As a global wanderer, an artist of the world, Leon Veremis – aka Leon Of Athens – knows what it is to be a stranger, to a new country as well as to yourself. He shows me a photograph of a sculpture that inspired him called The Immigrant’s Void by Bruno Catalano; a man carrying a case, with a gaping hole where his home, his self-assurance and his sense of belonging used to be.
“We can’t turn our heads from this,” Leon says. “I’m an immigrant - I’m not a refugee, but I am a cultural immigrant. Greece has a really big history with immigration; my father was an immigrant in the US. We have a refugee crisis and I was really shocked by so many people dying, it’s absurd. There are wars, which the West created, to a certain extent, and then there are people who are coming to the West and they refuse to open the border. All these things don’t seem very rational to me.”
The world has turned a crueller corner and, after the cult success of his 2014 breakout album Global, it’s forced from Leon a third album, Xenos, about “estrangement, technology, love in the age of Tinder”. A widescreen celestial alt-pop record informed by the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of fascist groups in his Greek homeland and Brexit, but also personal upheavals: fractured relationships, lost faith, deaths in the family. A record at the end of his own long, global journey.
Born in London, the one-year-old Leon moved to Greece with his family, where he spent most of his life immersed in music, studying guitar and piano from the age of six and forming bands inspired by The Clash, Radiohead, Brian Eno, Talking Heads and The Beatles. At twenty he got a scholarship to study music at a school in Los Angeles, but a year from graduation his father fell ill and he returned to Greece to take up music and philosophy studies. After his romantic notion of leading a huge ten-piece collective quickly became unmanageable, he officially became Leon Of Athens, crafting a debut album only released on a small indie label in Greece in 2011 called Future, a lo-fi, multi-instrument collection of amorphous acoustic folk driven by the political turmoil around him.
“In 2008 there were riots in the centre of Athens,” he explains, “and for a few years there was a collective anti-establishment movement. I feel that the sound of this album, even though it’s not hard rock, very much represented the spirit.” Is that where the political edge to your music came from? “I think so, but politics is such a huge part of our lives, I can’t imagine music without elements of social and political thought.”
Moving to London to escape Greece’s musical glass ceiling (and his troublesome Greek label), Leon constructed an indie pop-rock backing band from members of Canadian indie rockers Wintersleep and built his own label to release Global, a second album recorded in Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev producer Dave Fridmann’s Tarbox Studio in Buffalo, upstate New York. “It was probably one of the best times in my life,” Leon recalls of the fifteen days he recorded there. “It was in a forest, very peaceful.”
Inspired by everything from M83, Metronomy and St Vincent to Philip Glass, Plato and the films of Bernado Bertolucci, Global was a worldly evolution of indie rock, merging brass, electronica and the refined melodic guitar pop of Belle & Sebastian or Stars into a catchy, upbeat party record that tackled both frivolous sci-fi on tracks such as ‘Baby Asteroid’ and the title track (“I like sci-fi movies, technology and there’s a series called Black Mirror which is really interesting,” Leon says, “I find it really exciting thinking about the future”) and the riots and political subterfuge of his homeland on the likes of ‘Slow Down’. Gathering him a growing following in Europe, critical acclaim from the likes of NME and The Guardian in the UK and a video for ‘Baby Asteroid’ by Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos, Global built enough of a buzz around Leon for EMI Records to snap him up and set him on the road to Xenos.
Finding inspiration in the fractures growing in the world, and within himself – “Xenos is actually inspired by the genocide of indigenous peoples,” Leon says, “the song refers to any group of repressed people who are forced to leave their land. On a personal note, it also refers to being a stranger to your own self” – he decided on a more solitary approach to his third album. In the shadow of a pre-tragedy Grenfell Tower, he and producer David Kosten (Faultline, Bat For Lashes, Everything Everything) gathered in Kosten’s home studio to exchange ideas, inviting players such as Hot Chip drummer Sarah Jones in to contribute when necessary. “I wanted to try this direction to make it a bit more pop-sounding,” he says. “David helped with that. He likes to be adventurous with sound, has a lot of analogue synthesisers and added a lot with these elements.”
Adventurous – nay, ground-breaking - pop music is exactly what they produced. Dark yet danceable, intense yet free-hearted, electronic yet utterly human, Xenos is a new evolution in electropop, driven by Leon’s intriguing intellectual themes. Love, politics, philosophy, violence, death and odes to idyllic Greek islands mingle in these lyrical depths. The title track flickers between menace and bliss, both celebrating the beauty of life and lamenting the disease humanity has become: “You’ve got the gun in your hand, we’ve got the sun on our heads,” Leon sings, “we are the virus, parasites who live against all others.” ‘Utopia’ is an urgent Killers-meets-Avicii dancefloor sizzler that poses the philosophical conundrum “if there’s God around, why are we left to love and die?”
At the album’s most political extreme, the brooding ‘Serpent’s Egg (Golden Dawn)’ - inspired by an Ingmar Bergman movie - tackles the rise of neo-Nazi group Golden Dawn in Greece. “Before the economic crisis they were at 0.1 per cent in the polls, everyone was laughing at them, and they ended up having ten per cent of the vote. Fortunately, they are now mostly in jail because they committed crimes, killed a young MC and many other people, mostly immigrants. Some people who vote for the Golden Dawn are people you would find mostly in the Conservative or Centre party. They wouldn’t say these things our loud but in their house they will say ‘Black’ or ‘Jew’. They were hidden in more legitimated parties. It’s a really big problem in Greece.”
There are deeply personal corners here too. ‘Fire In You’ is a sweet, tripping love song full of fireworks and choirs; ‘Aeroplane’ a clinical dissection of a long-distance relationship gone irretrievably wrong. On ‘Final Moment’ Leon ponders the experience of dying “and also everyday struggle” over an elegant synthpop tune, and moving epic ‘Letters To My Father’ is a tribute to Leon’s late father, inspired by Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Fourth Of July’. “I wrote that song many years ago when he was in his last days,” he explains. “It’s not a song about death in the sense that I’m mourning. It’s a song about how he fought.” It also relates the best piece of advice Leon got from his father: “Throw the colours of your rainbow at the black and white.”
Hence there are beaming shafts of colour across Xenos too. Gorgeous, sweeping space lullaby ‘Moonlight’ is literally dream-pop, describing Leon’s fantasy of perfection, and the album finishes with the beach-friendly hula pop of ‘Corfu’, Leon’s happy place. “I go almost every year. My friend has a house in a village. It’s fifty years behind in terms of technology. It grounds me.”
Drifting somewhere between Sufjan, Alt-J and Perfume Genius, Xenos is amongst the richest and most lustrous pop records of the year, a proud step forward for Leon Of Athens but also a springboard. “Some people might think it’s very pop, others might think it’s really left-field and dark,” he says. “I feel that after this album I want to explore more and be more adventurous. Although I like pop music, I want to go somewhere else. I want to experiment with form a lot more, to break the pop form.”
That’s the traveller in Leon Of Athens: always moving on.