How Dallas Shaped The Walkmen's Sound

For a 6-4 guy who spends most of his time crammed in a row of a 15-passenger van, Hamilton Leithauser sounds surprisingly jovial on the phone. Perhaps it's because his band, The Walkmen, is on a short break between tours. More likely, it's because of how his band's new album has been received around the world. For the first time, he claims, European audiences are finally catching on to the band's vintage American sound thanks to their 2010 record Lisbon. From his perspective, most of the band's previous efforts have fallen flat in Europe, especially in the United Kingdom.

"You go over there and they all tell you how 'The Rat' was just a big hit," he says. "And you're like, 'Well, where the hell was I?'"

It's possible, though, that Leithauser is creating a bit of revisionist history, looking at past shows through a darkened shade. After all, touring overseas can be a dismal experience when you're away from family and friends for months.

"It's always been a dark, wet, expensive, soul-sucking endeavor for us," he says of his band's frequent tours to the UK.

But since the release of Lisbon, something has changed. Audiences there seem more receptive, and critics seem more generous. Or maybe the weather's just improved. Probably, though, they just love Lisbon. Throughout history, Europeans have taken a special liking to classic American rock 'n' roll, which is what The Walkmen used for their main source of inspiration on the new record. With nods to Sun Records and the early days of the genre, Lisbon is the most American-sounding record they've ever released. The proof can be heard on standout track "Blue As Your Blood," which features a guitar line that could've easily been written by Tennessee Two member Luther Perkins. The rest of the album has a similar vintage appeal, like a dusted-off, well-made relic of the past.

Finding Lisbon's direction wasn't easy, though. Tracks were recorded and scrapped over and over again. Originally, the band recorded most of the album in New York, and it was turning out to be an extravagant effort. But the band wasn't happy with how it was sounding. It wasn't until they came to Dallas to try again that they became happy with the progress they were making on the album, which was recorded at Elmwood Studio with the help of producer John Congleton last April.

"[Congleton] really brought it for us," Leithauser says. "We were not doing so hot when we walked in the door, and within a few hours he turned things around for us."

Congleton's method was simple: stripping everything down to the minimum. Where The Walkmen had previously layered track upon track of music, Congleton stripped it all away to create a simple yet powerful presentation of the songs.

"It would've been this big production thing where everything was huge, and it was getting so boring," Leithauser says.

Instead, the minimal production allowed the band a way to use silence like an artist uses negative space. And it's further evident in The Walkmen's live performance, which is now mellower than ever.

"I really like our show now—more than I've ever liked it," Leithauser says. "And I think people do, too. But it's kind of surprising because it doesn't seem like that's the kind of thing that's going to bring the house down. But the quietness makes the whole thing much more fun for everyone—even the drunk dudes screaming."

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Daniel Hopkins
Contact: Daniel Hopkins