Checking In With Gang Of Youths As They Work On Their Experimental New LP

In 2018, Gang Of Youths was making a significant international breakthrough. One of Australia’s most popular rock bands, they made in-roads on American radio with their outstanding second album, Go Farther In Lightness, and played their biggest stateside concerts yet as the opener on a Foo Fighters arena tour. The next year, they crisscrossed Europe with Mumford & Sons.

But privately, David Le’aupepe, the band’s loquacious and charismatic frontman, was hurting. His beloved father Teleso, known to friends and family as Tattersall, was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, and died of the disease the following year. Le’aupepe, who refers to his dad as “my best mate in the whole world,” was devastated. But he was also inspired to give the family patriarch a voice on the next Gang Of Youths record.

Several years later, that record has not yet seen the light of day. Surely the most ambitious and experimental Gang Of Youths album to date, it has the added stakes of being their first big release with new label Warner Records, which signed them to a worldwide deal in 2019. (They’ve also had to contend with the loss of founding guitarist Joji Malani, who exited the band that same year.)

The pressure is on to make something great, and Le’aupepe admits he’s felt the heat. If not for a nasty case of writer’s block that’s kept him from finishing lyrics, the album might already be out. The band has already re-recorded the songs three different times while integrating a new set of influences into their usual anthemic rock stew. Specifically, Le’aupepe has embraced indigenous music native to his family’s Samoan and Māori cultures, as well as the hip-hop and dance sounds that he grew up on.

“I started looking for Samoan music and Pacific music and Māori music, stuff to collect for my own,” Le’aupepe says with trademark passion, “because I knew I wanted to make fucking something with this.”

You can hear a bit of this reinvention on the recent Total Serene EP, which was released last month as a stop-gap as Gang Of Youths slowly but surely near completion of the new LP. (The album has a title, but Le’aupepe asked to keep it off-the-record. “I had the title in my head before I had the music and the lyrics and the concept,” he says.) The three-song EP includes the single “The Angel Of 8th Avenue,” a rousing revival of the Springsteen-meets-The National indie of Lightness, and a cover of Elbow’s “Asleep In The Back.” The final song, “Unison,” is something else entirely, however — a chamber pop epic that morphs into an ecstatic rave marked by joyous chanting, drawn from a sample of pioneering composer David Fanshawe’s library of indigenous Pacific music recorded in the 1980s.

Based on unreleased songs that Le’aupepe shared with me, “Unison” is a good indicator of where Gang Of Youths are headed on LP3. But how much longer will take it to get there? I checked in with Le’aupepe over Zoom from his home in London to find out.

Was the new EP conceived as a standalone release, or are you cherry-picking tracks from the upcoming album?

Do you want the actual, honest truth?

Of course.

I have no fucking idea. I think we did it to prolong the amount of time that we have to record the album. And maybe I just needed to clear people’s palettes from the fucking shit that we’ve been making for eight years, to say, “This is where we were, this is where we’re going.”

It’s an interesting release, because while there’s only three songs, it does capture the arc of your career. “The Angel of 8th Avenue” just seems like a prototypical Gang of Youths song. If you loved the early records, you’re going to love that song.

Yeah, if you love Alligator, then you’ll love “The Angel Of 8th Avenue.”

But then you get to “Unison,” and I know from the music you’ve shared with me that that seems like a pretty telling taste of what you’re going to be doing on the next record.

I remember, we were talking fucking years ago in Minnesota, we were playing at 7th St Entry, and we were just talking about bands that had our trajectory. And I won’t name the band we’re talking about — because it’s one that people most often associate us with — but I kind of had that feeling of, yeah, this is like our Achtung Baby. It is that frame of mind I’m trying to work with here because, sonically at least, it’s a way for us to dive into something completely un-Gang of Youthsy, if that makes sense. That isn’t just another swirling indie-rock anthem that hits a climax towards the end, with meaningful lyrics and everything’s philosophical but it’s all kind of surface level to keep the writer detached enough from his audience from showing real emotional vulnerability. I could give you formulas for how I do it. But this isn’t that.

I grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop, so sampling was a big deal to me. There was this amazing man named David Fanshawe who was a composer and explorer. That’s what he liked to be called, a composer/explorer, and I think that’s really sweet. But he recorded probably the most extensive library of music indigenous to the Pacific anywhere in the world. And our co-producer and part-time sound engineer, Pete Hutchings, introduced me to his music, because I was looking for shit that was reminiscent of my dad and reminiscent of my heritage, and he pointed me to all this incredible Pacific music. I’d had writer’s block for so fucking long that a light went on and I just started fucking around with samples and we started diving into all this stuff. And then we got in touch with his family, and his wife and his daughter have been really amazing, helping us with all the music.

