Young Fathers on Cocoa Sugar and Edinburgh's live music scene

We pay Young Fathers a visit in their Leith studio space to talk about new album Cocoa Sugar, via pop dreams, improv poetry, huge horses and the future for Edinburgh's live scene

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 05 Mar 2018

“I’ve got it! Melange. It says ‘mixture, blend, variety, miscellany, diversity, collection, selection, combination, jumble, mess, confusion, mishmash, hotchpotch, ragbag, pastiche…’”

Alloysious Massaquoi, one third of Young Fathers, is reading aloud from an online dictionary entry for his preferred word to describe the band’s sound. “I just think it’s more specific! You’ve got all the different elements. I think that’s more accurate than ‘eclectic’.”

“Yeah, ‘eclectic’ is one of those words that as soon as someone says it I’m like ughhh – I don’t trust you,” Graham 'G' Hastings weighs in. “I’ve never believed it. I like contrast. I think contrast would be a good name for a genre.” He laughs. “I like… contrast music.”

We’re in Young Fathers’ basement studio, just off Edinburgh’s Leith Walk, in the middle of a polar vortex. A space heater’s working hard to cut through the chill but no-one’s taking off their coat. Ahead of the release of new album Cocoa Sugar on 9 March, the trio – Massaquoi, Hastings, and Kayus Bankole, who joins us a little later – are preparing for their UK tour. It’s been three years since The Skinny caught up with the band, and there’s much to discuss. When we last spoke, the trio had given an almost riotous performance at a Neu! Reekie show at Central Hall – Hastings finished the show nose-to-nose with a bouncer set on sticking to curfew. After the gig they railed against Edinburgh’s prioritisation of “security over art”, and despaired at a lack of larger venues in Leith. What’s changed? Hopefully a little more than you’d think.

After winning the Mercury Award with their album Dead in 2014, a shock to some bookies who’d pegged them at 25-1, the band’s star continues to rise. Notable recent achievements include releasing excellent follow-up album White Men are Black Men Too (2015); collaborating and touring the world with Massive Attack; playing shows in Russia and South Africa; sound-tracking T2 Trainspotting at the behest of Irvine Welsh; curating a season at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse cinema; producing a video for the National Portrait Gallery (more on that later); and, most recently, scoring a film for the Barbican. Throughout all this, journalists have struggled (this one included) to land on a viable set of adjectives to describe the band’s sound and accompanying activities. Young Fathers’ restless innovation makes them a band of ideas, rather than one with any fixed mission statement, and never has this been truer than on Cocoa Sugar.

Bittersweet Cocoa Sugar

First on the agenda: the new album. On a first listen, Massaquoi’s enthusiasm for “hotchpotch, ragbag, pastiche” becomes clear. Each track is a mini-universe, weaving worlds out of threads of language – half-familiar folk phrases, Biblical imagery, nearly nonsensical rhymes. But for all this, Cocoa Sugar never feels rushed. He explains: “A lot has been stripped back, to get to the essence of the group. It creates more space, so that you can breathe in a track. You know like when you watch movies? It feels like I can swim in it, it’s really airy.” For him, Cocoa Sugar is a more straight-forward listen than their previous records. “It’s in the focus of ideas,” he says.

But for Hastings, finding that focus was a trip in itself. “We’d been on tour for basically six years, and we just needed to be [in Edinburgh], to spend time with people. But after a wee while of that you get itching to do something else. We needed to be uncomfortable again, and to do something that we hadn’t done. Once you’ve been a weird and wonderful group that can kind of do anything – that was our tag, 'oh, they’re just weirdos' – even that gets boring. The only way to challenge that is to do something linear. Normal. Normal?” he laughs. Cocoa Sugar’s claim to ‘normality’ is tenuous at best. Choose any song and you’ll end up somewhere completely different than where you started; Border Girl begins with jagged, electro-pop not dissimilar to Little Dragon, and steadily swells to fit a cathedral with choral harmonies calling for a miracle.

