Hamilton and Rostam: the last men standing in indie New York
Author: Kate Hutchinson Date: Tue, 27 Sep 2016 Click here to view original web page at www.theguardian.com Rostam Batmanglij (left) and Hamilton Leithauser, who says … ‘I play the guitar, and he makes it sound better’
When it comes to two former members of New York’s fabled 2000-and-something music fraternities, you could politely describe Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam Batmanglij as poles apart. Leithauser is the salty, unhinged voice of the Walkmen, makers of taut, insistent garage-rock, who’ve been on an “extreme hiatus” since 2014. In person, he’s a mountain of sardonicism and dry wit wrapped in a dinner jacket. Batmanglij left Vampire Weekend earlier this year to move to LA and focus on his pop production work: his credits so far include Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen and Frank Ocean’s latest album, Blonde. He is pocket-sized, affable and a fan of a funnel neck.
Outside the customary “east London cafe”’ where all indie bands must be interviewed, the pair are in high – and for Leithauser, dry – spirits as they discuss the various scenes in which they were once located.
“People used to call the Brooklyn buzz bands the ‘Class of 2008’, and we would always joke about how funny that was,” Batmanglij says.
“Who’s the class of 2008 besides you guys?” asks Leithauser.
“Yeasayer, MGMT, maybe Dirty Projectors, even though Dirty Projectors were around a lot longer before that.”
“Not quite as big as the ‘Class of 2000’. What am I?”
“2001, I thought. The Strokes, Interpol …”
Leithauser starts smirking. “Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Rapture.”
“Liars?” offers Batmanglij.
“Liars, they were always around.”
They’ve found mutual ground not just in banter, but in a musical snugness, too, buoyed, Leithauser says, by “a shared love of American roots music”. The resulting collaborative album, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, showcases their strengths – voice and production – but also reimagines familiar styles and modernises them. The digital doo-wop and watery rock’n’roll favoured by Batmanglij in his previous studio efforts is coupled with Leithauser’s wild wail to create music that sounds world-weary and yearning. Their earworms are evocative of a different time, of long-lost honeys and sweethearts, lamplit dances in tweed vests (yes, those get a mention) and moonbeams (those get a mention, too).
As origin stories for collaborative albums go, Leithauser and Batmanglij’s is one of two musicians who just enjoy nerding out together. As such, talk isn’t of shared experiences propping up bars, or each other, but of two men who’ve enjoyed riffling through their vinyl collections for inspiration. They met when Vampire Weekend opened for the Walkmen in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008, though Leithauser refers to the younger band affectionately as little squirts”. At the time, Vampire Weekend’s indie-highlife was fast becoming the collegiate sound of now – they’d played Saturday Night Live the day before – and Leithauser was already, as he puts it, “the old pro”.
Years later, Leithauser enlisted Batmanglij to produce two tracks for his debut solo album, 2014’s Black Hour. They liked the warped 1950s crooner sounds they had created and decided to do more. Eventually, the pair met up over the winter in their home city, Washington DC, to jam in Batmanglij’s former teenage bedroom, which wasn’t far from Leithauser’s parents’ house. It was bare, save for a pile of Batmanglij’s gold Vampire Weekend plaques in a corner. There, they formed the basis of what would become the new album.
As any great storyteller/editor relationship goes, Batmanglij helped bring Leithauser’s ideas to life. Some songs, specifically In a Black Out, fulfil his long-held desire to “record songs with a triplet guitar, very Leonard Cohen-inspired”, without sounding like he was directly ripping Cohen off. Others sound like 2016 updates on Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, Leithauser inhabiting his nasal tones on You Ain’t That Young Kid and The Bride’s Dad. He says he sang When the Truth Is in the style of Wilson Pickett, after watching the Muscle Shoals documentary. “I was like, ‘I can bark like those guys can bark.’” he says. “So I wanted to do that, too, as a reference to them.”
For Batmanglij, it was more about connecting the dots between the various classic sounds. “There’s a lot of places where these different styles in American music intersect,” he says. “Where there’s, like, a Hammond organ and a piano player playing at the same time. That’s from gospel, but it’s also something from Bob Dylan. My favourite Dylan songs have that. All these things are interrelated and I’ve always been interested in those intersections.”
Key to it not sounding as if they’ve simply traced over 1950s and 60s classics, however, were Batmanglij’s recording techniques. “I tend to use different microphones, different mic techniques, and different recording mediums – like analogue tape – that evoke multiple eras of recorded music at the same time,” he says. “I’m very aware of what, say, electric guitar recordings in the 60s sounded like. When an old tape machine makes pitch wobble, some people would say that compromises fidelity and would try to get rid of it. But to me that wobble adds richness, it instantly brings back the feelings you associate with old recordings.” Those idiosyncrasies are what informs his own production style. “I guess I’m thinking more about what sounds mean in terms of what they connect to, rather than trying to reproduce exactly how something sounds if you were sitting in a room while it was played.”
That amuses Leithauser, who serves up another acerbic observation. “In my mind, I play the guitar, and then he makes it sound better. That’s how it works for me.”
The themes of their album are less clear cut. Leithauser is enjoying the various theories about his lyrics put to him by European journalists, including one who suggested there was a “recurring motif of someone trying to get in touch with someone else”. Indeed, his songs appear to be about letting go and holding on, or of coming and going. In a Black Out details how “Many friends have said goodbye / Paraded out in one proud line / I say they all just lost their minds,” and details a “speeding yellow cab” in which a couple “throw a kiss goodbye” to their city. When the Truth Is casually mentions St Mark’s, New York’s storied stomping ground for pop culture’s past, now gentrified to within an inch of its sidewalks. A swooshing Broadway number and lilting Americana add a certain brightness but otherwise the album feels heavy with an oppressive, shadowy New York; of Leonard Cohen’s haunted metropolis; of loneliness behind the brownstones.
Watch the video for A 1000 Times.
Does the album reflect their relationship to the city, of friends moving on and out, of the city itself morphing and even gentrifying?
“Definitely,” says Leithauser, gesturing towards Batmanglij. “He moved to LA, so many of my friends have left New York. I only realised recently – because I have kids now, so I see a lot less people than before – how many were actually gone. When I was in LA, we’d go to a party and I’d be, like, ‘You live here? And you live here?’” He ponders the theme for a second. “Maybe there’s a sense of something’s changed and you’re not quite comfortable with the change yet, and you’re trying to accept it – that could be part of building the foundation of the lyrics.”
Talk soon turns to the droves of creative people moving out of New York because they can no longer afford to live and work there. Neither are sure whether a tangible movement tied to a city – a “Class of 2016” – could exist there now. “I don’t know many bands that still are trying to slog it out in New York,” nods Batmanglij.
“I’m the last soldier, man,” says Leithauser.
He’s being droll again, but the remark feels poignant. On record, he sounds like a loud man airing his anxieties. He rumbles, he howls, he pines for someone from a distant past. “The point of it is that it’s just more fun to sing the blues than to talk about how great everything is,” he says, playing it straight for once.
In one way, these could be seen as the frustrations of now. More likely, though, I Had A Dream … is just the story of a man with a great set of pipes (“the same voice I always had,” he hollers on Sick As a Dog), aided by a great producer, siphoning that endless well of inspiration that comes from imagining yourself as a 1950s troubadour, tweed vests and all. They awkwardly get up to leave, Leithauser and Batmanglij, little and large, two would-be literary raconteurs in moth-eaten overcoats, their names in dimming neon lights: indie’s odd couple, off to search for new futures.
- I Had a Dream That You Were Mine is out now on Glassnote.