The invitation was as clandestine as expected. You will convene at the champagne bar at St Pancras station at six. You will be escorted to a train towards St Albans where a fleet of black-tinted cars await. You will be swept through the countryside to a modest turning leading to a set of grand gates at the edge of the high-security estate. The password is ‘St Leonard’s Horses’.
If the gate and the long, crunching driveway up to the house seem familiar it’s because they no doubt inspired the ones Tom Cruise bypassed on his way to the masked orgy in Eyes Wide Shut. Pulling up outside the grand manor house we’re handed drinks and invited to wander the corridors; to the kitchen lined with Baftas and Golden Globes, the snooker room adorned with furniture – the same throughout the entire building – taken from famous movie sets, the drawing room lined with paintings by the lady of the house, showing its most famous, darkly bearded owner wandering the gardens.
Masks from Eyes Wide Shut line a corridor. A statue from the film rests in the old stable block alongside props from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The kitchen still can’t sleep since it featured in The Shining. For this is Stanley Kubrick’s house, Childwickbury Manor, and here our contingent of journalists, band members, family and friends – amongst the first members of the public ever allowed access to the estate – have been summoned to the music room to listen to ‘Good Luck Everybody’, the ball-busting new album from St Leonard’s Horses, aka Kieran Leonard, the enigmatic pomp rock newcomer who, by many bizarre turns of events, recorded the album here. Events involving a breakdown in a church in Bradford, Father John Misty’s wedding, a Bad Seed at Black Sabbath and goat-worshipping cults in LA.
“The album is almost a verbatim chronology of that experience, a hagiography of the whole thing,” Kieran says as we settle into some very Strangelovian seats in the snooker room. “I was recording in a church in Bradford and [one-time tourmate] Ryan Adams had expressed an interest in coming over to see me in a church. I thought ‘that’d be great’, then the relationship with my partner broke down and I rang him and I was heartbroken. He’s the best person to ring when you’re heartbroken. He was like ‘come over to LA! Come use my studio!’ There was a moment I wilfully let go. I was lying on the rug in the church in Bradford after three days of necking vodka and listening to ‘In Utero’ when I just said ‘right, off to LA’. The main focus was trying to recover from total earth-shuddering, stupefying, petrifying heartbreak and LA is a great place to do that and Jumbo’s Clown Room is a great place to go night after night to recover from those sort of things.”
In LA, another touring partner Adam Green introduced Leonard to Jonathan Wilson and Father John Misty and, invited to Misty’s “hallucinogen-fuelled” wedding, where he “had this bizarre experience where I met everyone I went on to make my record with. It was kind of like a blood ceremony”. After a year of recording in “the various studios available to us”, though, he wasn’t getting the results he wanted. Then, during a two-week visit to London he ran into The Bad Seeds’ Jim Sclavunos at a Black Sabbath gig; Jim passed his new songs around, one of which (‘Little Girl Scientist’) made reference to Kubrick, someone passed it to Jack Hobbs, who had built a studio in a couple of the old saddle-making rooms at Childwickbury.
“I was invited up here and we hung out and he showed me the studio space. I talked about the shortcomings of the experience of LA, and he said ‘at this space you have to record live’, and I said ‘that’s exactly the point, I want to get into a live recording environment’.” Ensconced in the estate’s stable block, full of movie props (“there’s a weird statue for Eyes Wide Shut in that area and a bit of Space Odyssey is in there”), Leonard wandered the estate between takes, soaking up the essential Kubrickness of the surroundings. “We wanted to really inhabit the space with the songs, so there was a lot of writing going on in the rooms,” Leonard says. One song became known as ‘The Strangelove Hotel Suite’ – the place crept into the record? “It did, it was weirdly a self-stoking cycle.”
The finished product is a weird and wonderful sprawl of evocative, psych-flecked alt.country about feeling like a drunken, swashbuckling spiritual treasure hunter in LA (‘Long John Silver’), falling for “an incarnate goddess whom will inevitably ruin me spiritually”, taking so many drugs “I thought I was god” and ending up using Kubrick’s kazee. The book of stream-of-consciousness biography we’re given to read along to Leonard’s “self-analysing artefact of my psyche” suggests there’s a whole lot more to this story – it talks of near death in the desert, misadventures in Tijuana, drinking contests with Tyler The Creator, astronauts, UFOs, psychic dogs, mescal, Christopher Walken and being barred from Scientology for 1 billion years. But, for now, just tell us about the cults, Kieran.
“I got roped into cults, by virtue of appearing with the trans-Atlantic exotica of wanting to make a certain kind of record in LA,” he sort-of explains. “I’d been trying to find some sort of spiritual home that wasn’t Yorkshire. I was very open to throwing myself into things. I found myself in a few, just by virtue of trying to have a good time. LA is a cult, the word ‘cult’ derives from culture and the culture of LA is showbusiness and entertainment and hedonism. Most of these cults proliferate on selling you pure hedonism and if you’re in the mood to keep saying yes until you can’t say no you’ll be in Laurel Canyon and before you know it you’ll be like ‘okay, I’ll drink this and put the goat head on’. We’re essentially talking about odd clandestine secret societies that operate in broad daylight. The moon walks with the goat head were quite interesting.”
Shadowy cabals, demented breakdowns and widescreen voyages of discovery? You’ve come to the right place.
Photos: Carla Salavatore