Hastings continues: “You hear one thing, and then our instinct is to go against it somehow. To find something you’ve never really experienced before. I don’t think we’re contrarians, it’s just what we like. We have completely different tastes, but if we join up on anything it’d be that love of light and dark, hard and soft, against each other. Fake and real. We grew up listening to reggae and soul. The contrast in those songs mean that you’re dancing to it, but it’s a fucking sad song. I think that’s our root.”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Massaquoi confirms. “We like that contrast. There’s something really basic, human, about it, because it’s honest.”

“It’s reality,” adds Hastings. “The world isn’t this shiny thing. It’s finding a bit of glory in some dark place.”

Not a band to stick to a fixed script, on Cocoa Sugar they seek clarity by way of contradictions. “You know, the Bible’s fuckin’ full of what we like – which is never saying anything straight. It has a really good way of saying, well, it could be this, or it could be that,” Hastings says. “You decide!”

“And it’s exciting [what it's like] when you’re pitching words together,” Massaquoi grins, standing up. He points at objects scattered around the studio. “Like, ‘Highland Spring / Our union brings…. / Owner’s manual, barking like a cocker spaniel.’ Something like that…” Swivelling on his chair to point at the space heater; “The energy / That we bring together / Manufactures outside… the unit?” Everyone’s laughing. “But you just put it together and think, what is that? Everything’s disposable! You can just take things.”

Bankole jokes that we should look out for the verse on a future record, but Hastings looks serious for a second: “I remember when you first started doing cut-up. I was like, this isn’t right, man, it doesn’t feel real. But actually not being precious about the words being real makes them better, because you’ve never thought about them that way before.”

“It’s painting pictures.” Massaquoi enthuses. “These are conversations you have with people! Anything! Stories…”

Hastings says, “It’s like Ally’s verse in Holy Ghost: 'I saw myself self-assault in a premonition / I saw myself smelling salts in the South Pacific / I’m so prolific…' And you’re just laughing!”

“It’s a tongue-twister, but it’s all there in the imagery, too,” Massaquoi counters. “You know, you’re enjoying yourself, basking in glory, having a wank or whatever, there’s the image of drugs...”

Later, the track uses a phrase that, for the band, best captures this kind of poetic irreverence. "’Philosophic polyfilla’ – it’s an inside joke, because that’s exactly what Ally's doing at that point.” Filling cracks in rhymes with linguistic plaster? “Exactly. And if you’re aware of that then it’s like a double or even a triple fuckin’ entendre.”

No Time for Ego

“We feel things, as a group. You know if it’s good,” Massaquoi says. “Sometimes I record something and I can’t hear it?” Hastings explains. “Then these guys say it’s great, and I’ll sit back and trust them. It works because we’re also able to say 'nah, don’t do that.'”

They admit that their brusque way of doing business isn't always easy for potential collaborators. “It’s because of ego,” Bankole reckons. “Ego’s got a huge part to play, because you can feel so precious about what you come up with, and then it’s like, 'well this chord needs to stay on the song because I did that.' I think sometimes [other people] aren’t used to being in an environment when people are combatants in a sense. [We’ll] be like, 'okay, cool try this', 'no, try this…'” He drums with his hand, indicating pace.

Tim London, the producer behind SoulPunk studio (Iklan, Callum Easter, Law Holt), has co-producer credits on Cocoa Sugar, and worked closely with the band for years, familiar with their pace. This time around, they also worked with TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek in LA. “He’d come in and we’d be having a disagreement and he’d be like 'arghhh' and leave again," Massaquoi says. "The next minute the whole song’s done. Then he’d come back and say 'add this, try this.'”

“I think it can be hard to catch up to the pace,” Bankole nods. “You’re always trying to suss someone out when they enter your environment, so with Dave he was just trying to understand the band. You can’t know until you meet a band and see them in that kind of environment. It was good though! The end goal of wanting shit to be good doesn’t differ. He just wanted shit to sound good.”

