Photos Chris Clinton at the New Museum
Of all the New York City bands that first popped up back in the early aughts, the Walkmen are perhaps to only one whose best work isn’t a thing of the distant past. On the contrary, Heaven is probably their most impressive album yet, the work of a band that’s comfortable in its own skin even as they get older and their relationship with the world of rock music changes. Frontman Hamilton Leithauser spoke with us about the new album and much more.
I wanted to talk about the song “We Can’t Be Beat” for a second. It seems like a pretty bold statement about moving away from the constant gray areas and never-ending nuance, or the never-ending appearance of nuance that defines most of us in our 20s, and more of an embrace of the direct, black-and-white approach we tend to take to life as we get older and the stakes become higher. There’s a sense in that song of having finally arrived at something important, and it seems like it could apply to your professional life or your personal life. Is that something you think about, something that informed the record?
Hamilton Leithauser: Yeah, I think that song and the song “Heaven” were the last two songs I worked on lyrically. And I think that those two were the most realistic and personal. It felt a lot more like it captured our actual personality and our vibe and our, I don’t know, lifestyle or whatever, or our outlook that we have right now. And that’s why that song is first, because I thought it said a lot in one song. And I guess a lot of the lyrics are about us getting to where our ramshackle operation has gotten to some sort of viable, legitimate point where we’re all happy with it. We’re still just sort of a struggling band, but we feel pretty comfortable doing what we’re doing.
Could you talk about the title of the album, Heaven?
It just felt right. When you’re working on the record, you’re just concentrating song by song, really, and one of the things you’re thinking about the most is trying to make the songs different from each other because you want to be interested in each one. But then when you’re finished, you’ve got this whole thing, and you’ve whittled it down to whatever, 12 or 13 songs, and you start looking at it, like, “What the hell do we have here?” And then, for us it just felt like we had a bigger and grander and richer and more positive-sounding record than we did with Lisbon. And our only point of reference is the last thing we did, so that’s how we were looking at it. The title just seemed appropriate. It seemed big, it seemed happy, it seemed a little bit serious, which I thought was good, because we’ve been sort of jokey in the past, doing things like Pussy Cats. We do take this pretty seriously, so I thought having something that could be seen as kind of heavy would be a good diea.
I want to talk about Phil Ek for a minute. What led you to the decision to work with such a big name and such a big personality this time around? And what was the experience like? I’ve heard that Phil can be very… demanding in the studio.
Yeah, he can! He can be really demanding in the studio. It can be really annoying and really frustrating. But he does a great job, and so at the end of the day, we liked his work. The whole point of doing it with him was to take us out of our comfort zone, because we’ve been doing this for so long that you just want to make sure you’re doing something different from the get-go. It’s the first time we’ve ever done anything like this, but we just signed up with him and said, ok, “We’re officially gonna do this record with you, and we’re gonna give you some creative input, which we’ve never done before.” The reason we went with him is that he called us right after Helplessnes Blues came out, which we all thought sounded so great, and the guy who made it was calling us, so we thought we should give this a shot.
Did he push you at all in terms of your singing? I think your voice sounds huge on the album. Like you’re reaching outside your comfort zone more than usual.
Honestly, I would say less so than usual. I think I had it down pretty specifically singing-wise by the time I got there. He was great with the vocal tone, but much more so than the instruments, I think I really had an idea of how I wanted to sing this record before I walked in the door.
Maybe it’s just how it’s sitting in the mix, then…
I give him a lot of credit for the way it sounds. He did such a good job with Robin’s voice from Fleet Foxes that I knew he could record vocals really well. We based a lot of stuff around the vocals. They became an important foundation for the music. In the past, it’s been music first and the vocals have adapted to the music, but this time we would wind up changing the music to accommodate the vocals.
Was that part of the writing process or something that happened more in the studio?
Yeah, it was in the writing. Paul Maroon will write a lot of guitar lines, which will be the start of a lot of songs, and then I’ll write the vocals to match the guitars. It’s fun, it’s a lot of our sound. With something like “Angela” or something like that that’s really high-energy, and the reason the vocals get so high is that I’m really writing it to match that Rickenbacker treble, like... high, tenor singing. But this time we did a lot of things where we’d be like, “Let’s change that key again.” We wanted to make the vocals much more present, and bringing them down a little bit and sometimes making them a little calmer-sounding really brings out a lot more presence in them, so I think that was a really big step for us.
There’s obviously been a lot of talk over the past few years about the death of the album, with the internet and whatever different gadgets and apps changing how we interact with music. But to me, Heaven seems almost old-fashioned, refreshingly so, in its peaks and valleys, the way it builds and releases repeatedly throughout. Is that something you guys have consciously ignored, the movement away from that sort of thing being valued?
It’s funny, because we’ve been doing this for so long that you think you’re gonna be all mature about the last couple steps, you know… like song order, and you’re gonna let things go and you’re gonna be able to work something out. But this is the biggest battle for song-order we’ve ever had. It went on for weeks and months. People got so worked up about it. I mean, it was really ugly. Everybody felt really strongly. It got really heated many, many times.
I love the idea that people would buy the vinyl and listen to it in order, because that’s what we made and that’s our idea. But once you come up with the final order and you turn it into the record company and the management company… I mean, it used to be that everybody would be like, “No, no, no, you have to put the single first.” They don’t give a shit anymore. It’s a little disheartening because you realize they don’t care, because people are just gonna click through on their iPod or whatever.
So I guess in a way it’s actually given you more freedom…?
