“Be yourself. Think about it.”
When Young Fathers – Graham ‘G’ Hastings, Alloysious Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole - squeeze themselves into a bijou booth in an east London nightclub in the middle of Friday afternoon, it’s probably as good a way as any to get them to be still for a few minutes. They rarely are, either on their extraordinary new album ‘White Men Are Black Men Too’, or in their wired, uncontainable live show – they’re in the middle of a tour at the moment.
As IBWM is ushered into to meet the Edinburgh band, they’ve just been recording a live session for the BBC, and are stopping for a packet of Frazzles before heading off to co-host a radio show (G is collating music for it on his laptop as we speak). With Ally born in Liberia before moving to the Scottish capital as a toddler, and Kayus spending large parts of his youth in Nigeria and the United States, movement is a constant theme with Young Fathers. Yet there are plenty of myths to be busted about this most misunderstood – and actually, most accessible – of groups.
IBWM: We wanted to start off by talking a bit about Berlin and your experiences there. What led you there, in the first place?
G: Basically, it was just another place. We wanted to outside our comfort zone and with nae distractions.
IBWM: So it was like putting a pin in the map?
G: Almost….but not really. It was like, we had gigs in Germany at the time, and we wanted to improve our profile over there, to be seen and heard, as well. So we went over to Germany to do a bit of everything. We played some gigs, did some press which was kind of involved with the album because we invited people to quality control meetings, just to come and listen to some of the songs we were making at the time. So it was a good place for that. Berlin’s got a vibe, though we didn’t see much of it really. We just got in a basement, and did what we could. We changed some of the arrangements of the songs, and tidied it (the album) up.
IBWM: So it was like a boot camp?
A: It was just operating like we were the label, to be honest…
G (interjects) : the photos, the videos, the songs, the whole concept of the album in Berlin, that was the point of it.
IBWM: So what about the history, that people go to hunker down, like Iggy Pop and David Bowie…
G: We know that history, but I don’t think it’s really relevant…
A (interjects): The music’s just really different. Yeah, we were aware of that, which is nice, but at the same time it was just trying to get an album together, and it was just another place to do it. It was a place we were kind of familiar with, I guess, because we’d chosen there in the past.
K: The intention wasn’t necessarily ‘oh, we’re going to Berlin, we’re going take loads of drugs and party at all these fuckin’ venues and inspire a record from there.’ Most of the songs were already done. So the intention was just to get the arrangements synced in our brains, from the little encounter we had with the actual city.
G: It’s always like that. What actually inspires what? That’s what I remember about the time. You take in everything, melt it inside and it comes out you dinnae ken where the references are directly from, you know what I mean? Sometimes it’s the slightest little millisecond of a song while you’re walking down the street that inspires things but you don’t know where it came from.
It’s the best way. If we’d have come back and made another fuckin’ ‘Low’ album, like a Bowie album, it would have been…we couldn’t do that even if we tried. We dinnae want to be someone else, and we’re quite good at churning things in our heads, and trying to be original.
K: Like a mincer.
IBWM: You’ve done recording away from home before, haven’t you? Like doing stuff in the States, so is it important it’s a global thing, rather than just in your own back yard?
A: No, we just have a small set-up, which lends itself to us being able to record anywhere. It’s very portable, so I think that kind of embodies the group’s ethos because we’re quite instant, quite raw - of the moment. When we’re able to do that, which everyone should be able to do, it makes sense at the end of the day. You don’t know when you’re going to feel inspired. So just being able to use your phone to record some ideas, or if there’s a set-up in a corridor by a rehearsal room, anywhere, it’s really good.
IBWM: It’s a really modern way of working, isn’t it? I find myself working on my lap a lot.
G: Yeah, some of the best things we’ve done have been on these phones. We record it on this, point it towards a microphone in a studio and that’s it, because if it sounds good, it sounds good. Technology now, we’ve basically done the whole album on this (brandishes small laptop). There are other things, obviously.
IBWM: It surprises me what a big sound you can get using this stuff.
G: Yeah, and once the music’s in there (again nods to laptop), I can take it anywhere and work from there. We’re not really big fans of big studios….
A: Because you don’t use all of it.
G: Yeah, you feel like you should use all of it but you don’t need it, so you’re sitting there thinking – ‘fuckin’ hell, they’ve got this here, let’s try something through that,’ when really, you’ve just wasting time.
IBWM: So you’ve tried that and stepped back from it?
G: We’ve tried a few big studios through the years. We’ve worked in a few different ways. We started in my bedroom on a karaoke machine, eventually got a computer and then you move to bigger studios, and ended up in bigger studios with a vocal booth. But the fact that you have to walk through to a vocal booth changes everything.