Hastings attributes their easy outspokenness to an innate confidence – as well as childhood friendship. “We’ve never needed to be confident, not [with] drugs, none of us drink that much. For years you play gigs and you see bands get fucking caned, because they’re really nervous. We’ve never had that. They’d be like, 'oh, you want a bit of this?' 'Nah, I’m alright mate. We’re alright.' That’s us in the studio as well.”

“Because we’re so close we can just spit out whatever’s in our minds at the time, and then say, no that’s shit. Scrap it.” Massaquoi says.

“And that’s a system in itself!” Bankole agrees.

“Brutal, but it feels right," Massaquoi adds. "You need to capture it, quick. If you miss the moment, it drains it. Don’t draw out something that doesn’t need to be drawn out.”

Unsurprisingly, Young Fathers believe in the power of first takes. Cocoa Sugar sounds like there’s a choir of voices at work, but, as they put it: “Why book someone else when Kayus can sing it? It’s easier to experiment. Don’t be lazy, just fucking do it! And if you do it yourself it’s not going to sound the typical way that it would be done.”

Politics and popularity

Massaquoi expands on why the band prefers to build a song from contrasting views and voices, rather than grandstanding for a particular political point. All the more so because they don't always agree with each other. “[Situations] change all the time! There’s always pros and cons, and you need context. If you see somebody doing something without any context, you might think, ‘What?’ but with context, it makes sense, you can understand it. So with the light and dark, hard and soft, like Graham was saying, I feel like it ends up being more authentic. It ends up being inherently about human nature. It’s gonna be shades. It can’t be this black and white thing. It’s dangerous to think like that, you can’t trust it.”

“I was watching the Brit Awards,” he pauses to laugh, “just cringing. You know, [they’re] all for the cause, and what it means, one hundred percent.” He balls his fists for effect. “But it’s like, what’s the topic of the week? Do it like this, say it like this, it seems disingenuous. I mean maybe they were all nervous, that’s allowed, but… everyone knows what this [#Time'sUp] rose is about, so get behind it! Give support to people, let’s give support to women! Otherwise it makes me question if they mean what they’re saying. Saying it for the sake of saying it.”

“But it’s that conflicted thing," says Hastings. "Even if it’s kind of fake then I just think at least the space is being used for something? People watching might not be aware, and so even if someone’s disingenuous it’s better than not," Hastings offers, before a bit of back-and-forth between himself and Massaquoi.

“But is it though?” 

“It depends how bad it is! If someone gets up like, ‘Ooh, fuckin’ ‘ell! Guess I’ve gotta say this’ [he mimes reading from the back of his hand]. But even if it is just flavour of the month, at least it’s flavour of the month.”

“But how does that resonate? No-one’s going to come back from that inspired.”

[Stormzy's] thing with Grenfell though.”

“Yeah well that was the best one," Massaquoi agrees. "Because it was solid, it was true, you can see that.”

“But for something like the Brit Awards that’s been shit for so long,” Hastings insists, “at least there’s an amount of energy behind a genuine issue. It’s the pop music industry, it’s filled with self-obsessed, disingenuous people. That’s what most artists are. But when you dedicate two minutes of live TV that’s broadcast to millions [to an issue], it’s better than talking about someone’s favourite colour, or what they’re wearing.”

Mixed Media Collaborations

For years Young Fathers have been a self-contained unit. "We've always been mixed media," Hastings says. "We've had the confidence just to do things, not feeling that we need professionals involved." He links this independence to a distrust of the industry. The trio started the band aged 14, and received plenty of bad advice: "We were listening to people who were professional but also shit! We're an ideas band, and ideas always ring much better than quality. So after distrusting people's ideas we decided we should just pick up a camera. We should just get Photoshop. We should edit videos. Then eventually you meet people who are good at what they do. It's rare, and it's a taste thing – pure subjective.”

