Listening to I Had a Dream You Were Mine is like boarding a melancholic time machine.
From the doo-wop indebted “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up)” to the 1960s Bob Dylan trimmings of “You Ain’t That Young Kid,” the songs on Hamilton Leithauser’s latest record wander the landscapes of genres past without ever devolving into tourism.
Long before I Had a Dream You Were Mine came out in September 2016, Leithauser was the lead singer for the indie rock outfit, the Walkmen. Active from 2000 to 2013, the Washington, D.C., band was known for singles like “Heaven” and “Little House of Savages,” which embrace vintage sounds and put a priority on piano over drums and bass.
So when the Walkmen went on hiatus at the end of 2013, Leithauser released his first solo album, Black Hours. Featuring significant contributions from his former bandmate Paul Maroon — with whom he would collaborate a year later on the passion project album Dear God — the record
also marked the first time Leithauser began working with Rostam, a former multi-instrumentalist for Vampire Weekend. Though the pair joined forces with the intent of creating music, neither envisioned constructing an entire album, let alone one that would produce a hit single that would be swooped up by Apple for use in iPhone 7 commercials.
“It was a curveball,” Leithauser says of teaming up with Rostam for Black Hours. “I had very little faith that it was something that would turn into a real collaboration.”
Their combined efforts resulted in two tracks that ended up on the album: “I Retired,” a jangly, folk-rock number built around a frisky guitar line, and the rollicking, harmonica-laden ballad, “Alexandra.” Because of the success of this collaboration, Leithauser turned to Rostam again when it came time
to work on his next album, and the duo toiled away on I Had a Dream You Were Mine from July 2014 to February 2016. Most of the project was recorded at Rostam’s house in L.A., requiring Leithauser to make repeated flights from his home in Washington, D.C. But over the holidays, especially during Thanksgiving and Christmas when Rostam, who is also from Washington D.C., would return home, the two musicians would also lay down tracks at Rostam’s parent’s house, working in
a makeshift studio they set up in the musician’s childhood bedroom.
“It was hilarious,” Leithauser says. “It felt like when I was 15 and I would be over at my friend Hugh’s house in his bedroom, playing Primus covers. “
Because of all the traveling required in making the album, months would sometimes pass between recording sessions. But Leithauser
says the breaks were almost as important as the time spent in Rostam’s studio.
“Sometimes it’s good to work away at things, but a lot of times, when you’re writing a rock and roll song, it’s not
[good],” he says. “You really want to try capture everything.”
And that’s exactly what they did, even including some mistakes. Rostam
— who was instrumental in crafting the baroque-pop sound of Vampire Weekend — was sometimes reluctant to let the singer re-do parts he felt he could improve on, valuing the beauty of imperfection in shaping the song.
“We would get in little spats over it,” Leithauser recalls, “but it definitely added to the overall sound of the record.”
Because both musicians harbor an affinity for music of the past, the album culls from a range of influences, like soul, country, and early rock ’n’ roll. As a result, it’s a hard-to-categorize record, but Leithauser says that they had little concern, if any, about what genre it would ultimately fall into.
Other elements that contributed to the record’s vibrant but homespun sound include eschewing fancy equipment.
Leithauser says while high-end microphones were available, he and Rostam opted to use cheap SM58s. They also wrote the songs as they went, improvising and building around specific elements that left little on the cutting room floor when the final product was finished.
The result is a 10-track record steeped in the sounds of bygone eras and rife with a lyrical nostalgia for youth’s forgiveness. Album highlight “In a Blackout” is an acoustic séance for the ghosts of an old town, while another standout track, “Rough Going (I Won’t Let Up),” pairs the twisting peals of a saxophone with Leithauser’s raw, howling vocals.
I Had a Dream You Were Mine landed on a number of year-end lists and ended up becoming Leithauser’s bestselling work to date. It also marks a breakthrough of sorts for Leithauser, a formerly reluctant collaborator — “I didn’t really imagine this working out,” he says of teaming up with Rostam — and serves as tangible proof of a fruitful and inspired relationship.
But perhaps more than anything, with its mélange of genres and unorthodox recording locations, like Rotsam’s childhood bedroom, it serves as a reminder that Leithauser is anything but normal. The traditional simply doesn’t suit him.
Hamilton Leithauser plays with Alexandra Savoir at 8 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 18, at the Independent. $15; theindependentsf.com
Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly.