I think Nick and I have found a creative gear that works quite well. It’s not always harmonious but ultimately all we both care about is the result.”
THE LEISURE SOCIETY is a six-piece band from England, specializing in a blend of melodic folk pop. Think of THE BEACH BOYS, collaborating with THE BAND, and add a uniquely English vibe like THE KINKS, and you are somewhat close. The band is anchored by two long-time friends: singer/songwriter Nick Hemming (formerly of SHE TALKS TO ANGELS), and Christian Hardy. The rest of the band is John Cox on bass guitar, Helen Whitaker on flute, Mike Siddell on violin, and Sebastian Hankins on drums. THE LEISURE SOCIETY plays a vein of introspective folk-rock, where complex and picturesque lyrics overlay lush strings and soulful keyboards. Poised to release their third album, Alone Aboard the Ark, in April, NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION sat down with Nick and Christian to talk about working with longtime musical heroes, being control freaks and how working on an album is similar to training for the Olympics.
You are from England but I hear a fair bit of early American folk in your sound. Care to share some early influences?
NH: Well, there are obvious ones: THE BEACH BOYS, THE KINKS, THE BEATLES, basically classic, orchestrated pop music. NEIL YOUNG, as well.
Who would be your dream collaboration, living or dead?
NH: I don’t know, because I think collaborating with your heroes is a bad idea. Bound to be a disappointment, I think.
CH: I would like to work with Chris Taylor; he produces GRIZZLY BEAR, because I would like to see how he gets that sound. I mean, working with PAUL MCCARTNEY, on paper, would be incredible, but in reality it would probably be a crashing disappointment. We worked with RAY DAVIES, in 2011, but that was actually okay. He was great, but I wouldn’t actually recommend working with heroes.
I read about that. He’s a fan of yours, right?
NH: Yeah, he was great, but I couldn’t entirely relax in his company, because he’s been a hero since I was a kid. So it wasn’t possible to be completely at ease.
You are known for researching thoroughly when songwriting. What is the source material for “Alone Aboard the Ark”?
NH: I was looking back on my teenage years, when I was seventeen, eighteen. There’s quite a lot of nostalgia on this album, looking back on maybe dark times, and seeing them with a different perspective, because they’ve kind of taken on that glow of nostalgia. You suddenly realize that that shapes you into the person you are, so maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. Other things as well, I was reading a lot of Sylvia Plath poetry, and that inspired The Sober Scent of Paper. The first single, Fight for Everyone, I was trying to finish up the lyrics, I was just sitting in front of the TV with a guitar, watching the Olympics from morning till night. So that song was inspired by the Olympics. The album is all over the place, really.
That’s the song with the lyric “Hard to relax/ When you’re told you can’t fail.”
NH: Yeah, when you’ve been training for this thing for years and years, and it’s all on that moment, it’s a bit like recording an album, in a way. There’s all that stuff that nobody sees, and then you have this album out, and your whole livelihood and career depends on this one moment. It’s a bit terrifying, but exhilarating at the same time.
THE LEISURE SOCIETY: “Musicians aren’t always the best communicators”
Where you in Brighton during the Olympics?
CH: We were in London at the time. It was great, London was the best version of itself, in a non-cheesy way, and it genuinely was a better place. There was an atmosphere of civility and camaraderie and positivity. That hasn’t completely gone, it was special. The expectation in our country, generally, is that we will have a go and fail. We’ve gone from being imperialists to apologetic, kind of polite, embarrassed English people and, for once, Sebastian Coe and his team put on a really great show and like “We’re going to do it well!” and it was great. Nick and I got really into it.
I read about the recording of “Into the Murky Water” being this obsessive, ten-month project you and Christian kept working on. Did this album have any sort of compulsive fixation, of that level?
CH: It did, but we forced ourselves to make it in this concentrated time frame, because of the experience of Murky Water. You should never repeat yourself creatively, so we did the opposite, we gave ourselves a limited time frame, by going into the studio, with all the inherent costs and limitations of that. This album was all about the unyielding medium: fixed time frame, a fixed room. You have to excel in the moment, again, it’s like the Olympic thing, when you are playing and the red light comes on, you have to nail it, in that moment. Especially when you are playing live. It’s like four or five people playing live, we had never done that before. So this album, for me, has a spontaneity that we’ve not captured before, but we had it live. It meant that, the mixing, in particular, was … incredibly intense, because we had a deadline and we had to hit it. It was stressful, really stressful.
