yeah. We were doing that live for a while and that was kind of weird because everybody just walks off the stage and I’m just up there alone. I mean, we’re just trying for dynamics. We have the one, “Line By Line,” which is me and Paul. It’s nice to try to vary it up when we can.
In the recording process, did you try these songs out with additional instruments?
On “Line By Line,” I think we did a full-band version of that too. I think we did an acoustic version of it also, and it just wasn’t happening for one reason or another.
Who is that additional much younger-looking Walkmen member on the publicity photo, by the way?
That’s Otis Bauer, Pete’s son.
You guys all have kids now, right?
We do. Otis is the oldest. He’s seven. Mine is the youngest, she’s 13 months.
And you’re a married man now too, right?
Yeah, we all are. That’s a big difference.
Does your wife ever say, “What the hell? Why are you so bummed out in this song?”
[Laughs.] She’s actually asked me that exact same question before, like, “Why don’t you just cheer up?”
The tone of this record is interesting, because if you’re not listening closely to the words it almost sounds happy. But if you do listen to what you’re singing, there’s a good deal of bitterness going on underneath the surface. How would you define the mood?
I’d say that we weren’t afraid to be happy, which sometimes you are if the music is happy, like the “Heartbreaker” song. You know, the first thing you hear is this big I, IV, V chord progression and then this sort of caveman beat comes in, and if you start singing about how happy you are, it can get so nauseating. In the past it’s been really hard for us to stay interested in stuff like that, honestly.
Yeah, that was the first time I’ve ever heard that old I, IV, V in a Walkmen song. It’s just flat-out strumming, rather than the intricate two-strings-together approach.
I think it might actually be the first time. Yeah, for some reason, that was just fun.
You’re also saying the word “love” a lot here. Even in titles, there’s “Love is Luck” and “The Love You Love.”
I think one of the things I was trying to do with some of the rock songs was to have really simple, sort of classic lyrics that on their own can be sort of dull and lifeless. But to be able to sing a line like, “I’m not your heartbreaker” and then call the song “Heartbreaker,” you know, if I were to tell you I was going to write a song called “Hearbreaker” and that “I’m not your heartbreaker,” was going to be the big line in the song, that by itself is not really saying that much. But to put that with our big happy chords and big beat and have it turn into something that we thought was special was kind of big for us. And it was really fun to be able to have the line, “I’m not your heartbreaker” be the lead of that really simple song, and think, “I really do like the sound of our guitars,” and “I like that beat.” For some reason or another that song worked out for us. I’ll bet it will never work out again. That’s probably a one-time deal for us, but we’ll take what we can get.
The sentiment of that song seems to appear more than once though, of a narrator who is in a relationship with somebody who doesn’t really seem to understand him.
Like in what else?
When you’re saying, “Baby, it’s the love you love, not me,” that seems pretty clear.
So what’s going on there?
You mean was there trouble in paradise?
Yes. Tell me all your problems, Hamilton Leithauser. What’s wrong?
[Laughs]. You know, I don’t know. You write what — I don’t know. It’s — I don’t know.
OK then, talk to me about that notion of the person who is in the relationship with you that seems to think that you are the person whose perspective you sing from. That appears a few times, like with the line “it’s not the singer, it’s the song” in “Heartbreaker.” Incidentally, it always bugged me when Mick Jagger sang the opposite line that it’s “The Singer Not The Song.”
Well, I was definitely thinking about the Stones with that line.
Anything else? I mean, I know you’ve said in the past that when you use a person’s name in a song that it’s not the actual name of the person you’re singing about.
Yeah, rarely. … I always have written lyrics to go with music. I’ve done it a million times where I’ve tried to sit down and write a song out. The only time I ever got close to that was the song, “Lisbon” — from the record, “Lisbon” — where I could just write stuff out and it was how I would imagine Leonard Cohen doing it, where he’s got these kind of throwaway tracks, but it’s clear that he really cares about the words. I’m sure it works for a lot of people, and I’d love to be able to do that because it just sounds like a fun idea, and it sounds like we could approach it from a different angle, but it just doesn’t ever come off as anything that special. I’ve always just had to have the line, and the musical moment, and it’s always had to be sort of one thing for me.
A few years ago I asked you if there was an irony at play in the song “In the New Year,” but that wasn’t really what I meant as much as if it was a case of an unreliable narrator. And that’s what I wonder about with “We Can’t Be Beat.” Can the song possibly be as optimistic as its message?
“We Can’t Be Beat” was the last thing written before we went to Seattle [to record]. And it sort of felt like a summation of everything. At that point I was aware of all the other songs, and it sort of felt like it was a clear statement. In other words, having all of the other songs influenced the way that one was written. And it sort of felt like to me that the lyrics were personal. We had just had our 10th anniversary and it felt triumphant, like a small victory for us, and I thought that was sort of where that song came from. But then when we got out to Seattle, we had this one song, this rock song that we were really trying to fight, and it was just dying, but there was something really good about it and we just couldn’t get it working. And so I sort of thought about it so much and I think what I hated was the vocals, so we kept the track and put it on the back-burner and at the very end of recording I did it again and came up with all new vocals — and Paul changed a little bit of the guitar — but that became the song “Heaven,” and those were the last-last lyrics I wrote. So between “We Can’t Be Beat” and “Heaven” I thought they made for a good summary for everything we were going for and sort of established our vibe and it gave sort of a clear picture of who we are. I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about, because everything you say never sounds right, but I think they conveyed the feeling that I thought we might be approaching by the time we had like 20 songs and we weren’t flailing anymore, trying to figure out where we were going, and these songs were just kind of capping it off.
