Feeling Free: A fight for freedom with LEISURE
On their new album TWISTER, the New Zealand collective find freedom - and funk grooves.
Even if you can't name a song by LEISURE, you probably have one of them stuck in your head. While their debut album, 2016's self-titled LEISURE, saw the New Zealand collective experiment with soft R&B grooves and GoldLink verses, the past twelve months have seen the five-strong group blossom into one of electronic's most ear-worming songwriters, injecting their subtle sways with catchy choruses and thick basslines without losing that distinct LEISURE touch. Take Feeling Free for example, a melting pot of synth chords and bass slides that swirl underneath a repeating chorus ("I feel like cuttin' loose, feelin' free," it loops), or The Hype, a charging funk-pop delight that marries these signature LEISURE production elements with a chorus that simply loops two words - "the hype" - 21 times.
It may seem simple, but it's incredibly effective songwriting from some of New Zealand's best musicians often found behind-the-scenes, brought together by the drive to do something on their own front without the restrictions that may be holding them back in other projects. Within the LEISURE collective, there are songwriters and producers who have lent their touch to almost every break-out New Zealand pop act. There's Jordan Art, one-half of synth-wave duo Kids of 88 and now, leading the pack with his own HIGH HØØPS project; Josh Fountain, who has worked closely with cult-adored New Zealand popstars in BENEE, Thomston and Malaa; Tom Young, a part of both The Libres and The Palms; Djeisan Suskov, another co-writer for BENEE who also works with Matthew Young and Mitch James; and Jaden Parkes, a record label A&R-turned-producer whose pulse-ready finger has become invaluable to much of New Zealand pop. Separated, there's enough brain-power and experience to give any emerging musician a break-out hit, but together, as LEISURE, they're a whole other force.
Originally formed as a jam band of kinds ("We were just trying to make music, and there were no expectations on how it played out," recalled Jaden to DUMMY Magazine), the collective of songwriters came together under the main principle of having a good time (hence the name LEISURE), undistracted by the restrictions and tightness that may come from working bigger projects. They were free to experiment and create - do whatever they want, basically - without the looming reality of having to present whatever they created to the artist they were working with, or to the label A&R for their next piece of work. It was a melting pot of ideas and influences; each musician expanding upon the last one's ideas to create an end product amongst music's most slick and polished - natural really, considering the powers at play.
TWISTER, the band's long-awaited second album some three years in the making, feels like a deepened exploration of what exactly music can sound like under this creative freedom. With a long-winding album duration giving the group the flexibility to move and experiment (TWISTER spans some 14 tracks, and all of them but one are over three minutes long), the record spans a multitude of sounds that offer moments of forward-thinking creativeness back-to-back with silky nods to their more sensual past work. In an early example that highlights two of the album's strongest moments, Too Much Of A Good Thing unites a hazy pop hook with a stop-start groove that, one track later on Man, gets stripped back into something more timid that feels like the bridging gap between LEISURE and TWISTER's more pop-centric choruses.
Elsewhere on the record, LEISURE's multitude of strengths as a band becomes only clearer, showcasing their knack for crafting addictive moments of electro-pop. Easy Way Out adds a swelling synth and chopped guitar breaks to their now-signature grooves, while on On My Mind, the band mix their hazy electro-pop with percussive claps and romantic lyricism that once again, relies heavily on looping choruses ("I got you on my mind," it sings). "It’s been something like 700 days since we released our debut album. Admittedly we had no idea what we were making, or how we were doing it, the only certainty was that the combination of the creative energies when we were all in a room was a feeling none of us had felt before," they say on their writing process in the past, before detailing how this has influenced what's next. "We make our favourite things when we become creatively unconscious. Our sophomore album was a good opportunity for us to explore new ideas, we took turns as the album took shape to fall in love with each song and the process of how each one was made. Landing with an eclectic collection of 14 songs; each swirling with their own mood and colour."
They're touring the country this September, but with TWISTER's eventual arrival today, we caught up with the group to talk about their attractiveness to freedom in the early days, and how it eventually shaped their long-awaited second album.
Everyone in LEISURE has worked in music for a while, mostly writing and producing under other names or alongside other artists, but something that you have talked about in press and interviews is that you came together to create a place free of control and over-planning. How were you being impacted by these things in your past projects, and at what point did creating a new alias free of these things feel like a good decision?
