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Studies in Badassery: The Young Fathers Interview

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The first thing you notice is this: these guys do not fuck around. Even just unloading their van outside a somewhat grimy club in the southeast industrial area of Portland, Oregon, there is a force-field of purpose about them. Offers of help from myself and a couple others on hand are politely declined. They’re here to put on a show. This drive is visible, even palpable, when they are on stage. As their performance starts later, Alloysious Massaquoi, Graham Hastings, and Kayus Bankole are almost immediately “in it,” as Graham would say. The crowd at Rotture, a third floor space in a building that looks like a warehouse from the outside, gets heavily caught up in the trio’s energy, in their vibe. I already knew that Young Fathers made good music. Their debut full-length, Dead, is one of highlights of the first half of this year. What becomes clear, though, after speaking with them and watching them perform, is that they are also on a mission: they are here to turn heads, make people listen.

Putting out their debut with Anticon Records did exactly that, at least among America’s music literati. On the heels of that release, the Edinburgh trio embarked on a rather extensive North American tour, playing a lot of shows throughout the U.S. and Canada in a relatively short amount of time, having kicked things off with a gig at South by Southwest back in March. On one of the last dates of that tour (not to worry: according to Kayus they will be back in the fall), the Scotlanders were gracious enough to sit down with me for a twenty minute chat about music, touring, and radio in gringo-land.


The Interview

Caught in the Carousel: So it’s really nice to meet you guys. My first question is about this North American tour you’re on. It’s pretty extensive. I imagine some of the driving distances are somewhat longer than you’re used to. How’s it been?

Graham Hastings: It’s been very inspiring because the radio is good here. You have good radio stations.

CitC: That’s good to hear. A bit surprising.

Graham: Well, it’s not good like… some of them are really backwards. But you get a good…

CitC: Like the signal strength?

Graham: Well… some of them, you get the religious channels and the right wing channels and then you get the other ones. And they’re really just… they’re kind of inspiring, and sometimes you laugh and sometimes you’re shouting at the radio. You’ll just be like, “this is unbelievable.” And it’s just… It’s a thing that I’ve always worked to do in my life: just drive around America and just see it, on the road. And we’ve almost done a full circle now so it’s good.

Kayus Bankole: But there are places I wanted to go that weren’t on the tour. Hopefully the next time we come back in the fall, we’ll be able to touch ground more places.

Graham: Yeah, we skipped some places so we want to do it again. Just start over again.

CitC: Hey, works for us.

Alloysious Massaquoi: There’s radio sex as well, funnily enough. That was a bit strange. You have radio stations for sex and it was Monday… Jerk-off now, or something… Jerk-off Monday.

Graham: Masturbation Monday.

Alloysious: Masturbation Monday. So they get callers, like truck drivers and just random guys phoning in. And the girl would be saying what she wants them to do to her, and it’s like what is this? It’s crazy, man.

Citc: (Audible laughter)

Graham: You guys have good radio. Bad TV, but good radio.

Alloysious: She had a good voice.

CitC: (Laughing) Sexy voice, I’m sure…

Alloysious: (Laughing) Yeah.

CitC: Well, not sure how to follow that, but let’s talk about South by Southwest. That was the very first thing y’all did when you got here, right?

Alloysious: Mmmm hmmm.

CitC: Which to me kind of stands as a symbol for the corporatization of America.

Alloysious: In what way?

CitC: Well… South by [Southwest] seems to be mostly about corporate sponsors nowadays. You know, you’ve got… whoever playing the Coca Cola stage or something like that.