Because you’re like ‘fuck, I’m in a vocal booth, everything needs to be right’, and then you have to come back to listen to it, rather than you all being in the room, just record and just fuckin’ do it. There’s nae big hoo-ha about you stepping up to do your bit. It’s just an instant thing, and it’s a better way of working for us. Just everybody in the room, working close together and everybody can talk to each other. That’s important for us, and we’ve been recording for years, so we can do it.
IBWM: It’s kind of like you’re doing what you’re doing, and the tape’s just on?
G: Basically, yeah. I wouldn’t say that we’re a band that does long periods of recording everything. We’re not a band that records for 45 minutes and takes the best bits out. We’re very precise in what we want. We do leave the mic on, but it’s not like hours of…
K: Floaty, floaty…
G: No, we’re pretty quick now. And we go with our first feelings, rather than thinking we could get something better, because that’s fucking endless. We go with our first instincts, record that, and that’s it. Being comfortable with saying ‘that’s it’ is a big step, because a lot of people think ‘this is a practice run, and we’ll do the proper recording later’. For us, there’s just nae point in that. A lot of the time, you can’t recreate what you’ve done in the first take, when you’re really feeling what you’re saying, not just reading it off a bit of paper.
IBWM: So is that spontaneity why the record translates so well into live performance? It’s a very physical live performance as well.
A: Yeah, I’d say we try and take what we do in the studio and just amplify it to live, because how we approach that is how we approach writing and recording a song. For instance, the song ‘Rumbling’, it’s a prime example. I came in, G’s messing around with sounds, K’s there and it becomes this big, huge séance and everyone’s jumping around, spitting out words and phrases and grunts and – (starts singing) – it just built from that. It’s just another representation of what it’s like when we work. When you have this raw instinct, it always translates like-for-like.
IBWM: Reading around other interviews with you and reviews, there seem to be a lot of misperceptions about you, and a lot of people struggle to define you. That probably doesn’t matter to you, because you just think ‘we’re doing what we’re doing.’ But even with a lot of ideas coming together from different places, the album still feels very focussed.
A: We try to be precise with things, to simplify things, and to be comfortable with that. We never want to make the same album and this was a new challenge, to simplify things in terms of how we want things to come across. Saying the same things over and over again has the same impact as saying another ten or twenty lines. Having it as pop music driven, in the classic sense, having stuff stripped back. Using strings – or a string (laughs). A broken violin.
G: All of the strings on the album were on that one string. We had a guy from NME come up to the studio and I showed him the violin and he was going (raises eyebrows) ‘fuck off! Get to fuck!’ He didn’t believe us. But….
A: It makes a sound!
G: Technology means you can record over again, so we made chords, and sections, out of it. So we used it for ‘Old Rock ‘N’ Roll’, for ‘Sirens’, all of them. It’s because you realise that by being broken, by being out of tune, it’ll be different from all the strings that you’ve ever heard. Using things that other people haven’t used. If you took that to an orchestra…
A: They wouldn’t let you in.
K: “I’ve got this one string! Trust me! It’s good!”
G: That’s the crucial thing. Using mistakes or things that are perceived as technically wrong, or whatever. It feels real. It’s more about soul, and feeling. It’s not about being clean, because a lot of the best music ever made wasn’t about being clean. The fact is that it hits you so hard is because when fuckin’ Otis Redding sings, he’s singing right close to the mic and it’s distorted.
The Motown guys built their studios with their own hands. They never bought desks, they built desks. If you look at punk – the early bands knew two chords and that was it. It’s more human, when you don’t have the technical ability. All you’re trying to do is get to the point where it feels great. It’s about the gut feeling, and we’ve got quite good at that.
IBWM: It’s funny you mention Otis Redding…
A (interjects): He had nodules.
G: Yeah, he had nodules.
A: That’s what I had.
G: That’s why Otis’ voice sounded so great. Now people tell you if you’ve got nodules, don’t talk, go get an operation and all that shit….
A: There must be serious cases, but…(laughs)
G: But Otis sung like nobody else, and nobody else ever will be able to sing like him. And that’s a classic example of something that’s not ‘right’ but you use it and it makes you original and individual.
IBWM: If you listen to the later Johnny Cash stuff, he sounds like an old man, doesn’t he? But the fact that he’s weathered and aged makes it special.
A: That’s it. It’s pretty cool.
G: Yeah, his voice has a different tone and he used it. I think he knew that. Some of his takes, and some of his layered stuff, are just fucking beautiful.
A: It just makes you go – shooom. It makes you focus on it. That voice just draws you in.
G: I think people like him, from that era, it was natural for them to realise it’s about the feeling rather than any technical ability, because you didn’t have multitracking or anything like that, so you just had to be good on the day.
