When the group first started, the identity of its members wasn’t even publicised. It was only when Leisure was announced as one of the acts at the 2016 Laneway Festival in Auckland that the band members finally divulged to local media just how the group had come about.
On 23 April 2015, Leisure quietly posted their first song ‘Got It Bad’ to Soundcloud. The first few bars were just a sparse beat and a simple bassline, before a ghostly vocal finally wafted in over the top, delivering the song’s incredibly hooky central refrain: “Girl, you think you got it bad.” Despite its minimalism, it was a wildly infectious tune that stuck in a listener’s brain from the first listen.
At that point in time, the influence of music blogs had begun to wane, but they still had enough of an audience to start a new song on its journey. At first, the coverage was mainly in the Southern Hemisphere (Purple Sneakers in Australia, Sniffers in New Zealand), but gradually ‘Got It Bad’ began making waves across the world. Pigeons and Planes named it one of their “best songs of the month”. The track was played on BBC Radio 1 in the UK, and when Radio Milwaukee asked the members of US rock band Death Cab for Cutie about songs they couldn’t stop playing, they namechecked ‘Got It Bad’.
A month later, the track finally reached Spotify and since wild rumours were spreading that they might be from Boston or London, the group clarified on social media that they were from Auckland, New Zealand. They released a funky follow-up single, ‘Hot Love’, just as ‘Got It Bad’ was sliding past 200,000 streams on Soundcloud. The group slowly teased their fans by posting photos of where they’d recorded the music and first-name-only hints of who might be involved.
The main instigator of the first Leisure recording session was Jaden Parkes. His music career went back to playing drums in pop-punk group Goodnight Nurse, who put two albums into the top five in 2006 and 2008. Since then, he had moved further into the music industry as a talent scout for Sony, developing fresh acts they were working with. Parkes had booked a holiday house in Muriwai and wanted to bring together an eclectic group of his songwriting acquaintances to see if the relaxed atmosphere might stir their creativity.
The first was Jordan Arts, a former member of Kids of 88, an act that had put four singles in the Top 40 (including ‘My House’ at No.3) and two albums in the Top 20. The group had primarily presented themselves as a duo fronted by Arts and Sam McCarthy, who played guitar in Goodnight Nurse. However, Parkes was also heavily involved, through co-writing tracks like ‘Cotton Mouth’ and playing drums live (another Goodnight Nurse member, Joel Little, also co-wrote many of their early tracks).
Another hit maker present at Muriwai was Josh Fountain. He studied music production at MAINZ, which led to a job at Woodcut Music, where his primary role was creating music for ads. Through this work, he met the other two members of Kidz In Space and the trio had a hit with the track ‘Downtime’, which hit No.20 in New Zealand and reached an international audience through the video game NBA 2K11. Fountain has produced music for acts including Randa, Smashproof, and Thomston – though he was only just beginning his career as a hitmaker.
Jaden Parkes booked a holiday house to see if the atmosphere might stir their creativity.
“When Kidz In Space would turn up to a small town to play a gig, people would think it was going to be Kids of 88 and be disappointed,” he recalls. “Or Kids of 88 would find their name being spelt with a Z, so it was always confusing. We finally just met them through the festival circuit and playing gigs together. That’s how I first met Jordan and Sam, then Jaden as well.”
The other two participants in the songwriting holiday didn’t have a similar chart history. Nonetheless, they brought a depth of experience as music makers.
Djeisan Suskov had fronted the indie group Trees Climbing Trees. His next group was Cool Rainbows, which led to an album via Lil’ Chief Records and a moderate YouTube hit, with ‘House By The Beach’ reaching 185,000 views. His work as a producer for other people began with the debut album by Artisan Guns. After they disbanded, Suskov continued working with lead singer Matthew Young as he started an indie pop career (leading to six million streams for ‘Hey’). Young was signed to Sony, which was how Suskov first met Jaden Parkes. Suskov also helped mix other high-profile releases such as the second Kids of 88 record, and the Ladi6 album Automatic (2013).
