Six months ago, the Walkmen surprised their fans by announcing they were, if not necessarily breaking up, taking a “pretty extreme hiatus.” The band members remain friends and even staged a mini-reunion not long after their announcement, but for the moment they committed to focusing on their own projects. The most high-profile of these solo records comes from lead singer Hamilton Leithauser. Out today, Black Hours finds Leithauser’s songwriting to be a bit more stylistically diverse and relaxed, but when he’s singing, it’s undeniably the same guy who fronted the Walkmen to much acclaim for more than a decade. So Vulture got Walkmen guitarist Paul Maroon, who also plays on Black Hours, to interview Leithauser. They talk about books, vocal ranges, and which songs seemed liked they might’ve been written for the Walkmen.
Paul Maroon: Do you ever go up to where you used to live, up in Manhattan?
Hamilton Leithauser: I haven’t been up there in years. I wonder about it. I really do. I’d love to see it. I mean, that whole basin — the 126th Street basin area — it was supposedly cleared out, and now they’re rebuilding it.
What were all those? I guess those were just flat-out industrial buildings?
Those were the result of Robert Moses — I can speak with authority, because I just read the Robert Moses biography [Robert Caro’s The Power Broker] — building the West Side Highway and making it nice up to 125th Street. He really cared deeply about it. But at 125th Street, he dropped any sense of community and just built a raised highway all over Harlem, really destroying that, having no care for the neighborhood.
I’m looking forward to reading it.
Yeah. It’s too long, though. As you know, the last 200 pages took me as long as the first thousand.
Uh-huh. When did he die?
To be perfectly honest with you, I still have about 60 pages left. [Laughs.]
Do you like any French literature?
French? Actually, I went through a year or two, when we were on tour, of reading Balzac books. Which are really fun. Yeah, I love them, actually. They’re great. You can go from one to the other and it’s constant entertainment, it’s like watching one of those new dramas on TV.
Like House of Cards?
Yeah, exactly, it’s like that. It was great for being on tour.
Have you read any Proust?
I did. I read the first one that you read, Swann’s Way? I read Remembrance of Things Past, but I can’t tell you the first thing about it.
Yeah. It’s brutal. I hated it. [Laughs.] I remember throwing it away at customs in London. Like when they were filling out our paperwork, I just dropped it. I said, “Can I use your trash can?” And I just dropped this huge book in their trash can.
Yeah, I didn’t like it either. I just read it because Lorin Stein said it was the best book ever written, but I struggled with it so mightily. What are you reading these days?
Well, I started reading this book. It’s [by] a Spanish [writer]. I think he’s from Madrid. It’s very, very dark. It’s strange because I can’t read it at home, so I look forward to when we play shows, so I can just start digging into the stuff. We haven’t played for six months, so I just picked up the book before getting on the plane. In the first 50 pages, this guy meets up with this girl and I guess they’re going to have an affair, but she just dies? Like, right during their date, she drops dead.
That’s the beginning of the book?
And the whole time I’m thinking, like, Six months for this? I don’t deserve this.
I just read [Dave Eggers’s] The Circle on our flight to L.A. I read half of it on the way and half on the way back.
It’s awesome, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s incredible. Because I have Twitter and Facebook now, for the band, and I feel like such an idiot anyhow, and then you read that and you’re like, “Really?” [Laughs.]
Oh, I wanted to ask you about your voice. So what’s your range?
The highest note I sang in the Walkmen was a high C-sharp, [in] “In the New Year.” But the best thing I really hammer is a high C. Which basically qualifies me as a tenor. That note in “All Harms and the Cook” is held to high C. So I guess it’s a tenor.
Has your voice gotten lower as you’ve gotten older?
No, I think it’s gotten higher. I never really tried to sing that high when I was younger, but with the Walkmen, I just kept on going higher. Once you bought that Rickenbacker, I had to get up there to match it. [Laughs.] It got higher and higher and higher. It’s crazy how high I sing. It’s insane. Does anyone sing that high? I guess there are a couple people out there. I found out the other night when I took that prednisone stuff, the guy from Passion Pit, who sings really high, apparently takes a lot of that stuff too.
He’s on performance-enhancing drugs? [Laughs.]
Apparently so. Yeah. [Laughs.]
But I think people’s voices generally get lower as they get older, right?
Do they? I have no idea. I actually had never thought about that in my life.
Well like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and stuff?
