Hamilton Leithauser: All Your Restless Blues

Going solo, Walkman frontman stays up late with the Black Hours

Music Features Hamilton Leithauser
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On the cover of Black Hours, his debut album as a solo artist, erstwhile Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser cocks his head over his shoulder, shooting a glance backwards to the listener, as though beckoning you deeper into the night. His sideburn is sculpted into a neat point, his hair otherwise mussed. His eyes and portions of his face are obscured by shadow, so you can’t quite read his expression: Is it sinister? Convivial? Is it mocking? Conspiratorial? Just beyond his shoulder, a cluster of lights moves forward—obviously a car, but a taxicab? A police cruiser? It’s impossible to tell if Leithauser is promising danger or decadence. Or perhaps both.

That cover—and the music behind it—conjures that time of night the title calls the “black hours,” and anyone who has ever been out past midnight in the city will understand the phrase. It’s that time between midnight and whenever the sun comes up, those long hours when most of the city has climbed into bed but when dedicated revelers still carouse. These are hours spent in nightclubs or bars, or else on the way to the next nightclub or bar. These are hours spent in exhilarating fatigue, weighted down by every place you’ve been so far, but pushed forward by the anticipation of the places you might visit next. The black hours hold seemingly infinite possibilities, innumerable surprises, the sorts of adventures that make for good stories among friends. “That’s why I called it Black Hours,” Leithauser says. “I don’t see it as a drug-fueled mess or anything like that. I think of it as having more of a classic fun-night-out feeling.”

He knows this is not necessarily a new subject for popular music. In fact, it has inspired countless songs at least since the swing era, when dancers would hit the Savoy to see Chick Webb’s band or Basie at Roseland. Even as the big-band boom died down, crooners dutifully evoked that urban nocturne, most notably Frank Sinatra, whose voice on 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours sounds like a pack of smokes and another double. Eight years later, Sam Cooke did him one better with Night Beat, a collection of sparingly arranged blues and R&B re-imaginings that conjure the loneliness of a sleepless night in New York.

This is the tradition that Black Hours plays into. The album opens with the stabbing strings and boozy guitar of “5 AM,” which moves at a creeping pace as Leithauser bellows, semi-rhetorically, “Do you ever wonder why I see these love songs, when I have no love at all?” He comes on like Sinatra at his most raspily self-aware. “The Silent Orchestra” skips along on a syncopated beat, its marimba keeping better time than the taxicab meter. That’s the prominent instrument on the first half of Black Hours, even taking lead on “11 O’Clock Friday Night.” “That was a guitar part I had originally written,” Leithauser says, “but we got in there and tried out the marimba and it just felt so different. It’s a very welcome change. I was happy to have a new lead instrument taking over the music.”

The new instruments—skittering marimba, smoky lounge piano and cinematic strings replacing chiming guitars and background synths—mark enough of a departure to warrant a solo rather than a band album, but Leithauser felt he needed to get the imagery as well as the music just right, or else risk breaking the spell. “The cover is a direct nod to this Sam Cooke record that I have, and there’s a Frank Sinatra record that looks like that, too,” he explains. “I thought it would be fine to have a bit of a stylized look, because those were some of the biggest influences on this record. If you’re bothering to do a record under a different name, there had better be a reason for that.”

Ultimately, Leithauser wanted to get away from the sound of The Walkmen. He started writing Black Hours before the band toured for its last record, 2012’s Heaven. “I had my group of songs, but then I looked at them and thought I should be focusing on my own role: the singing and the strings part. I told myself I wasn’t going to write any rock ‘n’ roll music. I would make a whole record that would be very vocal-based. In time that changed, but in the beginning, that’s what I was shooting for.”

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For nearly 14 years, The Walkmen were nearly synonymous with New York City. The band grew out of the ashes of ‘90s alt-rockers Jonathan Fire*Eater, which didn’t last long enough to live up to the considerable hype surrounding the project. Keyboardist Walter Martin, drummer Matt Barrick and guitarist Paul Maroon poached bassist Peter Bauer and singer Leithauser from the Boston garage-rock act the Recoys. Almost all of them were childhood friends in Washington, D.C., and Leithauser and Martin were cousins. Recording in their Harlem loft, the newly christened Walkmen released a self-titled EP in 2001, then quickly followed it up with a full-length debut.

In 2002, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone was hailed as a breakthrough for the band, with some predicting that The Walkmen might ride the wave of new rock acts like The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs that were revitalizing the New York scene. They certainly sounded like one of the most sophisticated bands in the city, even if their sound was still in its formative stages. “Mr. Maroon’s job is to make sure that the group always sounds entropic, as if each song were a coincidental arrangement of parts,” wrote Kelefah Sanneh in the New York Times, praising a 2002 show at the Knitting Factory. “The band sometimes follows Mr. Leithauser’s elegiac twists and turns and sometimes ignores them; this uncertainty is what makes the group’s best songs so compelling.”

