AfterDark’s Dean Hodge speaks to Leif Erikson lead vocalist/guitarist Sam Johnston ahead of the band’s upcoming appearance at Sŵn Festival in Cardiff (23 October).
London quintet Leif Erikson‘s choice of name – inspired by the famous Icelandic explorer – is perhaps an apt one for their dreamy, dexterously-produced indie-rock sound. They bridge elements of the jangly guitar hooks of The Stones Roses and pre-Screamadelica Primal Scream, the angular melodies of Joy Division and the shoegaze grooves of Ride. Within wide lyrical landscapes – of life, love, loss, lament and everything in between – the band churn out cathartic melodies like unearthed diamonds, and chisel at them with lean guitar riffs and polished vocals. Ahead of their eagerly awaited return to Cardiff this weekend (23 October) – as part of the line-up for the 10th anniversary edition of Sŵn Festival – AfterDark’s Dean Hodge spoke to lead vocalist/guitarist Sam Johnston about the band’s plans for new music, growing up in London and the inspiration for their songs.
DEAN: You all previously played in Clwb Ifor Bach at DimSŵn in April this year. How is the band feeling of their upcoming return to Cardiff at Sŵn Festival?
SAM: It’s going to be awesome. As well as playing in Clwb Ifor Bach at DimSŵn this year, members of the band of have played at Sŵn in previous bands. It’s always a blast for us to play at Sŵn, and in Cardiff, so we’re looking forward to giving it another go.
DEAN: As well as Sŵn Festival, where else can we see Leif Erikson live very soon?
SAM: We’ve been supporting Ultimate Painting on their headline tour, and we’re about to play in Bristol (5 October) as I speak. After that, it’s the odd number of end-of year festivals for us including Sŵn Festival in Cardiff (23 October), then Mirrors in London (Oct 29). There’ll also be another headline show from us towards the end of the year.
DEAN: How did the band first form?
SAM: All of us have been in different bands with other members in the past. We’ve known each other since we were thirteen, and we’ve all been doing various musical projects from a young age. Leif Erikson is the culmination of all those years of honing our craft, and the result of us establishing the direction that we want our music to go.
“Leif Erikson is the culmination of years of honing our craft, and the result of us establishing the direction we want our music to go.”
DEAN: The band have released a couple of singles so far – ‘Looking For Signs’ and ‘Never Get You Out Of My Mind’. Are there plans for an album in the near-future?
SAM: We’ve done a lot of writing and rehearsal sessions over the last few years, up to the point where we now have a lot of new material in the pipeline. At the moment, what it may come to is doing a small album next year, or rather a small compilation consisting of about eight tracks we’ve recorded, that will reflect what we’ve been doing the last year. It will be the first time that we have put a considerable body of work out, so we’re getting excited about it and hopefully people will be excited to hear it. The majority of these will feature in our upcoming gigs including Sŵn.
DEAN: Can we expect a new single very soon?
SAM: Next week we’re going back into the studio to finish recording the next single that we’re going to put out. This should be out next month at some point, or maybe even later this month depending how well it goes.
DEAN: The band’s debut single ‘Looking For Signs’ has received a lot of praise from critics and fans alike. What have you made of the general reaction to the track?
SAM: I get a strange perspective of it. I’m always just so focused on writing, rehearsing, and recording that I’m quite removed from how it ends up being received. So I guess I wasn’t really aware of the reaction Looking For Signs was getting, or had much of an idea of the way it was going to take off.
I’m just always looking forward to the next opportunity to put music out. It makes me sound like a football manager in a way – just always looking forward to the next match! But it was really satisfying to see the number of plays the song has had. I think it signalled the moment we realised that the sound we’re trying to capture had come together for us with that song, and that people were digging it.
On ‘Looking For Signs’ – “It signalled the moment that the sound we were trying to capture had come together for us.”
DEAN: Your songs have a very ‘ambiguous’ quality in the sense that the meaning of the lyrics are open to different interpretations. When you’ve written songs, have they been inspired by a particular subject?
SAM: I think you’re on to something there. All our songs have a lot of layers, and I think that’s the way music should be. They have my own personal layer to them, but there is also a lot of room of interpretation. Looking For Signs came from taking stock of where I was at that particular time in my life, and the place the people around me were in. It was written when I was living in London. I wouldn’t say it was a cry for help, but it was more an observation of what was going on around me, and how I felt about things going on in my life.
I think a lot of songs we’ve written have come from what I’ve felt at a particular time. They are personal in that sense, but with a wider social conscious as well. I want to ensure when writing songs that they retain a little bit of mystery, and listeners can read into them a bit and draw up their own version of what the song means to them.
DEAN: Can you explain the inspiration behind the video for your most recent single ‘Never Get You Out Of My Mind’?
SAM: For the video for Never Get You Out Of My Mind, we decided to take a step back from the creation of it. At the time it was made, things were starting to pick up for the band. Thus, making a music video – that we could be satisfied with and which was a accurate reflection of the song – was something that we couldn’t fully commit to.
The song is essentially a post break-up song that touches on the first signs of the end of a relationship. But the lyrics are so sparse in terms of what they’re committing to. It could be just as much about obsession, or unrequited love, or a burning ambition for something that you can’t shake off.
My own reading of the video – which was directed by Edward John Drake – is it portrays the feeling of being ‘outcast’. If you look at the video carefully, you notice the male character has small horns on his head. There’s a loneliness to both of the main characters, but there’s also love and affection between them stemming from that mutual isolation. There’s a certain pathos to the video that really reflects the emotion of the song well.
“For us, it’s about making music that means something to us and to the people who listen to our songs, rather than something that simply means something to the music industry.”
DEAN: Having grown up in London, and formed as a band there, has it been a challenge coming through the scene in London when there is such a vast musical output there?
SAM: I don’t think there is any such thing as a ‘scene’ in London at all. If you spend so much time trying to find a scene there or a pigeon-hole to fit into, you’ll never find it because the industry in London is just so saturated with artists coming and going all the time. Being an artist in London makes you more internalised in a way. For that reason we just holed up in our rehearsal space, focused on ourselves, on our own sound and not really looking outward.
That in itself is a reason why living in London has been an influence on us without directly being so, because music has been our ‘escape’ from London life. When we get together to play or rehearse, it’s a chance for us to get away from all that through our music. For us, it’s about making music that means something to us and to the people who listen to our songs, rather than something that simply means something to the music industry.
DEAN: How do you strike a balance between finding time to write music and rehearse, and holding down full-time jobs outside the band?
SAM: It’s just about commitment and about managing our time effectively – going to work during the week, then rehearsing during the weekend. Knowing that our music is starting to gain some momentum and that our commitment to it is paying off, is what keeps us going.
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