Rudimental’s Ian Wright worshipping, Arsenal obsessed star Locksmith: ‘Sport is vital to my self-care’

Locksmith talks mental health, football, fitness and his admiration for Ian Wright
Locksmith talks mental health, football, fitness and his admiration for Ian Wright

Leon Rolle, aka Locksmith, may appear to be the man who has got it all – a superstar musician who makes up one quarter of MOBO and Brit award-winning band Rudimental, and a long-time Arsenal supporter who realised the dream of every fan when he got to represent his beloved club, albeit, at academy level.

On paper, he is the cat the who got the cream. But along his journey to the top there have been plenty of challenging moments which have truly tested his resolve, including a particular low point when he trashed pop sensation Ed Sheeran’s dressing room during an arena tour of America.

A self-confessed fitness fanatic, who treats his 66,700 Instagram followers to daily motivational videos, Locksmith has found his own ways of dealing with the mental weight of the pressure-cooker environment that is the music industry – with one of those methods being able to release his built-up energy and frustrations on the football pitch.

Rudimental signed their first deal with Black Butter Records in 2011, which would set the four-piece band comprised of members Locksmith, Piers Aggett, Amir Amor and Kesi Dryden on course for stardom.

But long before that seismic moment in his life, when growing up Hackney, east London, Locksmith became obsessed with football after watching his father, a Tottenham fan, play for the first time.

‘I got introduced to football when I was about eight years old, and I fell in love with it instantly,’ Locksmith says.

‘It was my dad who got me involved in it, funnily enough he’s a Tottenham fan, I’m an Arsenal fan. That kind of happened due to our relationship deteriorating at such an early age. So, I thought I’d go to the opposing side.

‘My dad, in my eyes when I was growing up especially when I was really young was a really good footballer. I remember the first time he took me to one of his matches. I got to sit in the stands and watch him play football, and I said to myself that’s what I want to do. That’s where it stemmed from, as soon as I got home from that match, I got a football and I was outside, practicing my kick-ups for hours on end.

‘Because of that passion and desire, it gave me a solid foundation to dedicate myself to something and sacrifice myself to something. I remember waking up an hour before school to get to school to climb over the gates to play football with my mates and I wouldn’t leave school until about two hours after my final lesson. That was the nature of my passion – and I took that to everything else I’ve done in my life. I fell in love with football before I knew what love was.’

Ian Wright helped inspire Locksmith to follow his dream
Ian Wright helped inspire Locksmith to follow his dream (Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images)

A huge source of inspiration for Locksmith when dreaming of becoming a professional footballer as a youngster was Arsenal legend Ian Wright. The former striker is one of the English game’s most infamous late bloomers, having only signed his first pro contract with Crystal Palace three months before his 22nd birthday.

The former England international went on to forge an illustrious career from the most unlikely of circumstances, winning the Premier League and FA Cup Double with the Gunners in 1997/98 and scoring a total of 185 goals – making him the club’s second-highest scorer of all time behind Thierry Henry.

A poster of Wright adorned the wall above where Locksmith slept, often with his football boots still on his feet, and when he got to meet his hero, he was completely and utterly lost for words.

‘I had a massive poster of Ian Wright up on my wall growing up,’ Locksmith beams. ‘Even though I was an Arsenal fan, I loved the journey that he was on.

‘He defied the odds, got rejected at most corners but he still kept plodding along and you can see that fight and desire in him. I was just a massive fan.

‘I remember I got to meet him a couple of years back at the MOBOs and I couldn’t even speak, I was just smiling from ear to ear.’

The superstar is a fitness fanatic
The superstar is a fitness fanatic

Locksmith had one thing in his mind when growing up: to become a professional footballer. And that dream briefly became a reality when he got the call to join Arsenal’s academy at the age of 12.

While that experience allowed him to refine his skills at the club he had grown up supporting, it ultimately made the downfall of not making the cut even harder, and put him in a ‘dark place’ mentally.

‘I was in there from about 12 to 15,’ the superstar musician says. ‘It was an amazing time because that’s where my pedigree comes from. That’s where I learned to grow my technical ability and mature and gain all of them life lessons.

‘But at the same time, it’s terrifically heart-breaking when you’re being told that basically you’re not good enough to go any further and you’re not going to be offered the YTS (Youth Training Scheme) that you wanted.

‘It was a very hard time. It put me in dark place as a youngster because you lose the confidence that you had, that you should have as a kid. You should be able to feel like you can run through brick walls and you can achieve anything. But when that’s taken away from you, especially when it’s a passion that you’re so in love with, it can be very detrimental to the rest of your journey.’

After that rejection, Locksmith tried his luck at Tottenham’s academy but by that time, the north London club had already decided who they were going to take on for the year. In searching for his purpose, he even briefly contemplated joining the British Army at the age of 17.

‘It was a hard time and I just took that time out from football and I ended up going to college to do a football scholarship and play semi-pro,’ he continues. ‘But then I said to myself, if this semi-professional thing doesn’t give me a foothold into a professional league then I’m just going to go to the Army. And I remember at college signing the forms to go to the Army. But I didn’t, I ended up falling in love with my Mrs who I’m with today.