Tom Young also came from the world of indie guitar music, starting out in Mt Maunganui band Fletcher then as part of The Libres, before he initiated his own laptop project, Spirit Soup (which passed 100,000 streams for the track ‘Floating’). He knew Parkes from back in the Goodnight Nurse days and the two had remained friends.
Even though they had briefly socialised at gatherings at McCarthy’s flat in Mt Eden, the quintet didn’t know each other well, but Fountain says they quickly slipped into gear when they met at Muriwai.
“Jaden didn’t bring us together with the idea of writing for a specific project. It was more like, ‘I’ve got this house, would you be keen to do some music? It’ll just be interesting to write some songs together.’ So even though I didn’t know the other guys, it wasn’t awkward because we got on with it. I think that’s a testament to the chemistry that we all have. There are no big egos or anything. It was easy right from the start, even though we had no idea what the sound would be.”
Josh Fountain and Djeisan Suskov set up their own studios in different parts of the house and the other members moved between them to share songwriting ideas. Suskov had been planning to bring a guitar along, but instead they just made do with a “$20 bass that was made up out of parts”. In some cases it was even used to play guitar style riffs high on the neck (as in ‘Got it Bad’).
“The fact that we didn’t have an electric guitar shaped the whole sound of Leisure,” says Fountain, “because it was built on drums and bass, with vocals on top. Those first three days were super productive. By the end of it, we had 13 songs. We thought it’d be funny to put the song out and see what happens. We should play at least one show together, that would be fun.”
Each person present was encouraged to push themselves into new areas. Fountain made his first attempt at singing on a track when he combined with Arts on the lead vocals for ‘All Over You’. And while the tracks might start out with a pop vocal and hip hop inspired beat, there was always opportunity for left-field contributions to be added later – a reverbed set of guitar chords or an atmospheric, psychedelia-inspired keyboard line.
The group picked out ‘Got It Bad’ as the most striking song they’d written at Muriwai, and Suskov took it to his studio to finish it off. “Neil Finn had a storage room at Roundhead, where he kept his guitar cases. He said, ‘you can use this space for like $100 a week’. So, I had a studio there with Jonathan Pearce from The Beths. That was where we mastered ‘Got It Bad’.”
A few weeks later, the group met up at Suskov’s studio and toasted the fact that the single had reached 1000 streams, not realising that the song’s journey had only just begun.
Jordan Arts had taken the role of photographing their holiday recording sessions and had a strong idea for the visual to accompany the song: getting a friend to hold up a champagne glass, with a solid block of colour as the background. It was bold and strongly captured the lush feel of the track. They kept this imagery for the next two singles. ‘Hot Love’ showed another hand holding out a champagne glass, while ‘All Over You’ showed the two hands clinking glasses together. ‘All Over You’ was another track from the original Muriwai recording session and was particularly successful on Spotify, where it accumulated over 20 million streams. Leisure had proved they were more than a one-hit wonder and were steadily building a worldwide fanbase.
When Leisure announced their first live show, it was in Sydney rather than Aotearoa, since Triple J had given huge backing to the group. Subsequent dates saw them heading from Los Angeles to Vancouver, New York, and London in October 2015.
Josh Fountain found that their lack of rehearsal as a group was soon exposed: “LA is memorable for being our worst gig. It was being live streamed too, that was the one where all the labels and publishers had come along to see us. The first song we decided to play started with a Pharrell-style count-in – ‘boom boom boom boom’ – and then we were meant to come in with a five-part harmony, but we each hit the wrong note. We were already so nervous about it and the first thing that came out of our mouths was terrible, so we were shook for the rest of the gig. We just tried to rush through it as quick as we could.
A live-streamed showcase gig in Los Angeles did not begin well ...