But that was like, a light bulb went on. I just want to take things that are meaningful and then give them air to breathe.

This is also your first album since guitarist Joji Malani left the band.

Joji’s living a beautiful life in Australia now doing his own thing, and you can’t replicate what he gave. How do you replace Paul Scholes, you know? Or what’s an American [sports analogy]? How do you replace Mike Trout? Can you?

So, we had to just figure out something else and that was it. And I realized, what Achtung Baby is is an album that both reinforces everything that U2 are about but also strips away everything they’re about. This contrasting, fucking evolving, multi-cellular organism, fucking thing, it is Achtung Baby. It’s U2 at their most cocky but also their most vulnerable. Their most flash, but their most real. It’s the constant tensions between two kind of antithetical equations. Production-wise, it’s slick, but it’s not so slick. It was them nullifying but reinforcing all the stereotypes, and them playing up to the rock star thing, making fun of it. And I’m always drawn to characters like that.

I always say, the stuff I’m wearing while I’m on stage and in video clips, it’s like trust-fund gambling addict chic. Because I’m fascinated with winners who lost. And maybe that’s because deep down I feel like a Pagliacci clown, the sad Italian clown. That’s the archetype.

I just think being that mess of contradictions in my life and career probably informs a lot of my neurosis about who I am and maybe that’s why I’m trying to be this trust-fund gambling addict who owes the mob 50 grand and has 24 hours to come up with the goods and then goes on a ragtag adventure with a homeless guy in Las Vegas, and Dave’s going to write a screenplay about this and he’s going to sell it to 20th Century Fox.

Is this “trust-fund gambling addict” thing a persona for this record?

I don’t know, man. Is it? I fucking don’t know. Because onstage I’m really different to who I am offstage. But then I worry, does it take away from the nuances and, I guess, the earnestness of the songs? Because I want these songs to be mawkish. Let’s not fuck around. Someone called us “the Ted Lasso of music,” and I can’t figure out if that’s a compliment or a diss but I fucking loved it. It’s one of my favorite explanations, because that TV show, you either fucking hate it because it’s mawkish or you love it, and I’m cool with that.

This album is about your relationship with your late father. How well did you know him?

He was my best mate in the whole world. I didn’t find this out until he died, but he was born in Samoa, he moved to New Zealand, then he came to Australia, and he met my mum in Sydney. My dad was part of the Polynesian migrant workers scheme, which was a very exploitative scheme to rebuild post-war New Zealand. They basically got very cheap or indentured labor from the Pacific Islands under the guise of a work permit or a worker’s visa, and they basically went and rebuilt New Zealand for cheap. So, my dad was part of that generation of Islanders who went. Moved to Australia, met my mum and then they got married, and he was the single most important, decent, flawed, brilliant fucking human being I’ve met in my life, and we were homies until the day he died. Best friends.

But you didn’t know much about his past until after he died?

Fuck all. Knew absolutely fuck all. I didn’t know his fucking family, didn’t know nothing. But that kind of made him cool to me, because my dad was just … he was a bloke, you know? He never let his issues with his past or his secrecy get in the way of him loving the shit out of my sister and me. He was absolutely outstanding, big kiss and a hug every day. He was not someone who withheld affection from his children. He was magnificent.

And after he passed, you started learning more about his background?

Yeah. I mean, I found out I had two brothers, who I’ve become really close with. They were born in New Zealand.

I got to meet my dad’s family and got to dive into what it is to be Samoan. I always had an affinity for indigenous identity. When I was still really involved with church when I was young, I used to look after a lot of the indigenous kids. I always felt kindredness, because obviously, being Pacific Islander, we’re a heavily colonized and exploited group, by the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, the Germans, the English obviously.

So, yeah, I feel an affinity but I never explored it because I think my parents wanted to raise us in a working class, lower-middle class Australian dream. I didn’t really hang out with people who were Pacific Islander, because I think my dad wanted me to not be like them or whatever fucking internalized bullshit that that generation went through, because they had it hard, man. Both my parents had really, really difficult lives, comparative to me especially.

I guess the record is about the discovery of or the rebirth of this identification I now have with Polynesian, Melanesian, Micronesian people. Pacific people. Māori identity was always significant to my father. When he lived in New Zealand, he fell in love with the Māori concept of family and faith. He was really in love with it. My oldest brother, Matthew, was adopted by a Māori family, and so he considers himself Māori. He speaks te reo, which is the indigenous language there.

