The Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser on Solo Success and Seeing Ross Perot at the Carlyle
“When I used to go out, I would know everyone I saw / Now I go out alone, if I go out at all.”
That’s one of the lines Hamilton Leithauser caustically howled in The Walkmen’s defining hit, “The Rat.” But invective aside, as part of that group, Leithauser built one of indie rock’s sturdiest discographies, with each release — before their good-natured but “pretty extreme” hiatus, announced in 2013 — providing a textbook example of how a band could continue to evolve and push boundaries with each release. So it comes as no surprise that Leithauser has continued to do just that — evolve and push boundaries — with his solo career, the next phase of which is a residence at New York City’s famed Cafe Carlyle. Contrary to “The Rat;” Leithauser still knows plenty of people, and he’s still going out.
Leithauser’s first solo effort, Black Hours, yielded the pleasant single “Alexandra,” but subsequent efforts, which saw him team up with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij (for I Had a Dream That You Were Mine) scaled greater heights, thanks to tunes like “A 1000 Times.” (The pair had collaborated previously, on Black Hours.)
Most recently, Leithauser joined up with fellow indie darling Angel Olsen for the song “Heartstruck (Wild Hunger),” which dropped in November.
PEOPLE caught up with Leithauser a week before his residency at the Carlyle was set to begin.
You lived in New York for a while—did you ever make it to the Carlyle?
I have been to the Carlyle, maybe three times? The first time I went, when I was like 15, I saw Ross Perot. So in my mind, the Carlyle will forever be associated with Ross Perot.
Was he performing?
Nah, he was just walking through. This was when he was running for president.
You’re on the younger side of acts I’ve seen come through the Carlyle …
Right, it’s kind of a more Perot crowd.
So how did you get involved with them?
Well, between Black Hours and I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, I released a record that only came out on vinyl with my friend Paul. We did a limited run, only on vinyl, and kinda kept it off the internet, and during that time we did a bunch of shows where it was just the two of us — him playing piano and guitar and me singing and playing guitar. We did a tour, all very under wraps but did a fair amount. And those shows were so fun, we really had a great time doing it. It’s not really a cabaret thing, but they ended up being so fun, because they were smaller rooms and it felt like people were so excited to see it and just a different experience for us — almost like you’re handicapping yourself because you remove the drums and the volume. And when the Carlyle asked me about this, I thought “Oh, this would be perfect for the kind of show that Paul and I used to do.”
Did you always have this style of music in the back of your mind? When the Walkmen were a little more rockin’, were you thinking, “Ah, I probably don’t want to be screaming at the top of my lungs for the rest of my life.”
It’s so funny, simply because I was howling at the top of my lungs for 10, 13, 14, years it was a constant struggle to want to play quiet songs. And as the band got bigger and we started playing festival slots and stuff, you really get to the point where you sort of need to play the songs that are going to project the most, because you’re literally just noise competing with other noise. It became this unobtainable, Holy Grail sort of thing. We did a tour with Fleet Foxes, and I remember being just so impressed at how they could carry a huge arena with just acoustic guitars and singing.
Sometimes I kinda miss the bangers, but to me it’s exciting to play really quiet stuff. It’s really exciting for me to just be playing acoustic guitar and singing right now — it’s tougher. It’s more fun, you have to be like, sober.
What drew you to working with Rostam?
Their music. We had met a couple times, so I knew we sort of got along, but I didn’t know him all that well. Mostly I just liked their records. He asked me if I wanted to try working together and it was one of those things where it’s sort of a stranger, and you’ve gotta either trust ’em or not trust ’em, and the fact that I liked their records, I thought, “Well, I’m just gonna have to trust this guy.”
One of the things I always read about the Walkmen was how almost aggressively democratic you guys were regarding writing and arranging — was it a different dynamic with just one other guy, on a project under your own name?
Towards the later days of the Walkmen, we all had lived in different cities for a while, so I ended up spending a lot of time by myself, working on music. And I maintained a similar schedule working with Rostam, because he lived in L.A. and I lived in New York, so I would go out there and we’d work intensely for five or six days. And I do like that: I like being able to bounce ideas off someone that you trust after a long period of working by yourself on stuff.
Your career has spanned over the whole physical/digital music divide: What are your takeaways at this phase of your career?
I feel like you get forgotten a lot quicker in the internet age. You used to go buy an album and then you’d take it home to your house and listen to it over and over again because either you were too lazy to change it or too poor to buy another one. Now people have less attachment to the music that they like than they used to — at least I know I do.Even bands that I like these days, I find I like them less than the bands I grew up loving — and maybe that’s a function of growing older — but I think it’s also this ability to just snap music on and off. And that’s fine, that’s the way of the world, but I think people just aren’t able to build the same connections that they used to.
One thing I have noticed that is this generation seems to really be invested in attending shows.
Yeah, that’s also my experience. When I was in high school, I was a little too young to be involved in the D.C. hardcore scene, but I was very aware of it. And when me and Pete — who was in the Walkmen — had a band, we were like the only people who had any interest in going to shows or going to concerts. None of our friends had any idea why we were wasting our time with this stuff. And now it does seem like going to concerts and listening to new bands is more of an activity that kids do.
So what’s coming up next?
Well, I have a lot of music in the pipeline, but I don’t really know what to do with it; I don’t know if you spend all your time making an album or release your songs one by one as singles? I’m not really sure. I’m tempted to — I’ve never released just a series of singles or anything like that, so maybe that’s what I’ll be spending 2018 doing.