Depending on which country he’s in, Dave Le’aupepe might be regarded by passersby as a full-fledged rock star, a mid-level indie musician, or a total unknown. At the moment, as the 25-year-old Australian talks passionately about his band Gang Of Youths to an American music critic over a bad cell phone connection from a furniture store in London, Le’aupepe exists at the midpoint between stardom and obscurity.
Back home, he’s a big deal, with a recent No. 1 record and eight ARIA nominations (the Aussie version of the Grammys) earlier this month affirming Le’aupepe’s regional reputation as one of rock’s best young singer-songwriters. In the United States, however, Le’aupepe and Gang Of Youths definitely falls on the “unknown” end of the spectrum. While the band’s stirring sophomore effort, Go Farther In Lightness, has battled the likes of Ed Sheeran and Queens Of The Stone Age for supremacy at the top of the Australian charts, the album hasn’t even been reviewed by most music publications and websites stateside.
This is a real shame, because Go Farther In Lightness deserves to be ranked with the very finest rock albums of 2017, no matter the country. Released in August — in the midst of ho-hum duds by North American arena-rock acts such as Arcade Fire and Foo Fighters — Go Farther In Lightness stands as one of the year’s most exhilarating “big” guitar-rock albums, delivering anthem after heart-busting anthem with a potent combination of instrumental muscle, lyrical insight, and Le’aupepe’s impassioned vocals.
But the grandiosity of Go Farther In Lightness extends beyond just the expansive tracklist, which clocks in at nearly 80 minutes over 16 songs. It is also baked directly into Gang Of Youth’s aesthetic, which balances furiously uplifting basement-show ragers like “What Can I Do If A Fire Goes Out?,” one of the year’s best and most immediate rock singles, with orchestral flourishes like “Achilles Comes Down,” a stunning “Eleanor Rigby”-style ballad scored for a string quartet by Le’aupepe himself.
The grand music suits Le’aupepe’s sweeping lyrics, which weigh heavy philosophical questions about the meaning of life, death, and conservative icon Ayn Rand, whom he despises, among other topics. When asked about the influences on Go Farther In Lightness in a recent interview, Le’aupepe listed a virtual syllabus: Martin Heidegger’s Being And Time, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan Kundera, lots of Nietzsche.
Go Farther In Lightness sounds like it was conceived to be heard in only the biggest rooms by the biggest audiences experiencing the biggest emotions. This is the album’s charm, though Le’aupepe thankfully isn’t a full-on megalomaniac. In the album’s first track, the Kierkegaard-quoting “Fear And Trembling” — which opens as a bleary-eyed, closing-time barroom ballad before exploding into a revved-up punk-rock stampede — he inserts a self-deprecating aside: “While I have questions of mortality, the clear and present vast / They just yell the words ‘pretentious,’ with no clarity or class.”
“Do I think I’m pretentious? Fuck yeah, of course,” Le’aupepe says over our crackling cell connection. “But everyone has a little bit of that in them, and I’m brave enough to admit it.”
While most of our conversation winds up sounding garbled when played back on my digital recorder, the parts that do come through loud and clear are whenever Le’aupepe gets the most worked up, like when he defends his right to be pretentious, or theorizes about Gang Of Youths’ struggle to crack the American market.
“For the most part we’ve never had a specific demographic or scene associated with us,” Le’aupepe says with a fatalistic chuckle. “But I don’t think we’ve ever tried, so it’s probably our fault.”
Formed in 2012, Gang Of Youths started as a vehicle for Le’aupepe’s songs, which found an audience on Youtube when he was still in his teens. His original muse was his first wife, whom he married at the age of 21 when she was already battling cancer. These songs, which documented her fight against the disease and his anguish, became the basis for Gang Of Youths’ confessional debut, The Positions, after the band scored a record deal in 2013.
By then, Gang Of Youths had relocated to the US — most of the band was based in New York City, where much of The Positions was recorded with producer/engineer Kevin McMahon, who worked on one of Le’aupepe’s favorite albums and key influences, Titus Andronicus’ The Monitor. Le’aupepe meanwhile moved to Nashville, where his marriage fell apart as his wife’s health worsened.
Strangely, moving away from Australia had seemingly only helped Gang Of Youths’ fortunes in their native country, where The Positions became a critical and commercial hit. Meanwhile, in their new home in America, Gang Of Youths got lost in the shuffle. Over the course of five years, he estimates that only two tours of the US have been successful. Even after Le’aupepe rejoined his bandmates in New York City, he felt squeezed between two tribes in the local rock scene, which he classifies as “quote-unquote critically acclaimed indie-rock, where’s it’s upper middle-class white kids staring at their shoes” and “radio-friendly, pop-sensiblity shit.” Both crowds were equally unwelcoming.
Standing tall with a lanky, 6-foot-2-inch frame further extended by disheveled black hair, Le’aupepe’s soulful voice is reminiscent of some obvious antecedents: A touch of Springsteen’s gruffness and a heavy dose of Bono’s fevered religiosity are immediately apparent, as are more contemporary indie-rock singers like The National’s Matt Berninger and The Gaslight Anthem’s Brian Fallon. When you hear Le’aupepe sing, you can detect the lineage of outsized dreamers and rueful poets from classic-rock history that Gang Of Youths plugs into. But, ultimately, he’s too ambitious for the indie kids and too idiosyncratic for the mainstream.
And then there’s the matter of race. Gang Of Youths is an uncommonly diverse rock band — Le’aupepe is Samoan-Jewish, guitarist Joji Malani is Fijian, and keyboardist Jung Kim is Korean-American. (Bassist Maxwell Dunn hails from New Zealand, and drummer Donnie Borzestowski has Polish and Australian ancestry.)
“It’s kind of hard to not be an emaciated, skinny white dude if you’re in an indie rock band these days,” Le’aupepe says bluntly. In Australia, “the white gaze” of critics and tastemakers is more oppressive than it is in America, he adds, where there’s generally more people of color in music, if not always among rock critics and tastemakers.
“In the United States, despite the fact there’s a bunch of white people essentially trying to explain why certain pieces of black music should be appreciated by white people, there’s a lot more diversity,” Le’aupepe insists. “There’s more opportunity for people with my skin color to be heard.”
But will people hear Go Farther In Lightness? If career setbacks and frustrations have made Le’aupepe pessimistic, he doesn’t show it in his ebullient songs, which radiate hope like a series inspirational slogans: “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane,” “The Heart Is A Muscle,” “Our Time Is Short,” “Say Yes To Life.” (The album was completed not long before his ex-wife died.)
Certainly, an artist as resolute, even messianic, as Le’aupepe aspires to attain an audience as vast as the music he creates. But for now, Le’aupepe is content to have made an under-appreciated gem with a heart many sizes larger than its media profile.
“I don’t want to make a low-stakes, fucking cynical, 10-track, fucking pithy 40-minute record,” he says defiantly. “I’m going to die one day. I don’t have time to capitulate to that kind of nonsense.”
Go Farther In Lightness is out now via Mosy Recordings. Get it here.