Sunday, January 18, 2009

Q&A with Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser

Here's the interview I did with the singer of NYC alt-rock act The Walkmen. He was taking care of some friends' apartment at the time in Brooklyn and was late calling because he had to take their dog out to do its duty beforehand. The band plays Solana Beach (Jan. 19) and Hollywood (Jan. 20).

What can fans look forward to at the shows?
We play a lot of our new songs. We have some brand new material written, but I’m not sure if we’re really going to get into that yet. We haven’t recorded them. A bunch of it is finished, which is nice.

Last year, I read you were touring with horn players. Are you still?
What’s actually great about this time is we’ve done this thing where we posted ads on Craigslist in all the towns we went to and found guys and they come out and play. This time what we did is called up the best guys we’ve run into throughout the U.S. and we’re flying ‘em out. We’re going to have an all star horn section. We’ve got guys from Manhattan, New Orleans, New York (State) and L.A. They don’t really know each other but they just stuck out from the crowd. I’m really looking forward to that. Honestly, I don’t think they really knew our music very well before they played with us. We really got along with all of them so it will be fun to travel with them.

In the early days, your shows were shambolic because you were still trying to figure out the band’s sound would be. Has all the steady touring over the years made you tighter as a unit?
I think we have a more unified direction (about) the kind of music we want to play. I think there’s a clearer vision of everything we want to do among everybody. You get to a point where you’ve played so many shows that you sort of don’t care anymore and don’t put the preparation into every show that you should. That’s not a very good way of being. I think that’s how we were a couple years ago. Now I think we’ve played so many times, you don’t get as nervous. We try not to tour as much as we used to so each show has more of a buildup. You want to be more prepared for it.

Do you have a preference between playing the smaller venues like The Glass House or larger festivals like KROQ Inland Invasion and Coachella?
It’s all fun. It’s nice when everything’s different. With Coachella, there’s that huge stage. Sometimes it’s a nightmare because you’re not used to it. You’ve been playing these small clubs and then it’s such a sterile feeling. Sometimes when you get it right, it can be fantastic.

Now that “You & Me” has been out for six months are you happy with how it turned out overall?
We’re thrilled with it. It’s everything we wanted it to be. I have only good things to say about it, which is not always the case.

You took a lot more time writing and recording it. Do you think that shows in the songs?
Definitely. The thing we took the most time in doing was finding a direction in the way we wanted it to sound. It’s weird, but (it came down to) somehow turning a corner - making five guys in the same room with the same instruments sound new. Everybody wanted to be a part of it. You go in and hammer it out and just waste so many hours and months, then suddenly something works and everybody wants to be doing it again. You can’t explain why, but it definitely happens. If that doesn’t happen, the stuff you turn out is not top quality.

Several of the rave reviews of the album have pointed out you’re enunciating words more clearly. Was that a conscious decision?
It was, actually. I think this time, I was really feeling the words. I felt the words really led a lot of the songs. We’ve always done music first in the past. This time, the words were essential to how the songs were going to go. Sometimes we’d get in there and if the words were really wrong, the song ended up sounding worse. We really had to work with them to make them alright. That’s where it came together better.

Have you tired of the constant Dylan comparisons to your voice?
I used to get so sick of the Bono comparison. Oh man, it was all over the place. That got old. Then some people were saying I sounded like Rod Stewart, which I thought was really funny. It went on for so long and that started getting old too. Then everybody said Bob Dylan and that’s been going on until now. I don’t see that. It’ll switch (again in the future).

You recorded all the instruments simultaneously in the same room for this album, right?
Yeah, we really made a point of doing that – having me sing right with everybody so it was more like our live show. That was the biggest thing we did. We’ve always tried to do that in the past, but in the end we haven’t. It’s always been like a big process of trying to make everything live and for one reason or another, having to do things on top of it. This time, it was more of a conscious effort to make sure if something wasn’t sounding right, it was going to be fixed right there, right from the beginning.

How did changing studios affect things? You’d done so much at your own Marcata Studios.
The thing about Marcata was one of us had to be the engineer, so you couldn’t have everybody in the room. Sometimes we’d do a thing where the guy would hit ‘play’ and he’d have to sprint through the hallway, pick up a guitar and try to do it. Somebody would mess up and you’d have to run all the way back through this big thing and stop the tape and try again. We were doing that for awhile. (Once), we didn’t know the counter was broken on our machine, so we’d rewind it, hit ‘record,’ then go back up and get back in the studio and realize you’d recorded over half the last take of the song you wanted to put down. That got really old.

You’ve said in interviews that maybe it might be a good idea if the band didn’t use so much reverb in the future. Is that ever a sticking point between you and the others in the studio?
You try and experiment with new guitar sounds, but maybe we’ve found our niche with that sound. Paul has such a great sounding guitar and the amp is so great. The way he makes it sound is something we’ve just done over the years. For now, that’s just going to be our thing. We do try to break out of it, but I guess we have more luck with it.

When Peter and Walter switched instruments for “A Hundred Miles Off,” did it have a big effect on the band’s musical dynamic?
Definitely. Actually much more so on this record. This one is a clear indication of what it’s like since they switched. Before, it was happening while we were doing the last record, going back and forth. I think Walt really has a new bass style for this one and does a lot of rhythm stuff. The reason he wanted to do that in the first place is it’s a lot more involved in the rhythm. I think you can really hear the bass. It’s a big part. When he comes up with a groove, now the drums and bass are much more of a groove. It’s nice and loose and sounds like a band that’s a lot more comfortable. It’s less in your face but more groovy.

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