With their second album, Into The Murky Water, grabbing rightly enthusiastic write-ups, The Leisure Society are in an appropriately buoyant mood. Fresh from a BBC 6Music session – it seems Auntie loves them – singer/songwriter Nick Hemming (thoughtful, serious) and multi-instrumentalist Christian Hardy (bullish, amusing) talk aquaria, Brian Eno, taking advantage of having a big band, and failing to give an Ivor Novello Award-winning song away to The Divine Comedy and Elbow…
The whole group seem to be multi-instrumentalists…
Christian: Both Nick and I play too many instruments. On the new record, the violin player’s playing guitar now, and the flautist’s playing some keys, so we’re really mixing it up. She’s also in about 100 bands…
You two have got three or four bands on the go, haven’t you?
Christian: Less and less. This one’s keeping us pretty busy now.
Nick: I was playing in about six bands a couple of years ago but I was just really flakey. Sons of Noel and Adrian, I used to play in them but I just ran out of time, I’ve been so busy.
Nick, you said a couple of years ago you probably wouldn’t be involved in music had it not been for Brighton’s Wilkommen Collective. Why was that?
Nick: I got involved with Tom [Cowan], who started the Wilkommen Collective – he’s from Burton-on-Trent [and so am I]. I was going through my “dark phase” and had almost given up music, but I played on his album, the Shoreline album; and [Wilkommen] put out our first album as well. They helped us a lot, really.
And then Full Time Hobby came along and re-released your debut, The Sleeper. How did that come about?
Nick: It was a total bedroom industry, really – nobody really knew what they were doing and we were all learning as we went along. We were so reluctant to sign a record deal – particularly me, because I was so bitter and twisted after years of trying to get into the music industry and failing!
Christian: I remember, we took Tom and Marcus [Hamblett, fellow Wilkommen Collective member] to Brighton beach and sat down with them and said: “Look, this is the record deal.” We had a few interested parties and we debated whether we should sign it at all and they said: “Go on – it’s gonna be a lot better than we can do!” So we did in the end.
Nick: It was also because I knew Nigel [Adams, Full Time Hobby boss] as well – from stuff I did before. I played session guitar in one of their bands, and he’s just a really nice chap.
You’ve both been around, haven’t you? Were you both sessioners for hire? Christian, I may have dreamt this but I’m sure I saw you supporting Amanda Palmer at Bush Hall in 2007… under the name Christian Silva.
Nick: Yeah, yeah. I’ve done a few little things but none of them really took off, to be honest.
Christian: I sang with Amanda on her tour. That was a really nice night [at Bush Hall]. Nick was playing with me then: that was when we started forming The Leisure Society. I was doing that for about a year and a half, touring with Maps and White Rabbits and Peter, Bjorn & John, and Amanda Palmer.
[The Christian Silva album] was a very eclectic record. I was just pouring out my creativity in a slightly aimless but passionate way. I’m a bit more focused now. We’ve both done lots of things but our hearts are in this project.
Do you feel like Into The Murky Water marks a big change, musically speaking? It sounds quite different to me: more country, more Paul Simon…
Nick: It’s a definite progression. We always wanted to make sure it was a step up.
Christian: There were a number of compromises on the first record. Nick had a day job, we had less equipment, we had less access to musicians, and we had less experience in the studio. Even though we arrogantly decided to produce it ourselves, we didn’t really know what we were doing.
You had an engineer, presumably?
Christian: No, we did it all ourselves!
That’s pretty cocky…
Christian: Well, we got two Ivor Novello nominations [smiles]…
Nick: We never really intended… we were just recording it for ourselves, almost, so we were just learning as we went along…
Christian: You were – I always knew it was going to be released. For the second album, we definitely had a more focused band and a more rigid set of musicians, and a better set of microphones, and no jobs to have to do. We had a bit of money so we hired a big mansion in Kent, so we had a lot of space for a few weeks to just explore the songs. It’s a much tighter set of songs.
An early incarnation of The Leisure Society. The Line Of Best Fit club night, London 2008. Photo credit: Sonny Malhotra
Did you encounter the classic pitfall of being forced to write your second album really quickly, having had your whole lives to craft the debut?
