“I’m okay. Just, you know, sweating,” Leo Bhanji responds as he shifts into the frame, answering a Zoom call from his bedroom in London. Despite commenting on nerves, the 20-year-old appears relaxed as he saunters about his personal space. The UK is in lockdown so being indoors is no surprise, but it’s also where Leo’s most at ease. In some ways, he’s well-suited to the current situation; outside is “too normal” as people begin to reemerge, and the return to creating from the basics serves as a form of comfort to the young artist.
Despite being born in LA before uprooting to London as a toddler, Leo’s formative years took place mostly in the online realm. Taking to SoundCloud to explore a variety of influences, his current amalgamation of intricate strands of DIY pop, R&B, and lo-fi stylings reflect the years he spent in this virtual sphere. “I was completely shaped by the Internet at first, and then brought my whole self to London after it had fully formed,” he concludes, his own eclectic SoundCloud now a monument to that era.
A testament to this collision of worlds, No Guard, out July 3, marks the next step for Leo. The EP’s refined, pop-influenced sound signals a new direction artistically, but its principles are also crucially intertwined with Leo’s core values. He hints at these as he explains the undemocratic nature of fashion (“It’s expensive for no reason and closed off from people for no reason.”) before returning to the idea later in the call in relation to his own music: “If you can make everything easy to access, easy to get into, then it’s more fun for everyone.”
A self-confessed “tryhard,” this conscientious outlook coupled with the fundamental desire to learn and grow as an artist sets Leo apart from those around him. It’s been paying off too. Having signed with the iconic independent label Dirty Hit, Leo has a “much clearer sense of purpose” and is honing his vocal skills, set on exploring new territory.
We caught up with the flourishing artist in May to discuss the creation of the No Guard EP, his quarantine projects, and the enduring power of pop music.
You released the video for “Blade of Hope” ahead of the EP. What can you tell me about this track and the visuals?
The video is really just back to basics for me. The guy that edited it is called Nick, and I’ve worked with him on every video that I’ve done. It was super easy to just go back to working with him, but the difference was my little brother shot the whole thing. So, it was really fun, I just ordered my brother around and sent it to someone I trust working with.
I think [this EP] is the biggest departure from the music I’ve released before because I’ve started to go in a different direction. I’ve taken most of the effects off my voice and tried to songwrite and sing and hone certain skills instead of just making a whole blast of noise. I’m back and forth, though, after this EP I think I’m going to go back to the effects a little bit. I wanted it to be a bit more natural and explore my voice. I'm just mapping out different sounds that I want to work with.
The line, ”Everything makes me feel weird, I literally just turned 20,” really connected with me. Do you feel like your approach is changing as you get older?
I’ve always felt like it’s a cycle for me of releasing music and then seeing how I feel about it after, once it’s out. I definitely feel like it’s really important for me to have my music out and stand behind it and reflect on it whilst it’s out and never try to hoard music. But I had more time with this release because I was making moves. I was kind of forced to really keep working on it for a while instead of just making something that sounds cool, dropping and moving onto the next. One year I dropped 35 songs, and this year I’m going to drop like four!
How did this EP come about? Did your creative process differ with No Guard compared to past releases.
I’ll put some time in everyday and add music to the pile until something comes together. I really enjoy being flighty and not just grinding away at it, which is easy for me to do because my songs come out simple anyway. I don’t write songs independently of the software though, I usually come up with most of the lyrics and melodies with my voice while recording. At some point I’m going to knuckle down and do just 600 takes and figure it all out, because a lot of the time I’m just etching around music. I did my first few sessions with an engineer recently and I went in with demos that were quite developed and I came out with the best vocal performances I’d ever done. I was just feeling out past the limits of my voice because I never learned to sing.
I was definitely reading books to see if it would help me write too but I didn’t really like that. I think I like just thinking about my life and people. There was a streak of literature in there though. Like, “The Wades” characters are from a book [points to The Long Goodbye]. The Wades are these two dysfunctional rich people. It’s a random book, but it’s nice. I definitely get really carried away by fiction; I get wrapped up in other people’s worlds and narratives, it just leads into my own work pretty quickly.
Is there a particular narrative to the EP?
Not really. The real life stuff that I base my music off of is a collage. I’ll pick and choose from things that have happened, add them together and reorder them. If I feel like I’ve processed something well, then I’ll write it down. I ask myself, “Have I captured something profound about a moment?” If it sounded like I did, it doesn’t really matter if it was true to real life—no one will know.
How does it feel to put something more intimate out there, is that difficult to do?
