Luke Leighfield

By paul

Hey Luke, where in the world are you right now and what are you doing?

Hi Paul. Right now I’m sitting in my friend’s house in Southampton. She’s cooking a prawn curry, I’m answering your questions.

The DIY lifestyle is clearly important to you and I’ll ask more specific questions about this later in the interview. You’ve shunned label help in the UK to set up your own. Is it easier or harder to do it yourself in 2009 than it was a few years ago? 

I wouldn’t say that I’ve shunned label help, it’s more that I’ve never really had any offers that have seemed beneficial enough to abandon doing it all myself. I sell most of my records on tour through my own hard graft, and if I were on a label I’d be giving half of those profits back to someone who may not have helped me earn the money in the first place. I can’t afford to lose that money as I’m barely scraping by as it is! As for the climate now compared to a few years ago, I think it’s sort of harder and easier in some ways. It’s harder because the playing field has levelled a bit – lots of artists are taking the DIY approach, and everyone can get their music heard online, so you’re competing with a lot of people. However, in the same way it’s easier, but only if you put the effort in to stay on top. You need to be following all the right webzines and blogs on Twitter, keeping abreast of what’s going on. You have to be on Facebook, MySpace, Virb, Twitter, YouTube, Bandcamp… the list goes on. And those sites all have to be kept updated! So yeah, there are lots of websites and tools to help you get your music heard, but it takes a lot of effort to stay on top of it all, and therefore be able to compete with the other bands that are vying for everyone’s attention.

Do you feel the internet has made it easier for bands to be heard, therefore reducing any kind of quality threshold? I’m a believer there are too many bands and too many labels, therefore diluting the ‘scene’. Is this a view you share?

No, I think it’s brilliant that everyone has the opportunity to get their music heard! I guess it is a bit annoying when you have twenty awful bands trying to add you on MySpace every day, but I think it’s better that way than to have loads of talented people that never get to share their music with the world. Without the internet, I’d never have been able to get my music out there and book all the house shows that helped get me started on the touring circuit.

Why did you choose to work with Peter Miles on ‘Have You Got Heart’?  What is different on this album compared to the last one?

Basically, I thought it was time to make an album that actually sounded good! I’d heard about Pete through my friends in Failsafe, and also through his work with Howards Alias and some other bands, but I’d never really thought about working with him myself. I wrongly assumed that all he liked recording was punk and hardcore! Anyway, my manager spoke to Pete’s manager about the potential of him working with me and he seemed pretty into the idea, so I had a chat with him on the phone, not really expecting us to click. But lo and behold, we united over a love of Weezer, Ben Folds and loads of other bands and next thing I knew I was booked in at the studio.

This album isn’t strictly different to my other two albums, it just sounds like I always imagined my other albums should have sounded had I invested more time and money into recording them. Pete really understood that I wanted to make an album that sounded poppy and accessible, but that musically was a bit more complex because of my instrumentation and arrangements. I didn’t really do anything vastly different in the songwriting process, I just wrote some better choruses, got better musicians in to play on the record, and Pete made everything sound sick. I also spent a bit more time on the string and brass arrangements so that they sounded more grandiose than on the old albums, and made the guitar solos even more disgustingly overblown!

On your press release you describe it as being influenced by the likes of Mariah Carey, Queen and Paramore? That’s quite a variation…

It is, but it reflects the music that I listen to. The Mariah Carey influence comes out in the backing vocals, and some of the cheesier elements of my music. You can hear Queen in all the guitar solos, the big drum sound, and some of the piano bits. As for Paramore, I can hear that in the rockier guitar moments, and especially in some of the drumming on the heavier tracks. I don’t consciously employ ideas from different bands into ‘my sound’, but I like to think that you can hear elements of the different artists that I enjoy within the music that I’m making.

I don’t think it’s rude of me to say that as an artist you have grown and improved immeasurably over the last two or three years. I was a bit of a critic in the earlier days and felt your voice was slightly weaker than it needed to be – but, and fair play to you, you came back stronger and your last album was really, really good. Looking back did you feel the criticism was fair? Did it spur you on? What did you do, if anything, to make the slight alterations to your sound which, ultimately, resulted in better songs, Radio 1 airplay and a spot in the top 5 of the UK indie charts?

