It’s a big, strange house (a convent, in fact), the kind you might hear ghost stories about. And it’s a long way from home, in Richelieu, France, where the Leisure Society have gone to record, to get away from it all and explore new ideas. And listening back to their progress, they’re hearing noises they know should not be there.
“We kept hearing a banging noise,” Nick Hemming says. “We looked around the corner and there was somebody in the house.”
It was no ghost. Somebody has broken in.
“We had to go into renegade Crimestoppers mode,” multi-instrumentalist Christian Hardy chips in.
The chase was on. Through the many corridors they went, racing through a house which boasts more than 50 rooms.
“We were running around with guitars and bats and so on,” Christian adds.
Luckily for Christian and Nick, their prey – a small number of local youths who had broken in to the place – were too quick for them.
“We don’t know what we’d have done if we’d found them,” Nick admits.
Making Arrivals and Departures has taken the Leisure Society to new places – geographically, musically and emotionally.
Their first album since 2015’s The Fine Art of Hanging On is dominated by the end of the relationship between the band’s songwriter Nick and their flautist Helen Whitaker.
The break-up led Nick to move out of their house in Brighton, away from his home studio, and bounce around on the road.
Parts of it were recorded in the Peak District, the Cotswolds, a late-night session in Islington’s Union Chapel, and that 16th century convent in Richelieu, France.
“It was a gradual process, the split,” Nick says. “I was kind of living out of a suitcase for a year and a half. The album is about all of those themes of moving on, of being in transit, being heartbroken.
“I was flitting and bobbing all over, setting up studios and recording in different houses wherever I could.”
The result is a sprawling record, as full of ideas as anything the band has ever done. It is brimming with emotion – heartache and frustration but also hope – and full of musical ideas, with the second half of this double album heavier than we’ve heard from this band before.
“I’d been living with a friend who is a drummer, living in a spare room for a while,” Nick says. “It meant I could play a lot of electric guitar and make a lot of noise. That had a lot to do with it.
“The album was already quite well developed but we just kept piling songs on.”
The long gap between albums coincided with the band looking for a new label to work with. Their insistence on Arrivals and Departures being a double album didn’t make life easier.
“We actually fought quite hard for it,” Christian says. “There were a few labels interested in half the album or one album but they were really strongly against a double album.
“We were adamant it was a body of work and a piece of art and needed to be sold at the same time. We definitely didn’t feel like we should charge people twice. It’s one piece of work, so contrary to the advice we insisted on doing it this way.”
The heavier second side doesn’t mean the band have left behind their signature sound though. And the record even includes Helen’s flute playing.
Nick never had a moment’s hesitation about asking her to play on a record so personal to both of them.
Nick began writing some of the songs while they were still together, exploring his feelings as he got the first sense all was not well between them, so Helen had already heard many of them.
“I knew all along,” he says when asked about the decision to invite her to play on the record. “She’d seen the songs developing, she knew some of them and she’s a great musician.
“We crammed it all into one day in the studio. It was very emotional for me. I was quite nervous before we went in but it seemed to go quite well, I think.”
It was a strange day for everyone, not just Helen and Nick.
“She was really professional,” Christian says. “We were aware how difficult it was for Nick and Helen but equally we hadn’t seen Helen for a year so it was amazing to see her, to hang out and make music because we’d not done that for a long time.
“For us it was super-emotional but for those two it was even more emotional.
“I said to her afterwards, ‘Thank you for doing it’. She said she would have been sad if anyone else had done it. It had to be her.”
There are eye-catching collaborations on the album too. Brian Eno contributes synth textures to ‘I’ll Pay For It Now’ while ‘Leave Me To Sleep’ features the voice of poet Liz Berry.
The contribution from Eno, a self-declared fan of the band, comes in unexpected form, not least to the band themselves.
Having spent a few days recording in the Peak District, Nick and Christian were trying to capture the sound of the sheep grazing around the cottage, something they could put through the synthesizer and add some texture to the song.
The idea hit Nick to see if Eno could help.
“I just emailed him the track and within the hour he got back to me,” Nick says. “In the next few days he sent us four tracks of really melodic synth parts. It wasn’t what we were after but it sounded amazing.”
It still sounds unmistakably like the Leisure Society, but Arrivals and Departures opens the door to dozens of new musical ideas that hints at the new places they can go in the future.
Making this album has been a long often difficult process, but the rewards are clear to see and their infectious enthusiasm to keep pushing the boundaries is obvious.
“Everything is dictated by what songs come out,” Nick says. “I’m already kind of working on songs for the next album, and it’s a different sound again. What comes out of the guitar dictates what we’re going to do next.”
The Leisure Society are hitting the road this week to tour the new album:
Thursday May 16 – Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
Friday May 17 – Glasgow, The Blue Arrow
Saturday May 18 – Manchester, Academy 3
Sunday May 19 – Bristol, The Fleece
Tuesday May 21 – Norwich, Arts Centre
Wednesday May 22 – Brighton, Komedia
Thursday May 23 – Nottingham, Glee Club
Saturday May 25 – London, Union Chapel