Nick: Not really. It was a little bit terrifying at times but before we’d even finished the other album I’d started writing bits and bobs which just developed. The title track I started writing about three years ago but it took me three years to finish the lyrics. It was one of those things: I always knew it’d be a great song but I just [had to] get the right feel.
Do you find lyrics hard to write?
Nick: Sometimes they come really quickly but other times I really work over them. That song in particular – it was inspired by a book, The Fall by Albert Camus. It was the first song I’d ever written like that. I read that book a few times and tried to absorb it and then write something related to that side of things.
It seems lyrics are quite an important part of what The Leisure Society do – they’re not just tossed off, they’re very thought out, often funny…
Nick: I’m in a total minority but I think the lyrics are as important as the music!
Christian, do you know what Nick’s singing about? Do you even hear the lyrics when you’re recording?
Christian: Completely. Nick has, three or four times, played a song to me and I’ve cried my eyes out. ‘…Melting Snow’, and ‘The Hungry Years’ on the new album – I couldn’t control my emotions. The whole band has massive respect for Nick as a songwriter, and we don’t just turn up and twat about. We’re reacting to what he’s feeling: as pretentious as that sounds, that’s what bands are supposed to do.
How much of a surprise were the two 2009 Ivor Novello nominations?
Nick: A massive surprise. I don’t think we believed it.
How did the news arrive?
Nick: It was a letter that came through the door. The second one was an email but the first one was a letter…
Christian: …with a wax seal!
Nick: I just looked at it… I was on my way out to work and I was late and rushing out, and I didn’t believe it to start with. I told my mum and she actually phoned up the Ivors people and said: “Is this real? Has my son really got a nomination?” She thought it was some kind of hoax.
Can you remember the day the first nomination came in?
Nick: It was crazy because I was still warehousing at the time, which is what became a big news story. You had TV cameras coming down the street. It was really bizarre: getting ferried to the Houses of Parliament to do interviews. We’re prepared for anything now!
An Ivor Novello doesn’t strike me as something a band would necessarily aspire to get – it seems somehow beyond the music industry…
Nick: Funnily enough I was always conscious of it – I used to work in a record shop and Music Week would always have a write-up on the Ivors.
Christian: It means a lot more than a Brit Award or an NME Award – no offence. Those things don’t really mean anything. The Mercury Awards means quite a lot, still: I think it means a hell of a lot.
You must be quietly confident of a Mercury Prize nomination this year…
Christian: Well… we were told we were gonna get one for the first record, and we didn’t! So our confidence is… gone.
Nick: Somebody actually announced the album title as Into The Mercury Water so we thought that was a good omen!
Christian: The headlines write themselves.
I think I’ve seen you with nine people on stage – is it hard to tour with that many band members?
Christian: We tour with seven at the moment. It’s financially more challenging, but again, we take the music very seriously and we need that many musicians to pull off what we’re trying to pull off. There’s not too much ego in the band – you’re talking to the biggest ego in the band, and I’m quite nice, so it’s alright [smiles]! Self-awareness is the key…
Nick: We have a nine-seater bus – we’ve actually got a soundman for the first time ever on this tour, as well, so every seat will be full. It’s going to be quite cosy but it’s nice, I love it. Financially it makes it really difficult – we stay on people’s floors when we can, we’ve usually got relatives and family and stuff somewhere nearby.
Christian: We tried to get one band member from each of the key university towns so we’d always have somewhere to stay!
Where was this album written? I know much of the first album evolved on public transport…
Nick: A lot of the lyrics were written in a car. I did a few road trips around coastal towns, did rough demos of the songs and then put a CD on in the car and just sat singing along to them as I was driving along the motorway – writing notes while driving. I don’t really have to leave the house anymore – this [promo round] is the first time I’ve left the house in about two years!
Do you go out on massive six-month tours, or do you prefer short bursts?
Christian: Short bursts, definitely. Guy Garvey came to our Manchester show in 2009 and advised us to just tour as much as possible, and we just looked at each other and… y’know, I have lots of respect for Guy but I just don’t think we’re going to do that.
Sufjan Stevens is one of our idols: he does select gigs, and when he does, it means something. That’s not to the detriment of bands who do tour a lot, but it’s just not what we’re about, I don’t think.
