by: Stephan Masny
Hamilton Leithauser recently played in the Constellation Room in Santa Ana to promote his record with Rostam Batmanglij, “I Had a Dream That You Were Mine.” Throughout his tenure as the beloved frontman of The Walkmen, Leithauser exuded a sort of timelessness that escapes most modern singers today, and his new collaboration with Rostam takes the pair’s love of the classic American songbook and pairs it with one of the more unique voices in music. Our conversation with Hamilton centered upon the writing process for his new record, his most recent tour, and his plans for the future.
Stephan Masny: Since you drive across the country so much [on tour], is there any sort of music that you gravitate towards in specific parts of the country? I know when I drive long distances it's kind of interesting to use music to tap into whatever environment you're in.
Hamilton Leithauser: It's kind of fun to listen to the local artists of whatever town you're in. Like when we were in Oakland a couple of days ago I was listening to Sly and the Family Stone. It's something to keep you interested.
SM: As the Walkmen progressed in their career and as you've gone through your solo work I felt you've always tried to capture this classic American songbook sound. Was there any sort of formative influence that drew you to that when you were in the Walkmen? It seems that you and Rostam took the reins [of that sound] and really ran with it.
HL: Yeah it was something we never really talked about. It's funny as we went along I guess we just kept trying new things and we went with what worked and in the end we sort of have a similar aesthetic and a similar background in terms of what we've come to like growing up and always being very interesting in hearing new music in different styles. He and I have a similar... I dunno... "grown up" aesthetic so I think that makes it so you can sort of trust the other guy to come up with something that might be a little bit out of left field, but we're both willing to have a little patience to try something that's unexpected but then fits in with what you're trying to do too.
SM: I know you and Rostam worked together on Black Hours (Leithauser's first solo record) on the tracks "Alexandra" and "I Retired." Did you guys make the collective decision to make a full album together following that?
HL: No. Actually we didn't talk about that until we were already done about six songs on this one. And we just sorta got together to write more songs in the beginning and I thought maybe there would be a couple of more songs on my next solo record. But we ended up just getting stuff done so quickly that by the second or third trip I went out there [to Los Angeles] where we actually started talking like 'Maybe this should be its own project.' And then we kept working and thought 'This is definitely it's own record.' We then had to figure out what we were going to call it but we just ended up going with both of our names (Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam) because it was just the most honest way of describing what we did.
SM: It does seem to have a little bit of both of your personal touch as this Sinatra-esque crooner and Rostam always had these baroque classic arrangements [in Vampire Weekend]. They both kind of fit together really well. Did recording in Los Angeles have any influences as well?
HL: We were there most of the time because he has all of his stuff there but we did "Alexandra" and "I Retired" in Rostam's apartment in Brooklyn. But then he moved out to LA and we did this record. It's great because it's just the two of us in the room and it's just us writing and recording and it's very low pressure. The kind of pressure that can be really be stifling is when you're paying for a studio every day and you don't necessarily feel inspired that day but you gotta get something done. I really like it so much better when you just feel like you're at home and you work when you feel like you can work. We worked a lot but then you can sort of just do something else when you feel like it's not working out.
SM: I guess the flow can come a lot more naturally when you guys are just sitting hanging out as opposed to when you're in the studio sitting around like 'I've got five hours to get this song hashed out.'
HL: Yeah, definitely. No doubt about that (laughs).
SM: You have Alexandra Savior opening up for you on your tour which we're big fans of here at KUCI. Did you approach her to have her as your opener or was it arranged in some other way?
HL: No actually I'm not sure who set up the deal but once it was proposed to me I was thrilled to have her on.
SM: During the recording and promoting of Black Hours you expressed a desire to do more songs in the vein of Frank Sinatra torch ballads and it seemed like Rostam at the time almost talked you out of it and pushed for songs like "Alexandra" on there. With this full collaboration finished is that still a project you'd like to pursue?
HL: Uhhhh (pause). I don't know actually because I was very interested in doing a big symphonic record and I am still interested in doing that but... I don't have any desire immediately to... no I don't have any desire to do that (laughs). I mean you never know because I play so much music like that. Maybe someday.
SM: It seems part of the reason The Walkmen stopped working was because it felt like creatively you may have taken the project as far as you could've in 14 years and from what I've heard no one really had much of a desire to continue doing it. Building off tha-
HL: Well that's true. I mean, yeah. You get to a point where we didn't really know what direction to turn because it had seemed like we tried so many different things. We had been doing it together since we were little kids. It just seemed like an appealing time to try something else.
SM: Building off of that, it seems that working with Rostam gave this project a unique amount of exposure since both of you are so well respected within the industry. On Black Hours you also collaborated with a lot of other people such as Amber Coffman, members of Fleet Foxes and The Shins, etc. Is that kind of collaborative spirit something you still desire as solo artist?
HL: All of those people on Black Hours were just people I hired to play; they didn't actually write anything. I needed a band and I just sought after people I liked. But I feel I do like working with people. I spend so much of the time just by myself, so the way that it comes across where you're hearing its a collaborative thing is just the sound of the final product. But most of my time I spend working completely by myself in an isolated environment. I always look at working with other people as the reward you get for all of the alone time that you put into it. It's fun to see your friends and record the songs when they're written and trying to make them sound good. That's the most fun part.
SM: Can you see yourself collaborating with Rostam again? I know both of you have a lot on your plate right now
HL: Oh absolutely. I'm sure we will. I don't if it will be immediately but we will. He wants to and I want to so definitely. We didn't run out of ideas and we left some things in the oven that I think we're going to get out at some point.
SM: Do you find yourself writing on the road a lot? I know there's a lot of downtime out there.
HL: I actually find it really hard to write on the road. I wish I could because it honestly is such a waste of time but I've tried so many times over the years but I don't find myself very creative or productive when I'm on the road.
SM: When you do sit down to write is it a more inspiration type of process? Like do you wake up with a melody in your head and run to write it down or are you more the type to force yourself to sit down and hash a song out?
HL: It's both because when I'm home in New York I like to have as much of a regular schedule as I can. And I do find that hammering away at it can have a positive effect sometimes. But usually you have no control over when the good ideas come; they can be totally random when you're out of the house or wherever, so I generally just try to work away at it.
SM: Finishing up, I feel like your voice has always been a unique and powerful asset. Were there any singers that you'd say were a formative influence growing up? Was there anyone you listened to that you could point at and say 'I want to sound like that guy.'
HL: Of course. Well actually the first singer I probably ever knew was my dad. He had a band who would play in the local chili cook-off and stuff like that. So before I even remember I'm sure I looked at him thinking, 'I can totally do that.'
SM: So growing up you're totally thinking "Man I can't wait to grow up and sing at the chili cook-offs all over town"
HL: (laughs) yeah totally! That doesn't sound so bad. Maybe I'll get there someday.