Interview: Gang of Youths again face mortality as they write their third LP

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Gang of Youths

Gang of Youths perform at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco on May 22, 2018. Photo: Alessio Neri.

Gang of Youths’ 2015 debut record, The Positions, was a look into the depths of tragedy. David Le’aupepe, the frontman and chief songwriter for the Australian-based rock band, wrote songs about how his drug addiction brought him to his knees, his suicide attempts, his then-wife’s battle with cancer and their subsequent divorce.

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In conversations, the band referred to The Positions as a “cancer record.” They didn’t anticipate having to go into a similar depth—literally and figuratively—for a second time, at least not so soon. But last year, Le’aupepe’s father, a huge influence on Gang of Youths, passed away after his own battle with cancer. That has been weighing heavy on the singer-guitarist and his bandmates, who are now preparing to make the follow-up to 2017 hit album Go Farther in Lightness.

“Dave has this spooky ability to kind of just have this bigger thing to say,” bassist Max Dunn said in a recent interview. “With The Positions… his wife was dying of cancer and [he had] a bunch of other shit going on, so … that record almost tracked the grief process in a way.”

A similar cathartic foresight went into planning Go Farther in Lightness. The band went to a Sydney bar in 2016, where Le’aupepe said the name that had come to him for the album, and what he wanted to accomplish.

“‘It’s going to be about finding beauty in the mundane and finding massive meaning in tiny moments,’” Dunn remembers Le’aupepe saying. “He goes and does it. We work together, and we produce this record. All the guys bring their whole heart to it and it kind of works out.

“I know that our record that we’re about to start making will definitely be touched by what happened with his father. I think that will be a lot of the bigger issues. But it’s never small with David.”

Gang of Youths have never attempted to be a “cool” band, instead focusing always on how to get their listeners to feel something big and specific. Dunn acknowledged that big-picture themes have permeated the band’s discography. In its songs, the quintet—which includes drummer Donnie Borzestowski, guitarist Joji Malani and keyboardist Jung Kim—has attempted to address that life is worth living, even when it’s a difficult life.

“That’s probably what’s going to happen on the next album and you know, Tattersall, Dave’s dad, will obviously be a huge inspiration for us,” Dunn said. “Writing from experience is one of our greatest strengths and abilities—to kind of take these huge, fucked-up things like death … and go, ‘This is me being human.’”

In Australia, Gang of Youths, who have been playing together since the members were in school, are one of the biggest bands. Malani, Kim and Le’aupepe met in church when they were 11. It was no ordinary church, but Hillsong, a massive music-centered congregation linked by churches spread out in Sydney.

On Gang of Youths’ influence from Hillsong mega-church in Australia

People don’t realize that that place has got many, many, many churches. It’s like saying the Catholic church is just one thing; do you know what I mean? You could be going to a church and playing guitar for 70 people in some shitty neighborhood, and it would have the Hillsong brand. So it’s not just this big giant thing. When we say we’ve got an opportunity to play music there, we’re not just saying that we were playing on a stage to 30,000 people like Christian celebrities. There’s also a side of it that’s really grassroots and that’s where, when you’re a little kid, you get an opportunity to be a musician. Not a lot of kids do that. You might get it for an hour in high school at lunchtime, but you’re not getting it every weekend.

None of the members are actually Australian other than the frontman, whose father was Samoan. Kim is from Chicago. Malani came to Australia with his family as Fijian refugee and Dunn is from New Zealand.

Dunn met Le’aupepe in high school, and the two played together often. Years later, when Dunn was 22, the frontman was starting a band and invited the bassist to join. Dunn didn’t meet Malani or Kim unil the first practice. There was another drummer at the time, but he was eventually replaced by Borzestowski, who was playing in another band at the time.

Even Dunn and Borzestowski, who didn’t attend Hillsong, grew up on gospel music. And Hillsong gave the band a stage.

“It’s a place where you’re allowed to be really, really shit and still be given an opportunity,” Dunn said. “A lot of people grow up in it because you’re allowed to have a go or learn to play in a band, and you learn to be musical. You learn the sort of spooky power where music is used in a context of a belief system. It may be a good parallel of a Bruce Springsteen concert, when you listen to ‘Born to Run’ and that music reaches into the working-class American heart and connects the story to the person, and the music’s part of it. That’s what church music is really good at doing. I think it would be bullshit to say it had no impact on who we became as musicians. Even though we’re not trying to make music that’s specifically for that, we grew up in that.”

On Gang of Youths’ music influences

The National; back when I was 14, Boxer came out. Peter Katis the producer, who mixed all our records, has been an influence on our sound. His band is called The Philistines Jr. I fucking love them.

Dave has a huge love of classical music; we all do. … Joji listens to so many crazy musicians; he’s friends with so many different guitar players.

I really love emo music. I love everything that The Hotelier makes. … I am obsessed with Kacey Musgraves’ record that just won everything at the Grammys. I’ve listened to that like 300 times this year. I love Julien Baker. Songwriting-wise, it’s hard to go past her.

In terms of the whole band sound, we’re the sort of band that loves Wilco but at the same time loves Foo Fighters. Collectively, the biggest influence would be Broken Social Scene. You watch that band, and it’s like a bunch of best friends playing music together. There’s always chemistry, and it always feels like the live show might be different from the last one. Every single guy in the band went to Brixton Academy to watch their last show in London, and it was right after that Manchester bombing. Kevin Drew did this scream and got the whole crowd to yell with him as this expression of how shit that was. It’s one of the most euphoric live moments I’ve ever been at.

Each guy has their own stuff and then it kind of comes together. We’re trying to make big music. We’re not trying to be cool. It sounds really cliché but we just try to make people feel when they come to our shows.

Le’aupepe’s upbringing is well chronicled. He and his parents lived a lower-class life, off his mother’s disability payments. He has said many of the children he grew up with eventually ended up in jail. He eventually got into drugs and alcohol, as well as problems at school.

At Hillsong, he met his wife. He was just out of high school at the time and was often drunk. She was diagnosed with cancer. He started writing her songs and uploaded a few to YouTube, which attracted some industry attention.

His wife recovered from cancer, but their marriage didn’t. He drank and did more drugs. He tried to kill himself.

“I think Dave is super shaped by where he came from,” Dunn said.

But most of the members in Gang of Youths have faced their own tragedy. Malani’s family escaped Fiji after a coup. Borzestowski’s brother, himself a musician who performed as Szymon, took his own life. Dunn said that only he has lived a relatively easy life.

“I’m pretty much a WASP—privileged Anglo Saxon Kiwi kid who grew up in an idyllic New Zealand community. It [was] like a really great Southern Californian suburb but without the bullshit, in a tiny peaceful progressive country,” he said.

“But you know, each guy has had this kind of woven tragedy and ups and downs of life—no one more than Dave. I think that definitely formed some of the heart of the band, and this theme of overcoming.”

Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter

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