The Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser has spoken to NME about his soon-to-be-released fifth solo album, the band’s heyday as portrayed in oral history Meet Me In The Bathroom, and what lead to the band reuniting.
Before taking the stage for his residency at Manhattan’s Café Carlyle last month, Leithauser told us about the year ahead.
Last November, The Walkmen announced they would perform for the first time in nearly a decade with a string of shows at New York City’s Webster Hall, set to run later this month from April 24-28. The shows mark a reunion for the band, who just a year after their last album release, 2012’s ‘Heaven’, went on an “extreme hiatus” according to what bassist Peter Bauer told the Washington Post at the time. They performed for the last time in February 2014, with a show in New Orleans.
Since then, the band’s members have focused on solo projects, including Leithauser’s residency at the celebrated high-end cabaret venue and legendary jazz restaurant. Speaking on the seventh night of his 10-day residency, Leithauser told NME about how the partnership with Café Carlyle, which launched back in 2018, first started and how he felt about taking the stage for its fifth year.
“Year one was a little weird because I noticed it caught people off guard,” he said, noting that he felt the venue was looking to target a younger audience through his residency. “The first couple of nights were filled with people who had just bought a ticket for the Carlyle. That was the year I actually got heckled by this dude, this older fat cat guy who was sitting at a table with some woman in her 30s. He was just like a cartoon. They were definitely expecting like Bobby Short and I got up playing my rock and roll because I really don’t do old standards. I’m not ready to turn into the cruise ship dinner theatre guy yet, you know what I mean?”
But, as the residency continued to return year after year, the crowd started to change to people looking forward to not only rock music, but specially Leithauser. The intimacy of the performances also changed the singer-songwriter’s approach to his shows in larger venues.
“It’s weird for us because it’s a small room and we’re a rock band and you got to be quieter but energetic with people who’ve just had their dinner,” he said. “Also, I used to play, but I didn’t really talk to people. With The Walkman, we played really loud music, like punishing people and then we stopped and there wasn’t very much back and forth with the audience.
“It was like, ‘Can you take this or not because we’re gonna blow your fucking head off?’ But here, it’s people at your feet, so I started talking to people. Then I got more and more comfortable talking to people. Now even when I play bigger venues, like on tour last year, I can’t shut up, and the band can’t stand it,” he added with a laugh.
One of the moments in his set where these conversations take place is before his slowly building track, ‘The Brides Dad’. Based on the true story of a bride’s father giving a speech at his estranged daughter’s wedding event that he wasn’t invited to, the retelling of the evening has become a staple in the set. “I realised it’s not as fun when people don’t know what I’m saying,” he said. “I tell it every single night now without fail.”
During this year’s residency, he decided to get each member of the band to tell the story, unprepared and on the spot. “For the last four nights, I had this idea when I was about to tell the story but instead said, tonight [bassist and supporting vocalist] Greg Roberts is going to tell us the story. It’s been really funny.” Later that evening, Leithauser’s wife Anna Stumpf, who performs piano and vocals in his backing band, gave her first-hand retelling of the story followed by rapturous applause from the audience.
Speaking of The Walkmen’s upcoming shows, Leithauser admitted that the band hadn’t rehearsed yet, but had plans set to get together before the gigs. He also discussed the conversations that led to them coming back together. “It had been suggested for several years,” he said. “It just wasn’t the right time for everybody. It wasn’t something I was interested in doing for a long time. Our manager floated the idea yet again and painted a picture of some shows we could do and how to make it work. Individually everybody said ‘yeah’. I’m excited for it. I don’t know what we’re gonna sound like. I guess we’ll probably sound exactly the same.”
Following their hiatus, The Walkmen were featured in the oral history and documentary of the late 2000s New York City rock revival, Meet Me In The Bathroom. Though Leithauser hasn’t “read the book or seen that movie” he does recall that era being “great”.
“It was the most fun time of my life,” he said. “I had been playing in bands since I was 14 and had zero success, but I had tried. Rock and roll used to be uncool we played plenty of empty venues like Coney Island High on Saint Marks Place in the East Village.” The band started performing in 2000 and they hit the ground running finding it “incredible” that they could get paid “$80 for playing a concert”.
He also recalled “knowing all the bands” that were part of the scene. “We would play with them every night,” he said. “We played with an earlier incarnation of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol right when they started. They’d call and say ‘We’re gonna play [East Village venue] Brownies on Tuesday, you guys play then we’ll play’, or ‘We have a show at Mercury Lounge Friday, you guys come play first’. We had landlines, we’d leave messages on each others machines, and it worked. It was fun because all of our friends were getting signed.”
Last year, speaking to Vulture Leithauser shared plans to release his fifth record. He told NME that although it wasn’t ready for release he was “getting there” and had been playing multiple songs from the album live during the residency. “I thought I was finished with the record, but it was one of those things where I got in my own head,” he said. “I’m glad I didn’t release it. It would have been a mistake.”
Outside of his next album, he’s also been working on multiple creative projects, like last year’s The Last Movie Stars he scored for director Ethan Hawke and a podcast he co-hosts with wife, Stumpf.
Looking back on the past five years of the residency, Leithauser noted that he’s excited to continue the annual event, but eager to finish his solo projects. “To be honest I do like touring and playing at bigger venues,” he said. “I love playing here, and I love the small room, but only when I’m also doing the other stuff. If this was the only thing I do, I’d miss the rock and roll, playing festivals and night clubs. I won’t stop doing that until I physically can’t.”
Meanwhile, The Walkmen recently announced their return to the UK this year with two shows at London’s KOKO set for August.