I’ve never really made any drastic changes in my sound throughout my ‘career’. My second album was a bit cheerier than my first, and it think owed quite a lot to The Rocket Summer in terms of some of the more rocky/funky songs rather than the dreary ones that made up my first album! As for my voice, there’s still a long way to go. My voice got stronger from the first record to the second simply because I toured relentlessly between those two albums, basically playing a gig, and therefore singing, every day. Before the first record I’d never really done any singing whatsoever. I’d never thought that I had a good voice, and I just sang because I didn’t want anyone else singing songs that I had written. That’s probably why my voice is weak on that record, just because I’d never used it before! After recording my second album I went back to university, and switched my instrument in my performance unit from piano to voice so that I could get some free singing lessons. I think you’ll hear that in the new record because my voice sounds completely different and a lot stronger.

Looking back, all the criticism was definitely fair. Sometimes I can’t listen to my old recordings because I just find my voice in addition to the playing and production just too awful! At other times I don’t mind it though. I think people are naturally critical of their own voices, so I try not to get too down about it. However, as I said earlier, I wouldn’t want anyone else singing my songs as I think that would go against the integrity and intimacy of my lyrics. I’m going to keep practising and gigging, and I’m sure my voice will get stronger as time goes on.

Speaking of which, how did it feel when you’d heard you had made the top 5?

It was great! With sales as they are it didn’t take a huge amount of units to get me in there to be honest, but it was the same situation for everyone in the chart so it was still a big achievement, and one that I’m proud of. To see my name up there above Feeder was amazing!

While we’re talking of the BBC, how did you manage to get a track on the soundtrack of the BBC3 comedy Coming of Age?

Basically, I think ‘Coming of Age’ saw itself as BBC’s answer to ‘Skins’, albeit funnier, and therefore they wanted a bit of an edgy, underground, indie soundtrack. They approached Huw Stephens at BBC Introducing to get some recommendations of new bands, and his producer at the time recommended me along with Cheeky Cheeky and the Nosebleeds, Let’s Wrestle, and some other ‘cool’ indie bands. We were all in a competition to get the theme tune, which sadly I lost out on, but they still put me on the soundtrack which was very nice of them.

Why did you set up Got Got Need? Have you found it difficult running a label and balancing it with everything else you do? What have you learned so far from the experience and would you recommend it to other people? Should more bands go DIY rather than rely on label help?

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of it comes down to money. As far as I’m aware, a lot of indie labels operate on a 50/50 split after costs between label and artist, and I simply can’t afford to throw away half the money from every CD I sell. A record label often sounds like a grand term, but it basically means that I organise all the artwork myself, get quotes from the CD manufacturers, then send all the artwork and everything away myself and pay the bill at the end of it. Then, when the CD is made, I try to get a few reviews, interviews, and a bit of radio play. I don’t want this to seem at all offensive or arrogant, but I feel that there’s not a huge amount more that any of the small independent UK labels could do for me. Obviously each label has a dedicated group of people who are likely to buy, or at least seriously consider buying every release, but having weighed up the positives and negatives of doing it myself as opposed to attempting to get an indie label on board, I feel like doing it myself is the best route for me personally. I think that’s only because I’ve been blessed with quite a good work ethic, and I’m also a control freak, so getting someone else onboard would just frustrate me! If you’re in a band just for the love of making music and you despise all the business side of things, then obviously it would make sense to get the backing of a label to handle all of that for you. However, I love all the aspects of releasing a record, even though it’s often painfully stressful, and it’s nice to know that when I get the finished product in my hands it’s because of my hard work.

Off your own back you have managed to tour across China and various other countries the average band wouldn’t expect to go to. Why did you choose to play in those countries? In booking the tour yourself did you come across any challenges to make sure it all went off without a hitch?

Sadly I don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing where to play! If an offer comes through to tour somewhere then I always take it, simple as that. I believe that the route to having a dedicated, solid fanbase is through playing live and hanging out with your ‘fans’. As for China, I didn’t literally book it myself and contact the venues – it would have been a bit difficult bearing in mind my awful Chinese language skills – but I did approach the booker in this case, and thankfully he liked my music. It was pretty funny because I found him through the UK pop punk band Three Storeys High who he booked out there. Normally he books loads of punk, hardcore and metal, for example the last band he had out there was Parkway Drive, but he also enjoys his pop, which worked out well for me.

The biggest obstacle I’ve had in booking tours was probably summer 2008 when I toured around Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and then drove to Russia to play some shows. I had to book loads of ferries and stuff to get through Denmark, Sweden and Finland on the way to Russia, and it was a logistical nightmare! Added to the fact that we got stopped at the border, couldn’t drive into Russia, and got on a random bus headed for the outskirts of Moscow, carrying all our gear in our hands. It was the scariest and most awful day of my life because I’d invested so much time in making these shows happen, and had driven for three days to get to Russia, and I thought we were going to have to turn back to England. I lost a lot of money on that cock-up but it was worth it because the shows in Russia were incredible.

Which countries were your favourite to play in? How did the crowds compare to UK crowds? Were there noticeable differences in terms of the way bands are treated?

I find it really hard to draw accurate comparisons between the way crowds in different countries behave because obviously you’ll be treated differently in foreign countries because you’re British, and that’s a novelty for the crowds abroad. In the same way when we see an American band over here, I’m sure we treat them a bit better because we’re excited to have someone play that’s travelled so far to be there. German crowds are especially polite and lovely, really courteous and well-mannered. I love Germany! Going back to what I said a second ago, I think they were really excited to have me play in Russia because not many British bands go out there. It’s a nightmare with all the visas and expense of it all, but I think the crowd’s reaction makes up for it all when you play. I played to about 300 people in Moscow, and loads of people bought merch and said how much they enjoyed it. I think they also appreciate having bands there because they get to do simple things like buying merch. The country is so crooked that when I sent some t-shirt orders to Russia, the packages all got opened and pretty much everything was stolen from them before they reached their destination. That happened three times in a row when I sent merch out there! I think we’d appreciate having bands come and play and being able to buy simple things like merch, especially if we couldn’t ever order the CDs of our favourite bands on the internet and receive them intact!

China was also pretty crazy because I didn’t see another white person out there until the last day of tour in Beijing, so obviously that was a massive novelty for the crowds out there. I was also the first “indie” UK artist to tour China ever, besides James Blunt doing a one-off show in Beijing, so I guess I was also a novelty from a musical perspective.

You’ve played living rooms, BBQs, kitchens, hallways…do you feel your ‘success’ is down to thinking outside the box when it comes to touring and releasing music?

I think that without playing all those special shows then I wouldn’t be where I am now. I handle all my merch orders, and I recognise most of the names of people that buy stuff from my early shows in living rooms and things like that. I think when you play someone’s house, hang out with their friends and sleep on their floor, you make fans for life. However, people often think that Sam Isaac and I did loads of these shows to be a bit whacky or different, but that’s not the case. We only did it because we both believed in the value of touring for making true fans, and we just needed these dates to stop us from having days off. It turned out that it was a really beneficial thing to do.

In Japan you released a ‘greatest hits’ record – do you feel it’s a little embarrassing to release a GH compilation at such an early stage in your career or have I totally missed the irony of it all?

Ha! Well basically I emailed this label to see if they were interested in releasing something because I saw that they’d released stuff by Jeremy Warmsley and The Joy Formidable, both pretty small UK artists at the time. It turned out that they were, so I suggested some kind of compilation of all my CDs, a ‘Greatest Hits’ if you will. I suggested the name as a bit of a joke, but it stuck in the ensuing emails, and next thing I knew I was sent a picture of my ‘Greatest Hits’ CD in the racks of HMV Tokyo between Ben Folds and Mika! I think it’s pretty funny.

Equal Vision Records has just released the new This Time Next Year album as a ‘pay-what-you-want’ download where fans can choose the quality of the file and pay whatever they want for the MP3s – whether it be nothing, $5, $10 or even more. Where do you stand on downloading? Do you think the CD will ever become redundant? Do you feel the ‘pay-what-you-like’ model is sustainable for bands and/or labels?

Despite the fact that I’m giving my new album away for free, I actually despise downloading, legal or illegal! I’m a big stickler for having something physical to hold when I buy music, whether that’s vinyl or CD, and I refuse to pay for something that isn’t tangible. Part of the joy of buying a CD is being able to look through the artwork, see who played on it, read the lyrics – all that stuff is part of the experience for me. As for whether the CD will become redundant, I certainly think it will become rarer than it is now, but like vinyl I don’t think it will die out. In the same way that some downloaders now can’t be bothered to buy CDs, I know there are other people out there like me who refuse to pay for a download-only release. So if a band releases their EP exclusively as a download, they’re going to lose a sale in me, and I assume in many other people too, people who refuse to pay for something that they can’t actually hold in their hands.

The one benefit of people stopping buying CDs is that bands are having to be more inventive in the packaging of their physical releases. That’s why I’ve packaged my new album as a photo book with a CD in the back, and why the new Paramore album came in a huge display box complete with lyric book, poster, and limited 7″ vinyl. Maybe it’s for the best like that, because the fans who really appreciate the physical release get an even better release, and download prices are getting slashed all the time to ensure that people pay for the legal download rather than getting it off Limewire.