They found a kindred spirit in Tom Hingston, the artist who worked on Cocoa Sugar’s show-stealing cover art – a manipulated photo of Massaquoi that echoes Grace Jones. “We wanted something iconic,” Massaquoi says. “A new lease of life. A new confidence.” Bankole brought an old rocking horse to the studio and one night a recording session turned into a photo shoot. They showed the photos to Hingston, and name-checked Rock Dreams, a book by artist Guy Peellaert. "The style is kind of spray-painted. Kind of real, kind of fake," Hastings explains. The result is a glossy, high-resolution evolution from their previous artwork-turned-logo, "Scarf man", which still hangs on the wall of the studio. 

The video for single Lord picks up the same cowboy vibe. Lit electric blue, Massaquoi rides that rocking horse until – spoiler – the song shifts and he’s on an actual horse, charging through the waves. The band worked with Edinburgh director Rianne White and are quick to blame her: “The real horse was her idea!” Hastings shouts. “She says, ‘Have you ever ridden a horse?'” Massaquoi laughs. “I’m like yeah… in my head. When I first saw it, I’m telling you it was" – he stands and gestures to a height somewhere near his eyebrows, and he is tall – "huge. It was intimidating. Then we introduced a bit of colour, so it looked more like a film. There’s this [pop] format, and we’re applying what we do to that; the horse, the rain, the water.” One shot sees Hastings pop his collar against a storm, a shameless pastiche of an East 17-style boyband, and he laughs, “[The video] lends itself to this idea of fake glamour, fake stardom.”

In 2016 the band were asked to record with trip-hop giants Massive Attack, resulting in Voodoo in My Blood, a track on the Bristol group’s Ritual Spirit EP. Later Young Fathers joined them on tour, taking in China, Japan and a mammoth show at London’s Hyde Park. Massaquoi explains their connection: “We’d listened to the hits when we were younger. But since we’ve been a band and people have said, 'oh, they’re like Massive Attack’, I’ve been like, 'shit, I should hear what people are talking about.' They created a sound, their own world, and they stuck to it – and then they had success.” And obviously that’s appealing. “Of course it is.” says Hastings. “We want as much success as possible!” Massaquoi confirms. “But without losing who you are, and Massive are a testament to that. Going on tour and seeing the thousands of people who turn out to see this fucking weird band, man… I mean, how are they this big?”

Hastings adds, “We grew up as pop boys, so our idea of success was pretty narrow. The kind of thing you see on the music channels. We just make what we want to make, and hopefully it will become this platform that reaches people. Massive have done that. [They’re] great collaborators. They work with people constantly. They bring it together in this melting pot, and even when you’re on tour everyone’s in the same dressing room. It’s a family thing, and not everyone is like that.”

A new openness to collaboration led to scoring a film for the Barbican in celebration of iconic artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. It turns out gallery spaces suit them, recognising Young Fathers’ love of ideas. “There’s a weird joy in bastardising things,” Hastings laughs. “Going [to these spaces] thinking, well, we’re complete amateurs, but we’ll be proud amateurs. Very professional amateurs.”

Last summer, a similar commission turned into controversy. The band contributed to the National Portrait Gallery’s touring exhibition Looking Good: The Male Gaze from Van Dyck to Lucian Freud. Their film shows Bankole shadow-boxing in the gallery after hours, confronting walls and walls of 'the endless gazes of dead, random white dudes', as Massaquoi’s spoken-word puts it. It’s a powerful provocation that questions the values of an institution like the Portrait Gallery: Who are these faces in gilt (or is it guilt?) frames? Who have we chosen to forget? What abuses of power and privilege have led to these decisions? The video attracted the grim attention of right-wing trolls who protested tax-payer funding contributing to so-called ‘anti-white’ art. At the band’s request the video was temporarily removed and the comment section disabled. In reflection Bankole says, “I feel amazing. It definitely needs to be out there in the ether, it does more good than anything else. For me it’s all about being engaged with stuff you wouldn’t normally do. You need to be eager to try new shit, and I think we are, one hundred percent.”