I’m not sure what I’d really be worried about. A lot of the times I’m frustrated with how I get muddled when I’m talking in real life and in real time, so getting the time to just sit down and think things through and talk things out with myself is what I need to be able to format all my thoughts and feelings in concise and clear songs. It’s way better for me than trying to say it out loud, so I’m not worried about it being out there. I’m kind of glad I can get it out there.
Right now it feels like the main connection to the outside word is the internet. How do you feel about the role of the internet in relation to your career, and in general?
It’s hard to say because we’re wrapped up in it all of the time, right? I think about it a lot. I wonder if my music would be considered to be less mainstream if it were released in pre-internet times, because it would be a bit more niche. Because everyone can quickly find their audience now, a lot more things feel mainstream than would have if you had to find your audience in person. It’s super enabling for people so I’m happy about that, I think I’ve probably benefited. Plus, you know everything that informs me, even though I’m from London which is like a cultural hub in itself, I didn’t really get into it in real life for a few years. Like, I would just be listening to stuff on SoundCloud from overseas and things.
Because everyone can quickly find their audience now [on the internet], a lot more things feel mainstream than would have if you had to find your audience in person.
What initially drew you into creating music?
You know what, I reckon it was probably that you can make it on a computer. Something about my brain just loves pictures and computers, so when I discovered GarageBand, I was really happy to have a creative outlet that you can interact with in little blocks and numbers and dials and things. I think I was about 12 or 13 then? It’s been a while.
Are there any artists you’ve been influenced by lately?
Right now I’m listening to a lot of singer/songwriters and folk artists because I want to pare my music down a little more, but over time it’s been a ton of people. I think I’ve been telling people my favorite artists are the ones that started out as songwriters and then got into actually making their own songs after. There are a lot of people like that, like Future and Lou Reed and obviously Frank Ocean. I think they just have this mentality of craft first and efficiency. I talk about that a lot, people that just know how to make music everyday. I wanted to songwrite first but it’s not really going in that way and I don’t mind.
You’ve always cited pretty diverse influences for your inspiration, but Shlohmo stood out for me.
Shlohmo’s definitely in my top 3 producers. That’s the interesting one, because he kind of reframed hip-hop culture in a way that was more approachable to EDM type people. At the time as a kid I was into dubstep and then it sort of got refracted into the hip-hop spheres. Now that I have more of a cultural understanding, I feel like that’s not ideal—the way things get repackaged to different audiences and taken away from context. But, I don’t think that was Shlohmo’s intention in the first place, so when I listen now I just hear this R&B and noise and human voice, and I really love it because it’s so tactile and beautiful.
Is there anything that you want to emulate throughout your own work?
I always want to make pop music, and not just go for metal machine music. It feels kind of democratic again. If you can make everything easy to access, easy to get into, then it’s more fun for everyone. It’s meant to be kind of inviting.
You mentioned the other projects, what’s going on there?
Well, I’m making a video game right now. A really simple one. The screen size on it is the same size as a game boy so there’s only a few thousand pixels in the whole thing and I’m just doing a little basic programming. I’m having fun—a lockdown project. And I’ve tried to write before in longer formats but I just didn’t have the range, so I stopped. But I’m pretty happy having something to focus on right now. I don’t really like to just grind away at music. There’s a kind of muscular feeling, where you definitely keep your skills honed and stuff, but you don’t get better results from doing it more.
I always want to make pop music, and not just go for metal machine music. It feels kind of democratic again. If you can make everything easy to access, easy to get into, then it’s more fun for everyone.
Can making music become a chore?
I’m way past that I think. It’s definitely work every time I make music, but it's work I enjoy the product of. But there’s definitely something about just flitting between different ideas and projects and even just different fields of interests, and then coming back to music. I feel like music comes from the very center of me.
You’ve mentioned before trying to find out about your heritage, how’s that going for you?
It’s complicated because you don’t want to just talk too much about it without people asking. But I’ve been on Reddit/Armenian [Laughs], I’ve just been trying to figure it out. I don’t really have much to add to the conversation so I just take in that side of the world. I feel like at this point, I’m not even part of the story, but it’s still just interesting to know about. It’s not the deepest thing ever, I don’t really want to start claiming to be Armenian because I’m not connected to the culture that hard, but I’d like to be, in my own time.
What are you excited for next?
I’m really happy that I’m clearing the vault of all my music that I’ve sat on for a little bit. And I think having it out will probably make everything feel a bit more real and get me focussed on my next release.
Are you hoping your listeners have any specific takeaways from No Guard?
No, not at all. They can make what they want out of it. It feels nice to just, you know, be in the world.