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Hamilton Leithauser Expects to Have the Same Old Band Fights on the Walkmen Reunion

Photo: Dominik Bindl/WireImage

Nine years ago, the Walkmen broke up. Or they went on an “extreme hiatus.” Or they just disappeared for a bit. It depends on whom you ask. Whatever you want to call it, one of the most beloved and revered acts to emerge from New York’s aughts rock boom ceased to exist. While the members kept busy with solo endeavors and new projects, it always felt like a particularly noticeable void. Their sound — often with a sideways drunken amble, world-weariness, and distinct sense of being smarter than everyone else in the room — might’ve emerged from the Meet Me in the Bathroom Manhattan days, but it also provided a bridge to the blossoming of the Brooklyn indie scene. And though their last album, 2012’s Heaven, turned out to be a fitting finale, you couldn’t help but wonder how much more the band might have given us.

Naturally, many were overjoyed when, a few weeks ago, the Walkmen announced they would play some shows at New York City’s Webster Hall; they’ve since announced several more gigs. Although that alone might be an exciting prospect for long-suffering Walkmen fans who had picked over any hint of a possible return, the exact nature and scope of the reunion remained unclear.

So ahead of the Walkmen’s resurrection, we caught up with singer Hamilton Leithauser to talk about why and how it finally came together and what the future might hold from here.

People had been making offers for a Walkmen reunion for years. Why did 2023 feel like the right time? 
It had been put to me so many times. You could go to x city and do x festival for x amount of money. I just didn’t want to do that. I can’t speak for anyone else. I was doing my own records, and I was touring a lot anyhow. If we wanted to play in the Walkmen, we wouldn’t have walked away in the first place. But this was the first time it sounded fun. Everybody else was onboard.

On a sad and poignant note, the first time we were all in the same room together since the breakup was at my mom’s funeral a year ago. It was obviously a big moment in my life. I don’t know if that has anything to do with it. It took something that big to bring us all together.

You’ve announced the shows at Webster Hall and at Shaky Knees festival. I’m sure everyone’s wondering: Are there plans for new music? 
No, no. We haven’t discussed that. I’m working on so much stuff. I don’t see that happening right now. I wouldn’t be against it in the future — I really love writing with those guys. Maybe after we play together we’ll be interested in that, but not right now.

We’re not going to turn into the Pixies or something like that. Nobody wants to do that. We just wanted to do what was fun. We used to do this because we needed the money, and you have to get out and keep the engine running, so you say yes to things you maybe shouldn’t have. Now we just don’t need to. We’re doing only the stuff we want to do, and that’s a great feeling.

What were the initial conversations like between the five of you about returning? 
We got offered to play a TV show. Some of the guys were like, “Let’s do it.” I was like, “We’re going to get up and play one of our hits on TV and redo what we did when we were 24? That sounds so weird.” We don’t have a new record to promote. I’ll promote our band. I love our band and our catalogue. I love playing live. I think we put on a great show, and that’s something we can do until I can’t sing anymore or someone dies. I don’t want to literally redo something.

Having talked to you guys in the past, that’s why I’m a bit surprised there’s been no conversation about making more music. None of you struck me as people who would be interested in that Pavement model of just touring every ten years, revisiting the back catalogue. 
Well, sometimes you wonder if you’ll ever do that again. But we’ve never talked about it. And I’m really happy doing what I’m doing right now, and I’m really busy. I don’t see that changing for me anytime soon.

Are you working on another solo record right now? 
I am. I thought I finished it and then I stepped away to work on a documentary and I realized I wasn’t done.

Do you plan to put that out next year amid the reunion?
My manager said, “Finish the record first. Then let’s have that conversation.”

You’ve all kept busy in various ways over the years. How do you imagine this coexisting with a new era of the Walkmen? 
It’s great because it’s my buddies. When I go on tour now I’m, like, the boss. I never wanted to be the boss. It was never my ambition. I don’t make a good boss. You can ask the guys in the Walkmen. I don’t have that control or need … I don’t know what the word is — alpha male. People probably think I am because I’m the tall guy in the front, but I hate being the boss.

So do you feel like the gang’s back together? 
I don’t know. I haven’t seen the guys in person.

You haven’t rehearsed yet?
Fuck no. The funny part is going to be when everybody refuses to rehearse, which I know is going to happen — it’s the most Walkmen thing in the world.

Wait, people are going to refuse to rehearse after almost ten years of not playing together?
If you wanted to make it the most perfect thing in the world, we wouldn’t rehearse, we’d save money on hotels, they’d fly in the day of the show, they’d get held up at customs, then we’d sound-check and go onstage. We got some stubborn mules in our group, let me tell you.

