The Walkmen’s latest record, Lisbon, is another set of glossy black-and-white drama from the New York quintet. Like You & Me before it, Lisbon paints its portraits of drawn-out relationships with wiry guitars and off-center drums. Aquarium Drunkard caught up with vocalist Hamilton Leithauser a few days before Lisbon’s release.
Aquarium Drunkard: How are things going on the road, how are the new tracks working out?
Hamilton: We’ve only done two shows, but they’ve both been really fun.
AD: I guess at this point in the game, since the record comes out on Tuesday, everyone’s heard all the songs already.
Hamilton: People sorta know it. We opened last night for the National, so most people were there to see them. They seemed to know the old stuff a little better. But then we played our own show in Seattle the other night, and they knew all of them. It was like they’d been listening to it for a while.
AD: I noticed on the forum on your website, the lyrics were posted like two months ago.
Hamilton: Yeah, that’s pretty telling.
AD: You said in 2008 that you wanted to branch out with You and Me. What was the approach for Lisbon?
Hamilton: It’s sort of what you’re always trying to do. In all the steps, we’re trying to make something that you want to keep making. It’s only fun if it feels new and different to you. But it’s also a process. As soon as we finished You and Me we started writing Lisbon—before You and Me was even out. That’s the whole point of it, is to keep trying to do something, to keep it as different as you can.
AD: Did you close the door on You and Me and say, “Okay, now we’re going to start the new record,” or do you just keep writing?
Hamilton: It’s a tough moment when you finish. We’ve been writing new songs, actually. It’s just a process where you keep going, and at some point you say that you’ve got a record and you have to figure out which tracks to use. When you’ve done that, it’s like a landmark, but in your head you keep going and you’ve got this record you can refer back to and say, “Okay, I don’t want to sound like that anymore.”
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AD: When writing for a record, do you have any guiding lights—whether musical or literary? I read that when you went into the studio, you were writing songs heavily influenced by Fats Domino and Elvis and early rock. Is that a conscious decision; do you say, “Okay, we’re going to make our tribute to Sun Records”?
Hamilton: When you’re writing songs, you can say, “I like this, let’s make it sound more like such and such,” but that’s as far as it goes. It’s just really hard to write songs when you try to limit yourself in any way. That just makes it harder.
AD: Does the band have a music vocabulary? How do you talk about what you’re trying to do?
Hamilton: Usually it’s just like—“this sucks”. Something like that. (laughs) That’s about the extent of it.
AD: Where all did you record this record? Obviously part of it was recorded in Portugal, but it was recorded elsewhere, too, right?
Hamilton: Dallas, Texas.
AD: Really, Dallas, Texas? That’s really surprising to me.
Hamilton: Yeah, it was surprising to us, too. We ended up there, in South Dallas.
AD: So how did you end up in Dallas?
Hamilton: We were doing it in New York at a studio with this guy Chris Zane, who’s really great. We did a lot of You and Me with him. But we’d been there for six months or more—not continuously, we did a bunch of sessions—but it didn’t feel like we were moving forward. We were too comfortable, and we’d go in and it was just a routine. So we were touring through Texas and we had two days off in Dallas, so our manager set up a meeting with this guy John Congleton. None of us had ever heard of him, and we had no expectations at all, so we met with him. He wanted to record with us and it sounded fun, so we went and did three songs that we’d already done before, just to see any ideas he might have. We did these three songs in a day and a half, and all three are on the record, and were so much better than the versions we’d done. And it was cheaper, too. We had another session planned in New York, but we canceled it when we got back and did another session in Dallas.
AD: What is it about a new geographical location that jolts you like that?
Hamilton: I wish I could say, because then I’d have an idea of what works. You don’t know it at the time, you know. You don’t realize that you’re too comfortable somewhere; it just feels like you’re working away. Looking back, I think that when we were going into Gigantic in New York, we developed a routine that was too comfortable, and for some reason, that doesn’t work. I don’t know why.
AD: Why did you guys choose to go to Lisbon? I read somewhere that you guys had never even been there before.
Hamilton: We hadn’t, no. We went just to play shows, actually. We went once at the beginning of the record and were there for five days, and got to see a lot of the city, which we don’t always get to do. It was something we all really took to, and we ended up going back—I don’t know, six or nine months later, when we were halfway to three-quarters of the way through the record. We were there for a few more days, and people were very receptive. It was fun, because we’d never done this ever.
AD: Is there a distinct tonal difference between what you tracked in Dallas and what you did in Lisbon?
Hamilton: We didn’t record in Lisbon. It was more—I guess you could say, a motivating trip. It’s just a place we went twice while working on the record.
AD: So did you do any writing while you were there?
Hamilton: We were in the process of writing both times. It’s not like we were there and we were like, “Holy shit, we’ve seen the light.” It was more like, as we looked back when we were coming up with titles for the album, it made sense in our minds. We look back and saw it as one of the biggest things that happened while we were working on this thing, and it felt relevant to this record.
AD: And you don’t exactly want to call a record Dallas.
Hamilton: Yeah, that was the other option, actually: South Dallas.
AD: When you were discussing the album with Pitchfork a couple of months ago, you told them that the songs you were writing sounded like Elvis, but that they weren’t going to stay that way. When you go into the studio and say that you’re going to shoot for something on a track, but you know you’re going to move away from it, does it ever devalue the idea at all?