“The trip was all meant to be leading up to a meeting with XL (UK label). It was like, ‘oh wow, can you believe we started in Muriwai and now we’re meeting with XL?’ But the guy had come to the showcase the night before and on the morning of the meeting he got in touch to say ‘actually guys, I don’t think Leisure is the right fit.’ So the showcase tour ended up with us being $100,000 in debt, with nothing to show for it.”
Leisure started 2016 with a slot at Laneway Festival in Auckland. Just prior, they met in the studio with US rapper Goldlink who was in town to play at the festival, which led to the single ‘Nobody’ being released a few months later.
In March, they played their first headlining show at home, selling out Auckland venue Galatos, which began a trend of the group playing at older venues with a long, storied history.
Two more singles were released, ‘Control Myself’ and ‘Moonbeam’, showing the group’s growing confidence and new approach to their aesthetic. Photographer Fraser Chatham worked with Jaden Parkes and Jordan Arts to extend the artwork ideas from their early singles, capturing striking images which were then cropped from their background and put against a bold single colour. This visual approach was used for the subsequent album too, with each member shot from high above and then the group spread over a red backing.
Leisure continued the approach of booking holiday homes for weekend recording sessions until they had enough to release their self-titled debut album, which came out on 21 October 2016. The 14 tracks showed the full range of the group and the album hit No.14 on the New Zealand charts, but its real impact would be long term, with over 100 million streams on Spotify alone. They backed the release with two shows, first a sold-out performance at the Crystal Palace in Auckland, and then at Meow in Wellington. ‘Know You Better’, an extra, non-album track, was released at the same time as the album.
By this stage, the original version of ‘Got It Bad’ on Soundcloud had surpassed three million streams and the Spotify version was fast catching up. The track received another boost in November when it was featured on US TV show Insecure. The group arranged for esteemed director Joel Kefali to make a music video for it, for which he won Best Music Video at the following year’s music awards. The track continued to find new fans through subsequent TV placements in the years that followed, including the US show You. Its Spotify streams eventually surpassed 35 million streams.
In January 2017, the members of Leisure organised another series of holiday songwriting and recording sessions to begin work on album number two. Their breakthrough success meant it wasn’t as easy to just view it as making music for themselves, but they did their best to recapture the relaxed, open-minded process that had driven their previous recording sessions. They were also patient, releasing new material only when they were truly happy with them. As a result, their next single ‘Alone Together’ took until August to reach the public.
Now that the group had played some gigs, they aimed to write a few tracks that would work well on the live stage. With a very groovy bassline and a punchy beat, their next single ‘Money’ was certainly fit for that purpose. It became the group’s third most popular track, surpassing 27 million Spotify streams.
Leisure’s growing success needed to be balanced against other jobs and musical projects the members had outside the group.
Each of these two singles had been accompanied by a cover image showing a different group member, but this series of singles stopped due to an internal reset the group was going through. Behind the scenes, they had begun negotiating a record deal with Vancouver-based music label Nettwerk, at their UK offices. However, this deal would reflect that their growing success needed to be balanced against the other jobs and musical projects they had outside the group.
Jordan Arts began releasing new music as High Høøps around the same time as Leisure started. His project generated many millions of streams, as well as some impressive collaborations – for example, a feature appearance on ‘Comfortable’ by Moods reached 10 million streams. Tom Young began releasing his own solo work in 2018; he also developed a decent following online.
Meanwhile, Djeisan Suskov and Josh Fountain were breaking new ground as producers. In 2017, they helped write and produce the debut single by Benee, ‘Tough Guy’. Fountain went on to be Benee’s main collaborator, with Suskov contributing ideas when needed, and they worked together with other artists. Suskov wrote the track ‘I Feel Nothing’ with Openside and it was brought to Fountain for a final polish.