Did you have to do a lot of vocal takes to get that one sustained note in “We Can’t Be Beat”?
You know, no! I did that so fast. I don’t even remember recording that. I think it was one pass, or maybe two.
Are you doing that song live?
Yeah, we are and Pete [Bauer, multi-instrumentalist] and Walt just started doing back-ups and they sound pretty damn good.
Right. I forgot to ask you about that last time around, because with “Lisbon” there were some background vocals. And that was the first time they did them, right?
No, that was me. There was like 10 of me. And there was like 10 of me this time. I just got tired of hearing myself in the left ear and hearing myself in the right ear and then hearing myself in the center.
So you said they’re sounding good now?
Yeah, they’re getting there. It’s a little shaky sometimes but they do a pretty damn good job. I mean, you can practice all you want at home, but it’s like Kobe Bryant; it’s the guy that can do it in the moment. When you’re on the stage, that’s when you separate the men from the boys.
It’s interesting that you mention a song like “We Can’t Be Beat” in regards to your 10th anniversary as a band. The vocals are so at the front of the mix, something which you when you released “Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone” in 2002 would have seemed unthinkable, right?
For this one, it was important to me to sing lower, honestly, because you can get a richer tone. And I knew that Phil [Ek, producer] was really good at getting vocal tones, because he had done the Fleet Foxes, and a lot of other people, but mainly them, because those vocal tones are really rich. And when I do a lot of demos, I’ll just do them at home and with my acoustic guitar, and I can just get such a bigger sound out of my voice when I sing lower, but it’s always been really hard to fit that into our music. And I think on this record we made a bigger effort to make sure that I was staying in that range, in a richer, bigger lower range.
It’s always interesting to hear what artist are listening to, which you guys have been pretty good about sharing, with the Spotify playlists you put out. Which one of you has the most involvement with that?
That’s Walt. He’s got a very eccentric record collection.
What were you listening to when you made this record? I remember you saying during the time you were working on “Lisbon,” you were listening to a lot of Studio One-era Wailers.
Yeah, it’s always that kind of stuff, and the Fleetwoods. The Fleetwoods are one of my favorite bands of all-time. The small intimate harmonies that they do, it’s incredible! Those girls just have such good voices and that guy has the best voice! It’s just so pleasing and nice. I mean, it gets a little flowery and stuff, but that’s just par for the course. But the sound is just so great. “We Can’t Be Beat” is just straight-up trying to start with a small Fleetwoods sound. But, to tell you the truth, the one that was the biggest influence on me, personally, with this record and the reason why I wanted to be so in control of the voice and where it landed was Frank Sinatra.
Yeah, I read a Frank Sinatra biography last year. We’ve always listened to him and admired him, but we sound nothing like him, so that’s never been an issue. But I read this biography, which I recommend highly. It’s called, “Frank: The Voice” [by James Kaplan] and after reading it, it made me like him a lot more. He was a really hard guy to like in a lot of ways, but he really fought a lot to get his career going, and I just started listening to his music a lot. It’s interesting to read how [Kaplan] talks about how Frank used to be really insecure about his Jersey accent. So he really spent a lot of time pronouncing his syllables and trying to milk that out of his voice. And the way that he approached these songs was interesting, because he didn’t write them. He had nothing to do with that, so he would read the lyrics over and over and over again to try to determine what the person was thinking before he decided if he wanted to sing the song or not. And I just thought that the sound and the way that he cared was pretty inspiring, so I listened to a lot of his stuff while I was writing this. You can tell when you listen to it that he was really trying to feel the words that somebody else wrote.
And is there any of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” coming through in there or is that just Phil Ek producing and getting those acoustic tones?
That’s a great record, and I love Van. I wouldn’t say that it was on the brain, but I like that record a lot. It’s my dad’s favorite record, actually.
Another touchstone which seems surprising with this album is R.E.M. What’s been your experience with them?
You know, somebody just told me that, and I think I know where you’re coming from. That’s not something we were listening to, but in that simple ’80s rock sound I think we were thinking more of the Pixies and U2, which is something that we always flirted with. I mean we can sort of play U2 really convincingly. We screw around with it a lot, because we’re actually sort of good at it. We always just dick around a lot in the studio, and Phil just hit “record” one time when we were in the middle of something, and we put it out on the Internet a couple months ago. It’s a medley of some of our better tracks. It was all just very spontaneous.
There’s always been a lot of geographic references in your songs, and this album is no different.
Well, we drive a lot and we fly a lot and I write a lot of stuff when we’re in the car and when we’re in the plane. And then when you’re at home and you’re thinking about what you want to write about and the last place you were was driving through central Michigan, it’s just what you know. Ever since we started touring, I spend so little time in Brooklyn it’s incredible.
Speaking of geography, when are you going to announce your Northeast dates?
We’re waiting to do our tour for the record, because we finally figured out, 10 years into this that people don’t know the songs from the record until like six months later. We’ve always gone right out there on the day of and we’re out there playing and people don’t seem to have any idea that the record is even out yet.