Hamilton Leithauser: The Summer of His Years

The Walkmen ex-frontman strikes out on his own with debut album Black Hours – an album steeped in the traditions of Frank Sinatra, and a new-found freedomHamilton Leithauser. Photo Keith Coleman

Words Betty Wood

With anthems like ‘The Rat’ and ‘Little House of Savages’, The Walkmen were a band that quietly pervaded popular culture in the early 2000s through imported cult-American TV shows like The O.C., and a steady catalogue of albums that won them critical success and comparisons to the likes of The Cure. After seven albums and 13 years together, they announced their “extreme hiatus,” late last year. Around the same time, lead singer Hamilton Leithauser began working on his debut solo album, entitled Black Hours.

“When I started writing the record, I knew that I didn’t want it to sound like The Walkmen”, Leithauser explains to me during our trans-Atlantic phone call. “To me, that meant trying to avoid playing loud rock and roll”, the sound the band were most typically associated with. Instead, Leithauser found himself drawn to the more melancholy, sober sound of Frank Sinatra’s back-catalogue, where he dwelled on seminal albums In The Wee Small Hours and The September of My Years.The sound inadvertently worked its way out into his own record: “I started writing bits just around my voice, and I got one of those MIDI keyboards. I started writing the string parts and realised after a few minutes that, when you eliminate the rock – the bass and the drums and the loud guitar – what you’re left with is a big vocal presence. By coincidence, I realised I’d arrived at a sound like the music I’d been listening to by Frank Sinatra”.

“With this album I was working by myself too but with the knowledge that I had final say. That makes it very personal”

It was a serendipitous arrival for Leithauser, one which allowed him to focus on his most recognisable asset – his distinctive voice. “It wasn’t a conscious thing, but by removing all of the other stuff, I was suddenly there in that world – I thought it could be a fun direction to go in, and that’s where that first song ‘5am’ comes from”.

Hamilton Leithauser. Photo Lauren DukoffLeithauser’s Black Hours ‘Influencers’ playlist:

But where ‘5am’ is sober (melancholy even), tracks like ‘Alexandra’, a foot-stomping number written in collaboration with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij , are energetic. The red thread between them? Control. “Even though I ended up working a lot by myself with The Walkmen , with this album I was working by myself too but with the knowledge that I had final say. That makes it very personal.”

Also personal is Leithauser’s assessment of himself: “My wife’s old boss was in the CIA and they did a personality test on him – they told him he was a ‘compensating introvert’. I thought that was funny, because, well, maybe I’m a compensating introvert too”. A curious analysis for a man used to being centre-stage in front of thousands of people. But there is a sensitivity to Leithauser that comes across in his music, perhaps born from this introversion: “It’s so hard for me to separate myself from the lyrics, I have real trouble with that – it’s hard to have any sort of perspective on where they stem from.”

“Last night I was just a new guy up on stage with an acoustic guitar… there was no expectation – it was just exciting”

What about his perception of other people’s expectations of him? Does going solo in your mid-30s carry its own pressures? “I assume people are going to be watching to see if I’m another incarnation of The Walkmen” he answers, “and whether I can carry my own, without the band behind me” he says thoughtfully. “Those are probably the only expectations that are placed on me from outside”.

More than anything, it seems to have been a liberating experience that has fostered his creativity. “I opened last night for Death Cab for Cutie” he says, “and I think a few people in the crowd knew who I was, but to most, I was just a new guy up on stage with an acoustic guitar. There was no screaming for ‘The Rat’, you know! There was no expectation – it was just exciting”.

“I enjoyed making this record a lot more than making Heaven, to be honest. You miss your friends, because they are your friends and you miss playing with them, but the freedom…” It seems a new man has been born.

Black Hours is out 2 June. Click for more details