Gang Of Youths frontman David Le’aupepe isn’t like other singers. A charismatic man apart, a creative livewire who’s a deep thinker at the same time as being an incessant talker, a militant look-forwarder who has no intention of resting on any of the success his band have achieved over the past decade.
Take this answer to a question about his group’s back catalogue, for instance. “I don’t want to hear the last two albums,” he says. “I want to wake up in a world where they didn’t happen.”
But they did happen, so let’s have a quick recap: Gang Of Youths were formed in Sydney, Australia in 2011 by Le’aupepe and some like-minded mates. Within months of their first gig, they’d started to attract a rabid fanbase enraptured by their expansive, widescreen take on indie-rock, the sort of black magic music that manages to feel universal and personal at the same time. They honed this sound over two records, on 2015’s The Positions and 2017’s Go Farther In Lightness, and won four of Australia’s prestigious ARIA Awards on the back of their Platinum-selling second album. Word spread further afield too, helped by an extensive support tour in the US and Europe supporting Mumford & Sons. They relocated to London towards the end of 2017, all living in a house together in Angel, North London. Their current line-up is completed by Max Dunn (bass), Jung Kim (guitar, keyboards), Donnie Borzestowski (drums) and Tom Hobden (keyboards, guitar, violin).
“After the first album, we were getting pushed and pulled a little bit,” Le’aupepe says. “In Australia we got too big, I think.” Living in the UK has given him the chance to reassess what he wants from being in a band and where he wants Gang Of Youths to go next. “Instead of trying to play to every seat in the house, I realised I wanted to play for an audience of one. I spent so much of my early twenties giving too much of a fuck about what people thought.”
The band had planned to have a creative reset before COVID enforced a downing of tools in early 2020. They took it as a sign for complete artistic overhaul. “I think it’s been challenging for us, this whole process,” says Dunn, “but it’s probably going to be good for our music. We’ve gone in a less safe direction and it’s going to be more in line with Dave’s actual vision, rather than Dave pumping something out to get a deadline met.” “We’re exploring so many different territories and sides of ourselves and that’s manifesting in the music,” adds Kim. “We’re doing things that have never really made an appearance in Gang Of Youths.”
Gang Of Youth’s new music fuses their knack of soaring melodies, indelible hooks and dynamic rock uplifts with a love of neoclassical, minimalist composers and experimental sampling. They’re embarking on the most vital phase of their career so far. “We’re trying to use a lot of samples of indigenous music recorded by a guy named David Fanshawe,” explains Le’aupepe. Fanshawe was an English composer and globe-trotting musicologist who compiled a comprehensive archive of indigenous music. “I reckon his family have got vaults and vaults of the shit he recorded when he went to the Pacific.”
Moving into their own studio in Hackney has given the group an excuse to go deep-diving with new ideas. “It’s life-changing,” says Dunn. “You can come in and try and a random instrument on a random part for four hours on your own, and you’re not wasting an engineer’s time or costing the band money.” “There’s not the pressure of a studio environment to workshop a song,” adds Borzestowski.
For Le’aupepe, working in their own studio and learning how to engineer and produce themselves has been a liberating experience, all part of a collaborative new approach in the band. “The songs feel more written together, structurally at least, which is something that never happened before.”
Lyrically, the new material inhabits a similarly fascinating space. Le’aupepe will tell you that he’s had writer’s block for five years, but he’ll also shift mesmerically through the gears as he explains the themes of these songs, tracks about his relationship with his father, who died recently, about Pacific identity, marriage, colonisation, missed conversations, life and how it all boils down to those innocuous small print moments. “Lyrically, I used to wait to be all grandiose and romantic, big fucking sweeping fields of Bruce Springsteen-isms and Nick Cave,” says Le’aupepe. “Now I want to put beauty to the nothingness of most conversations.”
Despite and indeed because of frontman Dave Le’aupepe’s father’s absence, his influence permeates every talking point that the album offers. At times it’s solely focused upon the precise, personal experiences of loss: the dichotomy of intensity and peace that comes as someone passes through their final days; the overwhelming feeling in the wake of their death that life will never be the same, even if the rest of the world at large remains utterly unchanged.
Although the album is eclectic – influences range from American minimalism and contemporary classical, to drawing upon the legacy of Britain’s alternative/indie scenes, from drum ‘n’ bass to the most transcendent moments of Britpop – it’s equally rooted in Le’aupepe’s Samoan heritage, with the majority of tracks featuring samples from David Fanshawe’s recordings of indigenous music from the Polynesian islands and the wider South Pacific.
Living in Angel and London has had an effect on these songs, too. The theme of angels is a recurring symbol in their new music. “It’s a very London album,” says Dunn. For Le’aupepe, moving to the UK capital offered the opportunity to disappear into a city of millions. “It just feels like a nice place to be private. It’s a good place to blend in.”
Often, bands who taste success early in their career, as Gang Of Youths did with huge sales in their homeland, fall into the trap of turning into a photocopy of a photocopy of themselves. Every decision becomes wrought with the fear that it might all fall apart. Gang Of Youths are setting fire to the photocopier instead. “I don’t have to try and remake the same album 50 times. I just want to invest time in new sounds and being open to the world,” says Le’aupepe. “We just wanted autonomy to fuck around.”
Singers in rock bands rarely require a second invitation to wax lyrical about their success and life in the glorious limelight. Rarer still if that singer has all the ingredients for a major breakthrough sitting in his back pocket: such as, say, three captivating studio albums and a burgeoning mass of diehard fans.
But Le’aupepe operates in the here and now. Gang Of Youths are making new music that is primed to connect with the masses; crafting songs that match the age-old anthemic thrills of rock music with a forward-thinking approach.
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