It sorta does. There’s definitely not that pressure. At the beginning of our band, I remember being told by our old manager how incredibly stupid we were for not putting the single as the first song. But that’s not even a thought anymore.
I know this is something you’ve been doing for a while now, and I suspect you have it down to as near a science as it can get, but what is it like to function with members spread out all over the country.
Well, for shows it doesn’t matter. It’s just, somebody flies in. And I live in New York, so I can always have a direct flight wherever we go. But for songwriting, which is probably the bigger thing, it weirdly has made it almost easier. We were never, ever able to write with the five of us in a room. I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t work out for us. We just can’t do it. We waste time, we all get in a room and we sit there in silence. There’s too many people thinking about it. That’s how it’s always been, since the very beginning of our band. Honestly, being apart has made it so that it’s a little isolating, because I really do spend a lot of time alone in a studio by myself just coming up with parts and recording them. It’s kind of lonely, but it really does focus you a lot more, and then you just send the best stuff back and forth. For the entirety of Heaven, I think Paul came up to New York two times—once for about five days and once for about six days. And that was it, that was the whole record. We were just very prepared before we got together.
You mentioned at the photo shoot for this issue that you were planning on waiting a little longer than usual after the album’s release to embark on the bulk of your touring in support of it. Why’d you decide to approach it that way?
Just because in the past we’ve always gone right out when the record comes out, and people don’t know it yet. And then we’d go back six or eight months later to the same town, and it’s so much more fun. Everybody knows the songs, and it seems like that was what you should have done the first time. So after ten years, we’ve finally realized that that’s the way we should do it.
Does the record label or anyone else care? Like, would they rather have you out touring right away?
Um… I don’t know. They haven’t complained. I have no idea.
Touring in general, has it become more difficult now that everyone has kids and wives and all that?
Yeah, you know… we plan ahead more than we used to. It used to be, like, all of a sudden you have to leave the country the next day. It’s just a little more organized now, which is nice, because it gets tiring to have to be on call all the time.
Even though you got your start in DC and now all but two of you have moved elsewhere, a lot of people still consider you a New York band. Could you talk about how the city’s scene has changed for you since you’ve been here?
I mean, I knew it a lot better when I was younger, because you just care more when you’re in your 20s and you play in all these small clubs, and you run into all these bands and you really get to know everybody whether you like it or not, because you’re in the same small club with these people every night. So I felt a lot more connected to the people when we started, because I literally knew all of them personally. The people I get to know now are from, like, Canada or the west coast or England or something, because we’re just traveling so much more. I know bands that still live in New York, but I’m not, like, in the East Village going to rock clubs all the time.
I wanted to go back and talk about something you touched on a little earlier, and that you touch on all over the record, obviously. It’s an incredibly rare thing, especially nowadays, for a band get to the point you guys are at now, where you’ve been a band for a really long time and are making a living at it. Now that you’ve established that this isn’t just something you all had to get out of your systems before going and getting real jobs or whatever, in what ways have you had to reevaluate your relationship with what it means to be a rock band?
Yeah, entirely. When you’re younger, it’s more of a party, and it was this thing you really cared about and you wanted to do it. We all knew we were really serious when we were kids, but it was still a wild time. When we had jobs and we were younger, you still did it on a Friday night and then you’d all go out and party afterward. Our first tour was just kind of a boys club on the road. But then when you get older, you definitely start looking at it, like, “Are we just a joke? Is this the kind of thing I really want to be doing for a living on, you know, weekdays, day in and day out just entering the next rock club?” It’s hard to strike a balance. You see all your friends doing a lot of other stuff, and you don’t know if it’s the kind of lifestyle you want to live. We never really doubted that we wanted to do the music, it’s just all the stuff that goes along with it that can be really taxing and really redundant and it can really sort of drive you crazy. I think we got to a point where we realize it’s easy to complain about stuff, but it’s just like any other job. There’s a lot of bullshit you have to do. About six years ago, we were just flat out tired of it, and even though we all had some desire to do it, we just weren’t interested to the level where you really need to be to be doing something that’s worth doing. It’s hard to explain, but I guess when we did our record You & Me, we felt like we were doing something we could be proud of again, and we… I don’t know. We were able to find a balance and find our own niche and do it the way we wanted to do it rather than just endless touring. I think we finally started doing things our own way and it didn’t feel as ridiculous.
Do you ever worry about young bands maybe not being given the chance to get to that point in their career? You guys have become a career band, which is something that just doesn’t happen all that often, for a million reasons. Do you worry about young bands, or about what it means for music in general that people aren’t given the chance to figure things out the way you have?
Well, it’s really, really hard to get started. The idea of starting something just seems so scary to me. I remember what it was like, when nobody would even let us play, or you’re paid, like, $25 to play at midnight at the Continental on a Sunday night. I did that for years. Nobody returns your calls, and it’s just an ugly scene. You just really have to want to do it. Getting our foot in the door was hard, but even when we had success, it’s never really been easy for us. If you really, really want to do it, you just work something out. I don’t know, for us, it’s always been better when we’re certain that we’re doing it on our own terms. Whenever we feel like we’re doing something because we’re being pushed into it, that’s when everybody starts turning on each other and just wants to get the hell out as soon as possible.
What will be the thing that makes you stop doing this?
What will be the nail in the coffin? I have no idea. I have no idea. Nothing’s stopped us yet, and we’ve been through some pretty serious shit, so I don’t know man… I think we’re pretty durable.