So is this like a two BRIAN WILSON’s type situation?
NH: Yeah, and one sort of geeky engineer guy, who was also obsessive in a different, technical kind of way. So it made for interesting times.
CH: I think Nick and I have found a creative gear that works quite well. It’s not always harmonious but ultimately all we both care about is the result. There’s not that much ego. But when you introduce a third personality into the mix, it can get kind of stressful. Musicians aren’t always the best communicators.
Tell me about being a big band, and having all these other instruments. There are also horns on this album?
NH: Yeah, we wanted to get an America’s horns kind of sound, so we hired in the MUMFORD AND SONS horn section. They play really well together. We wanted to get that live, Memphis type effect, all together, in a big blast of sound. .
What is a LEISURE SOCIETY live show like?
CH: With the new album, it wasn’t as hard [to play it live]. Although there are some string overdubs and brass sections, it is, fundamentally, a six-piece band that you’re hearing. We’re quite versatile as musicians. Mark and Helen, they are very talented and there is a lot of fidelity in the way that they play. So actually, it’s a quite a faithful reproduction but the instrumentation is slightly different live. Our music – we try to not be a fashionable band that has a sound and just reproduces it, so our gigs veer all over the place. From very very quiet introspective ballads, to real balls-out rockers, and everything in between. We try to be quite sophisticated playing live, but Nick and I, we started out in rock bands, so we like that as well.
What is the songwriting like? Are you both songwriters?
CH: Nick is the songwriter.
NH: I kind of get the songs together and bring them to band and we all play around with them and make them work, before we go into the studio and record them. I’ve always written songs, but I’ve only started writing songs that I thought were good or were working when I moved to down to London. I think it was something in my head, moving to an exciting city, and I was quite depressed as well, sleeping on Christian’s sofa, it’s kind of a romantic vision but it was inspiring.
What, living like a vagabond type of thing?
NH: Yeah, being kind of lost and then I had something to write about.
THE LEISURE SOCIETY: “The illusion of hope, it’s what keeps us all striving”
What about inspirations: first guitars, books, and important albums?
NH: When I was sixteen or seventeen I heard Appetite for Destruction, I learned every track, dropped out of school and started playing at the local art college, and was totally blinkered from then on, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
“Appetite for Destruction”, huh?
NH: Yeah it doesn’t really show in the music now. I still have a real fondness for that album. I thought Slash was God. [laughs]
CH: Yeah, it’s been a bit of journey. I didn’t realize until an interview last year that it was MICHAEL JACKSON’s Bad. I remember buying Bad on cassette, for five pounds, from Woolworth, just because I liked the cover. There was this keyboard that everyone used in the eighties called a Yamaha DX7, I remember wanting to figure out how to play all those things and learning to play left from right. Man in the Mirror is still, in my opinion, one of the greatest recordings.
You mentioned reading a lot of books?
NH: Just to feed the imagination, it’s more for the writing thing. When I moved to London, in addition to being a bit sad, I started reading Bukowski. I just made me think, I could write about my own experiences like that. Reading any new writer, it’s going to inspire you, and hopefully you don’t just completely rip them off.
CH: I’m a juvenile in the sense that Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite writer. I mean, he appeals to teenagers in the sense that he writes in a simplistic style and deals in simple themes, but I just think his humanist approach … it reminds me of my grandpa. I mean, he’s this accomplished man, but he’s silly. He’ll always be my spiritual home, literary wise.
What do hope and passion mean to you? I expect deep answers.
CH: Passion’s easy.
NH: I think music is an overriding passion, my only passion really.
CH: We’ve both built up our lives around making music. There’s a lot of sacrifices and missed opportunities. Milestones that our friends have achieved that we haven’t. But we have these three albums, so far, and that means more to us than anything else. That’s what passion is, that obsession to do something.
NH: I’m not a particularly hopeful person.
CH: I’m the optimist in the band. I think hope is the most human thing, going back to Kurt Vonnegut. The illusion of hope, it’s what keeps us all striving, because essentially we are scurrying around before we die. We build up all these little dreams and fantasies and that dictates all these sacrifices we make and all these bizarre scurrying journeys we make: they are nearly always predicated by this hope. It’s a trait of humanity. Especially spoiled Third World humans that don’t actually have any subsistence needs.
Wait, you mean Third World or First World?
CH: I mean First World (laughs). It’s quite easy to have all these little fantasies delusions and hopes when you don’t have to worry about your health or being fed or having a roof over your head.