Vampire Weekend and the Walkmen Frontmen Grill Each Other
Ten years into his career and weeks after the release of 'Heaven,' the Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser sits down with a longtime fan and former intern with a band of his own, Ezra Koenig
First of all, I wanna give a big shout-out to SPIN magazine. Next, I wanna say hello to all the readers of SPIN magazine. Hamilton Leithauser and I first met ten years ago when I was a freshman in college, interning at the Walkmen’s studio in Harlem, Marcata. I remember walking from the gates at 116th Street up Broadway to 132nd shivering (because I wasn’t wearing socks like an idiot) but ecstatic because I was going to be in the presence of what I thought was the best band in New York. Hamilton remains one of my favorite singers. It was nice to catch up and shoot the shit. We had a long conversation over whiskey near the Bowery Ballroom.
Ezra Koenig: I’m pretty sure that the Walkmen are the band that I’ve paid to see the most in my life.
Hamilton Leithauser: Really? That’s awesome.
I’m pretty sure I’ve seen you here at the Bowery Ballroom probably five times. Specifically the Bowery Ballroom because the first time I saw you, you were opening here for Firewater.
Oh, I’ll never forget that show. They put us first of five or something. Because that guy is such a fucking asshole.
Wait, the guy from that band?
Yeah. Do you know them?
No, I don’t.
I thought you were going to be like, “That’s my brother.”
That’s my cousin! No I don’t know them, but I might have even been a senior in high school. I definitely still lived with my parents in New Jersey. It was before I went to college, so I went with all my friends because we had heard your EPs and we were up in the front row. And then, because I was still such an earnest young man, everybody wanted to leave after you guys played, and I was like, “No guys, we’re in New York City at the Bowery Ballroom. We’re going to stay and watch the headliner.”
The guy from Firewater screamed at all of us. I can’t remember why. I remember he was screaming at Walt for moving an amp or something, you know? It was a horrible scene.
At that time, were they were like, the shit?
I don’t even know who they were. I mean, I never knew them beyond that. We played with them twice and I honestly think that after we played, most of the people dipped out.
I always tell people I was there the first time you played “The Rat,” which was called “Girls at Night.” Was that the first time you played it, at Bowery Ballroom, probably September 2002?
Probably, I bet. That would be right around when we had written the song.
My friends and I downloaded a demo of “Girls at Night” off of somebody’s computer via SoulSeek. We just kept searching “Girls at Night,” so on my old computer I have an MP3 from minimum six months before Bows and Arrows came out. It sounds like a totally different recording.
That’s crazy. It could be one of the times that we did it in the studio. If it’s of any respectable quality at all, then it was. We took a long time to record that song. It was a real pain in the ass.
I always really liked that song “Look Out the Window.” Of the the early stuff, I think that’s a slept-on Walkmen song. Do you ever play that these days?
We do every once and a while. It was always the one we like pulled out when we got tired of the other songs. We haven’t done it in a while. I always liked that song. That’s from my old band. That was one of that last songs that I did for the Recoys.
Is there a version of that on the Recoys’ album?
I don’t think we ever got to it, because it was right toward the end of the Recoys.
There was some early Walkmen profile where you guys took pains to say that you didn’t like to be called a New York band because you consider yourself a D.C. band.
I was probably trying to work some angle. We’re so embarrassingly bad at marketing ourselves, you know? We’re just so bad at it. We have no idea how to, it’s just so contrived what we do.
Your new press release says something about how, like, most of the other New York bands that started in and around 2001 have all “faded from view” or “burned out” or something. But who did you actually consider to be your peers? That was such a funny time. Which of those early 2000s New York bands did you actually identify with?
The ones that we knew from the very, very beginning. It was really fun to see like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs blow up, because we used to play with Challenge of the Future, Nick Zinner’s old band. And the Recoys used to play with them, too. I saw Challenge of the Future playing with Karen [O] when she was just some girl they pulled up out of the crowd. Everyone was like, “Damn, that girl can sing.” She was jumping all around, she really stole the show.
Wait, is that actually how they met her?
No, they were friends. They did their whole show, and then they got her up onstage and they did some Joan Jett. She just made it a lot more fun. Years later, Nick was playing with us and he said, “Yeah, we’re called The Yeah Yeah Yeahs now,” and he was like really embarrassed by it.
He was embarrassed by the name?
Well he was just sort of funny about it, because he’s sort of funny. I think we even played with them before they were even called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. We played with them, and we used to play with Interpol all the time. They would open for our show, and we would open for them, and that was right when we really, really started. Like, it was hard getting a gig at Brownies. So we would get the gig and then have them come, and they would have a gig and have us come.