It wasn't easy to talk at first with Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen about his creative process. There was something else on our minds: we spoke on the phone the same day that RGIII, the quarterback of the Washington Redskins, had his reconstructive knee surgery. And since Leithauser and I are both Washington DC natives (I still live here while he now lives in New York), we are Redskins fans. So what you won't read here are the first ten minutes of our interview, which reads like an ESPN amateur hour.
Much has been made of the growing maturity of the the members of The Walkmen, friends since childhood who now have families and who are settling into a bit of domesticity. Leithauser has a 21 month old daughter, whom he had just put down for a nap before we talked. He gets his best writing done early in the morning. Early, as in after he gets up at 6am, not early as in 1am or 2am before many songwriters go to bed.
And reflected in Leithauser's wisdom and maturity is knowing what works and what doesn't in his songwriting process. So what you will read here are the words of a man who can look back at his career and recognize, for example, that the best songs come through days, even weeks, of toiling at his craft. I'd be willing to guess that he calls what he does - Gasp - work, a word anathema to many songwriters; after all, Leithauser refers in our interview to the "man hours" it takes to make an album.
Read my interview with Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen after the video for "Heaven."
I have tried to write fiction, but I can't. I wish I could, because I read so many books and it seems like something that would be so fun. I also tried to paint, but I can't paint either. My dad paints, but I can't.
With your father as a painter, do you think that creative atmosphere wore off on you as a songwriter?
Definitely. He had his day job that I didn't really pay attention to, but when he came home he painted from 6pm until way after I went to bed every night. So that was all I saw.
How does a song start for you? Do you start with lyrics or music?
As a band, we have a few different ways of doing things. Sometimes I write by myself, and I do that by starting with melodies on a guitar. But if I'm writing with Paul or Walt, it starts with a guitar idea or melody from Paul, and I have a vocal melody. It's usually not lyrics first, though I think the songs that work the best happen when the lyrics come very, very quickly after the music.
So the lyrics rarely come first?
I've tried to do it that way, but for me it always has to be music first. Whenever I've tried to write lyrics with a blank page and no music, I never know where to start.
How do the words come, then?
The best is when it comes very fast after the music. The music has a certain vibe, and the words just fly out. I might tweak it a bit later, but the majority is right there in front of me. Over the years, that's always given me the best songs.
Do you think that the first stab at lyrics is the best one, that those lyrics are what's meant to be?
I spend a long, long time tweaking. And it's not always progress, because sometimes I make it worse and have to go back. But I spend a lot of time on lyrics.
What do you do to tweak?
Sometimes you can come up with such nonsense. Just something so random that it's distracting. Maybe at first it sounded good, but in the end it isn't helping the song at all. So that's when it gets tough, because you have to come up with something that still fits with what you had and can replace it. And that part drives me crazy because it can take forever.
Paul Banks told me in our interview that melody is the most important part of a song and that he will always sacrifice lyrics for the sake of a good melody.
I always start with the melody, but I honestly wish I could do it a different way. If you listen to someone like Neil Young, he comes up with awkward words sometimes and yet makes them fit so well. And you can tell that a lot of the time he wrote the words first. I really admire that. I would love to be able to do it. I try to do it that way, but the stuff I come up with sounds boring. It just doesn't sound good.
How often does it happen when you sit down to wrote a song about a certain topic?
It's happened a bunch of times.
But the music still comes first.
I wanted to write a song one time about a friend of mine who's a tour bus guide in New York. It's on Hundred Miles Off and is called "This Job is Killing Me. " It was supposed to be a long song that started out as a true story about him. Then he becomes broke and eats out of the garbage, really down on his luck. In the end it got compacted down to a three minute song and a lot of the verses got cut out. It ended up not being really about anything, and the lyrics weren't that great. The story got lost.
How active are you in the inspiration process? Do you seek it out, or do you wait for the muse? And how much do you mess with the first take of song, or do you believe that what first comes out is what's meant to be?
We make demos, because otherwise we wouldn't be able to remember what we did. And so, so often we'll be later on in the music-making process, often in the studio, and still be referencing that first demo, that shitty 8 track recording that's so terrible sounding and distorted since we did it in a second. And so much of the magic of the song is on that tape. People think that you're kidding when you play it back to them, because the quality is so poor.
