Neither the band's music nor its development has suffered from haste, as the new "Fitness" EP shows.
[Updated] Sports & Leisure aren't in a hurry, and you can hear that in "Devil," the lead track of their new EP, Fitness. One guitar patiently saws a note while band members oooooh behind it, with only held chords to mark off time. When the song kicks in, it does so with an easy reggae that is a musical choice, not a touristy jaunt into another genre. But don't mistake the musical patience for a lack of urgency. The song moves deliberately through dynamic passages, some of which approach silence while others present the six-piece band in full flight.
Fitness is out today, and the band will celebrate it with a show at the House of Blues' Parish tonight with Big Rock Candy Mountain and Denton Hatcher opening. The EP is the first official release for Sports & Leisure, but the band did get a couple of demos into the world last summer. Fitness is the product of almost two years' work, one spent simply trying to find the right musical combination.
The band could be said to have been in process since 2005 when keyboard player B.J. Blue and guitarist Richard Dubourg started bouncing musical ideas between back and forth. At first, their ideas were based in music that was contemporary, particularly The Get Up Kids and Ozma - "these very polished pop/rock, punkish, synth-driven bands that were pleasing to listen to," Blue explains over coffee. "We just wanted to have fun." A couple of years ago, they broadened their musical scope and decided to write based on the breadth of their musical interests. "Richard loves old rock 'n' roll and Motown," Blue says, and he brought his background in orchestra and classical concert band to refine the songs. The results don't sound like quite like any of those things; in fact, they sound more contemporary than the self-consciously retro earlier references did. The six-piece band covers a lot of musical ground in four or so minutes, with a focus on melody and a richly textured sound, the latter made possible because almost every member of Sports & Leisure plays a few instruments. The broader palate allows them to decorate the songs more than a stand guitar/bass/drums lineup makes possible, but it also fuels creativity. "It's a cure to writer's block for me," says bassist Whitney Brown. "If I'm sitting with something trying to figure where I fit into the skeleton of the song, it's easier to say, Okay, let's try it on this [in his case, a ukelele] and find something more conducive to what we're trying to do."
In the year Blue and Dubourg took to find the right lineup, they brought in Brown, who'd retired from music to go to school in Chicago. When he moved back to New Orleans for grad school, he came out of retirement and fit in. He brought friend Jeremy Peres (violin/guitar/percussion), and they recruited Scott Hannan and drummer Russell Shelton. He brought another influence to Sports & Leisure: 'He's a funk drummer," Brown says. "He works at WWOZ, and that's his world." Shelton had to figure out how to honor his own love of funk and roots music with the band's rock impulses, but the results have worked. "This is the first group where it wasn't us just telling people what to do," Blue says.
While that process was going on, all of the band members with the exception of Brown, Peres and Shelton were active parts of New Orleans incestuous (by their admission) indie rock scene. Dubourg played with MyNameIsJohnMichael for two years. Blue played in The Green Genes with Rory Callais from The Vox and The Hound, and Hannan is still part of his punk band, Silent Game. Even though these projects were going on while Sports & Leisure was in its early stages, "the ideas that we came up with for this group were good enough that we felt a need to stick with it," Blue says. "Musically, this is the priority."
The band introduced itself with Fitness rather than a full album for prosaic reasons. "It's all we could afford," Blue says. "People have come to know a couple of tunes and love them as much as we do, so we wanted to compile the ones that have done well and put them out there. We want to share the music."
Brown is upfront about the musician's romantic notions. "Every time someone picks up a guitar, they have visions of being a rock star some day," some day, and he reserves the possibility that the band could make its Dark Side of the Moon - an album-length suite of music that needs to be heard as an album. Until that happens, he likes that an EP allows the band to turn the songs around more quickly, which lets the recordings be what they truly are: documents of a moment. "These songs are changing so much," Brown says. "You want to take a snapshot of them because they'll evolve more." Blue agrees, and says that he has already changed how he plays some of the songs since the band cut them months ago.
There's also listenability: "My favorite albums have been 10 songs or less," Blue says. "The Japandroids' Celebration Rock? Ten songs, and when it's done you want more."
Updated 6:25 p.m.
In the original text, Whitney Brown was incorrectly identified as Whitney Port. The text has been changed to correct this error.