Nick: I think if this album really takes off, there is pressure to tour. We do actually want as many people as possible to hear the record as well – it’s getting the balance just right.
Do you have management cracking the whip, telling you what you should be doing?
Christian: We look after ourselves, so I’m cracking a whip, and Nick’s cracking a whip, and we’re ignoring each other!
Have you two always got on?
Christian: Yeah, I think we really love each other. There’s an increasing amount of tension but I think it’s a really healthy kind of tension. We both want the best for the music. [To Nick] Was that accurate?
Nick: We lived together for about two years. We shared a bedroom for six months – and a bed…
Christian: …this tiny single bed. It’s the basis of the band: those harmonies needed practicing!
Into The Murky Water album launch. London Aquarium, May 2011.
Photo credit: Sebastien Dehesdin
Why did you choose to launch the album at the London Aquarium?
Christian: The album’s called Into The Murky Water… [smirks] and the record label asked us to!
Nick: We’re really into it as well. We’re really into all that imagery, and Jacques Cousteau – we love The Life Aquatic, the Wes Anderson film. I always wanted to be a marine biologist when I was a kid, so it’s like [being] a kid in a sweetie shop. When we went down there, just to look around, it was like: “This is the best job in the world, to plan a gig at an aquarium…”
Nick, you used to be in The Telescopes, didn’t you? And I notice you cover ‘Flying’ as the b-side of ‘This Phantom Life’. Is this a belated attempt to claw back some overdue publishing money?
Nick: Haha, no – it was written before I joined; I joined The Telescopes just as they were getting dropped by Creation, so it didn’t last long. I just always loved that song. We were actually asked to do it for that film coming out on Creation records, for a compilation linked to that in some way, and I was just really happy to do it.
Steve [Lawrie]’s a great songwriter and I think it’s a really beautiful song; I think we did it justice, but in a very different style – some of it sounds better than the original. The original sounds quite dated now, it’s quite ‘90s-sounding.
Christian: I’m really proud of it. We tried to put it on the record actually, but it just didn’t sequence – we couldn’t get it to work.
Do you spend a lot of time worrying about track listings, song order and so on?
Nick: Christian does, particularly.
Christian: I do, yeah. You want it to matter and you want the body of work to stand up – you’ve got to agonise over it, make a million playlists until it makes sense…
…until someone presses “shuffle” and that’s the end of it!
Christian: Yeah, but we’re making albums for people that want albums – that may be a minority but we still believe in that.
Nick: We definitely approached it as if it was a piece of art – the whole thing, the packaging, it’s a really beautiful thing. It’s similar to the re-release of the first album, but we’ve taken it a step further with a die-cut slipcase, it’s really amazing.
Are you deeply involved with the design process?
Christian: Absolutely. A friend of mine does all the design – we sat down with him and listened to the record, talked about the record. We’re probably far more deeply into it than we need to be but Full Time Hobby are really indulgent, actually. Nigel’s less of a profiteer, he does it for love to a certain extent. A lot of labels probably wouldn’t spend whatever the unit price is for this record – it’s probably commercial suicide but it’s a beautiful package.
Do you think this connoisseur’s attitude to making stylishly packaged, perfectly sequenced records – as opposed to just recording music – might alienate people who are only interested in mp3s?
Christian: I don’t think this record does. Every track on this record stands up in its own right, even though they’re sequenced together.
Nick: I don’t think we’re being snobby about it, we realise a lot of people won’t care about that but to us it’s really important.
Do you feel commercially minded at all, thinking “This’ll sell” or “This’ll be on the radio”?
Nick: Not in the writing and the recording but afterwards we definitely want it to be a success. It’s hard with such a big band to make enough money for us all to be able to do it.
But when we’re actually writing and recording it… I think as soon as you start thinking commercially, it’s the beginning of the end.
Christian: You can always tell, can’t you?
Tell me what happened with Brian Eno…
Christian: Brian went in to Rough Trade East and Nigel is a big fan and was talking about the first album – this is two years ago – and Brian Eno was quite dismissive. He went off looking at records and Nigel put ‘Last of the Melting Snow’ on the stereo in the store, and Brian Eno went straight over and asked what it was, and he said: “It’s the band you just dismissed…”
He bought one copy [of the album] and then Nigel tells us he came back and bought 10 copies. We heard about this, and then in an interview he said that his favourite record was ours in 2009, or something like that. So our label set up a meeting with him, Nick and I went to his flat…
Nick: …and had cheese and biscuits!
