The Leisure Society
In big, bad, recession-lashed 2009, The Leisure Society’s rise to prominence offered heartening proof of the old adage ‘talent will out.’ First released on the group’s own Willkommen label back in March, debut album The Sleeper was a cottage industry labour of love. Better yet, it won its hearts and minds through word of mouth.
“Things just snowballed”, says Nick Hemming’s chief foil and fellow multi-instrumentalist, Christian Hardy, mindful of how graceful wintertime waltz “The Last Of The Melting Snow” got under the skins of various influential DJ’s. Zane Lowe was first to play it, and Mark Radcliffe and Stuart Maconie were similarly smitten. When “…Melting Snow” secured a Record Of The Week on the latter pair’s show, it did so with ninety percent of the public vote.
Soon came further airplay, the likes of Bob Harris, Lauren Laverne, Elbow’s Guy Garvey, and former Cockney Rebel front man Steve Harley all championing the band on their respective radio shows. None of this was lost on the judging panel of a certain prestigious songwriting award, and after TLS scored another Maconie & Radcliffe Record Of The Week with second single “A Matter Of Time”, news broke that “The Last Of The Melting Snow” had been nominated for an Ivor Novello.
It was when folks learned that Hemming, then working in a wallpaper factory, was the first unpublished songwriter to be Ivor-nominated that things got surreal. “ITN turned up to interview me at work”, says the Burton On Trent-raised singer. “It was pretty embarrassing.” Naturally, the band appreciated the interest, but they were also rather perplexed by the mainstream media’s chosen angle. “Musician With Day Job isn’t really a headline, is it?” notes Hardy with a laugh. “That’s how most indie albums get made.”
As with many bands, the birth of The Leisure Society is difficult to date precisely, but Hemming says he first credited the name to a song he composed for the soundtrack of Shane Meadows 2004 thriller, Dead Man’s Shoes. Nick had befriended Meadows and future actor Paddy Considine while they were still at art college, and for a time all three played music together in an outfit named She Talks To Angels.
“I was doing my A-levels at a school nearby”, explains Nick. “When we had a Pure Maths lesson I’d skip that and go and rehearse with Shane and Paddy. I was getting in to John Barry and Ennio Morricone, and I’d started buying lots of odd percussion instruments and sitars and stuff. I was listening to Brian Wilson as well; that whole thing of how he made different instruments blend together always appealed to me.”
Further in, the fledgling line-up of The Leisure Society that played a few gigs around Burton-On-Trent circa 2004-2005 was more an outlet for Hemming’s songs than a serious band as such, but by 2006, testing events in Nick’s personal life had prompted him to re-evaluate just about everything:
“The break-up of my last relationship is key to The Sleeper, too”, he says. “That was what prompted me to move down to London. My partner and I had a house together, and then I didn’t have it any more, so I felt like I had nothing to lose. ” Crucially, he had already written the aforementioned “…Melting Snow” over a bottle of vodka that New Year’s Eve. ‘In no doubt / as I leave this town / I will not return’ he sang, mapping the no-man’s land of heartbreak with quiet dignity. But as one door closed another was opening…
In London, Hemming moved in with Christian Hardy, an old friend from Burton-On-Trent. They had become re-acquainted at a birthday party for Nick’s ex, and naturally conversation turned to music. “The band I was in had just got a management deal”, recalls Hardy. “I was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to take over the world! Why don’t you join the band and you can stay at my place?’ In my head Nick was punching the air with me, but it was actually more, ‘Well if it’s that or suicide…’”
For a time, Hemming joined Hardy in his band Christian Silva, but that outfit was “plateauing”, to use Hardy’s own term. Nick had started playing Leisure Society songs on banjo and guitar late at night, and Christian was blown away. The two friends started demoing the material together. By the end of 2008, they had written and co-produced some 30 songs, 11 of which would appear on The Sleeper.
“Give Yourself A Fighting Chance” is perhaps key, in that it is essentially the sound of Nick Hemming giving himself a good talking to – with a little help from his friend. “Yeah, the title line is Christian’s”, says Nick. “In a way, that song sets-up the story of the record, so I wanted it to be the first track.”
The pair continued writing and experimenting together, their melting pot of influences including Brian Wilson, Love, Nick Drake and Bob Dylan, as well as more contemporary artists such as Department Of Eagles and Sufjan Stevens.
Hemming and Hardy’s differing, yet complimentary musical skills found a mirror in their differing, yet complimentary personalities. Nick is quieter, less ebullient and naturally cautious, while Christian describes himself as “a complete fantasist with relentless positivity”
Both men also read lots of novels – good stuff by Fitzgerald, Salinger, Hemmingway and the like. Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, written by a creative type trapped in a dull day-job, chimed with Nick’s thoughts during the making of The Sleeper, while Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake had some bearing on the Hardy-penned “Come To Your Senses.”
In time, musicians from Brighton’s Willkommen collective were drafted in as The Leisure Society developed a full band sound and went widescreen. Quintessentially English-sounding strings, brass and woodwind ornamented the arrangements, and Mike Siddell, William Calderbank, Helen Whitaker, Bas Hankins and Darren Bonehill have since become members of the band.
In July 2009, The Leisure Society signed a new record deal. There is, of course, a pleasant irony to Nick Hemming’s much longed-for career as a professional musician bedding-down on a label named Full Time Hobby, but you can rest assured that he and Christian Hardy’s decision was based on rather more than that.
For one thing, the label’s co-founder Nigel Adams had attended some of The Leisure Society’s early gigs, and in the days pre-Ivor Novello nomination when column-inches devoted to the band were scarce, Adams also made it his business to Twitter about the group. “We Were Wasted” - the desolately beautiful song in which Nick Hemming documents the dream-like aftermaths of agreeably over-stimulated nights-out in Burton On Trent – has long been a Nigel Adams favourite.
To mark their signing to Full Time Hobby, The Leisure Society are re-releasing The Sleeper on October 5. Happily, the new package will also include A Product Of The Ego Drain, an eight track EP comprised of B-sides, demos and the band’s rather magical take on Gary Numan’s “Cars.”
“The Sleeper is everything that’s led up to where we are now, and the EP is the full-stop on that”, says Christian Hardy. “I think people who are expecting the next record to be a folk-pop thing are going to be a bit confused,” he adds, smiling. “Everything is going to change, but we still feel as though we have a long way to go.”