Collaborations between established musicians always have the possibility of becoming something beautiful (see: the Postal Service) or something lackluster (see: Zwan). When Walkmen vocalist Hamilton Leithauser and Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist and producer Rostam Batmanglij came together for a record that proved to be a departure for them both, the result was the brilliant I Had A Dream That You Were Mine, released under Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam.
While it sounds painstakingly crafted, paying homage to an earlier era while tastefully adding modern elements, the record was written and recorded in quick bursts, as Leithauser lives in New York and Batmanglij lives in California. One would assume that the coastal dichotomy would prove to be a creative hindrance, but working in such tight bursts benefited the duo, and they cranked out nine of the album’s 10 songs in one go in Los Angeles. “I really enjoyed going out there and working, and maybe I came to realize that one of the reasons is because I didn’t have to deal with my kids, so it was like I was on vacation, living life on a single guy’s schedule and doing what you want to do when you want to,” Leithauser, who is touring without Rostam, says dryly.
Maybe some of the sunny days and shiny people rubbed off on the pair. I Had A Dream That You Were Mine is a rollicking collection of nostalgia and folk-tinged pop that pays as much homage to the classic rock of the ’70s as it does to the finger-snapping 1950s. Look to the record’s lead single, “A 1000 Times,” for some Rod Stewart influence, or the soda-fountain-meets-pool-hall piano pop of “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up)” as examples of the wide range of sounds the pair explored. For two guys with backgrounds so firmly entrenched in the indie movement of the mid-’00s, a record like I Had A Dream That You Were Mine proves that there’s a lot to creatively unpack between them both.
“You get where you are because of the people that came before, and there’s so many important people that you can’t ignore,” Leithauser says. “I don’t know why it works, but we thought it was exciting, just putting like a big rocking beat on a shoo-bee-doo-wop song and make ‘Rough Going.’ It felt like, to us, we’re taking things we’ve heard a million times on every single recording that ever used shoo-bee-doo-wop or country tick-tock guitar and combining them with modern elements. It’s essential to be sure that what you’re dredging up has a new spin on it, or is combined with something that’s contemporary. It seems to me, on paper, that that could not work that way, too.”
To Leithauser, part of the magic of recording I Had A Dream That You Were Mine came from using first takes that captured the essence of a song in its most pure form, for better or for worse. There’s more than 25 years of recording experience between Leithauser and Batmanglij, and it’s refreshing to hear that such an unencumbered approach is still vital to the creative process of two veterans. Self-awareness, musically or personally, is not something that Leithauser seems to lack, and his work is all the better for it.
“I credit Rostam a lot with this, but it’s the ability to capture live moments and create a life onto tape without a band,” Leithauser says. “That’s really hard to do, and especially if you’re sitting in a room and it’s just one or two people and you don’t have all of these people to create these unexpected, wild moments to just capture together. You’ve got to figure out how to find those moments.”
Hamilton Leithauser is scheduled to perform Sunday, January 15, at Crescent Ballroom.