With his sharp suits, barbed wail and fascination with party-is-over decadence, Leithauser proved a divisive figure. The Village Voice heckled loudly and harshly: “Their early-U2 psychedelic-garage tonic hit the spot, although their smug, probably privileged frontman makes you want to sink your first into his soft, white gut from time to time.” The group persevered, un-gutpunched. They signed with Columbia imprint Record Collection for 2004’s Bows + Arrows, which may be their best album—or at least contains The Walkmen’s truest gem, a pummeling rocker called “The Rat.” It’s one of the best songs of the young century, a scabrous anthem of lost love and severed friendship delivered in a voice full of bile and venom: “When I used to go out, I would know everyone that I saw,” Leithauser sings accusingly. “Now I go out alone if I go out at all.” It remains an indie-rock classic, the kind of song that no one doesn’t like.

Rather than take off, The Walkmen settled down. Each subsequent album—from 2006’s A Hundred Miles Off up through 2012’s Heaven—garnered glowing reviews for the band’s sly songcraft and loose, lanky take on indie-rock anthems, which was determined as much by Maroon’s reverb-drenched guitars as Leithauser’s elusive, allusive lyrics. (Their only real dud: 2006’s Pussy Cats, their note-for-note remake of the infamous Harry Nilsson/John Lennon album. Both tiresome and wholly redundant, it’s notable only for being the final record made at the band’s own Marcata Studio before it was demolished.)

With their crisply tailored suits and indie-rock erudition, The Walkmen might have aged into Big Apple elders, beloved by Brooklynites with graphic design jobs and new babies. That’s certainly the milieu of their music, and once the band members became fathers themselves, they embraced the dad-rock tag wholeheartedly: “We’re even more of a dad band than Wilco,” Bauer told Noisey in 2012, around the time they included photos of their kids in the liners for Heaven. But in the late 2000s, The Walkmen—and nearly every other local band—were overshadowed by The National, who took urban, white, middle-class angst onto the Billboard charts.

Looking back, they might look like also-rans: the band that didn’t become The National. But that’s missing the point. The Walkmen, as their name suggested, made music for private consumption and personal contemplation. Theirs is an alone-in-a-crowd sound, a soundtrack for keeping to yourself on a packed subway car or simply musing next to a sleeping child. By Heaven, they sounded not only resigned to their fates but happy in their roles: “Golden dreams all lose their flow,” Leithauser sang on that album’s opener “We Can’t Be Beat.” “I don’t need perfection, I love the whole.”

Despite finding some peace in their cult status, The Walkmen called it quits after Heaven. Or, as Bauer told the Washington Post, they went on a “pretty extreme hiatus…It’s been almost 14 years now. I think that’s enough, you know?” The band had dispersed around the country: Leithauser and Martin still live in New York, but Maroon, for example, moved down to New Orleans. The demands of keeping the band together outweighed the rewards, although they made sure not to rule out a reunion in the future. (In fact, the band has already reunited for a one-off show for an NBA All-Star Weekend party earlier this year.)

In the meantime, none of the Walkmen have slowed down. In addition to Leithauser’s Black Hours, two other band members have solo albums out this spring. Later this month Bauer will release Latin American Ficciones via Mexican Summer, while last month, Martin released We’re All Young Together, a collection of kids’ songs featuring Karen O, The National’s Matt Berninger, Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Leithauser himself.

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Going solo was both freeing and nerve-wracking for Leithauser. “All of a sudden, you look at your songs and think, ‘I can finish them right here by myself. They don’t have to go through the mill of showing them to everybody and working them out with the band.’ From that moment on, you start looking at all the new stuff differently. It changes everything. Even if you’re the same person getting in the same room with the same guitar in your hand, it changes your whole outlook on everything that can happen.” On the other hand, “I don’t have my buddies to rely on and bounce ideas off of. They’re my friends, so it can be a very lonely feeling.”

For his first single as a solo artist, Leithauser wanted to release “I’m Retired,” a slow-moving number on the second side of Black Hours. “I just thought that would be funny and make for a great storyline,” he says of the song’s lyrics, which seem to comment directly on his old band’s not-really-a-breakup: “I retired from my fight, I retired from my war,” he sings, with a sloshed quaver in his voice. “No one knows what I was fighting for, and I don’t even know myself anymore.” It’s a statement of renewed mission, with a skewed musical palette courtesy of Rostam Batmanglij, keyboardist/mad scientist for Vampire Weekend.

The song opens with a strange cattle-trail lope, with hints of pedal steel and some shoo-be-doo-wops like they’re trying to play the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” from memory. As it progresses, the song almost literally winds down. Leithauser slurs his words, and the backing vocals settle into a bog of reverb. “It’s like a drunken choir fading out,” Leithauser says. “Rostam and I have a lot of similar music tastes. Something like ‘50s crooner music or early ‘60s vocal groups, we both really love that stuff. I don’t think we were talking about the Flamingos specifically in regard to that song, but we both love that song.”