We may have got to a point where making music had become mechanical, or with too much focus on whether something would succeed or not. When your singular focus is to consolidate all creative energy into something succeeding or not, you’re having to be creative and intuitive under pressure. Our first ever writing trip together was like a gift from the universe and something we wouldn’t be able to articulate fully to somebody who wasn't there in that moment, but we had all been on singular paths and by some divine notion we ended up collaborating on a beautifully dynamic level. It was a week drenched in the sunshine making music without an identity or preconception.
Since then, you’ve signed management deals, signed to a label – Nettwerk – and garnered significant international attention. Is this freedom something that’s still present in LEISURE despite all this?
We’ve kept that whole mantra and rhythm of doing things our way for sure, but the bigger picture involves many working cogs alongside just us putting out music. We’re very appreciative to have an extended team of people wanting our music to be heard, felt, and experienced. The structure of things has changed, but the heart of what we’re doing and what matters the most to us is very much the same, making music freely and enjoying our unique process.
How do you maintain that freedom? Like, when you signed to Nettwerk for example, was it clear that you were to have full creative freedom over the project?
For our first album we did everything in-house so we were very used to making every singular decision, but it was also an extremely absorbing process - moving forward it was important to us that we evolved on various levels, and we were interested to see how a record label would work to magnify the music to a wider level.
As far as keeping things leisure, we make sure that we get back to basics every so often and head out of the city to make music in a remote location - it’s become a loosely spiritual gathering for us.
When you’re tackling something like a second album, how does having that freedom shape it?
I guess now that we’re older and wiser, we feel more in tune with the idea that ‘if you can’t be free with it, then why do it at all?’ We’re all individually driven, so the only pressure has only ever come from within to create and the magic tends to leave the room if we’re making music for anything other than ourselves first.
TWISTER feels like the evolution of the band is really present. What was the process of putting the record together?
We wrote a lot of material over a longer period of time and really pushed the boat out in areas out of our natural comfort zone across a range of different writing locations. Certain songs wouldn’t let us forget about them, others would fade off into the ether. The common rule is that if we all dig a song unanimously then it would become an album contender.
Every member of LEISURE comes from a different musical background, which I’m guessing plays a part in the album’s versatility and range. However, I’m sure that means the process of recording and writing can also be quite messy and complicated. How do you balance not taking on too many ideas at once?
It’s something we fell into line with really early on. There’s always been complete respect and comfort with any idea put forward. If one person is missing from the session, you can feel it in the song. We sound like LEISURE because of these individual energies fusing together, but we also like to use the space and atmosphere of where we’re creating in as the sixth member. Recording music in different locations offers us fresh energy and an opportunity to create.
I was reading a past interview where you call this album your second wind. What was different this time around in comparison to the road to your self-titled debut, and how did it shape the record?
From a completely earnest and pure point of view, we had no idea what we actually sounded until we held our first album in our hands on release day. It was just a melting pot of influences and natural gravitations of us collaborating. Going in blind, in a beautiful way.
Album two presented itself as an opportunity to explore and evolve at our own pace but also challenged us to move into heavier extremes because we didn’t want to make the same record or fall into predictable shades of our previous work. The record has moments where we completely relax on one end and completely fire up on the other. Also technically, we’re more confident in our abilities to sing and play instruments now too!
It has also been mentioned that the idea of this album was to expand on the debut and experiment, but still stay true to what LEISURE is and the sound it creates. Was there some sort of sonic blueprint built while planning the album that helped execute this idea? Or was it more something that grew with the album’s creation?
It definitely grew just by making more music across a longer period. The more we made, the more we were able to navigate where we were heading rather than setting out to make something in particular. Everything we make is always set in groove and mood, but every other variable was open for exploration. Twister is a ‘best of’ from the collection of music we’ve created in memorable spaces over the last year or so.
Is this idea present on the final project?
Our existence as a group relies entirely on the five of us sharing special moments and collecting sonic snippets as the adventure unfolds. TWISTER is the soundtrack to those moments.
LEISURE's new album, TWISTER, is out now independently. Catch them on tour this September, joined by Luboku and guests.
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