You've probably heard them while waiting on your flat white - but Leisure make more than just cafe music and their popularity overseas is growing, writes Reilly Hodson.
Djeisan Suskov, Jaden Parkes, Josh Fountain, Tom Young, and Jordan Arts are a group of mates in their 30s who work in music. Arts and Young both release their own music (Arts as HIGH HØØPS and Young under his own name and as part of a duo called The Melancholies), while others work behind the scenes, as producers, songwriters or on labels. They’ve been around a while. Arts’ duo Kids of 88 was behind the huge hit “My House” in 2009, and Parkes was a member of the band Goodnight Nurse, whose debut album went gold in 2006. In 2015 a spontaneous trip to the West Coast ended in their decision to start a band together. That band is called Leisure, a name that sums up their vibe extremely well.
If you’ve been to a cafe in the last four years or so, you’ve probably heard a Leisure song without knowing it. The band’s music features on a number of “chill” and “mellow” playlists (even, apparently, one called “Stoner Cafe”), and Parkes says there’s a place around the corner from his day job (scouting and nurturing talent for a major label), which has at least three Leisure tracks on rotation every time he goes. The band receives a lot of messages from around the world that are just videos of various cafes playing their music, he says.
But it would be a mistake to write Leisure’s music as background tunes. It’s rich, groove-heavy music without pretense, deceptively simple on first listen. The guys sing in a dreamy falsetto over the top of lush synths and funk-infused basslines. It’s the kind of music that improves on a closer listen, on your best headphones or speakers. It’s also wildly popular: at least 9 of Leisure’s songs have clocked over a million Spotify streams - a couple have cracked 10 million, despite getting little to no radio play at home. They have more listeners in LA, London, Paris and New York, than anywhere in New Zealand. “I don’t really know how it happened, but it’s cool, I’ve got no complaints,” says Parkes.
Because the band spend their days in studios and music label offices, Parkes says it’s important that this project doesn’t feel like work. To try and escape, Leisure write their music out of town. The music video for their latest single, ‘Man,’ is a “visual scrapbook” of the process of making their new record, Twister. The band is shown head-bobbing and strumming in beautiful holiday homes high up on hills above the sea, recording in makeshift studios, drinking and hanging out. It seems too good to be true, but that’s how they make all their music. They just book an Airbnb (with a disclaimer about the amount of noise they’ll make), load up a car each with gear (apparently a “not too crazy” amount of stuff), rearrange the furniture and get to it.
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No one prepares anything before they arrive, and all of the members have different tastes, play multiple instruments, and contribute vocals. “When we did our first trip, I was kind of like, ‘How is this going to work?’” Parkes says. “It just happened naturally, I think everyone is comfortable with themselves and their creative input - we all feel valued, so there’s no competition or ego.” They work separately, and float between rooms. “Everyone is on the same wavelength, it creates a really positive working environment. There’s space to be yourself, or to just step back and not get in the way.” It’s a process that leads to tunes that feel like jam sessions, while still being rooted in pop structures.
After their first album came out in 2016, they kept going on their weekend trips. “The process stayed the same, but we did have a moment of deciding to do something different,” Parkes says of how the group conceived of Twister. If the first record was about finding a sound for the group, the second one is about building from that foundation. Twister still has the trademark grooves and lush sounds that made the 2016 album a hit, but with a more upbeat edge. “Feeling Free”, the opening track on Twister, isn’t a burn-the-house-down mosh pit song, but it certainly lends itself to a more intense groove than the first record. In the other direction, “Falling” is much deeper and slower than their previous work, a vibe Parkes attributes to the place it was recorded, in Raglan. “On My Mind” feels at times more like a mid-2000s indie tune than a synth-pop song, there’s even a guitar solo.
This all translates to a very fun live show. Because all of the members contribute vocals and play multiple instruments, the songs as released aren’t necessarily recorded together. This means that they all essentially have to re-learn each song for the performances. “The first part of the process is just figuring out who recorded which bit and teaching it to one another,” says Parkes. So while Tom Young plays the bass for the live show, but any number of other people could have written or recorded the bass section of a song in the studio.
“You’re experiencing the song in a different way when you play it live, it takes on a different energy,” Parkes says. In the audience on Friday night, at the band’s Powerstation show, that energy was everywhere. The night felt like being let in on a jam session, but it was a jam session where every song was slick, extremely polished and well-rehearsed, and even the guys playing the tambourine and maracas looked cool.
The show was excellent, but, for Parkes, that’s almost besides the point. “The shows are great, of course, but it’s getting away from my day-to-day and sharing something with my friends, that’s the key.”