BY MARK GUARINO | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
When singers exit bands that have sustained them most of their lives, the risks in making new music are evident: Will the audience follow? How many risks are too many? What is the invisible line between self-indulgence and taking a stab at a new sound?
For Hamilton Leithauser, the former frontman of The Walkmen, the ambition of “Black Hours” (Ribbon Records), a first solo album released late last year, those questions were present, as well as some practical ones, such as whose responsibility is it to coordinate the nearly dozen musicians that are required to replicate his new songs in a live setting? Turns out, it was him.
“The first thing that hit me like a ton of bricks was how much organization that was going to suddenly be dumped on my front door. I hadn’t really realized. You have to work out the pay, the plan, you have to work out everyone’s different schedule,” he says. “Logistically, it is unbelievable.”
Leithauser spent nearly 15 years in The Walkmen, the Brooklyn band that came of age during the much-ballyhooed “new rock” era of the early 2000s alongside bands like The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Vines, and many others. Unlike those bands, The Walkmen did not overtly epitomize New York cool, nor did they ever have a short shelf life. Leithauser says he remains “really proud” of the band’s seven-album catalog and many years together. “I was living it for 15 years. I love our band,” he says.
The eventual winding down of that band is an indirect result of its success: The majority of the bandmembers ended up living in different cities, only coming together for tours and recording sessions. The solitude Leithauser felt increased the pressure on him to write songs, but it also allowed a new writing style to emerge, one that was not reliant on a traditional band structure.
“When I was writing rock and roll, I always fond it a lot more likely to come across something lively accidentally in a group,” he says. “It’s a lot harder for me to do alone.”
He surprised himself by a new predilection for writing string arrangements, an interest that grew from his love of Gordon Jenkins, the influential arranger and composer who created the signature arrangements for Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, among many others. “Black Hours” has been credited as Leithauser’s Sinatra album, but he says listeners are really hearing the influence of Jenkins who created that singular sound during that classic era.
Indeed, the songs on “Black Hours” feel more suited to how Leithauser has long presented himself onstage: Very tall, he is usually dressed in a dark business suit with white shirt and no tie, definitely not the indie rock uniform preferred by his peers. His powerful voice, which can rise high to a banshee yowl, has always sounded good after hours. The bleary romanticism of his new songs, which evoke passion but with a healthy dose of gallows humor, are filtered into lavish lounge fare, as well as country twang and doo-wop. Hardly a revivalist’s album, it borrows those moods and fits them with his bare-all lyrics and voice, which is unfailingly contemporary.
“I love classic singers with big voices,” he says. “It is fun to try to get out of your comfort zone and try to approach the singing differently.”
Recording the album brought a small army of new collaborators — members of Vampire Weekend, The Shins, Fleet Foxes, Dirty Projectors, and The Walkmen — to Vox Studios in Los Angeles where artists like Bing Crosby and Johnny Mercer regularly recorded demos.
Despite the album not even being a year done, Leithauser says he has already recorded music for a second solo album and he is experimenting with touring just as a duo with guitarist Paul Maroon of The Walkman. A stripped setting would be a reversal of “Black Hours,” which fits with the singer’s habit of working against expectations, a benefit of being solo.
“When you’re alone, you find yourself trying to find new ways of getting excited about what you’re doing,”