Graham: I think, though, it’s like with any kind of brand, like you think about Nike or… Adidas. You know, they attach themselves to a cultural movement, they attach themselves because it’s beneficial for their brand, because they’re like, “if so and so is here it’s going to make us look better.” But it’s part and parcel… there’s always the artistic side. I’m not vouching for them, don’t get me wrong. But it’s the artistic side of it, you know, and the artist does the music, does what he or she needs to do. But there’s also the business side of stuff, and, by going there, it gave the artists a platform to perform to audiences who might not necessarily get to them. So it’s pros and cons, and it’s a balancing thing. But of course, man, there’s loads of advertising and crap, you know…

Alloysious: We… I mean, it’s like we played the fucking Doritos stage.

Graham: None of us like Doritos. We don’t give a fuck. But it put us on the same stage as like…

Alloysious: Schoolboy Q.

Graham: Schoolboy Q and Ludacris. And that was… And fucking Ga Ga played it the day before. And that, for us… that was great for us. And it’s not a big deal with us as long as we get to perform and it’s in front of people… It’s shit, but what can you do in this day and age? You can do so much to try and battle it, but that’s the way it is now. We do try and battle it but…

Alloysious: I think you just pick your fights. That’s what it is, you know, pick your battles sort of thing. So, it’s like us and doing interviews. We prefer not to do interviews. But, at the same time, at the stage we’re at, it’s about building, you know, getting us to the next level. So when the times comes we don’t have to do interviews, we won’t do interviews. [Laughs] But until then, we have to do ‘em.

CitC: (Laughing) Indeed… Well, let’s get to the rest of the interview.

Alloysious: (Smiling) I don’t mind ‘em. I’m not taking a hit at you at all…

CitC: No, I get where you’re at.

Alloysious: But I’m just saying, I’d prefer not to in the end ‘cause…. Well…

CitC: And there may come a time when y’all don’t have to.

Alloysious: (Laughs) Yeah.

CitC: So let’s talk about Dead. When y’all made Tape One and Tape Two, you were pretty much in a position where you were saying, “Fuck all this. We’re going to go lock ourselves in a room and just make this thing.”

Alloysious: Yes.

CitC: And if somebody wants it, they want it. If they don’t, they don’t… I’m hoping that your experience with Anticon (U.S.) and with Big Dada (U.K) have realigned your views somewhat on the whole record label thing. How has the production of Dead with those labels been different than Tapes one and two?

Graham: I mean, it’s the same. If they’re helping us advance and be heard by more people then that’s all we’ve ever wanted. It’s set up so we still have control over everything and, basically, they act in the classic sense of what a record label should act like. They print the record. They make sure the record gets out and gets to people’s ears. That’s all we want, so it’s a perfect set up. It’s just exactly what we’ve always wanted.

CitC: So in terms of production, mixing, all that, the process has been the same.

Graham: We wouldn’t have it any other way. We wouldn’t be with anybody if they ever said anything about that. I mean, they could just fuck off.

CitC: Were y’all aware of Anticon before you started talks with them?

Graham: No.

Kayus: After the communication with Anticon, when we did our background research, then we realized, “alright, cool, they’ve done this, they’ve done that, blah blah blah.” To us, the most important thing was that they cared. And they were a platform for us to get our music out. It was, “alright, cool. It just makes perfect sense.” And if you care about the music, you’ll do what you have to to put it out.

Alloysious: And also the fact that we’re in America, you know. Cannot get more (indecipherable) than that. We’re in America where a lot of the music started. So to be touring as we are now, you know, it’s because we made something with Anticon. So it’s good.

CitC: They’re a great label. Just to throw my two cents in… Have y’all become more familiar with their line-up since signing with them?

Kayus: Yeah. We met some people as well. Alias: we met him in Portland (Maine).

Alloysious: He was one of the co-founders, right?

Kayus: Yeah, he was one of the co-founders as well. And we also met a guy called (indecipherable).

Graham: We did some things with Why? In Europe.

Kayus: It makes no difference, though, whether we know them or don’t know them. We’re just interested in making music.