Well, I was going to ask how it felt to play some of this stuff again, but instead, have you started to relisten the material and think about what those shows would look like?
The funny thing is, as I hear things and remember the way it used to go, I can already foresee the exact same fights about the exact same songs in the exact same moments.

You don’t think people will have moved on in the last ten years?
I don’t know. I think everybody’s going to say they have, and the moment we’re in the room, it’s gonna be the same shit.

Are there any songs you’re feeling a renewed connection to?
The thing I’m excited about is the big loud rock and roll I thought we did really well, which was the stuff I also got the most tired of doing. All electric guitars. I have songs like “A 1000 Times,” which takes as much energy as singing something like “The Rat,” but it’s intentionally acoustic. I don’t have that big power instrument. To play with Paul and Matt and Walt and Pete, it becomes this wall, this force. They’re great musicians. We did work for a very long time to come up with that sound. You may like it, you may not like it, but you really do know it’s us when it comes on.

So the thing you had gotten sick of is the exact thing you’re most excited about now.
I hadn’t really thought about it, but that’s true. I just didn’t want to play those big rock songs. When I started Black Hours, I wanted to do an album that was all symphonic. I added some rock and roll in there, but I’ve been very wary of doing huge reverb-y guitars.

During the time away from the Walkmen, did you go back to the music often? I was wondering if your perspective on it would’ve changed. For example, when we’re talking about whether or not there would be more Walkmen music, Heaven has now sat as a logical end point for over ten years. 
It’s funny how that worked out. It wasn’t conscious, but it was sort of a perfect bookend. Nobody was thinking about it like that then; it really just felt like we’d run our course. If we were going to start firing up for another record, I couldn’t see where I was going to go personally with it. It wasn’t any animosity. When you start something like that, it doesn’t matter if you’ve done all this other stuff. The history doesn’t mean anything. Looking at Are we going to do this again?, we didn’t see a direction for it.

You thought at some point that the Walkmen might never play together again.
Yeah. It’s so hard to imagine in the beginning. You tell yourself you’re on your own path now. In time, I got pretty far away. I was doing all the same festivals we used to do. I played the same clubs we used to play. It set in that it was my new life. For me, getting to the point where I’d truly established my own thing has made it feel like I’m not retreating. I have my own thing, and it’s not going anywhere. It’s alive. If I’d run out of gas or if my records had gone nowhere, I’d feel really weird having to go back to the shelter. I don’t feel that way at all. I feel like something is there, and it’s ours, and we built that. We put a lot of fucking work into that.

In the reunion announcement, there was sort of this joke that Pete had spurred on the idea of a “breakup” by saying things in the press, including in a profile I wrote about the Walkmen in late 2013. Before he said that, what was the plan? Were you going to officially announce a breakup? 
In a group of five guys, communication can be really bad. I wouldn’t say there was a plan. From my perspective, I’d been wanting to do a record away from the Walkmen for a while. Everyone had thought about that. If you looked at our contemporaries, everyone had a side project. We didn’t. We were monogamous. When we finished the Heaven tour, I remember thinking now was the time to try this other thing that was scary and new and iffy, which are all the good signs it’s a good direction to go.

Walt and I talked about it and each decided that’s where we wanted to go; then we talked to the other guys. I think some were surprised. I would’ve liked to have not told anybody. I would’ve liked to have done a solo record and toured. Telling the world we were breaking up was a huge mistake because it became such a bigger story. I was putting out my record I was working on for years, and the breakup of the band became a bigger story. It was a little bit frustrating.

That’s also interesting to me, the fact you used that word — I thought at the time, and since, it wasn’t supposed to be “breakup.” 
Looking back, maybe it turned into that more than I personally meant for it to be. We knew it was going to change. I only ever wanted to do a solo record. I never wanted to tell anyone we were breaking up. I used to use weird language.

“Extreme hiatus.”
No, that’s Pete’s words. That followed me around for so many years. I’d be in, like, Berlin or London, doing an interview about my third record, and they’d say, “Tell me about this extreme hiatus.” They were comparing me to Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin.

Conscious uncoupling?
Yeah, so the guy was some snooty British fuck from The Guardian or something, trying to bait me with this “Is it like conscious uncoupling?” I was like, “Fuck you, dude. I didn’t say this.” I have no idea what that means.

All of these things being said, do you have a specific hope for the reunion?
I’d just like to get back in the room and see how it feels. I’d just like to see my friends. Play our songs. We could play a different set every night, which I’d hope to do — that’ll be a fight. It’ll be fun to have some of the old fights.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Hamilton Leithauser Regrets Saying the Walkmen Broke Up