Frontman Hamilton Leithauser talks pep rallies, penalties and picking up where they left off
Since The Walkmen went on hiatus in 2013, frontman Hamilton Leithauser has been anything but idle. He’s released two acclaimed solo records, one collaboration with Rostam Batmanglij (ex-Vampire Weekend), soundtracked Ethan Hawke’s docuseries about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward (The Last Movie Stars) and started an annual residency at the Carlisle Club in New York. And that’s not counting another documentary soundtrack and a new solo record that he’s been working on “forever”.
It’s the kind of schedule that should have left no time to even consider taking the band out of mothballs, but The Walkmen are back, well into a “reunion” tour that’s about to hit the UK Europe later this month. “I don’t actually have an answer,” Leithauser says when asked why now seemed the perfect time to reform. “It just seemed like fun for the first time. Like, it wouldn’t be high pressure. It’s worked out a lot better than I thought it was gonna go. We were playing a festival in Malta and we were like, ‘It’s funny, being in a band can actually be fun’”.
For anyone who caught The Walkmen on their final tours in 2012 and 2013, it didn’t seem like they weren’t having fun. “We called it at the right time,” Leithauser says. “It certainly had started to feel like a chore. We’d been monogamous for 20 years so it just seemed time to try something else.”
Now, after a 10-year hiatus, The Walkmen are back and re-energised. “I think we just needed time to remember that playing songs is a pleasure, not a chore,” Leithauser says. “It’s nice to come back and rediscover how much you love it… and do it better. We’re a better band now than we used to be.”
If that’s true, then watch out. The Walkmen were already a force to reckon with the first time around. Ahead of their UK shows this month, Leithauser took some time out to chat through his gig memories with us from the band’s first 20 years.
The one that inspired you to start a band
The one that I went to and thought: “Oh yeah, this is what I want to do” was probably Fugazi. They were local guys, and I had a mutual friend with one of them. There was no flash, they played in cafeterias and charged $5 for the shows, even though they were a big band at the time. I’d seen the Rolling Stones and bands like that. I love the Rolling Stones, but that was on the Steel Wheels tour and they were out there with balloon animals that were 80 feet tall. You don’t think, “Oh, I could do that”. But when I saw that kind of DIY, DC hardcore show, I definitely felt like I could start a crappy band, go down to the local high school cafeteria and play really loud. That sounded fun.
What Fugazi era are we talking?
I was a little bit young so I kind of came along at the tail end. I would have been seeing them around the time they put out In On The Kill Taker. I grew up in Washington DC and I remember Repeater posters being all over the place, and Fugazi was graffitied on a bridge near my house.
Even with your quieter moments, The Walkmen are a pretty intense live experience. Does that come from hardcore?
Yeah, we all know it really well. We could all just bust into some Minor Threat at any time because we’ve been playing it since eighth grade. We could do a really convincing Minor Threat or Fugazi set.
It was a party in a friend’s basement in Georgetown in DC. We covered ‘Stray Cat Blues’ by the Rolling Stones and played a couple of our own that just sounded like Janes Addiction rip-offs. And the first ever incarnation of Jonathan Fire*Eater [Walt Martin, Paul Maroon and Matt Barrick’s pre-Walkmen band] played that night. That was a little historical moment.
Yeah, and the guy who got thrown out of that party is now the head of Verve Records.
So in those pre-Walkmen days, did your band, The Recoys and Jonathan Fire*Eater move in the same circles?
Yeah, although we were much younger. The guys in The Walkmen are four years older than me. They all went off to college, then dropped out of college and had some success. I would open for them and stuff like that. Walt’s my cousin. When I moved to New York finally, I didn’t even make my own friends, I just fell in with their friends.
It’s probably some huge festival stage. We just played a big one in Copenhagen. Or do you mean like club shows?
Yeah, or could be metaphorical, I guess?
The one where I really felt like we were kicking ass was when our first record came out. We’d played little shows around New York that did okay. Finally we got big enough to play the Bowery Ballroom and we sold it out. So we put up another one and that sold out. And we put up a third and that sold out immediately. That felt great. It was amazing. I never thought beyond selling out Irving Plaza. If I even got to play Irving Plaza, that was all I could imagine.
Like you said earlier, you weren’t exactly aspiring to be the Stones.
Not that I’m saying I could, but I never pictured myself up there. The more I see pop musicians today, the more I realise I have no interest in doing that ever.
What is it you find distasteful about it?
It’s not that I don’t like it. This is not a slight at all on the guy, but I was watching Harry Styles on something. And he was playing and, like, dancing around. I guess this guy is at the top of what people would consider my industry and I don’t want to do anything that he’s doing. It’s not that I dislike him. I have nothing against him. I just really have no ambition to do that. I think it’s the idea of creating a different kind of persona that you have to then package up to become that successful.
One time, we played at the University of Oklahoma pep rally. It’s a big football school in a very, very red part of America, probably the reddest. It was 11 September 2002, so a year after 9/11. We went onto the stage, which was on the 50-yard line of the football field and everyone’s back in the stands. There’s like 40 or 50,000 people there. This guy Dan Patrick, an ESPN announcer in the US, got up. We were like, “Oh my God, is that Dan Patrick?” And he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, bow your heads for a moment of silence in remembrance of the victims of September 11. And now, I give you The Walkmen…”
How the hell do you follow that?
We did. But it wasn’t great.
I think we’ve already got a contender.
Oh, have you ever been to ULU?
We played there the night… I think it was either a Euro Cup or might have been a World Cup game. England got to the quarter finals. We’d been watching the game in the bar next door but our show was in the club and there’s no TVs there. So there were so many people in the bar and the match just would not end. It went on and on, and ended up going to penalties. The owner of the club came in and said “You can’t push this back anymore, you have to go on”. We kept shortening the set and shortening the set, and eventually we only had 35 minutes to play. We went on as they were starting the penalties and reluctant people start to filter in. Then, 15 minutes in, the game ends and everyone comes in and the place fills up. And I’m like, “How did it go?” “We lost.” “Oh. Well, we only have time for one more song.”
Probably the first time we got to Chicago and played Metro. We just played four reunion shows there. The reason we played there was because it was always so great. At the time, for us, it was huge. It holds like 1,000 people. We’d finally gotten to the point where we could play through a whole set without our amps blowing up, which has always been a problem for us. We finally had our sound and our groove down, people just loved it and we really hit our stride.
Photo credit: Astrida Valigorsky / Getty