Batmanglij proved crucial to the sound of Black Hours, not only helping to create that after-midnight vibe but ensuring that the album didn’t curdle into crooner nostalgia. “Rostam called me up out of the blue and asked if I wanted to try working together,” Leithauser says. “He lives near me in New York, and I could go over to his house to work out ideas and write songs. It was more like casual friends getting together to try stuff out.” From that partnership came not only “I Retired,” but the album’s eventual first single, “Alexandra,” which proved crucial to defining the sound of the album. “From there on out, it was all about trying to get different sounds and dynamics on this thing. There are some rock-and-roll guitars on there, but we have some big orchestrations as well as some very soft, croonery moments.”

Despite the name on the spine, Black Hours is the product of two very distinct partnerships: between Leithauser and Batmanglij, of course, and between Leithauser and fellow Walkman Paul Maroon. The latter duo wrote the bulk of the Walkmen catalog together, so there was something comforting in their continued collaboration, which assured that the ensuing album wouldn’t venture too far from their band’s established sound. “We have a pretty good system going, even though it’s long distance,” Leithauser says. He and Maroon would exchange ideas via email or by phone, but the process soon proved very different than it had in the past. “It’s a shame that we don’t have the live band to play with or any live setting where we can work things out together. I have to hire people for band practice now, so I would have to save up a nice well of ideas before I got the band together to try them out. It’s good, though, because now it’s like the gang is my reward. I worked hard by myself, and the payoff was that I got to go into the studio with my friends. It was work, but it was fun, which is what it should be.”

Eventually, Maroon would conceive and even direct the video for “11 O’Clock Friday Night,” which features Leithauser riding a bicycle around New Orleans at night and encountering marching bands and dancers. It’s a deceptively simple video, almost hypnotic as Maroon finds visual rhymes to fit the song’s syncopated rhythms. “Paul had a friend with a camera, so he started putting stuff together,” Leithauser says. “It’s funny, because he’s never done anything like that before. He’s never been involved in any music videos ever. But it really mashed up together very well. I like it a lot.”

Leithauser is listed as a co-producer on Black Hours, alongside both Batmanglij and Maroon, but it was his New York neighbor who recommended the studio where these songs came to life. In 2012, Vampire Weekend recorded their third album, Modern Vampires of the City, at the historic Vox Studios in Los Angeles. For Batmanglij it seemed like the perfect setting to capture the late-night ambience of Black Hours. Reportedly the oldest recording studio in the world, Vox opened in 1936 and taped radio air checks by Fred Allen, Al Jolson and George Burns. In the 1950s and 1960s, it hosted some of pop’s most popular acts, including Sinatra, the Nat King Cole Trio, Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

“The place is fantastic,” Leithauser says. “The owner has kept it exactly the same. I don’t think they’ve changed anything. When you walk into the room, it’s like you’ve just stepped into 1951. The equipment is knockout: old mics and boards, top-of-the-line stuff. We were writing this music that was inspired by September of My Years and In the Wee Small Hours, so the studio was just perfect.” So much so that recording went much easier than anyone expected: “The place sounded so good that things started moving really fast. We had 10 days to get the basic track done, which is usually a long slog, but by the time we left, we had 90 percent of it done.”

The resulting album—which features contributions from Richard Swift, Fleet Foxes multi-instrumentalist Morgan Henderson and Dirty Projectors vocalist Amber Coffman—may be the most musically diverse and adventuresome of Leithauser’s career, yet that distinctive voice of his remains at the forefront, as curious and inscrutable as ever. “I tried to get as many different attitudes and sounds and approaches on here as I could, and I tried to show as much range as I could. It’s a singer’s record, so the vocals had better be the focal point. I felt like I had something to prove.”

Or, as he sings on “The Silent Orchestra,” as the marimba burbles behind him, “I’ll hang my hat on the songs that I’m singing.”

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Back in mid-April, Leithauser played his first shows as a solo artist at Joe’s Pub in New York, although the word “solo” may be misleading here. “I had 14 people up onstage with me, and it was awesome,” he says. Most of the musicians who played on Black Hours joined him, including Henderson, Swift and Maroon. But don’t look for that line-up when Leithauser hits the road this summer: “I would love to do that every night, but I just can’t afford to travel with that many people and pay 14 musicians every night.” Instead, he’s taking a much smaller outfit with him, recasting these tunes in a slightly more minimalist setting for his first solo tour.

He has mixed feelings about it: On one hand, he’s excited to see how this solo project translates to the stage and how these songs change night after night after night. On the other hand, he understands that the tour will take him far from New York City, where his family lives. That friction—between the rock singer and the father, between the creative enterprise and the domestic life—creates a spark on Black Hours, highlighting its sense of self-reckoning. These are thorny songs about age, desire, responsibility; about growing up, hitting what may be middle age, not losing sight of your mission.

“Could you dream away all your restless blues?” he asks himself on “5 AM.” “Could you hide away in the peaceful hours?” Perhaps that’s what attracted him to the black hours: a yearning for the past, both pop and personal. “I’m a dad now,” he says, “so I’m asleep by 9 o’clock most nights. Maybe this album is about the nostalgia for the times when I could stay up that late.”

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