As for pay-what-you-want, it’s interesting. I guess you can only really judge its success if it’s your release, and you get the figures on who pays what. Who knows, maybe some generous people pay £50 for an album just to help out an artist. I have no idea because I haven’t released anything like that myself. I think it’s fine if you’re a bigger band that is also making money from touring, and therefore t-shirt sales and stuff like that on tour, but for a smaller act like myself it wouldn’t be the best idea. If I only offered my new album as pay-what-you-want, I’d have no idea if I was ever going to break even on the release! As it is, by offering a cool physical package I’m ensured some sales from the physical nerds like myself, whilst also enabling people that don’t have any spare money to pick up the album for free. One thing I’m really against is bands who only offer a digital release. I just think it’s lazy and that it places no value in the music that’s been created. It also isolates fans like myself who want to be offered a physical format.

We’re coming towards the end of the year and the traditional ‘best of’ lists will be out soon – which three records have rocked your world this year?

Only three? Toughie! Sam Isaac finally released his debut album, which was very lovely. Ben Folds released an a cappella album which was a genius idea and an amazing album, and not as gimmicky as it would seem. Fun (the new band from the guy in The Format) released their debut album which was like crazy musical theatre-esque pop rock. It reminded me in parts of my album with all the excessive arrangements, so I loved it!

I’ve also enjoyed Olafur Arnalds – Found Songs, where this Icelandic composer who is a bit Sigur Ros-esque composed a song a day for a week, then released it on CD and free download. Beautiful stuff. The new Paramore album was great, but everyone knows that. Dave House‘s new record was great, as was Tubelord‘s debut album. I can’t remember anything else right now!

How did you feel when you heard Sam Isaac would be giving it all up at the end of the year? On a similar note, how long do you plan on performing as Luke Leighfield

Sam is only giving up touring and promotion in England, but is carrying on in the US and Australia, which is important to remember. Personally I wouldn’t have done what Sam’s done, but I understand why he’s done it. Sam’s worked really hard on promoting himself in the UK. He released some strong singles with good videos, as one does in a good promo campaign for an album, and then released the album afterwards, along with supporting some good bands. So theoretically, he did everything correctly in terms of how one should promote the release of an album for a new artist. He also played loads of great festivals and achieved a lot of cool things in a short space of time. Sadly, I don’t think the press has really caught on to Sam, especially the NME who gave him glowing reviews one week, then wrote a particularly vicious, nasty review of his album when it came out. I just think it’s all got a bit wearing for Sam, as it would do for anyone else in his position, so he’s going to concentrate on other areas of the world where he has more promising stuff happening. I’m sure he’ll be back at some point, and that he’ll keep making great music for many years to come. He’ll probably be headlining Brixton Academy in two years’ time!

As for me, I don’t have any plans to give up just yet! This new album is a big step up for me so I’m going to try to build a solid team around me, get a booking agent and all that stuff. We’ll see how it goes. I think I’m going to do my music full time for another couple of years, and if nothing bigger happens then it’ll have to take a bit of a back seat while I get a normal job and gig in the holidays. But hopefully it won’t come to that. I love doing this and would love the opportunity to make some kind of living out of writing and playing music.

What do you have planned for 2010?  Do you intend to do more production, carrying on from the work you’ve done on the Eat Sleep Attack EP?

Touring-wise, there are plans afoot for dates in Australia, Russia, China, Hong Kong and Japan in spring 2010, but I’m just trying to co-ordinate it all now and make it happen! After that I should be doing some co-headline dates in the UK with a couple of cool people who I won’t mention just now. Production isn’t my main concern just now, but it’s definitely something I’d love to do a lot more of in the future. I enjoy playing live, but I feel like I thrive in the studio where you can mess around with different ideas and really make songs the best they can be. The Eat Sleep Attack record is going to be great, and I can’t wait to work with Sam on that. The only other production thing in the works is a split CD that one of my friends and my girlfriend are hopefully recording at the start of 2010, and that I’ll then release on Got Got Need. You won’t have heard of either of them right now, but Josh is sort of a jazzy piano pop thing, and Zahra wants to do angsty girl rock in a Kelly Clarkson/Katy Perry vein. It’ll be fun!


Try these three interviews

Interview: Greywind [Reading 2016]

Interview: Arcane Roots [Reading 2016]

Interview: Trash Boat [Reading 2016]