Josh Fountain is excited. He's just heard digital files of what his band, Auckland five-piece Leisure, sounds like with an orchestra behind it.

"It sounds like a movie score," Fountain says. "It's amazing how it breathes new life into our songs so you see them in a completely different light."

Fountain's a bit anxious, too, because he knows it's really happening: Leisure is playing a gig with the 70-piece Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra as its backing band. The concert is the first of a new APO series of late-evening performances that pit pop musicians against the orchestra, and is presented by Hallertau Brewery. If the show has the whiff of a sponsorship opportunity in search of a concert, APO artistic administrator Frances Moore insists that's not the case.

"Probably the opposite is true," Moore says. "When we launched this, we didn't have any sponsorship and it's not about ticking [funding] boxes for Creative New Zealand. As an orchestral institution, we really love making good music and there's such a variety of ways we can do that."

Advertisement

So the concert is about reaching out to and growing new audiences, then? Yes and no.

"I want to be upfront that we get to show off to a new audience that may never have come to the APO before, but we don't have expectations that people will then turn around and buy tickets to anything else," she says. "The point is to put an orchestra in front of people and go, 'This is a remarkable thing that we want to share with as many people as we can'."

The APO regularly plays with pop musicians but Leisure, with its electronic, groove-based tunes, is very different to the sorts of artists with which the orchestra usually collaborates.

"Leisure's music is complex and atmospheric and there's stuff going on all the time," says Moore. "I love that this is a collaboration that wouldn't immediately spring to mind. These are guys who usually play with technology, they play with synth sounds to create complexity."

They are, in other words, boffins; Josh Fountain acknowledges as much.

"Djeisan [Suskov] and Tom [Young] are good on guitar and bass but Jordan [Arts], Jaden [Parkes] and I can barely get by on instruments. We know about using software and programming drum loops but this is a whole different beast — this is real music, not computer music."

While Leisure makes computer music, it's not motoric; it's slinky, with a hip-swaying sexiness that sits just behind the beat. When you have a 70-piece orchestra, how do you keep the slink?

"That's almost exactly the question you have to always keep in mind," says Hamish Oliver who, along with fellow composer Claire Cowan, is responsible for the orchestral scores.

"In the arrangements I've done for Leisure, I've found parts of the existing song and left them pretty much as is. You end up coming back to just the band; you make sure the band are audible by themselves so the slinkiness is always there and can come to the surface now and then."

There's always a fear arrangers will get carried away with the resources at their fingertips, unleashing 48 strings and a brass section when a string quartet and a bassoon would have better suited the music.

"It's a complete danger," admits Oliver. "To me, the instinct that protects you from that disaster is compositional sense, economy and the knowledge that less can be more. With an orchestra you know how powerful it is and what they can do because occasionally you let them do it. But to have them there and not use all that strength is also very powerful. It's like a tension, most obviously in a piece where the orchestra does build up to something epic, and then suddenly it isn't there. Contrast is key."

Such devices will be familiar to video game fans and it's no surprise to learn Oliver composes music for games. However, he learned the trick elsewhere.

"I lifted that directly from rock," he says, "from [Nirvana's] Smells Like Teen Spirit and from Soundgarden. I'm realising more and more that those are my biggest influences."

Wherever the ideas came from, they're working for the members of Leisure.

"Initially I was worried that the arrangements would be too much like Disney or something and it would sound cheesy," says Fountain. "Actually, it gives our dramatic songs like All Over You and Nobody more depth and amplifies the emotion and drama. And the [orchestral] musicians are masters. It's daunting for us; we're used to having band practice once a week, you forget these guys read music like we read a book. It's amazing what they can do."

Lowdown
What: APO Sessions Series - Leisure and the APO
Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Friday, April 6