And so, having now just warped into my late 20s with all these new discoveries, I just wanted to capture them or hold them for posterity in order to give my dad something up there in the fucking stratosphere, wherever he is. It’s about that, I think. It’s also about allowing him to air his past through me in a way. I don’t know that he hasn’t consented to that, but it’s also my past and my history, so I think it’s about me maybe reclaiming that stuff for me, my sister, and my brothers.

One of the unreleased songs you shared with me is called “Brothers,” which is about these brothers you didn’t know you had. It’s this long — probably about seven minutes — piano ballad, and I think it’s one of your greatest songs.

In Māori they call it “whakapapa.” It’s a genealogy or a story that connects us with our parents, grandparents, and then our ancestors. And this song, “Brothers,” is kind of like that, for me at least. It gives a language to the pain and the difficulty my brothers felt, I hope, in some way. I can’t speak for them, fuck knows I can’t speak for fucking anyone, nor my father. But it gives a language to that, and I like that. I think maybe the thing that might keep me going in this business is the thought that I can do that. Not for any reason, it’s not going to change anyone’s fucking life, just because I want to make things I like, and I enjoy that.

I wrote it at 5:30 in the morning, you know, a bit drunk. I came up with that when I was in New Zealand when we were recording a bunch of these drummer guys from the Cook Islands. And my cousin was there, and everyone had left the room. I sat down on the piano and just really wanted to write a song about my brothers, who are just fucking great lads and absolute physical giants. Magnificent beastly specimens, and they’re just good lads who I love a lot. I’m a self-centered, fucking cocky motherfucker most of my life, but if there’s something I can at least try and give them it’s airtime.

You mentioned earlier that you had writer’s block.

Still got it.

Still got it?

Still got it, yeah. This is probably the third iteration of most of these songs. It started out being kind of a rock album and it was a bit snoozy, and then we flew in Peter Katis, my beloved fucking mentor. He tried to help us, and he was really helpful and he did a lot of work. But I was bored of it. The sampling thing was always kind of part of it. I knew I wanted to do it. but I didn’t know how. And then I just realized, what’s the shit that made me want to feel something? I just wanted to make electronic dance music for a bit, just to get my mind off, and then it kind of started working, working with that stuff.

There was an alchemy happening, and the five of us — just me, Tommo, Maxy, Donnie, and Jungy — we get on. It felt like we were a bunch of marauding pirates taking shit, stealing shit, just going on Splice and building songs out of shit we’d fucking find there. There was a thievery about it. It was fun as shit, and it’s been fun as shit. I took chords that I believed in and chords that I cared about when they were put together, and then we laid it down, and we just went H.A.M. on finding things to work around, and it brought a weird snifter of joy back to my career.

But then, I don’t have lyrics that are worthy of the work that the four other guys put into these songs. That’s the challenge. They worked fucking hard on these tracks, and if I fuck them up with terrible lyrics then I’m a big old-fashioned penis.

You’re very critical of yourself. I’m sure you’ve written some good lyrics that you don’t think are good because you’re excessively self-critical.

I think the music is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. And this is the first time in my career I’ll ever go on the record as saying this, but I’m enjoying it, holy shit.

But the lyrics are my thing. They have to be because I’m a fucking controlling asshole when it comes to that side of it. I don’t think I’m being critical. Because people took a punt on Gang Of Youths. They took a fucking risk when we started out. They really did. There are people who’ve liked us for 10 fucking years. 10 fucking years! Shit. I don’t want to let them down. You put all this time and energy into giving a shit about this stupid band that has no right to exist, generally, on paper. I don’t want to be a dick and just be like, “Here’s some throwaway bullshit that I came up with because I desperately want the money.”

I know you’ve been hanging out with Adam Durtiz lately. Has he been an advisor for this album?

He’s just been there. I love him. He’s been a mentor because he’s actually someone I really respect. He was unfairly critically maligned for most of the ’90s by fucking annoying, bespectacled Northeastern liberal art graduate fucking types for no other reason than he was popular. He’s just someone who wrote fantastic songs, has an iconic voice, and is just a fucking good guy. I always loved Hard Candy because that album was absolutely fucking huge in Australia. I just love the guy, man, honestly.

I think Adam’s experience in the limelight and his grace gave me hope for a future that I could build maybe in this business. But I don’t ever want to be as popular as he was, because it sounds excruciating.

Is there anything specifically that Durtiz has told you that stands out as good advice?

“You can’t listen to them.”

Gang Of Youths is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.