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Seven questions: Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen

INTERVIEW. From "They're winning..." to "We can't be beat!" Why is the band best known for misanthropic salvos like “The Rat” so damn ecstatic these days?

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Photo by Arno Frugier

Like a certain, unnamed English-language magazine, Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen knows what a difference 10 years makes. While the group’s 2002 debut Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone (Vagrant/Startime) opened with the New York native wearily intoning “They’re winning…”, this year’s Heaven (Cooperative Music) starts off with “We can’t be beat!”

Why is the band best known for misanthropic salvos like “The Rat” so damn ecstatic these days? Scamper to Roter Salon on Monday, June 11 to find out.

People compared you to Dylan in the beginning, but now you sound more like Roy Orbison.

Oh yeah, he’s one of my all-time favourites. I honestly listened to a lot of Frank Sinatra while we were making this, too. I really like how clearly he pronounces all his syllables. I read a book about him – he was always really insecure about his Jersey accent, and pronouncing syllables became this thing for him. It was a conscious decision on his part. And I really like his quiet sound. I know I don’t sound anything like him, but he was definitely on the brain.

How the hell are you able to belt the way you do for show after show? Do you take voice lessons?

I don’t do anything, actually. I was watching 60 Minutes and Adele was talking about her vocal node, and I was so convinced I had one. So I went to the doctor, and she gave me a completely clean bill of health. I was shocked. I was so certain that something was gonna be bad. I drink whiskey, and I don’t smoke cigarettes anymore, but I don’t do anything I should. Knock on wood, I still have a voice.

You mention whiskey, but your vocals sound less drunk now…

Yeah, I think you do drink less when you have a kid. You don’t have time.

There’s this sense of triumph on the album – is that from having kids, or being together as a band so long?

I think both? We were doing these 10th anniversary shows, and we felt like, for what we were, we’d reached some sort of point where we felt legitimised with ourselves. We’re still together, 10 years in. That’s really something. That didn’t really hit home until we booked those shows. At first when we booked them I was thinking, we don’t need to pat ourselves on the back, you know? But I’m sort of glad we did. And I think a lot of lyrics reflect that, especially “Heaven” and “We Can’t Be Beat”. Those are probably the last few sets of lyrics written for the record, so I think they’re pretty reflective of the record as a whole.

This interview’s actually going in our magazine’s 10th anniversary issue.

Really? Oh my god, that’s appropriate.

If you could go back and talk to your 2002 self, what would you say?

I don’t know. Relax? Don’t pretend that you don’t care all the time? That’s what young, hipper bands always do – it’s really annoying, and we did that too. It’s so easy to pretend you don’t care about anything, and it’s so boring.

And now you’re opening for bands like Fleet Foxes, who probably saw you on The O.C. when they were in middle school…

Right, yeah, I know. They tell me about listening to our music in like seventh grade. It’s weird.

THE WALKMEN Mon, Jun 11, 21:00 | Roter Salon, Volksbühne, Rosa- Luxemburg-Platz, Mitte, U-Bhf Rosa- Luxemburg-Platz