The ex-Vampire Weekend/Walkmen collaboration born in a shared hometown during the holidays
Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam Batmanglij, together catchily known as Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam, are sipping on their coffees outside BBC Broadcasting House in central London. Our national broadcaster is putting that licence fee to good use, filming something for their autumn programming that involves upwards of 30 pooches running riot around town. It’s quite the scene, and the two musicians are looking slightly bemused after a week of promotion and interviews on the opposite side of the Atlantic from home. I, on the other hand, am worried that the recording of our conversation will yield nothing more than a half hour of barks. But with one (former) quarter of Vampire Weekend and a fifth of The Walkmen waiting on me, I decide it’s best to press on.
But how, indeed, do two ninths of modern indie rock royalty come to make an album together? Having grown up a mere mile from each other in Washington D.C., they didn’t meet until much later. “We were five years apart,” Rostam, the younger of the two, is keen to point out. “Which is a big deal in high school,” Leithauser agrees. But long after their bands had established themselves a chance encounter on tour saw them bond over the music that they love. From the Beatles to Bad Brains, they found that before long they didn’t even have to ask each other if they liked a band – the answer always seemed to be yes. “We can both reference obvious and obscure things,” says Leithauser, explaining the telepathy that takes over when they’re together. “There’s an understanding that we’ll both want to try doo-wop music, for example, which isn’t the most obvious thing to think when you first meet someone. Like, if I don’t know you I’m not going to assume that that’s what you would like to do. But we did and it worked quickly.”
Despite that, however, they didn’t realise that they had the beginnings of an album on their hands. Batmanglij had worked on Leithauser’s solo LP, ‘Black Hours,’ and he assumed that this was the genesis of another similar project. Leithauser says that it was at least six months after they started working on their debut record that it dawned on them that it was indeed a true collaboration. And while there wasn’t a whole lot of material left on the cutting room floor, there was some healthy experimentation at the start, even if just to figure out what wasn’t going to work. “We had a song that started like a hardcore song,” laughs Batmanglij. “And then we did this weird country, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ version and we were like, ‘This ain’t us!’”