[Laughs.] Leonard Cohen’s voice … it’s pretty low. It’s so funny now.
Johnny Cash got lower. Bob Dylan, he doesn’t sing notes anymore, so I don’t know what it is.
Or is it just that they can’t hit the high notes anymore?
Right. Well, isn’t that the same thing? I mean, Leonard Cohen is so low now. I don’t think he was that low when he was 30.
No, he didn’t sound like that. That new record is unbelievable. I mean, it sounds like a monster or something.
Yeah! [Laughing.] He does! He sounds like a cartoon character. But what’s your lowest note, then?
I don’t know. The lowest thing I ever did was when we were doing that humming on “Heaven.” We don’t do that much low singing, do we? On this new record, nothing is that low. If I’m singing something like the beginning of “5 a.m.,” I’m gonna say that’s low for me, and that’s not even that low. When I’m strumming along on an acoustic guitar and I’m showing how something goes, I’m usually singing one or even two octaves below the actual part. It’s surprisingly high. And that’s all my fault.
It’s like, if you didn’t sing that high, then people would hear the guitar.
Exactly. That’s not gonna happen. You just gotta cover it.
What would be the highest song on the record?
On this record? What would be the highest song? Maybe like “Alexandra,” that middle part, probably. It goes up to a high B. When was the last time you listened to the record, Paul?
All the way through, it’s been a while. I have heard it a lot.
Do you have a copy of the vinyl yet?
I just got my first copy last week. It’s awesome. It looks great.
A woman had it at Conan. I was like, “Can I see that?” And I handed it back to her and was like, “This is awesome.” And she said, “Well, do you want the download card? I could give that to you.” I was like, “It’s okay. I’ve heard it.” When was the last time you listened to it?
Maybe when I got that vinyl, I put it on and listened to it. I really liked it. I hadn’t heard it in a while because I heard it a ton when we were finished with it.
Yeah, I think we did.
I didn’t get sick of it. I still really like it, but, you know, I played it a lot.
Which side do you like better?
That’s a tough one. As a side, I think the Side 1 songs might be stronger, but as a complete side, I think maybe Side 2 is the stronger side.
I think I like Side 1 better. Although I really love the last two songs, so it’s hard.
Yeah. Side 1 has a lot of dynamics. What’s your favorite song on the record?
I really love “St. Mary’s County.” And I actually really like “The Smallest Splinter,” but I feel like for some reason I’m not allowed to.
You’re not allowed to? [Laughs.]
I don’t feel like it’s quite as much an accomplishment as some of the other songs, but I really love it.
I like that one, too.
I can really relax into it. Because it was the first thing that we did, it reminds me of Portugal. I was actually still in Portugal when we did it.
Wow. Were you really? What year was that?
I think we did it in October of 2013, maybe?
So that was done in email from Portugal … that’s amazing. I didn’t realize that.
I thought it was still for the Walkmen. The Walkmen were still together at that point, so …
Right. I remember “I’ll Never Love Again” was in the spring of 2012?
Mm-hmmm. Yeah, that was a long, long time ago.
That one had probably been sitting around since before Heaven [the Walkmen’s last record] was finished.
So, what’s your favorite song on the record?
I think maybe it’s “The Silent Orchestra,” because I battled it for the longest, and then I was happy with it in the end. When you battle a song like that, it’s usually a disaster and you lose. I feel like I won it at the end.
Yeah. I like that one a lot.
We won’t talk about what stinkers there are on the record.
Let’s not go there. We’ll do that later. We’ll do that tonight, when we’re not being recorded.
“Bless Your Heart” feels good to me again now that we’ve played it.
I’m so glad we can actually play that song. That’s a surprise, right?
Yeah, and it’s almost a highlight. I’d forgotten how much I liked it.
People respond to that song. I didn’t think they were going to. I thought it was going to be the second-to-last song on the record that was like our song. It’s our little treat to ourselves. But no, I get asked about it a lot when I talk to people now.
Would you have liked to have included any of the bonus songs on the record, or do you think we made the right decision cutting those four?
“I’ll Never Love Again” is pretty good. It sounds pretty good live. I wonder if that should’ve been there on the record.
I wonder if people are going to hear those songs.
I wouldn’t want to take anything off, I don’t think. I don’t have any real regret about not putting it there. I think people will hear it. It stands alone. You’re happy with all the artwork?
I love all the artwork. I love the record. I’m really happy with the whole thing. I think we did a great job.
That sounds like a good concluding note?