Fountain’s production list grew to include Theia, Mitch James, MAALA, and Teeks. The following year, 2018, Joel Little asked Fountain to take over his position as main producer at Golden Age studios. MAALA and Teeks were two of the acts that Jaden Parkes worked with at Sony; he eventually became Director of A&R at Sony Entertainment NZ in 2020.
Suskov says these circumstances definitely played into their negotiations with Nettwerk and their approach to the second record. “When we were working on the second album, we did come to a point where we had to say, we need to keep doing things our way, so let’s just put all the industry stuff aside and have fun making music. That’s why we started making music together in the first place. It was good to have this new label that could help with distribution and all that stuff, but they did begin to make a few suggestions and at first, we were like, ‘okay, that’s cool’.
“But at the same time, we still had to make sure it was about the five of us loving what we’re doing. Everyone in the band has a story of how the business side of things turned their music into this other thing and it stopped being about the actual making of the music. It sounds simple, but it is just about having fun with it and not thinking about money at all, because that ends up ruining it.”
Fountain found that having Jaden in the band was particularly helpful at that time. “The nice thing about Jaden coming from the record label side is that he is used to dealing with people in the industry all the time,” he says. “When outside people give us suggestions, he is happy to just say no or bring it back to the group and say, ‘we should listen to this idea’. It makes it easier to push back on anything we don’t agree with.”
Leisure’s releases slowed over the following year while the band looked at how they could continue making music in an enjoyable way, and without it impacting on work they were doing outside of the group. Their live shows were few and far between, although the next two would be extremely memorable.
First came their set at the New Year’s Eve festival Wondergarden on Auckland’s waterfront, just a few hours before 2018 rolled around. Then in April 2018 they headlined a show at the Auckland Town Hall, backed by the 72-piece Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) with conductor Hamish McKeich.
“It was a very surreal experience,” says Fountain. “When it was first proposed to us, I thought, what could an orchestra possibly do with our songs? They’re not the most dynamic songs in the world, they just sit in a vibe. It was incredible to see what [composer/arrangers] Claire Cowan and Hamish Oliver were able to do with them and how they really brought them to life.”
A Concert with the 72-piece Auckland Philharmonia
recast Leisure’s music in an epic light.
The band initially rehearsed with MIDI versions of the orchestral parts so they could work out where to leave space for the orchestra. Then they had two practises with the APO before the performance. The show recast the Leisure tracks in an epic light, each chord able to be projected with a fanfare and the emotion of slower numbers brought to full intensity.
Two new singles appeared near the end of 2018, ’Feeling Free’ and ‘Falling’, along with two sold out shows at the Hollywood in Avondale and another at Meow, Wellington – all with Benee as support act. The new year saw more of the same with sold-out shows in Sydney and Melbourne in February, as well as the new single, ‘Easy Way Out’.
Their previous album showed that in terms of streaming it was a good strategy to release many singles before the album, so the one-off track drops continued: ‘The Hype’ was released in March with a video by Jordan Arts and a digital B-side, ‘Tied Up’. ‘On My Mind’ came out in April and ‘Too Much Of A Good Thing’ in May, before the album Twister arrived in July with a music video for ‘Man’ created by Jordan Arts, showing the album recording process.
The album title Twister was inspired by the twists and turns of getting it completed, despite delays and the extended record label negotiations. It nudged into the Top 40 in New Zealand, but the group’s main audience was largely overseas, with their biggest audiences on Spotify in Australia, the US, Britain, and France. The release tour included four New Zealand dates, including the Powerstation in Auckland and another five dates across Australia.
The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 meant Leisure’s activities were put on hold for the first half of the year. Finally in June, a new single, ‘Slipping Away’, appeared, almost a year after their previous single. The track was as self-assured as ever and was soon stacking up streams even faster than ‘Got It Bad’. It surpassed 30 million streams on Spotify within a couple of years.
