Interview The Leisure Society: ‘I Was A Mod’

With new album ‘Alone Aboard the Ark’, Sam Bolton finds out how life’s changed since that Ivor Novello nomination, and how they were inspired by… Grimes.

Four years ago, The Leisure Society started making waves. Frontman Nick Hemming had been in a few bands before, but none of them had really taken off. With this new project though, it seemed fate may have been on his side and in 2009 much of Britain’s music press, and even some of the less specialist publications, were clambering for interview time with the then warehouse worker.

The Leisure Society, and their debut single, ‘Last Of The Melting Snow’, were pitted against heavyweights Coldplay and Elbow in a bid to claim 2009’s Ivor Novello for Best Contemporary Song. Although, at the time, Hemming wasn’t sure the nomination was legitimate. “Somebody suggested I enter for an Ivor Novello, you never know, and I did. And then I got a letter through the post saying I’d been nominated, so I was like, ‘Either this is a hoax or hundreds of people get nominations every year,’ and I went on the website and I saw you get three nominations from everything released in one year.

“As soon as they announced it became a big news story. They asked me to go to the press launch where they announce the nominees so I could do some interviews. The first one I did was with Five Live and the guy was saying, ‘You’ve been nominated for an Ivor Novello, what are you doing now?’ So I said, ‘The taxi’s taking me back to work,” and he said “Oh right, where do you work?’ And I said “I’ve got a job in a warehouse.” Suddenly, his ears pricked up and he was like “WOW, Really!? You work in a warehouse!?” It started snowballing from there, I woke up the next day and there was like headlines in the Sun saying, ‘Ivor not got a clue who he is, either.’ And then you get ITN and BBC News coming to film me wrapping palettes in the warehouse.”
‘It was quite a surreal experience.’
Since that seemingly incongruous nomination, Hemming and co have managed to capitalise on the splash it created, picking up a good following along the way and attracting a few big-name fans. Perhaps most notably; The Kinks’ Ray Davies. “[Davies] had created the Southbank Meltdown Festival, and he was doing a really small show, a charity show, that was part of the festival. He’d just heard ‘Into The Murky Water’ and he just got in touch via his manager and said, ‘Will you come in and arrange these three new songs for me?’

“We did that, […] then we went and did the gig with him, we played those three songs, then we did three of our own songs and it was quite a surreal experience because, I was a mod from when I was about 8 years old, walking round in a fishtail parker and stuff. To suddenly be sat there, in a room next to Ray Davies… I couldn’t believe it. It was amazing, it was also a little unnerving and I never completely relaxed so I couldn’t be completely creative in his presence, because I was thinking ‘Wow, this is the guy that wrote ‘Waterloo Sunset’.’”

The Leisure Society’s latest record is a change of pace, Nick admits, “I think with this album it was almost like starting again from scratch, which was really liberating in some ways.” Davies, it seems, played an important role shaping the forthcoming record. Indirectly, maybe; it was at his studio, Konk, where the Bristolians recorded ‘Alone Aboard the Ark’. “It was quite an amazing experience. We’ve always shied away from [studios]. One - because they’re expensive. And two - because its just not a very comfortable environment when you’re recording sometimes […] You’re up against the clock, with people you’re not familiar with, it’s a space you’re not familiar with. We’ve always recorded at my studio at home or we’ve hired a house in the countryside. But we went in there and it was just such a beautiful studio and there was just so much cool, retro gear in there and we just thought ‘Ah, if we can afford it we’ll come over’. He gave us a really good deal because we helped him out.”

After three months in and out of the studio, the new record was done. “It’s the first album we’ve recorded that I can actually listen too and feel proud of; the other two I just pick apart and think, ‘I wish I’d done that differently,’ or, ‘I wish that sounded better.’ But this is the first one I can listen to just feel, hugely proud of.” From a cursory listen to what’s been released so far you can hear the benefit of taking advantage of that studio time. ‘Alone Aboard The Ark’ has an incredibly polished production, still true to previous Leisure Society releases, but notably crisper.

You might - scratch that - should have heard the record’s lead single, ‘Fight For Everyone’, a track inspired, in part, by the Olympics, Hemming tells me. “I just found this image of British athletes coming into the stadium with 80 thousand people all cheering, willing them on and it was an amazing thing to watch. But also, you just thought that if I was that athlete and suddenly the whole country was like, ‘You’ve gotta win it, you’ve gotta win it…’ That’s a huge amount of pressure to get on your shoulders. And it started comparing it to writing an album, or anything like that, where you spend ages training or writing and then suddenly you’re on the spot and you’ve got to perform in that moment. It’s that huge pressure but it’s a good thing and also a bad thing.”
‘I don’t write lyrics unless I’m feeling a bit sad.’
What perhaps stands out most about ‘Fight For Everyone’ though is the addition of synths, something that Hemming has purposefully avoided in previous records. “We’ve always been quite reluctant to use synths, because everybody does it. It’s one of those things that everybody slags everyone off for being retro. But if it’s an 80s synth it’s not retro anymore, it’s ultra-hip. When we went into Konk, as well as having all this cool 60s and 70s gear, they also had all these old synthesisers and it was great being able to play around with them just get some really crazy sounds. I think that may have also come from listening to the Grimes album because she uses all those glitchy synth sounds, like on ‘Oblivion’; that kind of repetitive glitch synth is just such a cool sound. That may have had a slight influence on the album, but pretty minimal.”

Whilst the result is a step away from classic The Leisure Society sound, in terms of instrumentation, it maintains that juxtaposition of jolly music with melancholic lyrics that’s become synonymous with the band. “That’s quite a trademark of my song writing really,” Hemming admits. “The music that I write is really uplifting but then, I don’t write lyrics unless I’m feeling a bit sad or depressed about things. If I’m really happy and content I don’t write because I don’t feel the need to, I’m just kind of living in the moment. It’s generally when I’m feeling a bit down that I find writing words a kind of cathartic experience really. It’s definitely like ‘happy writes white’ with me; if I’m happy I won’t write a word that I think’s good. I think that’s why this kind of melancholy comes out even though the melodies are quite jaunty and uplifting.”

Hemming is one of those people who you could imagine happily talking about music all day; a real music lover; he’s already been forthcoming about his love of the Kinks and being a Mod when he was 8 years old, about his love of incredible modern artists like Grimes or Tame Impala, about growing up with the Beach Boys, the Jam, the Who. And in the spirit of a true muso, he’s keen to share his discoveries; “Whenever I mention this guy’s name, nobody’s ever heard of him; a guy called Cass McCombs?” If you don’t know him, he’s on Domino. Check out a song called ‘The Same Thing’.

“I found him about two years ago, I stumbled across something. Actually he released two albums at once and I can remember reading the reviews and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s pretty prolific to release two albums in the space of a couple of months’. I bought them both and they’re both amazing, and they made me feel a bit sick that that he could be so prolific. I went and bought his whole back catalogue, he’s just an incredible songwriter.”

Hemming is a musician’s musician. Someone who’s sculpted by what they listen to, that writes intricacies that might slip-by an untrained ear, that has historically gone the extra mile to get a true instrument sound rather than resorting to an ineffectual synth. And perhaps that’s why The Leisure Society hasn’t broken into the mainstream. But it’s also why they’ve been nominated for an Ivor Novello on two separate occasions and why people like Ray Davies want to work with them. Still, Hemming laments, “It’d be so nice to be able to make a decent living out of music.”

The Leisure Society’s new album ‘Alone Aboard the Ark’ will be released on 1st April via Full Time Hobby.

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