The Walkmen and Vampire Weekend were two of the most notable indie rock acts of the last decade, but they were also acquaintances that crossed paths many times over the years. When the Walkmen called an indefinite hiatus in 2013, it made total sense that frontman Hamilton Leithauser brought in Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij to produce tracks for his debut solo album, Black Hours. Little did any of us know that while they were working away on Hamilton's album, they were also striking up a collaborative album of their own. In fact, it was so secretive that even Hamilton and Rostam weren't privy to it, until about six months after they began.
Operating under their first names, this is a project that arrives at a curious time for Rostam. Earlier this year he announced he'd left Vampire Weekend to pursue solo projects, after already scoring praise for his work on albums by Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen. Not long after his announcement, he dropped a couple of tracks under his own name and received production credits on tracks by Ra Ra Riot, Santigold and most intriguing of all, Frank Ocean. And yet, with all of that work and more (which he refuses to divulge), he teamed up with his old friend to release an album called I Had A Dream That You Were Mine.
There are traces of both the Walkmen and Vampire Weekend on the album, but like every new project should, the goal was to mark new territory for both musicians. At best it can be described as an extension of the two songs they created for Hamilton's Black Hours, and yet the surprises keep on coming (the best of which might just be a doo wop track that culminates with huge honking sax solo). We got both Hamilton and Rostam on the phone separately to discuss this blossoming friendship, the album and why it was important to involve their dads.
Noisey: I know you two have worked before, but news of an album was quite a surprise.
Hamilton Leithauser: We didn't talk about it. We made the entire record before we sent it to any record labels or played it for anyone. We didn't even play it for friends. We kept it to ourselves the whole time we were doing it. The reason why was because for the first six months we didn't even know we were working on a record. We were just working on songs, at first thinking we would just release some singles or songs for my next solo record. But then we had a few writing sessions and thought, "Y'know what? This should probably be its own thing." So we decided we would make the entire thing and have a finished product we were both proud of before we played it for people.
When did the two of you first meet?
Hamilton: It was in Atlanta, Georgia, when Vampire Weekend was opening for The Walkmen in about 2008. We had booked the shows many months beforehand, but in the interim Vampire Weekend had become very popular and they did Saturday Night Live on the Saturday, and then flew down to Atlanta and opened for us at the Earl on the Sunday. I always thought that show integrity to keep that commitment, because they really didn't have to do that. But we ended up doing four or five shows after that.
I already knew Ezra [Koenig] at that point because, weirdly, he had been an intern at our recording studio [Marcata], and so I met Rostam then. But I didn't know him any more than a friend of a friend. And then years later when I was toying with working outside of The Walkmen, I talked to this guy Morgan at Domino Records, who signed me, and he ran into Rostam and told him about my solo record. Rostam called me and asked if I wanted to try working with him. He just lived down the street from me so I went over and we just tried writing stuff. And it just worked. We got along well, and we're both from DC, so there's this funny familiarity with the two of us. We've both listened to each other's music for a long time so it wasn't shocking that we got along. We fell in pretty quick with each other, which basically never happens.
So did the two of you ever cross paths in DC when you were younger?
Hamilton: We have so many mutual friends. He's like four years younger than me, which in high school is quite a big gap. But he has an older brother who is closer to my age, and there are just so many people that we both know.
Rostam said that he wanted this union to happen for a good decade or so. Did he never mention it all of those years you crossed paths on the touring circuit?
Hamilton: No, I didn't know him that well. They came to a few Walkmen shows and we had a couple of late nights in New York, but honestly, no. The first time I got to know him was that first day I went over to his house to work on music for my solo record. We sat at his kitchen table and we both played each other some stuff we were working on—this was just before the third Vampire Weekend album, which he played me some mixes of—and we just talked about music. Right after that conversation we started working on what became "1959" from this record. That was the first thing we ever worked on, and we didn't finish it, but it felt like something we should come back to. So we did that, "I Retired" and "Alexandra," which were both on my record. I think that because "1959" was lingering we decided to finish it. I was going out to California for a tour in 2014, and I stayed at Rostam's house for four or five days after I was done. We talked about doing "1959," but we didn't even get to it on that trip because we started working on other stuff. We get stuff done quickly when we're together.
So Rostam, what is it about Hamilton's voice that made you court him for so long?
Rostam Batmanglij: I definitely know a lot of singers that are influenced by Hamilton's voice. He's inspired a lot of people. I think his voice has a lot of sides to it, and I wanted to bring that out with this record. He has this thing where he can sing one and tell a story with it. I think there is a certain pain that comes across in certain voices and I really hear it in his.
Were you looking to this kind of collaboration for your next album?
Hamilton: No, I had no idea. I also did Black Hours with my friend Paul Maroon from The Walkmen, who is just a great multi-instrumentalist and writer. We did a lot of that together, and also did a vinyl-only record called Dear God, while I was simultaneously working with Rostam. So I had a bunch of songs with both of them and I didn't know if I should put them both together on an album but they sounded so different, and I felt they needed to be different projects. But once we had six or seven songs, Rostam and I talked about making it a full record. There was no reason not to.
The music he has made is pretty different from the music you've made. Was the thinking when you two first got together that this would produce something completely new together?
Hamilton: I was hoping it would. I played in The Walkmen for so many years, and we had our sound. Since then I've consciously tried not to sound like that. I wanted to find my own style and my own sound, and the first thing I hoped for working with Rostam was that he would bring a new sound. When I started working with him I didn't know what his role was in Vampire Weekend. I didn't know who wrote their songs or produced them. In The Walkmen we never wanted to work with a producer because we already had so many people offering opinions, so why bother bringing in another voice to add more conflict? But the word producer can mean so many different things: another band member, mixer/engineer, editor or someone with no technical expertise at all who just says, "I don't like this part."
