It’s hardly an exact science, but when you’ve been making music with the same core group of ex-high school friends for more than a decade it goes without saying that simply having fun is key to that sort of longevity. Sitting down to chat with Matt Bidois and James Kippenberger of The Leers, it quickly became evident to Michael Hollywood that laughter and self-deprecation is at the heart of everything that makes this band tick.
Waving a defiant pointy middle finger in the face of all contrary odds, 2020 has been an exciting year for the band, with two massive post-lockdown shows supporting L.A.B. at the Spark and Claudelands arenas, the upcoming release of a brand new EP, and the recruitment of a new band member in the form of Kiki Rockwell, who adds keys, percussion, and backing vocals to the original quartet of Bidois (vocals, guitar), Kippenberger (guitar), Jacob Buchan (bass, vocals), and Jack Furniss (drums).
The new EP, titled ‘The Only Way Out Is In’, is the result of the band being invited to Los Angeles by the head of the In Flight Music Group label, Matt Salazar, to record eight tracks at the label’s Mad Muse studios in (pre-Covid) November and December of 2019.
“They’d obviously heard something in some of the songs we’d released previously, and something in the demos we sent over, so they came to the table and wanted to help us get something out after such a long break.”
As Bidois has noted, it’s been a few years since the well-received, stadium-ready debut album ‘Are You Curious?’ arrived back in 2016. The new material reveals a slightly smoother sound. It still rocks, but it does so with more pop flourishes and a less psychedelic edge. The grit remains, but there’s an additional level of polish. He offers some insight into a more streamlined approach.
“The way we wrote the first album was to write all the songs then jam it out. To try to form the song as we played it over and over again. As we were playing it, we’d add little psychedelic stabs and patterns, feel changes, and breakdowns. They were all quite ‘busy’, whereas with these songs we wrote them quite fast and just played to the strength of the songs and kept them as simple as we ever have.
“We wrote the basis for all the songs before we went over to LA, but a lot of them were half-formed or not quite finished, and we finished them off over there. We had to utilise the studio as much as we could and we were in there 14 hours a day basically, with only two days off over something like 15 days straight! It was quite a push.”
“We’ve been doing a lot of back and forth with the studio guys in LA. And although Covid hit LA quite bad, we have had a decent chunk of time devoted to these songs,” adds Kippenberger.
“We ended up messing around with a lot of synth textures and overdubs when we were in lockdown,” Bidois agrees. “We also enlisted the help of a few friends. I used to flat with Evan Sinton (Malaa), so he had a hand in one of the songs, adding subtle synth textures and a few things like that. And another friend Cody Wilcox (of Daily J) lent a hand with another of the songs. We’d also add our own little feels, send it back to the States and they’d finesse it and find a place for it in the mix. It did evolve quite quickly even after we’d left. The engineer/owner of the studio who brought us over to record it – Salazar – produced most of it so he had a big hand in the shaping of it.”
Kippenberger reveals the thinking behind calling the release an EP rather an album, despite it being an ‘album-length’ eight tracks.
“We were kind of constrained because we were always going to record this next body of work with the guys in LA, who we’ve been working with for quite a while, but because of all sorts of ‘life things’ we could only go over there for two and a half weeks. Realistically we couldn’t record 10 or 12 songs or whatever we wanted to do, so that’s how it ended up.”
Bidois talks about what’s next for the band, and reflects upon the buzz of playing those big L.A.B. events in July.
“The Spark Arena set was the first real mass gathering after the first lockdown. And the craziest thing, even though the gig itself was pretty nuts, was to know that we were the first ones to be able to do that, considering the state of the world at the moment.
“We played just one of the new tracks, one that translates really well live, called Let’s Pretend and it’ll be the opener on the release, and its energy just seems to work really well.
“We’ve managed to put together the makings of what will (effectively) be a tour across January to March in that we’ve got quite a few festivals lined up; we’re doing Rhythm & Vines, that’s our first one. We’re doing Kaleidoscope, which is a small ground-roots New Year’s Eve festival in Tauranga. It’s cool, I went to it last year in the Mount and it was awesome, so I’m excited to do that one. And then we’re going to do Soundsplash, and Electric Avenue after that. The last show will probably be at Mt Smart with L.A.B. at the end of March.
“In between all of those we’re going to dot three or four of our own little shows, playing with bands we like playing with, at places like Leigh and Waihi Beach.”
Inevitably, it wouldn’t be 2020 if we didn’t discuss what Covid-19 and lockdown(s) meant for the band, with Bidois and Kippenberger based in Auckland, Buchan and Furness located in the Mount, and Rockwell living at Piha. Kippenberger argues there were some positives in being forced to adjust to that reality.
“I feel like it was quite a productive time for us as a group, because when you’re at home the whole time, there’s a psychological switch, and you have quite a lot of time for the things that you want to do. Because we so naturally write well together and tend to wait until we’re in the same room together to write, this forced us out of that. We started mucking around by ourselves and throwing ideas at each other (from distance) and it felt like this is something we could do.
“It feels like we haven’t written a lot in the past few years because we have to wait until we get together to write things. It feels like we turned over a new leaf, we’re now a bit quicker, and more productive individually, so when we get together we can pump things out a little easier.”
“During lockdown, someone would have an idea, maybe programmed drums or a bassline, or some guitar stuff, so I’d get whatever jam someone had made, I’d download the stems, and then add some vocals or change some stuff. Everyone was constantly grabbing everyone else’s ideas and changing them or adding their own little flavour,” confirms Bidois
“I was terrified that we were going to take these songs that I really like as they are, and play them together, and they would lose the magic or what it was that I liked about them in the first place. One of the first practices we had after lockdown we did play around with some of those ideas and they still sounded just as good, so it was such a relief. It’s exciting that we’ve now got a catalogue of about 11 or 12 demos that we completed either before lockdown, during lockdown, or just after lockdown and they’re sounding quite cool. But it’s just a matter of going back to them when we get the time after the summer dust settles.”
There’s a sense that The Leers are reinvigorated after the post-debut hiatus, and a large part of that is the faith shown by Salazar and his IFMG label, as Bidois explains.
“I don’t know how it works because we all have so much going on. We all have full lives but we always somehow manage to make a bit of time for it, and I guess over the last year and a half since we first started working with the studio in LA we’ve ramped up again and put more energy into it.
“I think we did kind of drop off the radar a bit. I think for a while after the (first) album we didn’t really put too much pressure on ourselves to write, record, and release music. We’re a bit spread out, we hadn’t changed our line-up for about 12 years until Kiki joined. We were always in this project for fun. That was always our main thing. We were always close friends so it was just a nice excuse to hang out and jam and write.”
There’s that word again – fun. Blessed with talent, bonded by time and friendship, and grounded by a sense of what is most important, it seems certain The Leers will be around for quite some time to come.