Culture Shift

Talk turns to the type of art that Edinburgh prioritises. When Young Fathers first announced their tour dates, the lack of a hometown show felt symptomatic of the capital’s fraught live music scene. Last year beloved venues like Studio 24 and Electric Circus closed their doors for good, but there’s been a recent crack of light: the Leith Theatre Trust was awarded one million pounds for a refurb designed to get the venue running all year round. Before that happens though, Hidden Door festival will be occupying its lofty spaces once more this year from 25 May-3 June, and Young Fathers are set to headline one of its nights. It’s been three years since the band spoke about the lack of larger venues in Leith, and the trio are clearly excited: “It’s just fucking great.”

Hastings adds, more cautiously. “I think it’s going to take 20 years for the culture to change, though. You need venues available. You need these weird nights. Leith’s perfect for it. I’ve seen the change [begin] in the last couple of years. If I finish at the studio on a Friday night, I walk past a few bars that now have a DJ. I walk past Leith Depot – there’s a band playing and I can walk in and see them. The next step is that it becomes the alternative to going out on George Street. Edinburgh has club culture, cheesy club culture, but in Glasgow people go out early, catch a band – it’s a whole night.”

Still, changes have been made. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Music is Audible campaign venues can no longer be shut down just for being ‘audible’. Formal noise complaints must be based on proof of nuisance, not just because faint strains of Despacito can occasionally be heard on the breeze. More recently still, the Scottish Government backed the Agent of Change policy, which places the burden of soundproofing on developers looking to build near a venue, rather than on the venue owner. This is particularly important for the Cowgate, given the development plans for the space behind the Central Library, and should safeguard Glasgow’s most central venues, too.

Young Fathers are characteristically quick to point out the flaws in The Skinny’s optimism. “This should have already been done! It’s taken this long. I mean, look what [the Council] did to the GRV (now The Mash House). They soundproofed the whole thing, and then it still got shut down,” Massaquoi says, shrugging.

It’s galling, given Edinburgh’s global reputation for a thriving arts scene, not to mention how disruptive seasonal events like The Edinburgh Royal Military Tattoo seem to be overlooked. “Edinburgh’s PR is on point, it’s fantastic.” Massaquoi argues, “But [the Council] doesn’t care about that side. We have the festival once a year, for a month, and that’s good enough for them. I’d rather they just say that, to be honest.”

“Even for our tech rehearsals we have to go to Glasgow," Hastings tells us, "because there’s no venue in Edinburgh that can do it to the size we’re playing. We have to go somewhere that’s already got a PA.” They point out that the most recent shows they’ve played in Edinburgh – at the Hub for the EIF, Central Hall for Neu! Reekie, and even 2014's Hogmanay – are shows in atypical venues, without permanent sound systems. “For [Hidden Door at] Leith Theatre we’re hiring our own.

“Wait, when does this interview go out?” Hastings asks. After confirming the magazine’s March release, he suddenly looks shifty. “You could say something about a rumour…” he grins. And that’s all we’ll say. There may (or may not) be an Edinburgh-based pre-tour party on the cards, but you didn’t hear it from us.

At that, there’s a buzz from upstairs. The band’s live drummer, Steven Morrison, has arrived for an afternoon rehearsal, needing to learn the new set before the tour starts. Those tongue-twisters take practice, too. Really though, Edinburgh would do well to listen to its brightest band – but Young Fathers’ rise will continue regardless. Cocoa Sugar is the sound of Young Fathers fully embracing their ambitions – a miscellany of genres, a confusion of voices, cut-up combinations. And if they need to hire a sound system to get it to you, to make you laugh, cry, dance, you can trust that they will.

Cocoa Sugar is released on 9 Mar via Ninja Tune
Young Fathers play Barrowlands, Glasgow, 24 Mar; Hidden Door Festival, Leith Theatre, Edinburgh, 2 Jun