Done is Done: Young Fathers put 'Dead' to rest

Edinburgh's outspoken sons Alloysious Massoquoi, Kayus Bankole and G Hastings reflect on the futility of reflecting, and how an album can change a city

Article by Katie Hawthorne | 15 Jun 2015

For Young Fathers, looking backwards doesn’t come easy. The group’s approach to writing and recording is brutally fast: take a week in the studio, and what’s done is done. “Catch the moment,” as Alloysious Massoquoi puts it. So when asking the Edinburgh three-piece if they consider it completely pointless to take a retrospective view on DEAD, the record they released early last year, and that’s earned them a second SAY Award nomination, it’s no surprise that a unanimous, emphatic ‘yes’ is the answer.

“It’s dead, though.” says Kayus Bankole, snorting at his accidental irony. “It’s in the past to us,” explains G Hastings, “we recorded it about a year before it was even released.” It’s an attitude that’s understandable, and yet The Skinny has persuaded the trio to talk about the record twice already; once around its release in January 2014, and again when we voted it into our own albums of the year. It’s a miracle, really, that they’re patient enough to allow us one final crack at it… and given that the SAY Award is currently making up a bit of chronological ground, it could seem strange to be honouring a record some 18 months after its release – yet DEAD remains well worth revisiting.

Building on the impressive foundations of Tape One and Tape Two – last year’s Scottish Album of the Year, don’t forget – DEAD emerged even brighter and bolder, confidently addressing the band’s kaleidoscopic musical influences and confronting any detractors with an unblinking, unforgiving stare. Challenging journalists up and down the country with its complete resistance to genre, the record fuses wheezing synth with blown-out bass and surging hip-hop beats, narrated by acapella vocals which unravel into biting rap, and somehow end up part of a syrupy, bonafide pop chorus. Honestly, it’s no easy job to summarise – let alone categorise. It’s pleasing, though, that Massoquoi cracks the group’s poker face to admit that he has recently given the record a spin: “Yeah, I took a listen… I was trying to listen to it as a fan. It was weird, like... WOAH. I felt like I’d forgotten? I’ve not listened to that stuff for a year – because the way that we've been doing it live, it's not the same. So it was nuts. It was like… if I wasn’t in this group, I’d like this?”

"Edinburgh’s in that stage where it’s alright for a guard to walk on stage and say shove off, when you’re in the middle of your moment, because it has that attitude of security over art" – G Hastings

He’s not wrong. From a fan’s perspective, it’s an astonishing record. Lead single Get Up is both a party starter and a catalyst for agitation, revolution. A track that drags you out onto the dance floor, chastising you for any recalcitrance, the band’s since played it to explosive response on shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live, and stages as diverse as Edinburgh’s Princes Street Hogmanay, Glastonbury and London’s Roundhouse. Mixing bittersweet harmonies with frosty, commanding warnings, Dip is similar in its accusations: your complacency isn’t welcome here. Deceptively restrained, and amidst apocalyptic forebodings of retribution, they demand, “you’ve gotten all your things in order / but what is your significance?” “HELLO,” they shout on Hangman, “who’s there?” And, in amongst the chaos, you find a track like Am I Not Your Boy: a ballad of classical measurements, drenched in puddles of ambient synth, that pleads – three voices becoming one – “but mother I’m good as gold/ am I not your boy/ your child.” Storytelling at its finest, DEAD is that rare breed of pop record: intelligent, incendiary and demanding, it insists that you dance but that you not lose your head.

It’s no wonder, then, that the album graced manifold end-of-year polls (not just ours!), and scooped the coveted Mercury Prize – much to the shock of the bookies who’d stacked their odds on FKA twigs or Damon Albarn. Marking a clear turning point for the band in terms of both exposure and critical acclaim, the discourse around the record led to a turning point of sorts for Edinburgh, too. Using their vantage point to criticise Edinburgh council for a thoroughly unsupportive attitude towards the city’s music scene, they initiated a conversation that’s had long-lasting reverberations. “Yeah, we just got the spot to say something publicly” enthuses Hastings, “I think everybody feels that this city needs to move on, and stop being so boring, really.” They laugh. “The city’s got the facilities, especially in Leith. I don’t understand why there’s not a venue or a club in Leith?”

