It's hip to be square
“We had no doubt when we first started that we were going to go places, but when you look back you realise how hard things were,” The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser tells TONY CLAYTON-LEAFROM BROOKLYN, NYC, via Washington DC, the members of The Walkmen are proof positive that it always helps to know your bandmates before you commit to traipsing around in vans too small to hold not only the band but also the equipment and the egos.
Talking to Hamilton Leithauser, the band’s lead singer (actually, make that the band’s singular lead singer – you’ve really heard nothing like him) across a leaky mobile, we’re not sure whether he’s just woken up or is suffering from one interview too many. Either way, his enthusiasm levels register low on whatever scales that enthusiasm levels are measured. Leithauser perks up, however, when talk turns to a subject that is clearly important to him – his band and his bandmates.
Each member of The Walkmen grew up in Washington DC, attended the same high school, and played in many of the same bands from the get-go. The friends even upped sticks together in the late-1990s to move from their home turf to New York’s Harlem, where they willingly entangled themselves in the NYC hipster set.
“Yeah, we didn’t have to go through the usual bonding experiences so many bands have to go through,” says Leithauser. “That said, that kind of situation does have its ups and downs. Mostly ups, though, as we’ve been here a long, long time and we’re still kicking. And that comes from us coming from a similar background; we had strong friendships before we had the band, and that’s why we’re able to stay alive as a unit.”
“I have so many friends who have been in bands,” continues Leithauser, warming to the topic. “Some of them are very successful and some of them aren’t, but when they started they didn’t necessarily have any history with the other band member. And sometimes they actually end up hating each other, or eventually they clash and just want to live very different lifestyles.
“I can’t imagine doing it that way; I think we’re so lucky that we’re able to have started the band with each other. If people aren’t familiar with the structure and all the work that goes into it, being in a band can be incredibly difficult. Like, I have other friends who try to start bands via Craigslist, or something like that – I just can’t imagine how a band like that could ever really work.”
So mutually inclusive history and reference points are crucial? “Yes, but the downside is that when you do it for so long you can fall into a routine, which can be a recipe for writing uninspired stuff. It’s changed, though, as we now all live all over the place. That’s fine for us, because we see each other plenty when we’re on the road, and we have found that you can live a different life without taking something away from what brought you together in the first place. And, you know, you can also bring new things into the band and onto new albums by having a different perspective. It’s a balance, but I guess in the end it’s a positive.”
Ten years have passed since the release of The Walkmen’s debut album, Everyone Who Pretended to like Me is Gone; comparisons to the likes of The Cure and U2 (early versions of each) stalked them until several years ago with the release in 2006 of Pussy Cats (a song-by-song cover of Harry Nilsson’s 1974 album of the same name) and 2009’s Lisbon (which broadened out their sound to encompass the scratchy NYC tradition of music that referenced the likes of early Dylan and Velvet Underground). This year’s Heaven album has merely confirmed what most of us knew all along: The Walkmen, alongside their city compadres, The National, are one of the best American bands currently in operation.
And so 10 years after they first formed as The Walkmen, does it get any easier to come up with the goods? Surely that fact of the members now living in different cities, and the arrival of kids for each, has altered the dynamic, creative and personal?
“It’s hard to say,” avers Leithauser, who by this point seems to have shaken off lethargy. “It’s not that it’s gotten easier because it’s still quite tricky to make a good record. We’ve streamlined stuff down the years, though; we used to sit together and have band practice, but it was so unproductive. Too many people spending hours together never getting anything done. It was when we finally moved away from each other that getting things done became a thing of necessity, and so Heaven, in particular, came together a lot faster. We were more focused, more constructive. You certainly don’t have time to screw around creatively, and that makes you fired up.”
For some, especially those involved in a band, looking 10 years ahead from a position of year zero seems an awful long time. Has the longevity of the band surprised him? “At first, no, but looking back from the age I am now, I suppose the answer has to be yes. We had no doubt when we first started that we were going to go places, but when you look back you realise how hard things were, and so I’m amazed we pulled through some of the stuff that was thrown at us.”
Such as? “Well, the biggest problem we ran into was when we had our first major album and tour – it was for our 2004 record, Bows + Arrows, and we just never really knew when to say no. We’d never had the level of success before and something was obviously working out for us, but I’m not so sure we really enjoyed it. We’re a very democratic unit, and there wasn’t a leader, as such, to make a definite decision on certain important issues. And so none of us wanted to be the guy to say how bad it was for the band.”
Oh, dear – that leaking phone line now sounds as if it’s flooded. A quickie, then; hipster acts such as The Walkmen almost seem to be reviewed as much for the clothes they wear as the music. Your thoughts on this, Mr Hamilton Leithauser? We hear a groan through the ether.
“Oh, look, whatever you wear on stage always seems to have such a ridiculous influence on whatever review you might get in the next day’s newspaper or next week’s magazine. That’s an accurate observation, I’m quite sure.
“You wear something formal and people talk about it, whether they like your music or not. I always find it’s got such a huge effect on what people think of you, which is odd, as I’ve never thought that The Walkmen were a particularly stylish band. But there’s no accounting for taste, is there?”
* The Walkmen play Dublin’s Vicar Street October 29th. Heaven is out now
Five other us hipster acts that are actually quite good
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Death Cab for Cutie
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Oh, yes, they’re hip, but let’s be honest – Zachery Francis Condon knows how to join the dots between indie pop and world music. Betcha didn’t know this: for his primary instrument Condon plays a rotary valve flugelhorn. He also plays a conch. A conch? Zach Condon – Lord of the Hipsters!