Ones to Watch: Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen

Towards the end of The Walkmen’s tour in 2006, one could hear the weariness in Hamilton Leithauser’s singing. His distinctive, sonorous howl had devolved into a restless shrieking.

“I got to the point where all I would do is scream and tear my throat up because I was so bored of singing,” admits Leithauser during a recent telephone interview. Endless hours driving in a packed van with four band members to perform consecutive nightly hour-long sets had begun to wear on him.

“It can be just depressing,” says Leithauser, 30. “Your shows get worse and worse and people start talking about how bad you look and how unhappy you look to be there. You can’t fake it, you don’t want to be there anymore.”

Despite having then performed as a band for six years, The Walkmen were still young.  Such challenges from touring and their resulting gripes are to be expected, admits Leithauser. “You’ve got to learn to deal with that or you can’t be doing it any more.”

When it came time to record a new album, the band’s objective was clear: To “get back to the feeling that we had when we did our first record where nobody’s anticipating it because nobody even heard it,” as Leithauser puts it. So, for two years, Leithauser, Paul Maroon, Peter Bauer, Matt Barrick, and Walter Martin – all childhood friends from Washington, D.C – stopped touring and refused interviews to focus squarely on writing a new album that would do just that. “There’s definitely a pressure to create something new,” says Leithauser. “You’ve got to remember what it is you think you do best and stick with it.”

The writing of “You & Me” began with guitarist Maroon coming with a composition first, and if Leithauser could write vocals on top of that composition, the band would rejoin to experiment. They divided their time between studios in Fishtown, Philadelphia and Chelsea, New York City, playing with several arrangements. Many songs were discarded and few remained. “Sometimes you have these great parts and you can’t build a song around it and it just never gets heard,” says Leithauser. “We were just cautious on making sure that we really loved all the stuff that was going on this one.”

You’ve got to remember what it is you think you do best and stick with it.

The band found their new album’s anchor in “Red Moon”, a disarmingly soft waltz that is a change from the band’s angrier songs of the past. “The vocals were a new approach and the words were new for us and the instruments had their own thing going,” he says. They would soon follow with “I Lost You” and discover a more mature style to their playing and approach. “For the first time we had love songs and stuff like that we hadn’t all out done before, so for us it was very exciting.”

The Walkmen tested their new material during a spring 2008 show at Mojo’s in Columbia, Missouri, mixing in songs from “You & Me” with notables like “The Rat” and “Louisiana.” They soon realized that drawing their set lists from five records-worth of material reinvigorated their performances. “We played 25 songs and we all just thought it was so fun to play,” he admits. “I actually think we play better when we play longer sets.”

Then there was Leithauser’s voice. Throughout the recording sessions and the concerts, he discovered that there was more command, maturity, and even enjoyment, to it. “I was a lot more confident in actually singing,” he admits.

The band approached their new tour – which launched in NYC’s Bowery Ballroom on August 18th – with the intent of keeping the travel times shorter in the hopes of not wearing themselves out as they had in the past. The sets will now be longer and more defined in theme than before, too. “We had all these songs that were just really hard-hitting, and you base a set around these monster rockers that we had,” he says. “Now, I think we can establish a vibe with a lot of different songs.”

“I’m sure we’ll get tired of it at some point,” he jokes.

In this 4-part series, writer Daniel Edward Rosen profiles creative professionals in the early phases of very promising careers.  The Walkmen are currently on tour in the US and the UK. Their album, “You & Me”, is in stores now.

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