Q&A: The Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser on Lisbon, European Fans, and John's Journey

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Q&A: The Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser on Lisbon, European Fans, and John's Journey

  • Q&A: The Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser on Lisbon, European Fans, and John's Journey

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    Next week, garage rockers The Walkmen will release their newest album, Lisbon (in the meantime, you can stream it on NPR right here). It's a beautifully sparse and studious piece of music, and tomorrow night, the band will kick off their tour in support of it right here in Seattle at the Showbox at the Market. Last week, I caught up with their charismatic and articulate frontman Hamilton Leithauser while he was at home in Brooklyn; here's what he had to say about Lisbon, Europe, Elvis, and his band's collaborative novel:

    I read that you recorded Lisbon in 5 days only. Is that true?

    You know, that is not true. Where did you read that? Because people keep asking me that.

    That's because it's on Wikipedia.

    That's false information. Goes to tell you about Wikipedia, I guess.

    How long did it actually take?

    I'd say we did six 5-day sessions. When we get in the studio, it's always like, things are either going to work or they're not, and you kind of get the feeling within a couple hours. Writing the stuff is what takes so long. We had about 30 songs, and I think we probably ended up with 18 or 19 that we all really liked and that we were considering for the record. The rest of them didn't stand a chance.

    What's with the horns on "Stranded"?

    That was the first one we did actually. That's what we started with when we went into the studio. That first batch had like 5 horn songs.

    But you ended up with only that one.

    Yeah, that's the only one we kept. I really liked a couple of the others ones, but I guess over time, they just lost their charm and we kind of got bored of them. At the beginning, it seemed like that was going to be the sound of the record, but that definitely didn't happen.

    What's the significance of Lisbon as the title?

    Coming up with a title that made sense was really hard. Lisbon was one possibility, I think I came up with it. It just clicked in all our minds. It was a place we had been to twice while we wrote the record. It was this new city that none of us had been to, and we all really loved it, and they were really great to us. We had been there right at the beginning of the record, and then we went there halfway through the writing of the record, for shows. Some of these cities, all you see is the nightclub and the Days Inn, but we really got to see this city, and it was a surprisingly fun trip. A lot of these times when you do have extra time, it's just five weird guys who don't want to be hanging out together, like a forced casual vacation.

    What'd you do there for fun?

    We went sightseeing, and we met a lot of locals, which we also usually don't do. We got to know people and walked around the city, went to the castle, went to the restaurants. We all really vibed.

    Any others places that have stood out in your travels?

    We went to Athens one time. That was really cool.

    Do you get a good response when you play Europe?

    No. Not at all actually. I hope that tide is turning. My fingers are crossed. That was the other thing, being in Lisbon, it was shocking that we got such a great response.

    What's the usual response?

    Indifference.

    Do you enjoy touring together? You mentioned it was usually just five guys who don't want to hang out with each other?

    When you have a new record and you feel like you have a reason to be there, it's fun, and it feels like you're doing something that you want to do. But after you've been places and you're going back and you're playing the same stuff for people, you can just feel like you're spinning your wheels.

    I read that you cited Elvis Presley as an influence for this record.

    Yeah, definitely. We tried for a very bare instrumentation on this. We really turned the reverb down a lot, which for us is a big step. It was the only conscious aesthetic that was ever mentioned. It took us 2 years to write this, and it was the only thing that was ever talked about.

    Why'd you go more minimalist?

    It just seemed like a fun direction for us. It was something we hadn't done before, and it was unexpected, but it worked. You get tired of putting extra stuff on it. You write the songs and then instead of trying to dress something up that you don't like, we would can it and then take it to another room and do the same instrumentation with the same guys but try to do a new version of it.

    What other music have you been listening to do?

    This band called The Oh Sees from San Francisco. They're fantastic. I've seen them a couple times, they're great.

    What's with this book, John's Journey, that you guys are writing?

    It's on hiatus. But actually, judging from the touring schedule that we have coming up, maybe we will bring it back. When we used to tour a lot in 2004, you just get so, so bored in the van, you just can't believe it. There was this idea of writing an 800-page novel. Then we actually really worked on it for like 2 years. It was the only thing that was continuously entertaining. But then we told people about it, and the moment we told people about it, we stopped working on it.

    How's that work, does one person type, do you just talk it out?

    We just had a laptop and we'd pass it around. You're so bored, you don't want even want to read, you don't want to listen to music. You just type this stuff and entertain yourself, and it sort of worked.

    Can you give me a brief outline of the plot?

    There is no plot. The only consistency was there was a guy named John, and everybody would just write whatever they thought was funny. This guy the other day who interviewed us from London had printed out like 3 pages of it. I can't believe he found it and did that. But I was reading it, and to tell you the truth, I still thought it was really funny. So I was thinking, maybe it's time to bring it back.

    Do you do a lot of reading?

    Yeah, I do. I just finished God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. It's really good. I just started this one called Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. I really like it.

    What can we expect from your stage show?

    We get up there and we rock out. That's pretty much the show.

    Are you playing mostly new stuff?

    We're trying to play as much new as people can take, but everybody just wants to hear the old stuff. You just mix it up. People always want to hear "The Rat." Years ago we used to not play it, but you just sort of get over it and think, people want to hear it so why not. There's a lot of other songs that I don't want to play anymore, a hell of a lot less than "The Rat."

     
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