The Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser Has Fun Solo

Hamilton Leithauser once hollered angrily into a microphone about a former love on “The Rat,” The Walkmen’s signature track. Now he’s sporting a shiny grin for the cover of his first solo album.

“I look like a politician on the cover." Leithauser says.  "I just wanted a smiling picture because the name of the album is Black Hours, so if it looked grim it would look like I was about to commit suicide or something.”

Could it have something to do with the fact that after a decade and a half of being in other accomplished bands, the musician’s true self can come out? Maybe, but he’d been working on Black Hours before The Walkmen’s extended hiatus. Now he’s touring on an album that’s inspired by not only New Jersey’s favorite crooner Frank Sinatra but also distinctive '70s singer-songwriters with layered arrangements. He’s donning a fine-tailored suit to go with that big smile, and his goal is to create standards soaked in sadness and booze for a new generation.

Leithauser describes, “I wasn’t trying to imitate [Sinatra] at all. I would be much closer to someone like Harry Nilsson or Randy Newman. Tom Waits would be closer to what I was doing. It’s a rock 'n' roll record. I really love that [composer] Gordon Jenkins stuff, the dramatic strings that are all over “September of My Years.” That was definitely the inspiration for my song “5am,” but that’s where I think the [Sinatra] parallels would stop.”

He’s enlisted talent from other bands, including Morgan Henderson from Fleet Foxes (who is joining him on tour) and Vampire Weekend’s Rostan Batmanglij, who co-wrote a track on the album.

“I was really lucky I got a great team and it made it all the more fun,” Leithauser says, “It was the first time I had worked with people from other bands so it was kind of weird to put parts in other people’s hands who you don’t know. You write a song alone in your apartment for six months and then go into the studio with someone who you don’t really know that well or never really played with and suddenly you hand it over to them. It can be a little scary, but you bring them in for a reason. You can trust them to put their little spin on it.”

Those pearly whites continue to gleam as Leithauser is so filled with inspiration he has three more albums on the way, including a collaboration with Batmanglij that is almost finished and a vinyl-only release called Dear God, which should be available at the end of the summer.

Maybe Leithauser is smiling because he realizes how ambitious he truly is.

Hamilton Leithauser is scheduled to perform Monday, June 15, at Crescent Ballroom.
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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil