The Walkmen's Hamilton Leithauser explains in the wake of Ryan Adams' take on Taylor Swift's '1989'

By Eric Renner Brown
September 25, 2015 at 05:30 PM EDT
Richard Mcblane/Getty Images for SXSW

Ryan Adams’ version of Taylor Swift’s 1989 may be the most notable full-album covers project to come out in a while, but the concept isn’t new. From the Flaming Lips’ 2009 reworking of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon to McLemore Avenue, a reinventing of the Beatles’ Abbey Road by Booker T. & the M.G.’s, artists have long used covers albums to pay homage to those they admire.

In 2006, indie band the Walkmen took on Pussy Cats, the famously debaucherous 1974 album by Harry Nilsson and John Lennon. While covering full albums can be a ton of fun—speaking to EW, the group’s frontman Hamilton Leithauser says recording Pussy Cats “was just a party … an absolute blast”—there’s a fair amount of legal baggage associated with taking on such an endeavor.

“Anybody is allowed to cover anyone’s song,” Leithauser says. “They have to pay you, but can’t force you not to do it. As long as we were paying and crediting them appropriately, I think we would’ve been able to have artistic license to do whatever we wanted [on Pussy Cats].”

Leithauser explains that because of steep mechanical royalties, the Walkmen didn’t profit off their version of the album—and their label wasn’t thrilled with the project either: “There were gaped jaws when we walked in with that. It was a curveball.”

“We had a recording studio back then,” he continues. “We had time to screw around. [Pussy Cats] was a record we all loved at the time—it’s the most buddy buddy record we could think of. We started rolling tape and before you knew it we were playing through another two or three of them. We didn’t really add creatively to it, because ours was trying to do it in their style.”

So what’s in it for an artist covering a full album by another artist? Prestige and good times, mostly. For the Walkmen, that translated directly to praise from Nilsson’s camp. “Harry’s daughter came to a show one time,” Leithauser says. “You see her face and it looks just like him. They were all complimentary, they really liked it and were appreciative. We liked their dad and they knew we admired him.”

In Adams’ case, the 1989 covers project has garnered him tremendous attention. But, Leithauser cautions, sometimes these projects done on a lark can be taken too seriously. “I don’t like how it was treated once it left our camp,” he says. “It was presented a lot more serious than it should’ve been.”

In that respect, the frontman identifies with another artist who recently covered Swift—Josh Tillman, better known as Father John Misty, who released versions of “Welcome to New York” and “Blank Space” via his Soundcloud earlier this week. “We didn’t understand the ins and outs, [but] it should’ve been free on the internet,” he says. “That’s what Josh did. All we wanted to do was make it and laugh and have a good time and not think through the consequences. [Pussy Cats] got billed as something more serious than was intended on our end.”

Reporting by Kevin O’Donnell.