Christian: …and had cheese and beer, had a bit of a laugh. We ended up going round there quite regularly for little shindigs, vague mentor things. In the end, we sent him the new record just before we finished it, just for some thoughts really, and his only real comment was that it was one track too long, which is why we took that cover off.
Like a lot of people we really respect, he’s been really supportive of us, in a way that we’d never expected, and for no benefit of their own have gone out in the media and spoken about us and given us advice. We’re very lucky. He’s a very funny guy.
Nick: We went to his Christmas party as well, which was a pretty bizarre experience, and got really, really hammered – to the point where we went out for a cigarette and I put on somebody else’s jacket by mistake, and I thought it was mine, and Helen [Whitaker, flautist] said, “You’re wearing a woman’s jacket,” and I was like, “This is really tight…”
So you haven’t made plans to work with Eno directly?
Christian: The elephant in the room… he dealt with it straight away. As soon as we got there the first time, he said: “Look, I don’t think I should work with you guys because I really like your music and I tend to work with people I think need my help – and I like what you’re doing.” I think he was just getting it out of the way, but we had no intention of asking him, to be honest – as talented as he is, we quite like being autonomous.
Nick: It was something we talked about early on. A lot of bands release a record they’ve done themselves and then get a big producer and do another album that sounds completely different and loses all the magic of the first one, so we really wanted to do the second one ourselves.
Are you control freaks? Is this what it comes down to?
Christian: Absolutely! Absolutely. It’s not just that. The studio environment is not a great place for us: the red light, the airless vacuum of the expensive studio, time costing money, the whole thing – and someone else having a better idea of a song than Nick, it just doesn’t work for us.
A lot of bands treat a producer like an extra band member…
Christian: Right, and if someone could come along and be that ninth band member, I’d be amazed. Maybe we’d be open to it but I’d be surprised.
Nick: We’d find it so hard to let go and leave somebody else to take control. I can’t imagine it. I hear a lot of bands doing that: they just record it and somebody else goes off and produces it and mixes it. I can’t contemplate it.
Maybe at some point further down the line when we’ve just had enough and are just absolutely exhausted and want somebody else to do it…
Christian: We met one guy who did the Mali Music album and was off doing a lot of stuff with Cuban musicians – who was he? Jamie, worked with Damon Albarn. That’s the only guy I’ve ever met that might [fit in] with us.
Do you not find it quite boring in the studio? The endless re-recording of parts…
Christian: We absolutely fucking love it. We’re obsessed – we’re very, very geeky, boring boys.
And then somehow recreating the noise you made in the studio when you play live, that’d got to be hard.
Christian: It’s been a real challenge, hasn’t it?
Nick: We’re going through that process at the moment. We’ve been rehearsing for the last couple of weeks.
Christian: We’ve been sleeping at [Hackney studio] The Premises for the last month…
Nick: The first two or three rehearsals we had were absolutely terrifying. [We thought] “We’re not going to be able to do this live,” and then it all started to click into place.
Christian: You get the essence of a part – you can never emulate it but [we think] “What’s the essence of that part? Who can do it?” I think we’ve cracked it now, we’ve got about two hours’ worth of material, like a proper stadium band, for the first time. I’m really, really proud of the way it’s sounding.
Are you ambitious, in a traditional sense? Do you want to be rock’n’roll superstars, playing Wembley Stadium?
Christian: I’d like to emulate the TV career of Rowland Rivron: just a gradual ascent to general awareness, and then drowning*. I don’t want to speak for Nick, but I think if you take your audience with you and that audience grows… a good example until recently is The Flaming Lips, whose audience has come with them, or Super Furry Animals – a consistently good band that brings an audience that grows. Moments in the sun, moments out of the sun, but [with] a consistency to them, and a body of work. That’s more important than “a hit”.
[*Writer's note: Rowland Rivron is still alive!]
Did you listen to the first album immediately before starting on the second, to say “Right, that’s where we were, now let’s work out where we’re going to go”?
