Leagues' Formula For Creative Breakthrough: Do What You Don't Know How To Do | Gradient

By doing what they don’t know, Leagues reaches new heights.

After Leagues built a following and gained momentum with their first record, You Belong Here, the band felt pressure to make another and get back on the road. They spent nine months and their entire budget making it – without the resources of a record label. But something still felt off.

Leagues frontman Thad Cockrell told Jeremy Lutito (drummer/programmer), “‘Man, I don’t think this record’s right. I’m not having any fun.’ I know what Leagues is, part of what we are trying to do is to go around the world and put off joy explosions. If you’re not having fun in the making of something, there’s no way in hell people are going to have fun when they listen to it.”

They trudged ahead, finished, mixed and mastered it. “We put all that energy into it, and we kind of just lost our way,” Lutito says. “It took about three months of conversations of him going, ‘I don’t think it’s right.’ When I was able to get time away from it, I said, ‘You’re right. We can’t put this out.’ It would be good, but it didn’t have the spirit of what we’re about.”

“The reason why we didn’t put it out is, it was the best version of what we knew how to do,” Thad says. “That’s not what Leagues is. The new version is the best version of what we don’t know how to do.”

Seth Godin describes “the art of the breakthrough” as “the practice of figuring out all the ways to not do it on your way to an insight.”

“We find our way by getting lost,” he says. “Anything other than that is called reading a map.”

Cockrell and Lutito know a thing or two about that.

The Nashville-based project took the seasoned artists into new territory. “I always want to learn something new, to try something I’ve never tried before,” Cockrell says. “The goal with Leagues has always been to make songs that go places I’ve never gone before.”

The approach has served them well. You Belong Here, released in 2013, garnered a rabid fan base behind the breakout alternative and AAA singles “Spotlight” and “Walking Backwards.” Critical acclaim followed, as well as wide exposure on TV and film, with plays on Orange is the New BlackHorrible Bosses 2, and Vampire Diaries  – not to mention spots by Bose, VW, Geico, and others.

Prior to that release, Cockrell was a solo artist, songwriter and alt-country performer who played and wrote with Jessie Baylin, Donavon Frankenreiter and Caitlin Cary (of Whiskeytown), and Lutito toured as a drummer with Jars of Clay and served as producer, engineer and drummer for Jack White, Michael Kiwanuka, Ingrid Michaelson and others.

The process of making music for Leagues was entirely new and different, and the approach appealed to a wide range of new fans. “To me, the best art gets people in a room that you wouldn’t think,” Cockrell says. “That’s what Leagues is. It’s one part art project, one part public confession, one part kill the cynicism.”

Staying true to that original vision would prove challenging when the time came to make a second record.

“I think that Leagues came out of nowhere, and it created its own thing,” Cockrell says. “That music did what we’ve always wanted, we wanted it to be music-driven.”

“Thad and I try to remove ourselves from thinking that our music’s all about us,” Lutito says.

So they dove back in and reimagined every song, scrapping some entirely and writing some new songs. The result is Alone Together, 11 tracks that capture Cockrell’s newfound confidence as a frontman and now, lead guitarist, and Lutito’s ability to add depth and dimension through programming and producing, with sounds of EDM and ‘80s synth pop.

“So many of these songs, I was like, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’” Cockrell says. “Even when I started Leagues, I didn’t know how to sing. I’d been making country folk records. What you’re tapping into emotionally and even the singing of it, I literally didn’t know how to do it. It took me some time — and Jeremy wasn’t a producer.”

Lutito says Cockrell kept pushing him to step out from the drum set and start doing more programming and producing. “He just kept telling me, ‘You’re a great producer,’” Lutito says. “And I never thought of that. Now that’s basically my role.”

Lutito, who produced the entire album, says they can feel simultaneously confident and curious while playing with new songs. That’s where the magic happens. The opening track, “Lipstick Coffee,” captures just how experimental the new album would become.

The song was “just kind of us, re-energized,” Lutito says. “We were both just having fun. [Cockrell said], ‘Dude, I’m watching you, and you’re not even trying.’ I was like, ‘Oh wow, that’s a crazy thought because on the whole last record that we just bagged, I felt like I was trying so hard the whole time.’”

Everything began to click, and the two tapped into what had been “the heart and soul” of Leagues from the beginning. They began to find themselves in an unfamiliar but welcomed territory.

Now they’re inviting fans to join them again. “We’ve made it for other people to live in it,” Cockrell says. “We want it to become theirs.”

That’s why they refused to settle for anything less — even waiting to find the right record label home with Dualtone, which represents other artists who prefer to do business outside the commercial mainstream, like Shakey Graves.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that we don’t have to do music, but we want to do it,” Jeremy says. “That has kept our curiosity and wonder alive about it.”

Alone Together is available today from Dualtone Records.