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The Best Buzz: Leif Erikson Pose Some Serious Questions

Wednesday, 18 March 2020 Written by Milly McMahon

London-based guitar outfit Leif Erikson have made a habit of creating elegant sounds. On their latest EP 'Question Time', the band explore the current socio-environmental climate, discussing the changes to our planet and the responsibility we have in seeking a halt to the destructive curve we are riding.

Sam Johnston’s smooth voice drifts calmly over howling guitar riffs and marching drum beats, delivering profound lyrics in a warm, nostalgic setting. Leif Erikson harmonise sounds of the '60s with a modern edge, cutting through some pastoral beats with War on Drugs-style leads. 

Produced by long-time collaborator Adam Jaffrey (Trailer Trash Tracys, Spector) and recorded in a now demolished Hackney Road studio, the band's conceptualisation feels visionary. Each chorus soars, charged with deeply layered emotion. ‘Question Time’ pushes the band’s music forward, channelling ambition and unbounded potential. We spoke with Johnston to find out more.

Do you remember the spark of inspiration behind ‘Question Time’?

I remember sitting in our old living room a couple of years back with Tom [Leader] playing over these chords, which would become the main riff of Question Time. Tom started jamming out the descending lead line and it instantly clicked. It sat in the back catalogue for a while. Sometimes a tune can hibernate for a while before resurfacing. I remember watching a great space documentary called Mysteries of the Universe with the mercurial Brian Cox. He used the phrase 'orchestration of carbon', and I just was like 'Bam! That's beautiful!' The rest of the song came quite quickly. I wanted it to have some slightly gory, unsettling imagery and harked back to a childhood book called Fungus and the Bogeyman whose characters lived in a sewer.

You discuss climate change on Question Time. What are your thoughts and theories on how we can nurture a more progressive, caring attitude towards our planet?

Ha, big question! Something I'm really into is the fashion ration. I buy for quality and longevity. I very rarely shop for clothes and if things get holes in them, I fix them. I wear my clothes until they fall off. Looking back at wartime Britain, life was simpler. We had fewer, but more cherished possessions then. I think resisting the pressure of consumer culture is a massive step towards helping the environment. Back then our fruit and veg were loose. We took what we needed. Instead of buying 10 tangerines, we could pick up three and actually eat them all. I think our culture is slowly changing around these sorts of things. But unfortunately, a lot more needs to be done on legislative levels and corporate scales. Hopefully, more protest and discussion can help move this along.

What are your main drivers for making music?

I would say the central drive is to satisfy my creative desires. I love making music; it's like the most beautiful, mysterious puzzle. I also see it as a sort of therapy for me, and it can be like a journal, a way to share and release very personal feelings and experiences in this depersonalised format. I hope as well that people get what I get from listening to music from my music. It's such a massive part of my life. People need and love music, and to contribute to that even in a small way is very fulfilling. I also vibe off entertaining people, it’s the best buzz.

How will the live show complement the new material?

When we come to rehearse, we mainly start by feeling it out. New recordings inevitably influence the playing, but we try and keep it open to let the song have its own life as a live piece. We tend to layer things up in the studio, so creating the same textures is a challenge. The songs have to be stripped back a little which can be fun. We haven't played live for a bit, so really we'll have to see what happens. You can never predict how something's going to feel in a live setting.

You said in a previous interview, you "like to make music that is like a beautiful view." Is there a landscape that has inspired you?

The landscape of Exmoor has always been the most beautiful to me. The variation, the roll of it and the richness of the natural colours are awe-inspiring. It's so wide and healthy. At the same time, the antithesis of the London landscape creeps into the music. We spend most of our time there, living, travelling, working. It's oppressive, but has its urban beauty. I live by the Thames, which creates a wonderful sense of space and history. I spend a lot of time gazing across the water.

How does this new material reflect where you're at in your lives?

Two-thirds of this EP are love songs that were written a while back. I guess the fact that they are seeing the light of day now might imply something about where life is at right now. I think more to the point is the subject matter and tone of Question Time, which really captures my feeling of wariness and uncertainty about the future. I try to be a positive person, but certain aspects of humanity make me feel uneasy at the moment, I worry that the scale of the human world has moved beyond our control and that we have gone too far down a road of destruction to turn back. We will have to wait and see, but there is no room for denial or apathy.

What are your ultimate ambitions for your next album?

I'm really keen to work on my skills and experiment a bit more with achieving the sound in my head. For the last couple of years, we've been writing much faster than we can affordably record and release, so we have a fairly sizable backlog of material. At this stage, we want to dive into the back catalogue and be more consistent putting music out. I've already started working on a couple of new tunes, and I'm super excited about this new workflow.

How do you gauge success, and what elements of success are important to you as a band?

As much as I'd rather not look at numbers on a screen, monthly Spotify listeners is an excellent way to track how many people are getting into your stuff. Seeing that increase is tremendously satisfying, and reaching more people is important to me. Also continuing to play shows and reach new areas of the world as high on the list. We're with a brilliant German label, Ferryhouse, at the moment, so we're trying to reach out to the good people of Germany and Europe right now. An American tour has always been a dream of mine. Beyond that, improving our writing, recording and promotion is key. We aim to be as self-sufficient as possible on those fronts. I think that will bring ultimate fulfilment in our craft as musicians.

'Question Time' is out now on Ferryhouse.

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