Hushed, attentive tones crafted in the dead of night – James Leesley’s new solo endeavour cuts to tape an honest, moonlit reflection of solitude.
STUDIO ELECTROPHONIQUE is the new project of former High Hazels frontman James Leesley. The first signing to Violette Records which isn’t a Micheal Head project, the debut Electrophonique EP Buxton Palace Hotel sees Leesley and his ‘imaginary band’ create a microcosm which lies somewhere between kitchen sink drama and The Velvet Underground. Balancing love and its inevitable pitfalls with a raw yet delicate sound, the Steel City balladeer’s first output has already captured the imaginations of the likes of Richard Hawley and writer Pete Paphides.
On a cold Friday night, Matthew Hogarth caught him on the other end of the line shortly after a winter evening kick-a-bout.
Sonically, the songs sound a bit like The Velvet Underground if they’d recorded in the North of England. Who and what influenced you to start Studio Electrophonique?
I’ve been listening to music all my life, a lot of different varied things. The Velvets kind of got me into music properly, but growing up I listened to Oasis and Coldplay on the radio. They were on the radio, but obviously you kind of get into the darker and more obscured side in your own time. I’ve been playing music for a long time with a band but that kind of ran its course, quite naturally, and I just had a lot of ideas in my head that weren’t complicated enough that they’d need a band. In a way they were almost on a four-track up there, in my head. I felt like my head only had enough space for the melodies and a bigger accompaniment in mind. I’ve always wanted a four-track. I’ve never been a technical wizard by any stretch of the imagination and always stayed away from the likes of Logic and all that. I’ve always focused on writing the songs and left the recording to someone who knew what they were doing.
So what attracted you to recording on four-track?
It was only after I stepped away from being in the band that I thought I could do with an easy bit of equipment to record on. A lot of my favourite bands have used both four-tracks and eight-tracks over the years, and some of them recordings I love. I thought it must be a good enough place to start. So I just got myself a knackered old Fostex X-15, just to play around with and work it out. I’ve never worked with cassette before, and I thought if I can get ’em down on tape it’ll feel quite nice, push me down a route that I may not have gone down if I’d gone into the studio.
I recorded the tracks in the spare room in me house which made it naturally a lot more hushed and quiet, because I couldn’t be blaring the place down. So I got ’em down without having any intentions of anyone hearing them; I know that’s a cliché, but I genuinely just thought I’ve got to clear some space out. It were just a bit of fun that I’d go upstairs in mine after work and just get a few songs down. I’ve got a couple of little old Casio organs, 80s ones with only one or two good sounds on ’em. I just used those and an old Philicorda organ, which I picked up for about a hundred quid, which provided a table for everything. I wanted to limit myself to just that and record it to tape. Luckily, I got a few tunes down and it echoed the old 60s recordings and modern bands’ demos that I loved. It had a really nice warmth.
Lyrically, Buxton Palace Hotel seems to be a pretty personal EP. Would you agree with this?
I’ve never been someone to overthink how it’s going to be received. Through practising, over the years I’ve come upon a style whereby it’s more the thoughts that people are having that they would never say. It can be very exposing. It’s all about putting your thoughts out there. If you look at the approach of the likes of Morrissey, Stuart Murdoch of Belle And Sebastian and Lou Reed, the thing they’ve all got is a really sensitive side. I wanted it to feel like it was just one person listening to it. I wanted it to feel very real. The fact that I was in a collaborative band meant that, occasionally, I would maybe doctor a few lyrics to make it more acceptable. There’s no reason for a filter, which makes everything a lot easier.
When you’re on your own, there’s no one to stop it. The speed I could work at was so much quicker. It’s the first time I’ve used characters in my work; a lot of the stuff is personal but I’ve managed to put it into characters and the lyrics could be about anyone.
The atmosphere of some of the tracks often feels quite isolated, lyrically blending romance with darker tones. Would you agree?
Subconsciously, I was always trying to keep the balance between the two. I was basically trying to take you to a place for a moment, however long that may be. If I’m in the mood for a band I can create a little world which I can just access. I wanted to take people away for a little while.
The intention was to make it underthought. I wanted to get it straight from my brain to the machine. I wanted to do it in the now. It is quite warm sounding, but when it gets quite bleak, I try to bring it back. I wanted it to be so intimate it could fall apart at any point. All my friends who were into stuff were really into it. I didn’t have any idea if it was any good.
You’re the first artist to release on Violette Records who’s not Mick Head. How does that feel?
I was a bit apprehensive because they hadn’t released anyone else. But I sent it to them because I really liked what they stood for and their design, and obviously I’m a big fan of Mick Head. I thought, ‘May as well, and they might like it’. I don’t think they planned to put it out to be honest, but they just went, ‘This is alright and we haven’t really got anything else coming out at the moment,’ and it was doable. I think I was quite quick and easy to work with so it wasn’t a matter of waiting around. It moved really quickly and I think that helped. Matty [Lockett, Violette Records] said he just wanted to put out good records that they like.
With High Hazels you’ve already got a decent fan base, but sell-out shows are no mean feat in Liverpool and you obviously did really well across the country and Paris. How does this feel?
We couldn’t buy a gig at times, it was really difficult. But with this I kind of didn’t even plan to play live. The first gigs I did were with Richard Hawley. My first gig was in Holmfirth supporting him, and two gigs in London. Both were over a thousand capacity each. Luckily, I had a bit of live experience, but I had to play quick and learn fast. If it went wrong I’d look the biggest fool in the world. I think a lot of [the success] has been [down to] the venues that have been dressed up nice. I wanted to do stuff that was a little bit different. Luckily the Violette guys sorted the Scandinavian Church in Liverpool and I managed to sort out the Lantern Theatre in Sheffield. It took a good couple of months to even get in touch with them. In the end, I went to this strange gig on a Thursday night just to see a human who worked there. I got chatting about Sheffield Utd and he passed me a number and I eventually got in. Roy, who runs the live side of things for Violette, played the show with me and did spoken word and people loved it. It was more of an experience and people loved it as a night. I think it was a bit of pot luck to be fair.
Paris was daft. They were so nice. There was a massive spread and a bath of beer. I felt like this is how it should be so people can sustain. It were reyt good.
Buxton Palace Hotel is available now on Violette Records. Studio Electrophonique plays La Violette Società’s Christmas Special on Friday 20th December, with Toria Garbutt, Daisy Gill and Roy.