Josh Fountain remembers the song idea arriving out of nowhere. “It was written when we stayed in Whenuapai. None of us are huge rugby fans, but we were watching the All Blacks on the night that they got kicked out of the World Cup. Then it was like, ‘ah well, we should probably do some music’. As a joke, Jaden started doing this Chuck Berry impression, squatting down then falling onto his knees while he played, and he just came out with the guitar riff for ‘Slipping Away’. It was just one of those songs that just came together quickly. That song is a special one for us. Especially after two albums, we’d begun thinking, are we just doing this for ourselves or are people actually still listening to our music? We knew from playing it live that it was one that got people’s attention, so it was awesome that the song did well, and it really keeps us motivated to keep going.”
“When you have a big song like ‘Got It Bad’,” says Suskov, “you’re always wondering, are we ever going to make something that does as well or is it just going to be that we only have this one song?’ One reason for our success is that we’ve got to know each other much better, so we know how to communicate well. That’s one of the most important things when you’re working with other people.”
The group continued their habit of staying in scenic spots to record, but they say their next single ‘Spark It Up’ was “the most Leisure-y thing we’ve ever done”. They’d been on tour in the Northern Hemisphere in 2019 and played sold-out shows in London and Berlin, as well two performances at Brighton festival The Great Escape. So while in Europe, they rented a French chateau. ‘Spark It Up’ and ‘Beautiful’ were written during this sojourn.
Josh Fountain says it was an idea they’d thrown around for a while. “We always joked about recording in the south of France. Instead, the chateau was an hour and a half outside of Paris, but it was still the most incredible spot. It was amazing that we got to spend a week there.”
Leisure found themselves recording in a chateau 90 minutes from Paris, “the most incredible spot.”
Once again, their approach was to release many singles before their next album, but this time they put up each digital single with the previous singles listed as B-sides. Once the first few were out, they collected them and added two new tracks, presenting it as an EP called Side A. In this way, fans got to have the feeling of an album being built up before their eyes.
They kept up their approach of playing unique venues where possible. The Elemental Nights series saw them take the stage of Hopetoun Alpha in Auckland.
Nor were they afraid of trying new approaches with promotion. The next two singles, ‘Take You Higher’ and ‘Mesmerised’, were released a couple of months apart, but promoted with an epic, combined music video, filmed in a widescreen format and lasting over 10 minutes in duration. ‘Take You Higher’ had the added boost of appearing in the blockbuster console game, Gran Turismo 7.
Another single, ‘Flipside’, was released before the Side B EP appeared in October 2021 Finally these two EPs were combined with two additional tracks to create the album Sunsetter, which came out in December 2021. Spotify marked the occasion by putting an image of Leisure at the top of their official indie dance playlist, Metropolis (with its 800,000 followers) and the album soon gathered 50 million streams.
Josh Fountain believes the key to Leisure’s ongoing success is that they’ve all been able to see it as a side project.
“Otherwise, we’d be trying to tailor the music to what we thought audiences might want. The worst stuff I’ve ever done is the stuff I’ve tried to make popular. Leisure is nice because it’s free from all of that. And as long as the five of us are all into it, it doesn’t matter how it’s received. It’s always going to remind us of when we went on a certain writing trip, or it’s a tune that we’re excited to play live. We don’t have to think ‘this song better work otherwise we’re all going to be behind on our rent.’”
These days, Djeisan Suskov isn’t the only dad in the band. Despite the new family pressures coming to bear he finds that the passion for the group remains as strong as ever.
“I get to say to the others, ‘Try still doing Leisure with a kid to look after, now you know how I feel! And that’s when you’ve only got one, wait until you have two’ ... I think it just comes back down to the fact that we do this because we enjoy making music. It sounds clichéd, but we’re not really doing this for the money or whatever. We’ve said before, even if we had 500 plays, we’d probably still be meeting up and making a few tunes now and then. It’s just fun. When you have that as a foundation, it’s a different thing. If it does well, then that’s great, but even if it doesn’t then it’s still amazing that we get to do music together.”