Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen on Bad Brains, Fatherhood and Making Heaven
Early morning interviews are always a risky proposition. When I was told to call Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for indie darlings The Walkmen, at 9 a.m., I feared either early morning grogginess or outright surliness.
Are The Walkmen moving up?
Instead, Leithauser, who was speaking with DC9 in anticipation of Wednesday's show at the Granada Theater, was both gracious and verbose. While taking care of his one-year-old baby girl, the singer talked about everything from his love of the Bad Brains to his band's surprising lack of mainstream commercial success
I hope I didn't wake you.
No, I've been up with the baby since 6 a.m. I am actually just about to have lunch.
How old is your baby?
She's one and a half and it can be a full-time job when I am at home.
Has becoming a father had an impact on being in the band or how you write songs?
Writing songs has become more of a day job. I like the way the process went for Heaven. I thought it was very productive. We worked diligently. We were consistent, which is different for us. Before, we always hit a wall and it was months and months of nothing getting done. I wonder if it will work that way again, if I can work 9 to 5. I don't want it to get dull like a job.
Your home is in New York, but you are originally from D.C. Do you make it back there often?
My parents are still there. We get down there for all of the major holidays.
Back in the day, D.C. was the hotbed for punk and hardcore.
Yes, when I was really young, that was when the Bad Brains were around. I was a little too young to be into them.
They are still around.
I can't believe that they are still around. Really? I had no idea. Does the singer still do back flips?
But I bet they are still amazing. I do remember that they did play in New York a couple of years ago. That's unbelievable that they still play. That's one of those bands from back before I was into music that I really want to see play live. I never got to see the Jesus Lizard and I also wanted to see them.
The Walkmen's most recent album, Heaven, has, like all of your albums, gotten good reviews. However, the most common thing written by critics is that you guys seem to be mellowing out. Do you think so?
Does that mean the songs weren't as aggressive? I wanted to sing a little bit lower. I felt like I had been singing so high for so long. I like that we had that sound going for a while, but when I go back through our catalog, I find so many things that I sing so high. I just wanted to bring it down a notch. That was a major change.
Are you pretty critical when you go back and listen to your older material?
I don't listen to it very often, but when I do, I am critical of it. There are some songs that make me cringe. But that is mostly because we play some songs so often. You get so familiar with a song, that you figure out what went wrong when you originally recorded it.
Are there some of your more popular songs, like "The Rat," that you feel obligated to play?
People always want to hear that song. That is fine. We always want to play the song that people want to hear. We don't play it sometimes when we just don't feel like it. We've tried to treat it like just another song, but then people complain about that.
Your last album, Lisbon, some of which was recorded in Dallas, was produced by John Congleton. Why not use him on Heaven?
Every time we have ever gone back to the same thing, it hasn't worked. We had a great time with John. He did a great job. But even when we have gone back to our own studio, it hasn't worked the second time. It's not the producer's fault and it's not necessarily our fault. I think you can get too comfortable. Things just start feeling like you have already done that.
Was the process for making Heaven different? It seems like you guys take two years between every album.
I know and that's really weird. I don't know why that is. It doesn't feel the same. Some records feel like we are moving along while others feel like standstills. That is the weirdest thing.
Is it surreal to think about the band being around for a decade?
It is. It feels very strange. To think about when we started this band, it seems like a hundred years ago. I can't believe that was only ten years ago. Back when we had our own studio and we were sleeping on the floor.
Do you ever get tired of being a critical darling? Do you even read the reviews?
Of course, I read them. You care what people think. I think when you are younger, you try and pretend that you don't. You are happy with a record when you finish it. And to hear other people say they like it, that feels nice.
At some point, however, do you not care what people write, but are more interested in getting people out to hear the band live?
Yes, that's the thing about us over the years. People have been nice enough to write good things about us, but we have never broken into the big time at all. I have so many friends that have done so much better than us. I don't know what it is about us. We don't translate to a bigger audience. I don't know why. It seems like it is time for us to play bigger theaters and get out of some of these clubs.
You are playing at the Granada Theater, the same place you played last time you were in Dallas.
I like the Granada. That's a place that I have no problem playing. We don't get to play in that kind of place in every city.
The Walkmen perform with Milo Greene on Wednesday, September 19, at the Granada Theater.