‘For every team I played for I started to build up a leadership skill inside me. I loved the fact that you’re part of a team when you play football. As soon as you cross the white line, it’s not an individual sport, you’re looking to the left and the right and you’re hoping that your teammates have got your back.

‘I feel like more than anything coming out of the academy and having long spells out of football while Rudimental was going on, it was that team values that I missed the most, the banter in the changing rooms, the banter after the games, the fights on the pitch, trying to win and get three points. And I wanted to experience that and thought within the army, they sell or share those values. That was my thought process. I wasn’t really thinking clearly, I was just looking for a purpose as well.’

Locksmith speaks of the darker side of fame
Locksmith speaks of the darker side of fame

Locksmith’s prayers were answered when Rudimental shot to fame following their breakthrough with Feel The Love in 2012, the lead single from their debut album Home, which was fully released in 2013.

The drum and base track – a high-octane mood-booster – featuring distinct vocals from John Newman, instantly went to No.1 in the UK charts.

Not long later came the worldwide tours, with Locksmith, the band’s DJ and hype man, a key part of the enthralling show with his energetic presence on stage.

But away from his family, which included his young child, and faced with the devilish temptations of the party lifestyle, his struggles quickly became apparent, with one distinct low point coming while on tour of the USA supporting Ed Sheeran.

‘We’d done shows in America beforehand, but it’d always been a week or two,’ he says. ‘But this was a full two-and-a-half month tour. It’s difficult because you’re just going back-to-back. I was struggling. I remember that was one point where I ended up getting too drunk and I actually trashed Ed Sheeran’s dressing room. I was about 24 or 25 at the time.

‘They were sympathetic with what was going on with me, they understood the stresses. At the time, I was the only one who had a kid in the band. It was a dark moment.

‘At that age and time, it was really new to me, I was always about going to work and coming home to the family. The way we got brought into the game was really fast, one day I had a £100 in my bank, I quit my job, I was going to finish off my sports science degree at University, the next day, we were signed and within a year we were touring around the world.

‘So it was just a bit of a weird transition and it was really hard to comprehend what was real and what wasn’t. Sometimes when you’re on tour, you fly to your destination, jump on the tour bus, fall asleep in France, do your show, fall asleep and you’re in Germany. It’s almost like you’re in a time warp with no sense of reality. It’s hard to stay grounded when you’ve got scenarios like that.

‘I struggle with travelling, I become really homesick. That has a massive effect on me mentally, being away from my family and my kids is truly depressing for me.’

Locksmith has toured the world with Rudimental
Locksmith has toured the world with Rudimental

What has helped him come through those dark times is his fellow band members, and making sure he has an outlet for his feelings and emotions via exercise.

‘I think it’s just about talking and expressing these feelings to someone, in my case I’ve got my bandmates,’ Locksmith explains. ‘It helps because it makes me feel like I’m not alone in those scenarios. It also allows me to re-evaluate what is actually important to me, is it about stretching myself so thin and doing five gigs a week for three months, or is important actually taking a rest, recuperating and getting my mind right?

‘It’s difficult. Especially when you’re in the deepest, darkest corners of Europe and around the world, there’s not a gym in sight, you’ve got to become inventive. I remember I used my tour bus at one point as my gym, doing tricep dips, body-weighted exercises between bumps on the tour bus, a lot of HIT workouts involved. I would bring equipment with me, travel sized equipment like weighted vests just to get me in the right mind frame.

‘You also need to keep that balance of not drinking too much and trying to eat as healthy as you can. And sometimes letting yourself go – get drunk, eat rubbish, sometimes you can’t go too far to one side.

‘I think all of those things helped me get out of those dark moments.’

Fitness has a 'massive effect' on our mental health, says Locksmith
Fitness has a ‘massive effect’ on our mental health, says Locksmith

Prior to the first Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020, Locksmith was playing semi-professional football, and he still keeps up with his fitness routine, which usually starts with an early-morning run.

‘I’m up usually at 5am every morning, get a bit of exercise done, a 5k or 10k run,’ he says.

‘And then I would usually try and sneak in a bit of golf, then head to the studio. And then back home, if I get to pick up my boy from school I do. But if I can’t I’ll get back home and take him to football training, I try and spend as much time as I can with the family.

‘The lockdown, as bad as it’s been, has shone a light on the fact that with gym’s closing, activity being restricted it has a massive effect on our mental health. It’s extremely important that we have these outlets, these methods of escapism to keep our mental health on a level playing field.’

Locksmith is currently involved with charity Street Elite, which uses sport, fitness and mentoring to support young people, many of whom who have been impacted by crime, violence and inequality.

The program, which reaches people from the ages of 18-25 across London and Birmingham, helps get them engaged in education, employment or training.

In terms of the advice Locksmith would give to his younger self, or anyone struggling with mental health issues, his message is clear.

‘Try and enjoy the moments as much as possible, embrace the negatives,’ he says. ‘Because without them you’ll never understand how good the positives feel.’

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