K: It’s not like you turned to face east, and got set before you record, or prepared yourself for a week…
G: You were like – I need to get into this – and I think they were masters of it.
A: It’s missed.
G: It’s changed how music is. You can record again and again, and make your voice sound like it’s 40 people, and knowing that changes the way that you make music. If you never had the option, if you were ‘right, it just needs to go down once,’ it changes everything.
A: And if you’ve got enough money to come back in the studio (laughs), that changes it.
G: All of these things for us, we don’t see them as problems, but as obstacles that make it different. More original.
IBWM: While people are struggling to describe you, I’ve seen you described as hip-hop a load of times, which – I know you rap, but it feels weird.
A: Yeah, well, if you base it on what does hip-hop sound like? It’s full of samples. We’ve used, what? One, two samples? On the last album, we never sampled anything. Sometimes it’s frustrating in the sense that it’s not fair, in terms of the associations that come with hip-hop.
IBWM: A certain attitude?
A: A certain attitude, or to someone who’s never heard us, and they’ll just go ‘oh, I don’t like hip-hop’. And straight away you’re in that bracket. And you’re missing a lot of new fans because you’re in that genre. We’re not any genre. We just do Young Fathers music.
IBWM: It’s actually pop, isn’t it?
A (excitedly): Yeah, that’s the closest thing to it.
G: We were just talking about this before. For us, we look at certain songs we’ve made and we’re ‘this is a fuckin’ pop song’. We can all hear it being on the radio. The only people who don’t are the people who are on the radio, for some unknown fuckin’ reason. We don’t know. If you played that on the radio, it would work. That’s one of our struggles, to make people understand. It’s alright to have a band that looks a bit weird, or a bit different, but the songs are still catchy. It’s pop music in the sense of arrangement, how it’s formed…
A: It’s got hooks…
K: It’s punchy…
G: It’s instant. That’s pop music to us. I think it’s more people who don’t like us, or how we look, or what we say in those pop songs, because in the context of pop now, it would stand out like a sore thumb.
IBWM: So basically people’s perception of pop is quite reductive? That it’s X-Factor and it can’t be anything else.
A: Exactly. And that’s not good for anybody. I’ve had conversations with people about those kind of TV programmes, and they’ve been around for years, since The Monkees, when they got made, and that’s been carried on. But now people genuinely believe that’s the only way. That’s the route. I don’t mind those programmes. I don’t really care about them in essence, and it’s entertaining with the family to a certain extent, but it’s not real. It’s not how the industry works altogether. There are other ways to get into music, and other ways to promote yourself. It tells you this is the route to go if you want to get into music, and it’s bad for letting people think that.
K: What you’ve got to think about is the power that the popular media has, because it’s probably the most watched thing on TV.
G: It more powerful than what any politician says. How many of the general public listen to what fuckin’ Cameron says? And how many people listen to what Kim Kardashian says or what Kanye says? It’s huge. I think the people who run this are very wise. They’re trying to disconnect the fact society and film, or music, are linked, and one of the ways they’ve done it’s through radio and TV, through making it so….safe. No-one really stands up any more and says anything with any depth to it, really. It’s been erased from a whole mindset. People don’t think about a band standing for anything, or what they stand for. It’s not about standing for anything. It’s just a lifestyle.
IBWM: Do you think that sort of context is why people say you’re a political band? Which, again, seems a bit weird to me…
A: Because we’re the closest thing!
G: In pop music, we’re the closest you’re going to get to it. There are political bands, but they don’t really make pop songs, more songs that fit into a stranger, more leftfield zone, and they’re good. For us, we say we’re pop and people saying ‘you can’t be, because you say this’, or ‘you must be political’…it depends what political is. Ok, we’re political…
A: But everyone’s political. It’s personal. Everyone has a conscience, and has a sense of what’s wrong and what’s right. Everyone has morals; maybe some more than others. But because we do music it’s magnified and people think we’re super political. Sometimes I don’t want to talk about politics. I just want to listen to a song because it sounds good.
G: It’s that thing that if you’re waving the finger at people all the time, saying ‘you’re bad,’ if you’re always shouting at people, they’re just going to turn off.
IBWM: They get tired of it.
A: They do get tired of it.
G: We want to change people. We don’t want to just side with people who think like us, and just preach to the choir. We want to change people’s perceptions as much as we can. Creatively, you can be open, you can say these things, you can move like this on stage. Don’t copy us, but be yourself. Think about it.
White Men Are Black Too, the new album from Young Fathers is available now.
Andy is a writer/broadcaster on European football for ESPN, The Guardian, BT Sport and many others, but get him talking about music and you'll be there all night. He's @andybrassell.
If you want to follow Andy's lead and share an article on music with IBWM, contact us here.
Picture Credit: Young Fathers by Simon Lewis.