Hamilton Leithauser talks ‘Black Hours,’ walking away from the Walkmen
Though plenty of the lyrical content on Hamilton Leithauser’s solo debut is worthy of a title like “Black Hours,” the singer promises that none of the darkness is related to the “extreme hiatus” that his band, the Walkmen, made public last year.
“It would be easy to read into that,” he says. “I mean, I wrote a song like ‘I Don’t Need Anyone,’ but that’s supposed to be a love song. I can see how that would easily translate into that story, but that’s not where it comes from.”
The music is a logical extension of where the band were headed with their 2012 album, “Heaven,” but it is willfully less accessible. The album begins with the singer’s voice against a stark piano and a dramatic string section, an arrangement evoking the aura of a crooner from bygone days, albeit with a more cynical sneer. “Do you wonder why I sing these love songs when I have no love at all?” he sings on album opener “5 AM.”
“’5 AM’ was the first thing I did, and it’s when I really realized I didn’t want to just play rock ‘n’ roll,” he says, “and I thought I wanted to do all these very heavily influenced by Frank Sinatra strings and big band music.”
But as Leithauser headed further in that direction, he was contacted by Vampire Weekend maestro Rostam Batmanglij about a collaboration.
“Rostam and I started working together, and he wanted to do rock ‘n’ roll,” says Leithauser. “I didn’t know if I wanted to, but all of the sudden it was fun to do rock ‘n’ roll again, so the record is half and half.”
The rock ‘n’ roll half is a welcome contrast to the moodier pieces, as many of the sunnier “Black Hours” tracks find Leithauser’s voice paired with female vocals, courtesy of Amber Coffman of the Dirty Projectors.
“It’s great when you have someone that is really good like that who can just come in and just do it,” he says of Coffman. “It might not be the exact voice you imagine or were expecting, but you hire someone good and they bring something new, and just make it happen. That’s why it’s so fun to play with new musicians.”
But not all of Leithuaser’s collaborators are new. Walkmen guitarist Paul Maroon is featured prominently, but his playing is decidedly different from the subway tunnel reverb that defined the band’s sound for a decade.
“He and I are both aware that we were two big presences in the Walkmen,” says Leithauser, “and if we’re doing it under a different name, there has to be a reason we are doing it, and really vary up what he’s doing with his sound and what he’s playing. … We know it’s going to be my voice singing and that he will be playing the guitar and the piano, so you have to accept that you can’t just completely camouflage it.”
But don’t expect to hear any Walkmen songs sprinkled into the set.
“I think that would be arrogant to claim that as mine,” says Leithauser. “That would be like ‘I’m the Walkmen carrying on,’ and that is not the case.”