Christian: I did, but not in a way that Nick was aware of.
Nick: We approached it in a totally different way, I guess. We’d played live a lot by then; the first round we hadn’t really played live much, so it was a different way of writing – that’s why it’s bigger and more… proper, more electric guitars, more drums.
And in terms of arrangements, it sounds braver in terms of what you’re throwing in there…
Nick: Yeah, that was partly to do with Helen going to Trinity Music College so we had access to loads of musicians. So we were just like, “we really want a saxophone on this” [and there they were]. That’s always been the goal, to try different sounds – I just love the sound of different instruments.
I know the saxophone players were so chuffed when they saw the video for ‘The Phantom Life’ because it had Mark Heap on it and they were like, “Wow, it’s him!” and their saxophone’s going on in the background.
Did someone just randomly decide Mark Heap would be good for the video?
Nick: Olivia Colman from Peep Show is a massive fan of the band so I just texted her – Christian actually prompted me to do it because I didn’t want to ask her, because it’s always a bit daunting – and she said: “Let me work on it.” An hour later she came back with a big list of people she knew, went through her address book and asked everyone. He was just the perfect man for the role, it was so good – such a nice guy.
As control freaks, you must have had creative supervision over the video as well…
Christian: [smiles] We relinquished control: you have to know the limits of your talent! We don’t know anything about video. I did have a little pep-talk with the band just before we started filming: “Guys, try not to corpse, stop laughing…” And you watch the video and there isn’t one scene where someone isn’t pissing themselves. It’s impossible, he’s too funny – literally, he’s too funny, so there’s a lot of laughter in there.
It’s good to have an actor on set when you’re doing a video – it just takes all the pressure off. He’s the centre of attention, we can relax a bit. I was actually a bit scared the night before but as soon as we got there it was the best feeling I’ve ever had, I think.
Who do you see as your contemporaries?
Nick: I honestly don’t think we fit in with anybody.
Christian: If people compare us to, say, Department of Eagles, that’s amazing – that record is one of the greatest records I’ve ever heard. There’s been a few references to them, but I think the new album… a song like ‘Into The Murky Water’, I don’t know any other band that would’ve come out with that. I’m not saying it’s better or worse than anything else, but what it is, is inherently us, I think, and where we are now. I don’t know where that fits in folk or rock or indie or pop. I have no idea, and I don’t really care.
When you go on tour, do you pick people because you think you might complement each other musically, or is it more businessy?
Nick: It’s usually suggested by the label and we just say: “They sound good…”
Christian: Sarabeth [Tucek], who’s coming out with us, there was a list of people and her music’s lovely, and it’s just her and another guy so logistically that was easy.
Did you tour with Neil Hannon, or just the one show?
Nick: Just the one show.
Christian: We met Neil at the Ivors, both times, and then we did that one show at Meltdown [with The Duckworth Lewis Method].
Nick: We became like stalkers, and became friendly by the end of it. It started off really awkwardly and then we became friends eventually.
The Divine Comedy feel like the kind of band you’re perhaps following on from…
Christian: Thank you! That’s exactly it.
Nick: Actually, they’re probably the closest thing: it’s orchestral, it’s pop, but it’s thoughtful and literate, I hope.
Christian: We both idolise Neil Hannon – well, I do. I famously got too drunk and was sort of weeping on him at the Ivors last year. [drunk voice] “Yhou dzon’t know how mujch you mean tzo uzzz…” There’s only a handful of writers who get me that much – I work with one of them and the other one’s probably Neil Hannon.
Neil still sends a copy of each new album of his to Scott Walker for “approval” – have you got anyone you’d do that for?
Both: Brian Eno!
Nick: Did you know that we asked Neil Hannon to sing ‘Last of the Melting Snow’, originally?
Christian: That’s an exclusive!
Nick: I didn’t think I could sing it. I didn’t want to be a singer. I’d sung in bands before, but only local gigs in Burton-on-Trent, and I didn’t enjoy doing it so we asked him to do it – and Guy Garvey as well!
The Leisure Society’s Into The Murky Water is out now on Full Time Hobby.
Nick Hemming. London Aquarium, May 2011. Photo credit: Sebastien Dehesdin