Before It Was TikTok Viral: "The Leanover" by Life Without Buildings
Released 20 years ago, this polarizing track from a short-lived Scottish band is finally getting the widespread attention it deserves.
"If I lose ya, if I lose ya, if I lose ya, if I lose ya, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, mmm."
If you were to scroll through TikTok right now, you're bound to run across a few clips that feature an audio of these words —half-spoken, half-sung — followed by a gentle, romantic guitar riff. It's a seemingly stream-of-consciousness delivery, one that hardly makes sense. On TikTok, however, things don't have to make sense; anything goes as long as you can dance and lip sync along.
Those words are the opening lines to a song called "The Leanover" by Life Without Buildings. The oft-overlooked Scottish indie band only released one proper album, Any Other City, in 2001. The band's members — drummer Will Bradley, bassist Chris Evans, guitarist Robert Johnston, and vocalist Sue Tompkins — never intended for Any Other City to take off, much less for their band of art school kids to garner any sort of following. Nevertheless, Life Without Buildings have enjoyed moderate cult success, as "The Leanover" has creeped its way into Gen Zs' ears.
if i Loose ya TikTok Compilation - The Leanover by Life without Buildingswww.youtube.com
No song is immune from the TikTok effect, but the newfound virality of "The Leanover" is a mysterious and peculiar success, as Life Without Buildings is a mysterious and peculiar band themselves. At once polarizing and beloved, the quartet — formerly one of indie rock's best-kept secrets — are finally experiencing the resurgence in mainstream popularity that they deserve.
Bradley, Evans, and Johnston founded Life Without Buildings in Glasgow in 1999, recruiting Tompkins — a painter and poet with hardly any musical background — shortly thereafter. It wasn't long before Any Other City was released to moderate hype in the U.K., and that same year, Life Without Buildings shared the stage with The Strokes during the latter band's first ever-headlining gig in London.
Rumors have long circulated that Life Without Buildings had been bumped to the opening slot at the last minute, and while the jury's still out, the Scots didn't seem to pay much mind: "It would have been silly to get uppity about it," Johnston recalled in a 2009 interview. "All I really remember is breaking a string and the drummer out of The Strokes was nice." (Bradley added: "If we were where [The Strokes] were, then we were clearly in the wrong place.")
After all, Life Without Buildings never took themselves too seriously. Tompkins' lyrics, recited in her inimitable voice, often flowed like she was improvising (although the band's live album, Live At the Annandale Hotel, proves each word was a deliberate choice). Tompkins' whimsy famously didn't appeal to everyone; NME rated Any Other City two out of five stars, likening her voice to the screech of nails on a chalkboard. Life Without Buildings were a "love them or hate them" type of band, and they liked it that way.
Though they were often thrown into the "post-punk" category, no band has sounded quite like Life Without Buildings. They were influenced by everything from the erratic math rock of bands like Don Caballero to more mainstream R&B, and they didn't mind name-checking those forebearers in their music: In "The Leanover," Tompkins subtly references both shoegaze icons My Bloody Valentine and punk greats Television.
Much of the beauty of Life Without Buildings came from the fact that they didn't bind themselves to rules of any sort. While the members' wide array of tastes admittedly paved the way for arguments during writing, the end result was a well-rounded, one-of-a-kind work of art.
Any Other City is the type of record to act as a comforting reminder that anything is possible, to get you excited about music again when everything else feels stale; "Look around!" Tompkins coos on "Let's Get Out," a line that distills the sense of wide-eyed wonder of her band's music. Some outlets belittled the frequent repetition in Tompkins' songwriting — in "New Town," for example, she utters the phrase "looking in your eyes" 37 times.
But she delivered each utterance of a phrase with such exuberance that it felt like a story being told in itself. From the rattling drums of "Young Offenders" to the sweet balladry of "Sorrow," her voice swept between bursts of playfulness and sincerity.
Life Without Buildings broke up in 2002, when Tompkins began feeling that her short tenure with the band had come to an end. "For Sue I think it turned from a laugh into being a commitment that she'd never signed up for," Johnston said. The members themselves were the first to admit that their band was never meant to last, smartly calling it quits the moment it stopped being fun. Bradley recalled that on one of the last songs the band tried writing together, Tompkins sang the line, "Take me away from here" over and over again.
Any Other City saw an uptick in popularity when it was reissued on vinyl for the first time for Record Store Day in 2014. And while it's unclear exactly what has caused "The Leanover" to take off in 2021, it shouldn't be a surprise that the young, artsy crowd has latched on to Tompkins' quirks. While no lip sync could match her vibrant energy, the 66,000 TikToks and counting featuring "The Leanover" feel like a long-overdue ode to the indie rock underdogs.
With each member now settled into their respective careers outside of music, a Life Without Buildings reunion seems highly unlikely. But, if an internet trend can bring Stevie Nicks to TikTok, I suppose nothing is off the table.