Do you have to work at inspiration?
I think you have to work at it. As a band, we hammer away. There are times that are completely dull and really frustrating and even depressing when we don't come up with anything for weeks at a time. It feels like you're bashing your head against the wall. Most often, the way you come up with stuff is that you keep on working and working at it. Then you finally come up with something. It looks like it happened all the sudden, when all you've been doing is playing a guitar through an amp by yourself in a room for a week.
Then you realize that all that bad stuff that came out of that amp was worth it because it helped you get to the good stuff, right?
Laughs. It's still frustrating because it's not very economical. It takes such an incredible amount of man hours to come up with something that's worthwhile. It's astounding.
How do you get inspired?
I read a lot of books to get inspired. I used to get inspired by listening to music, but I rarely do that anymore. I find that just reading new authors for some reason gets my mind into a mode of thinking differently about things. It's a way to find new ideas. It really helps.
Do books give you song ideas?
It's not like I read a book and the subject makes me want to write about that subject. I just finished reading Canada by Richard Ford, and it's not like it made me want to write a song about robbing a bank. But when I read a lot of more challenging stuff, I always write more. It keeps my brain more active.
Do you have any favorite authors or genres?
I'm pretty unfocused. I do read a lot of poetry. Recently I've been reading Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Graves. W.H. Auden has always been one of my favorites.
Do you think about the musicality of the words in the poems as you read?
Definitely. Some poets you can just read and not even pay attention to the what they're saying because the words are so beautiful. There's such a rhythm. It's just one long sound.
How important is environment to you when you write?
I like to do a lot of writing in the morning, especially since I get up so early now anyway. (Note: Leithauser has a 21 month old daughter.) I find myself getting really tired in the afternoon. Laughs.
You're getting to be an old man.
I think I am. I think I was born an old man.
What time is "early" for you? That can be noon for some songwriters.
Usually before 6am now. Back when I was alone, I'd still get up around 7am. I always get up early naturally, even if I stay up late.
Is there a favorite place where you like to write?
I'm tempted to say no, but I have to say that in the fifteen or so years I've been doing this, the only place I've ever gotten any writing done is in New York. It's just a comfortable place to write. When I go back to DC to see family, there are just too many distractions.
Do you write at home?
I try, because I have a piano now. But when the baby is trying to sleep, that's hard to do.
Do you find that having a baby has made you a more productive writer? In other words, are you more disciplined with your time since it's so precious?
Absolutely. It's like, "I finally have my couple of hours to myself, so I'd better get the job done." There no time to mess around any more or play Police covers. When you know you don't have much time, you can be much more efficient.
Do song ideas come to you in your daily routine?
Sometimes, but most of my ideas come when I'm working, just hacking away at it.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
In the past, we've pushed through it, and I think it was a mistake.
We've worked on uninspired stuff too much. It's not going to happen any quicker in that case. I think it's much better to walk away for six months and come back. Then you can get a much better job done in the same amount of time. When you're not excited, it's a mistake to fool yourself into thinking you're excited or to work away until you put so much work into it that you think it has to be good.
Do you set aside some things, then come back to them months later to finish them with a new perspective?
Old stuff is usually just old stuff. We have thousands of song ideas from when we were doing Lisbon. And I've often wondered if we should go back and work on some of those. Maybe we were just plowing through them too fast. But when you start going through them, they always end up sounding a little more tired that you'd imagined.
So if a song just isn't happening, are you able to recognize that maybe it isn't worth the effort?
I'd like to, but you try to let it go and be mature and think you're going to come up with something else, and a few hours later you're in the same spot trying to finish the same thing.
As a writer, it's hard to give up, to say that it isn't working.
Yeah, we should probably give up more. But that's probably so much easier said that done.
What was a really easy song to write?
"The Rat" was pretty easy. "We've Been Had" was easy too. It was the first song we ever wrote. I came up with the lyrics while sitting in class at NYU after hearing Paul's piano line. We put those two together and the song happened on the spot.
How about the hardest?
There are so many hard ones that died, but I'd say "Juveniles" on Lisbon. The funny thing about Lisbon was that the final recording happened in about five days, but the record was a year of recording before that. Those songs on that album had so many versions. It was quite a slog that we never saw coming.