Four Ways Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam Go Back in Time (and How They Look Ahead) on Their New Album
Published Sep 26, 2016Shortly after the Walkmen announced an "extreme hiatus" back in 2013, a small trove of solo albums and projects trickled out the following year, though none with more hype and fanfare than Black Hours, the solo debut from Walkmen lead singer Hamilton Leithauser. That effort found the gritty-voiced singer turned into a speakeasy crooner, taking his rough-around-the-edges charm and adding glitzy keyboards and background choruses to the mix.
The sharp turn was thanks in part to former Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist/producer Rostam Batmanglij, who had produced two of the songs on Black Hours. Those tracks, "Alexandra" and "I Retired," ended up as the album's singles and heralded a successful, albeit surprising, partnership. I Had a Dream That You Were Mine (out now on Glassnote), an album-long collaboration credited to Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, features 11 songs, most of which were co-written by the pair in a series of recording sessions between July 2014 and February 2016.
The record is wholly immersed in the sounds of decades past. Speaking to Exclaim! from Brooklyn, Leithauser admits that the sound was not a deliberate choice, but a spontaneous result of their jamming: "Everything came from walking in the room with nothing and then he's playing something and I'm singing something, or he's playing a guitar. Whatever it is, that's how it all went."
Regardless of the unintentional origins, the record is a thorough throwback to the era of the American Songbook and the golden age of soul. But the album's origins dip beyond its sonic touchstones, but also to specific moments in Leithauser's past.
Leithauser discovered Vampire Weekend through a former intern: Vampire Weekend lead singer Ezra Koenig.
"Ezra used to be the intern at our recording studio [Marcata Studios] that we used to have when he was a little kid, in college. You know what's really funny? I barely remember him being there. Maybe I was a little self-absorbed, or maybe I was distracted by all the hard work we were doing — I remember that we had an intern, but I barely remember it.
"We could never find anything for him to do. We hired an intern and then we were like, 'Wait, what the hell does an intern do? What the hell do we need an intern for?' And the funny thing was that a few years later — 'cause we all loved him, actually, and thought he was really cool — and then somebody said, 'Hey do you remember the guy who used to work there?' And I was like, 'Yeah,' and they were like 'Watch Saturday Night Live tonight, because he's gonna be on.' And I had not heard of his band, nothing. I was like, 'What?' And I turned it on and I said, 'Oh my god, there's that guy.' That was the first time I ever heard their music."
Some of the material on the album was written during Vampire Weekend and Walkmen days.
"I wrote ["In a Black Out"] by myself at the time [the Walkmen] were doing Heaven. At that point, that was late in our band. We all lived in different cities, so there was really a lot of solo writing. We'd get in the studio and there would be songs that other people hadn't heard yet that we just tried. And that one just didn't really make sense, and I couldn't get it sounding anywhere near where I wanted it to sound like. And it wasn't what it is today, we changed a lot about it.
"I always wanted to do a song like Leonard Cohen, where he's fingerpicking triplets, and I liked my words and I liked my melodies and I liked my chords and I taught myself how to do that fingerpicking, but every time I would record something, it didn't sound beyond anything that somebody had done in 1967. It just sounded… fine, but there was nothing that excited about it. I was noodling away with it one day in the studio, just bored, playing it. And Rostam was like, 'Wait, what's that?' And we decided to try it. So, old baggage comes with it, I've already been down this road, but sure. And we did it, and within 15 minutes, he had four or five different ideas for the sound, and he mixed it right there while we were doing it. It came together so fast, and it took all these weird turns, into this country song with all these backup vocals that he put together that were really cool, and a huge, double-tracked sound. It sounds so big. I love the way that song came together. We co-wrote a lot of it, but it was how I imagine this perfect marriage of a songwriter and a producer working together.
"Rostam recorded the music for '1959' in 2008, and the first day he and I ever tried working on music together back in 2012, before we did the songs for Black Hours, the first thing we ever did was try to work on '1959.' And we came up with one little part that is still there, but it took a while to get it going, so it didn't make it on Black Hours, but we picked it back up for this one because we knew we both liked it, and finally it worked its way out."
Sometimes, the first take is the best one.
"I like to write words as soon as I hear the music and the melody and whatever I think is strongest for that melody, and then eventually, you try to put stuff together. Honestly, the best stuff always comes really quick, and you think, 'This is it.' We learned early on that when we went back and started editing things, it started getting too tidy, and we realized that our sound is not tidy. We started going back to first takes. For 'A 1000 Times,' we had a whole second verse written, but we listened back and thought, 'I liked it better when it was just the first verse again. Let's just keep it the way it was.' And so that's the first take, just doing the first verse again because I didn't have any more lyrics."
The album is heavily influenced by doo-wop and new wave.
"The 'sha-doobies' [in the background vocals] were a spur-of-the-moment Rostam contribution that we both just love. I thought it was funny sounding, at first, but I also love that kind of music, the music of the '50s and '60s, doo-wop. It's something that appealed to both of us, we have similar aesthetic and it felt fresh. It's funny because we're gonna do rock'n'roll shoo-bee-doo-wops now, and it's gonna be ramshackle and nobody's trying to be right on like a barbershop quartet. It just felt like our style, I don't know why it worked out like it did but that's just where we got. There was no plan.
"[We were influenced by] everything from soul, like Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash to Rolling Stones, the Kinks, but then there's a lot of '80s sounds on the record. "A 1000 Times" started with — it's still there, but a lot quieter now — a synth line that goes through the whole verse. You can hear it. The first time I heard it, to me, sounded almost like the period when Joy Division turned into New Order and they hadn't really worked out their sound yet and they still sounded a little bit ramshackle, but that's what that music sounded like to me. It really didn't end up that way, but there are a lot of '80s-sounding synthesizers that Rostam added to it that I thought really added a modern dimension to the sound."
Despite their influences, Hamilton and Rostam were looking forward for a fresh take on the sound.
"Obviously, we both wanted it to sound different from both of our bands. It was never mentioned, but it was understood. You don't want to ever make something that's just nostalgia, longing for the past. There's something that someone literally did 60 or 70 years ago. You gotta do your own thing, and make sure that something is happening in 2016. People do that all the time, you hear of people making retro soul records all the time, and there's plenty of people searching for some sort of authenticity, but we're not interested in that. We want to make our own thing."
Check out the video for "A 1000 Times" below.