Hamilton Leithauser of the Walkmen recalls his early experiences with the DC punk scene
The Walkmen were one of the most successful bands that came out of the so-called post-punk revival of the turn of the century. With catchy melodies more bright than the dark and brooding variety favored by many of its contemporaries, this New York-based act also endured changes in tastes a little better than many its peers. Comprised of a group of friends that grew up in the same social circles, the Walkmen formed in 2000, and in 2002, the band released its debut album, the cheekily titled Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone. The album was a bit of an underground hit, and the song "We've Been Had" appeared in commercials promoting the Saturn Ion.
Since then, the outfit has enjoyed a level of success most bands only dream of with songs in film and television, and the group has also been tapped for major music festivals around the world, including All Tomorrow's Parties, Reading and Lollapalooza. We recently spoke with Hamilton Leithauser, the very down-to-earth and engaging singer and guitarist of the band, about his early experiences with DC punk, Frank Sinatra and staying inspired.
Westword: When you were in high school in DC, did you get involved in the underground music scene back then?
Hamilton Leithauser: Yeah, I did, actually. We started our first band in high school, and I guess I was there for the tail end of Fugazi. But the band that I was really following was the Make-Up. They started right when I was in the ninth grade. I went to their second show, so I used to see them all the time. That was the DC scene of my time. We played with the Make-Up. We were in the recording studio when Fugazi was recording there one time, too.
The older guys are a little older, but Pete [Bauer] and I were very aware of Bad Brains because they were popular in our city, but we were just a little too young for that and Minor Threat. I saw that stuff around but didn't really know what it was because I was too young, so I sort of missed it. I think I saw the Nation of Ulysses when I was really young because they were playing with a band that included Walt [Martin],Matt [Barrick] and Paul [Maroon] from our band now. My parents took me to see Walt's band, and I think it was them, but I didn't know who they were at the time.
Did you meet most of the guys in your band while you were in high school or was it afterwards?
Pete is my friend from high school, Walt is my cousin and Paul and Matt are his friends from high school. But they're three or four years older than me. I always sort of knew them because they were in Walt's band. Beyond that, I didn't know them that well. I got to know a couple of the guys in Walt's band better. When we started this one, I honestly didn't know Paul and Matt that well.
Did you relocate to Boston for a bit after high school?
I did. I lived there for two years. I went to B.U. for two years.
How did The Recoys come together?
That was me and Pete's high school band that continued on in college. We were both at B.U., so we kept it going. We moved to New York together at some point.
The Recoys were a bit different from what you did with the Walkmen. What did you find interesting or compelling about garage rock instead of some other kind of music you could have been playing?
I think it was the only music we could play. Iggy Pop and The Stooges is pretty awesome when you're in high school. So we would listen to "No Fun" -- that was our favorite kind of music. So that's what we tried to play. It's easy. It's not easy to be good but it's easy to be loud. It's just an easy little formula when you're trying to be a rock band to sound like the Stooges.
Why did you pursue a different musical direction rather than stick to what you'd been doing and refining it?
You try to keep making yourself sound different and you do your best to do that. We didn't consciously try to not play garage rock. It was very gradual and there wasn't a defining moment.
In what way was Simon Raymonde of Cocteau Twins involved in Heaven, and how did you get hooked up with him?
He runs our record label in England, Bella Union. So we got him to sub in on bass when Walt was sick last summer. We deal with him on a business level, and he was a very nice guy. I think we asked him because it sounded kind of funny, but he kicked ass, and it was fun.
You did an interview with Vulture last summer or spring and you mentioned Frank Sinatra. What biography did you read?
It was called Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan.
What do you feel made Sinatra a special and significant artist to you as an artist?
It's so hard to answer. His singing, his voice, his phrasing, his clarity. I like his records. I like a lot of the orchestration on his records, which he didn't actually do, but he approved and sought out the guys he liked to do that. He didn't write his songs, but he chose them. He was also pretty funny. I guess he wasn't the nicest guy in the world all the time, but he could be pretty funny.
Your band has had some not inconsiderable level of success in the world of music compared to some other bands. You've also had a wide variety of experiences that any band would want to have. What is something you could point to that struck you as something maybe you thought confirmed in your mind that this is what you should be doing with your life?
I don't know. I mean, it's tough. You start out thinking that when you're a kid. And it seems that more and more things tell you it's what you shouldn't be doing with your time. When you're young, you're absolutely sure you're right. Over time, you run into more and more roadblocks, and you realize how hard it is. We've been through a lot of stuff, and it's hard to keep convincing yourself that that's what you want to do.
Is there anything you do to stay connected with the notion of staying convinced you should be doing this?
Yeah, that's all you do. On some level, I always want to write songs, and I don't know why even, even when I can't, and it's really frustrating. So you sort of have to just keep hammering away at it and make yourself interested and find different ways of doing it. Sometimes that means not doing it for a while. Sometimes it means weirdly not pushing yourself too hard, and then you feel like a do-nothing. You want it to happen but forcing yourself to do it can just make it worse. Every time something works you try to do it again, and it doesn't work the second time.
As one of the guitarists in the band, how would you describe what your role is in the band in that regard as opposed to Paul?
Paul is a much better guitar player than I am. He does it more. He's got a good feel. I really like playing it, and I'd like to play more. But singing and playing guitar can be kind of tough sometimes, especially when you're giving it your all in singing; it can be tough playing chords.
Playing guitar and singing at the same time is truly a challenge for most people. How did you learn to overcome what might be a barrier to some people, or do you feel that you have?
It was so long ago. But I guess it was in my first band in high school. I was the only one willing to sing, and we only had me on guitar in a power trio.
Is that still challenging for you in a similar way now?
Yeah, because when you tour with bands like the Fleet Foxes and you watch Robin [Pecknold] up there and he can do all that complicated finger picking? It's amazing. He sings well, too. So it's inspiring to some dude like that.