Hamilton: You mean, like, if you’re trying to copy a song and your song isn’t as good?
AD: Say I have this idea, but I know that the final idea is going to be different—I feel like it would make me care less about the initial idea. Does that make sense?
Hamilton: You definitely try to copy people’s stuff, but you always have to end up sounding like yourself. We can really, really copy people really well. We did that Harry Nilson record and we could do it again. We can play U2 songs and if you close your eyes you wouldn’t know the difference. But you get to the point where you want to have your own sound going with it. You want to use their vibe for your song. If it doesn’t click and something doesn’t happen to make it your own, there’s not much to it.
AD: You also said you were considering a double LP, a twenty-track record. What happened to that idea?
Hamilton: At one point we had that many songs, but we decided we wanted to do something succinct.
AD: How do you pare it down to just eleven songs from that?
Hamilton: It wasn’t that hard, weirdly. We all only liked about eighteen of the songs. There were a few that some people would have liked to have had on, but in the end it wasn’t that much of a battle. The battle for You and Me was so much bigger, for some reason.
AD: Are there other drafts of this record lurking about?
Hamilton: Oh yeah, of course. There were so many different orders, and you have to listen to the whole thing to see how it works. One song—this is so weird—but one song, re-arranged, will change your whole perception of the thing. Everybody decides to drop a song, so then you have to listen to the ten songs in their order. You can use your imagination on some, but if you really wanna weigh in on it, you have to listen to it.
AD: It seems really time and labor intensive.
Hamilton: It really is. It’s hard to do. I’m not that good at it, really. You have an idea and say, “Oh, that’s gotta work,” and then you listen to it and say, “Oh. That was definitely not a good idea.”
AD: I feel like sequencing is especially important with your records. They seem to demand pretty close attention, the changes are pretty subtle. You don’t put them on and go walk around the house. I feel like the pacing and structure is really important.
Hamilton: We definitely spend a lot of time on it.
AD: I feel like “Lisbon,” the song, does a good job of tying together everything on the album.
Hamilton: That’s the point of it, actually; that’s reason it’s on the record.
AD: That’s sort of why I thought you’d recorded in Lisbon. After “Woe Is Me,” there’s this switch from these darker, denser songs where the speaker looks around at his friends and their struggles to become mature or stay mature to these lighter songs where the speaker can appreciate his own life; it’s as if he’s got some room, and “Lisbon” really seems to tie all of that together. Is that totally off?
Hamilton: That sounds good; I like that. (laughs) I don’t think that was the intention, no.
AD: I’m really intrigued by what you’re talking about in your lyrics, especially the early tracks—“Juvenile,” “Angela Surf City,” “Stranded,” they all seem like songs about people whose actions don’t match up to their high-mindedness.
Hamilton: You know, each one is separate. I wasn’t really thinking about that in particular to tell you the truth.
AD: What kind of thing were you thinking about?
Hamilton: I guess you just write what you know. The music is 99% of the time first, so I just write what I end up liking. You don’t set out with a gameplan, though.
AD: Pitchfork named “The Rat” one of the best songs of the decade, which I’m sure you guys are aware of. That song and Bows + Arrows have gotten a ton of acclaim and found themselves on more than a few end-of-decade lists. You guys have done a lot of work since then—four or five records—and I’m wondering whether you ever feel the need to live up to that moment.
Hamilton: No, not musically. Financially, maybe, but not musically. There’s definitely an excitement you get when you do “The Rat,” but at the same time, we don’t want to do something like that song again. The last two records are my favorite things we’ve ever done.
AD: I read that you intended You and Me to be a much subtler record than A Hundred Miles Off, and I think Lisbon continues down that path. It’s a really subtle, really nuanced record, and you really have to enter into its world. It’s really an album that rewards deep, repeated listens rather than a cursory spin. I was wondering whether you guys worry about that, given the way people engage with music these days.
Hamilton: You can’t think about that. When you’re younger, you think things like that. In our old bands, we panicked and felt like we had to dumb it down to ram it down people’s throats. I’m not into that.
AD: When you’re focused that much on detail, is it easy to get lost in the details and lost the overall picture?
Hamilton: Oh yeah, when you’re writing a song, totally. Hell yeah. You think you can see the way out every time, but it’s always different. You always have to keep an eye out for it. It’s so easy to keep going over the same things. That’s why we did so many songs for this record: if something wasn’t working, we put it aside and let it smolder for a while. That’s just the worst. We have done that.
AD: Do you ever feel like you’ve spent too much time on a song and ruined it?
Hamilton: Oh, my God, yes. You ruin perfectly great ideas all of the time, most of the time. Just by paying too much attention to it. We have this new song that we just recorded, it’s very slow, and we’re really happy with it. But we’ve got this other one that’s big, and rockin’, and pretty catchy, but it’s not 100% done yet and I wouldn’t even consider bringing it in to record until we have a better idea of what we want to do with it. We know if we go in and slam through it, we’ll destroy it and that song will never have a chance again. If there’s not a legitimate reason to cast a light on it, then you’ve got to stay away from it.
AD: Your lyrics always have great, novelistic details. Do you have a creative writing background?