The David Byrne-Brian Eno collaboration was named as an influence in the press release. Did you envision your collaboration in the same way?
Hamilton: That was something that Rostam came up with late in the game as a reference point for our roles in the project and I think it was appropriate. We didn't know what to call our band or if it was even a band or just another solo project with him as the producer. We weren't sure how it was going to shake down. In the end, I've been Hamilton the solo artist and he's been Rostam the solo artist, so we just thought we'd put them together. David Byrne and Brian Eno are two people we both respect, and you know that when they're working together it's a shared thing, but you also know them individually.
Would you say this album is an extension of what you guys did on Black Hours?
Hamilton: We had discussed if this was going to be a Hamilton album produced by Rostam, but to me that didn't feel true to what it really is. I felt like that would be a charade. The songs were written 50-50, and it was an experience like being in a band together.
Rostam: Those two songs were us figuring out what the synthesis of our two intents might be. I think with this record we've kind of found our footing as a songwriting team. It might take a few listens to hear that, but the songs on this record have a bunch of emotional depth. I'm proud of that.
Was there ever any discussion about naming the project something other than Hamilton + Rostam?
Hamilton: Right, and there are plenty of bands out there that are just one or two guys. Yeah, we talked about that, but at this point in my life… I've been coming up with band names since I was 12 years old, and I just didn't feel like coming up with another one. We already have names we're stuck with anyhow.
You made the album in LA where Rostam lives. How do you think that city influenced this record? Do you think it would have been any different had it been made in Brooklyn?
Hamilton: The problem with making the record in Brooklyn is the space, and the impossibility of getting a room. I live there, and New York is such a bad music city now. It's just impossible to find a space where you're allowed to be loud and there's not somebody down the hall who's not loud. I know people in very successful bands in New York who have the same problem. You'd think they could afford a quiet place but they have the same problems. It becomes so stressful. I've lived there for a long time and I'm going to continue to live there, but I've always wondered if the stress of living there is what pushes me to keep me on my toes and an ambitious attitude. I don't know if that's true or not but working in LA allows you to have breathing room and space. You don't have to see people unless you want to. And I have kids so flying out there for me and living on the schedule of a younger, single person, as Rostam and I did when we worked together, was unbelievably easy. [Laughs]. Days become ten times as long when you have kids around. You can get so much more done.
Rostam: That's one of the reasons why I moved from New York to LA—because I can have a studio behind my house here. Even though it's a small, low-key spot it's enough that you can make music around the clock. I realized that if I wanted to have a studio in any part of New York I'd have to be considerate to the people around me. Apartments are stacked upon each other and buildings are built up next to one another. That storage place where our friend made a studio and we made the second Vampire Weekend album, he had to stop using that space because they built another residential complex so close to that building and the sound would leak through. I always had a studio in Brooklyn wherever I lived. For the eight years I lived there I had an upright piano in my apartment and a couple of microphones and a computer with ProTools, so I've always had a version of studio in pretty much every place I've lived since I was 18. Even in college.
Do you think being that adaptable to your surroundings allows you to get that much more done?
Rostam: Yeah, I think so. For me, recording music is a part of most days in my life. I find some way to record something, whether it's in my living room with my iPhone or in my studio cutting vocals or going to a studio and recording drums. It's some part of my life. I think that's true of a lot of young people that have used computers to make music. I read an interview with Flume where he wrote a lot of music on his laptop while riding on trains in Europe.
Yeah, I can't see some of the old-timers like George Martin trying to use an iPhone on a train as a way of producing music.
Rostam: Yes, except there are all of those stories about Lindsey Buckingham making most of Tusk in his house all alone. It sounds radically different from song to song, and there are myths that some of them are all Lindsey—he played all of the instruments and recorded it all by himself at his house. It's in the tradition of that.
Were you able to avoid using a studio when you made the Vampire Weekend albums?Rostam: We pretty much did most of the work in my house, and some in other low-key studios, like storage spaces. I've had this conversation with other people who make music and they love making music in a high-key studio. It inspires them. But I like doing stuff at home. That's where I've done my best work. I think I get pretty focused working on music at home.
When you left Vampire Weekend, you said that your identity as a songwriter and producer needs to stand on its own. So why make this album instead of, say, a solo record?
Rostam: I think this album just started happening as soon as touring was winding down from Modern Vampires of the City. There were the two songs that Hamilton and I had done that we were pretty psyched on, and this album just started happening. We didn't expect it to happen but it did. But I'm also working on a lot of different music and some of it comes out a week after it's done, and some of it comes out a year after it's done. For that reason I can't really talk about all of the stuff that's in progress.
Finally, you guys brought in your dads to appear in the video for "1000 Times." What is the story behind that?
Rostam: Originally there was something funny to me about a kid performing with the same angst as Hamilton. I thought that juxtaposition was very funny. And I think that kind of carried over to the idea of someone older performing with that same angst. As I mentioned before, we got together over the holidays and got to know each other's dads. So I thought we should get his dad to play the older Hamilton. And then it was Hamilton's idea to get my dad into the picture, which I think took it to the next level. So, they both took a day trip to New York to spend a day in a 100 degree gym to be with us. They were both good sports about it.
I Had a Dream That You Were Mine is out via Glassnote on September 23th.
Follow Cam Lindsay on Twitter!