One sad but true fact about life at The Ringer: Any time we interview the musicians, artists, and athletes we make it our business to obsess over, something always winds up on the cutting-room floor. Thing is, those little bits and pieces of interviews — the small talk, the weird tangents, the arguments over whether or not a hot dog is a sandwich — are interesting and revelatory in their own right. Which is why we’re introducing a new series: Ringer Rotations. It’s a home for the all the off-topic, strange, deep-dive oddities that come up in conversation with our favorite folks. Think of it this way: Ringer Rotations are the reason we always keep the camera (and microphone, and tape recorder, and notebook) rolling.
A few weeks ago, we welcomed Hamilton Leithauser (late of the Walkmen) and Rostam Batmanglij (late of Vampire Weekend) into our studio. The duo had just released I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, a collaborative album full of hazy, off-kilter jams. Here, they tell us how it all came together — and why their album sounds so deeply, wonderfully out of time.
Watch some highlights from the conversation and read the Q&A here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.
Chemistry Is Everything
So you guys were both obviously doing other things before and you decided to collaborate. Is that something that was a little daunting at first, or were you guys really stoked?
Rostam Batmanglij: It was so organic, the process of making this record. It was kind of like we slipped right into it. Like we’d done two songs for Hamilton’s solo record and then he was touring that record and he was going to be in L.A., so we were just like, let’s get together for a few days, like around that tour and see what happens. And what happened was that we started six songs and they were in various condition, or shapes. Some of them were just really ideas, but from there, it was just kind of like, “All right, well, we finished these, write a few more, and that’s a record.” The whole process, for me, was one of the least painful record-making processes in my life, which is not to say that they’re always painful, but I mean there’s some amount of pain.
Hamilton Leithauser: We were very constructive. We didn’t beat our heads against the wall. Not that many things didn’t work out. A few things didn’t work out, but in my experience we used to be more scattershot and when things didn’t work out we’d toss them. With RostHam we just sort of would keep building. We had, like, two songs that we fought and lost. They’re gone. But that’s a pretty good batting average.
You said it’s a lot of unspoken things. You guys collaborated a bit in the past, but how has this process been?
H.L.: We clicked really quickly, both as friends and as collaborators, which basically never happens. And maybe someday it will happen again, but I can’t imagine it happening again. … There’s a lot of elements that go into it. And there’s a balance. You’ve got a lot of friends you don’t want to work with and a lot of people you want to work with that you’re not necessarily going to be friends with.
R.B.: Who knows what the reason was? Maybe it had to do with the fact that we both grew up in D.C., but we never knew each other.
H.L.: But it’s beyond that, because I know a lot of people from D.C. I don’t want to be hanging out with [or] working with.
R.B.: I remember the first time we worked on anything together, I was like noting how sarcastic Hamilton was sometimes, and he was like, “C’mon, don’t you know anyone else from D.C.?” I do know other people from D.C., but none with quite the same sense of humor as Hamilton. But I like it. I’m ready for his sarcasm at any moment. Spice things up.
Do you guys feel like making the record in Rostam’s studio was a help? Was it an influence?
H.L.: It was a huge help coming out here [to Los Angeles] because I don’t have my kids here. So we can have nice, long, calm days to work.
R.B.: When we were working on songs for Black Hours, sometimes Hamilton would bring his daughter, which was really fun, and it was new for me. And he’d want to work at like eight in the morning, which no one I’d ever worked with [wanted to do].
H.L.: I woke him up. So many times I woke him up.
R.B.: So it’d be funny. He’d come in and he’d put his daughter on my couch and she’d just watch Dora the Explorer and we’d open up a song and start cranking on it. But for me it’s been huge to have a dedicated space for recording. Every apartment I lived in in New York, I [had to make] it work somehow. I had like an upright piano in the corner, and I’d have mics set up, and I’d have a computer with ProTools. And I could get a lot done, but it felt like climbing up a hill. You have to watch out for the neighbors, you can’t be too loud, you can’t go too late. Your roommates are coming home from work. So there was always like those factors. I realized it’d be pretty much impossible to have [a dedicated space] in New York without being in a dungeon, so that was part of why I moved.
Music Reflects Dreams … or Vice Versa
Something that particularly stood out is the titular line, “I had a dream that you were mine.” Why do you think some dreams are more significant to us than other dreams?
H.L.: I guess the picture on the cover [of this record] is someone who looks like they just woke up from a dream, so you’re thinking of a nighttime dream. But I think you could — the case could be made that’s about sort of like hopes or desires or something like that, too.
R.B.: Your question just kind of makes me think: Why does the word dream, or the idea of a dream, end up in songs so much? And I kind of think if a song is successful, you should be able to, like, feel about it kind of like you felt about a dream. It was something you experienced and it’s very, like, vivid, but at the same time, you’re not exactly sure what it is.
You guys are sort of referring to a lot of old styles, but it feels really fresh and new. Is that something you were going for? Is that intentional?
H.L.: Ross and I like a lot of different music from a lot of different eras. And [we will] do something like, shooby-doo-wop vocals. Or like, a triplet picked guitar line that very much comes from like a Leonard Cohen 1960s performance. We both have a common ground in that we love that stuff, but we both are aware — without talking about it — that we have no desire to re-create or do something that is just kind of trying to re-create a moment from the past. So when we put all the things together, we don’t talk about it, but we both know that we want it to be as modern as possible. We want it to be something happening right now. Something like a direct reference to a shooby-doo-wop is just a bit. It’s reflecting back in our minds, but we’ve got to make sure that there’s a reason that we’re using it. We’re combining it with the right things in the right setting to make sure it’s a new song.
R.B.: I remember in college getting really interested in what postmodernism was — and getting really deep into it — and then just kind of being like, I don’t really care about [this] anymore. And then all a sudden I was making music. A lot of music. And I felt very free to make a lot of different kinds of music and I feel like that’s been the last 10 years of my life. And I don’t think about it consciously. I think it’s pretty ingrained in me. So exactly what Hamilton was saying: I never want to be considered a revivalist, because then it’s like you’re not really adding anything to the game.
The Role of Producers Is Changing
Song credits are becoming more publicly known with Genius and whatnot. Who are some producers or production teams or just records that you guys feel are really well produced in recent memory?
H.L.: I really like the way that the last couple Angel Olsen records sounded.
R.B.: She worked with John Congleton.
H.L.: Yeah, John Congleton. He’s a friend of mine. He’s great. He does a really good job. He probably, I think he’s getting his due. I think people know who he is now, because he did St. Vincent and stuff.
R.B.: I think you’re right that people are paying more attention to what producers do. It’s interesting because I think kids are growing up now and their like knowledge of what a producer [does] is so different from when I was a kid and when I was starting to realize that’s what I wanted to do in my life. And now pretty much anyone that’s a kid and making music thinks of themselves as a producer, and I think that’s a good thing in some ways. It’s also maybe dangerous, but I think it’s a good thing.
H.L.: Well, in my experience, [being a producer] can be so many different things. For my band, we would do things with a producer and the producer could be an engineer. Or the producer could be, like, trying to help with the song choice for the record. But then when I started working with Rostam, he was listed as the producer for the first two songs that we worked together on that were on Black Hours.
To me, it was more like we were the band together. We both were cowriters and it was just [that] he was focused more on music [while] I was focused more on vocals, but it was kind of like a group. And that’s sort of how we did this record, and that’s why it’s both of our names and not just my record produced by him. Because I think people use the word to mean a lot of different things.