“It’s because the power goes to the people who complain,” Massoquoi retorts. “We used to work in a studio, on a main road down Leith. A busy main road. And someone complained…” “Because it was too noisy!” Bankole jumps in. “Yeah, on a MAIN ROAD. With TRAFFIC. With great lorries going past. And a studio that is under the GROUND,” Massoquoi finishes. “No no, what happened is they saw people with guitars, and they assumed there was going to be noise. They pre-empt it,” argues Bankole.

Hastings weighs back in: “But, I think with things like tonight, and Summerhall, and stuff like that – people are trying. The council’s trying.” Aside from Summerhall’s new and provocatively titled series of events, ‘Nothing Ever Happens Here’, he’s referring to the show the band has just played. Still sweaty, and in the midst of a rum-fuelled after party, our interview is taking place in the dressing rooms of the Methodist Central Hall in Tollcross. The trio headlined a sold out and riotous Neu! Reekie! event that saw political poet Hollie McNish, dance maestro Andrew Weatherall and reignited electronic stalwarts Finitribe light up the place before Young Fathers brought the house down – almost literally.

The night marked a homecoming, a welcome touching of base at the end of an intense tour in honour of their newest record, White Men Are Black Men Too. An LP that’s arguably even more persuasively eclectic than DEAD, it’s been an honour to watch the three interweave material new and old (drawing on the Tapes, too) for a show wholly triumphant. It’s appropriate, also, that this return should utilise such a beautiful yet underappreciated show space. “It’s a great venue,” urges Hastings, “that can be kind of a struggle in this city. It was a good view from up there, and they should use this place more often.”

Yet it wasn’t without drama. A vigilant security presence thwarted an attempt from Bankole to dance with the eager crowd: “It was funny, ‘cause there were nae barriers and you went out to that front step, but no-one could come and meet you,” says Hastings. “Yeah!” says Bankole. “I saw one person step out, but [he mimes a bouncer pushing back]. I was like, WHAT?” And, after security took to the stage miming a cut-throat, cut-the-noise action at exactly 11.01 pm, Hastings ended up in a stand-off, nose-to-nose with an (admittedly un-bothered security guard) while finishing the set. “I can fully understand why people are distrusting of the council – see what they just done to us – but it needs to start somewhere,” he reflects. “Edinburgh’s in that stage where it’s alright for a guard to walk on stage and say shove off, when you’re in the middle of your moment, because it has that attitude of security over art.” “But only because the city isn’t being exposed,” volunteers Massoquoi. “It’s early days, it can’t change overnight.”

The theme of exposure is a recurring one with Young Fathers. A band that seeks out confrontation, to “expose you to something new,” they aren’t the types to turn down a TV appearance or festival billing, no matter how incongruous the setting with their sound: “You want as many people to hear the music as possible.” Hastings laughs, “you want everything. You want it all.”

It’s reflected in the diverse crowd that’s turned out to the Tollcross Hall, too. “There’s something for everyone. The energy that we have, it’s just a mixture of so many different things. But we’ve had to work to get to this point,” explains Massoquoi, excitedly. “We could write those five minute pop songs that are in the charts. I’m telling you right now, what you hear in the charts is a load of fucking shite. No, honestly! It’s so fucking easy to write those songs, but we want something that means something. You know what I mean. And it takes time for that to come across for people. When you’re exposed to something new, it’s weird, but then you leave it a while… and you get it.” Perhaps, as it turns out, Young Fathers are a little more retrospective, a touch more nostalgic, than they would have you believe.

DEAD is out now on Big Dada. The Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award winner is announced this Wednesday evening.