At first I didn't want to like the Walkmen. When I first heard of 'em, in the early-2000s when my college radio station (Washington State University's 90.7 KZUU!) received an advance of the band's debut album Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, I was much more into the French Kicks, who, I thought, shared a similar sound. But over the past six or seven odd years, the band has slowly become one of my favorites, thanks in part to their sharp live performances and frontman Hamilton Leithauser's wide vocal range (and, of course, our mutual love of Harry Nilsson).
And now they're on a streak: The Walkmen have cranked out a trio of startlingly well-crafted albums, starting with 2008's You & Me, then 2010's Lisbon and now Heaven. The new release marks the first time they've worked with a producer; the band, who self-produced their previous six LPs, tapped Phil Ek (Built to Spill, Band of Horses, Fleet Foxes) and decamped to his suburban Seattle studio to record last winter. The results are typically Walkmen—pinging guitars, rumbling rhythmic interplay and Leithauser's gritty blue-eyed soul crooning. But here they expand their sound, too, with hushed acoustic ditties and tightly-wound pop-rock jams. And it's their best sounding album yet.
I called up Hamilton at his Brooklyn pad recently to discuss bikini clad baristas, fatherhood and the road to Heaven.
What’s the biggest difference for you between this album and the rest of the Walkmen’s catalog?
We approached this with a professional attitude. I know how weird that sounds, but we had a schedule in mind and we ended on schedule. I can’t f**king believe it, but we finished the thing on time. From start to finish, it came together. That, for us, is a completely different world. And it’s because we were working with Phil. We never worked with a producer before. Phil kept us on schedule. We don’t have a boss in our band, so it’s everybody lookin’ at each other and nothing’s really moving forward. So having a head of the beast was good. It was surprising to see a calendar of how it was going to go down. Every time we do a record, we’re just cramming at the end of the session. But this time was fun.
Why did you guys decide to work with Phil instead of self-producing again?
We’d done a lot of records all on our own and it seemed like a fun idea to try and work with somebody. It was always suggested to us when we were younger, but it was always the dudes at Warner Brothers trying to railroad you onto a producer who was going to spice things up; it didn’t sound like it was going to be that fun to do. But we were talking about working with someone we like; we really, really like that Fleet Foxes record, Helplessness Blues. It had just come out and we all thought it sounded so great. Two days later Phil—he produced it—called us and it seemed like a perfect fit. The first half of the sessions was from Thanksgiving to just before Christmas. It was a long haul. Then the second half was from January 5 to around Valentine’s Day.
Did you get any chances to explore the city?
We took Sundays off. But they actually had this big blizzard out in Seattle while we were there. It was national news because they never have snow out there, so we got a couple of snow days. People just folded when it snowed. It was like a disaster movie. The streets were empty. In downtown you could hardly walk; there’s just absolutely no one out there. One of those big buses was jackknifed and blocked the intersection with all the lights off. No one was in it. It was surreal.
What was the one thing you absolutely needed to have in the studio every day?
Have you ever been up to those espresso shacks up there [in the Seattle area]?
You mean with the bikini-wearing baristas?
Yeah. There was a place on our corner. There were actually two of them on our corner on either side of the street. So every morning you have this weird interaction at like 9:30 am with some girl wearing dental floss. You go back and forth because you feel so creepy. It was our only place so we had to go every day, but at the same time you know you’re like the regular customer so it starts feeling just sick after like a month, you know? You really do, like the girl will recognize you... and you... you know, you feel like such a sleazeball but you’re just looking for a cup of coffee.
What was the hardest part of recording this album?
Writing is always harder than recording it. We wrote for at least a year by the time we got to the studio. There’s a lot more frustration and absolute despair when you’re writing. The recording just sort of rolled along. It was hard; there were plenty of times when you’re disagreeing and things aren’t working out. But that endless frustration is from writing.
What’s the songwriting process for the Walkmen?
It’s different now because [guitarist-keyboardist] Paul [Maroon] lives in New Orleans and he’s a big contributor, so it’s a lot of e-mailing MP3s back and forth. It’s a lot of dealing with stuff on your own. Today, I’m at a private space by myself. We do a lot of work on our own.
Do you have a favorite song on Heaven?
I really like “We Can’t Be Beat.” I was happy with the dry sound and I thought it sounded very different for us. It sounded happy and fun, and it set a nice tone. It sounds different from what people would expect from the Walkmen. I wanted to sound like the Fleetwoods; they’re one of my favorite bands, so I was trying to copy their sound a little bit.
Any other bands that really influenced this album?
The Pixies. I was listening to the Pixies and the Amps, which is Kim Deal’s other band. They’re really great.
The Breeder’s Title TK is one of my all-time favorite records...
Me too. And that record gets so s**t on and it doesn’t deserve it. It’s really great. It gets no credit. It’s weird.
Are there any lyrical themes on the album?
It’s hard to put your finger on. But on this record it was really satisfying to write a song that has a chorus like, “I’m not your heartbreaker,” which is itself a pretty bland line. But to write a song that’s really happy-sounding and then sing lines like that... that’s what I was most excited about.
The album sounds different for the Walkmen...
Yeah, it does sound very different. I compared it with some songs from Lisbon and just immediately the tone is so completely different. That’s because Phil is so good at getting a rich texture to simple guitars. It’s a little more subtle, even the really loud stuff, which for us is a little different. Because we slam away at it. That felt different.
What’s the idea behind the album title?
It was originally from a lyric from a song that didn’t make the record. It’s a little bit sad because I really like that song. But that’s something that just goes that way. We all thought the title sounded appropriate because it’s big, it’s positive and it sounded a little serious too. It sounded a little heavy, which I thought was appropriate. It seemed like a substantial record.
You’re a new parent—has that had an effect on the record and your writing?
Ever since she was born I’ve written more songs that I’ve liked than ever. I don’t want to jinx it, but it’s true. I don’t know why. I would’ve thought the exact opposite.
I imagine you’re much more tethered to home than ever before.
Yeah. You have a lot less time to do anything besides work on music and take care of the kid. There are a lot less nights out around NYC and a lot more 8 am mornings at the park. I spend a lot of time over at the BedStuy [Brooklyn] YMCA. I really dig that place. They have a great gym and they have the best deal in NYC, which is a free child watch with your membership, so you can leave your kid in the play room. It’s really like the greatest deal I’ve ever come across in my life.