CitC: Speaking of that: between the two tapes and Dead, there has been an evolution. Compositionally, when I listen to your stuff… I read something in another interview where you were talking about how your lyrics, on paper, can seem somewhat angry. But what gets me is what your lyrics do when you place them in the sonic landscapes that you place them in and how they interact with that landscape. My question here boils down to a chicken or egg, what came first kind of deal. Do the lyrics grow out of that musical situation or vice versa? I guess what I’m getting at is what are the organics in you’re writing process?

Graham: I think, obviously, when there’s a mood in a room, when we are in a room and there’s something in the air that’s flying about, we all pick stuff from the air, you know what I mean. It happens in a natural way. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s to pin things against each other that usually wouldn’t be pinned against. We’re conscious of that when we’re making it and it’s partly the reason we enjoy it so much because you do things that you’ve never heard before, done by anyone. So that’s what excites us the most.

CitC: Y’all have been very… reluctant, I would say, to let any labels kind of sit. And Americans, of course, are obsessed these days with labels and ideology. How much of that push-back…

Kayus: I can see it in the air though. It’s changing. People are getting so bored. Boredom is in the air. They’re just fed up. They want something special. You don’t want to be bothered just hearing the same manufactured thing over and over again. It’s just crap.

Alloysious: But we…. You can use it, you know what I mean? Like when we played that stage at South by Southwest, you know, it was a hip-hop night. And so, basically, you use that label because we rap. We don’t count ourselves as anything. We don’t say that we make hip-hop, or we don’t say that we make folk music or whatever. But when someone says we want to put you on this hip-hop stage, and you’re going to be playing in front of a lot of people, you use it. And you say, “alright, we’ll be a hip-hop band for the night.” As long as we get to play in front of those guys.

Graham: Because the music when you play, our music isn’t hip-hop, you know. It’s not necessarily hip-hop or rap. It’s just like a mixture of everything. It’s not even like a conscious thing for us to go in and go, “we’re going to make beat-y music.” You just go in and see what happens. I think when we have that approach of it being organic or spontaneous, you know, or instant, we find it hard to even put a label to it ourselves. We didn’t even worry about it, actually, and it’s only when someone asks you, “what is it?” I don’t know what it is.

Kayus: You go listen and you go make up your mind. [Laughs]

Graham: Yeah. And I think that makes it… It gives it a bit of landscape for people to make up their own minds with lyrics and music and stuff. It takes them somewhere else a lot of the time. I’m bored of hearing stuff where people are telling you what you already know. You know, they’re preaching about… whatever, stuff that goes on, and it’s like, “enough.” It’s just bored and I’ve heard it so many times, so many times before, and, I don’t know, it’s just about doing something that’s a bit more interesting. That’s the only way I can put it.

CitC: I’ve read that, when you’re on stage, it’s all about the circle with you guys…

Kayus: And the audience is welcome to enter it. That’s what it is. The music is open. There’s no restrictions.

Graham: And we’re not trying to close people off at all. We’re on stage performing so you know the audience is a part of that. I think, because we do it every night, you want to get in it. And if you can, it happens. If you get angry ‘cause you can’t get in it, then that’s another thing. So every night you try and make it as…. It’s honest to us. So even if…. We’ve realized that when we go on stage, if we have a really good gig and it sounds great, you know, the crowd are there, that’s good. But if we go on stage and it sounds shit and you can’t get in it or whatever, that can also be a good gig because…

Kayus: It creates a moment.

Graham: …We’re quite Spartan in our attitude towards it. We’re not gonna be like, “Ah, no, we’re not going to play this.” We can come off stage, many nights we’ll come off stage and we’ll be fuckin’ angry ‘cause we feel like it was a shit gig or whatever, ‘cause we never had a good time, ‘cause every night you want to get in it. I can’t wait for the next night, to hear the songs loud again. That’s like a… for me, it’s just a fucking… it’s a dream. So you just want to achieve that every night. And some nights it doesn’t happen. Most nights it does. So it’s good.

Alloysious: Yeah, you know, picking up on what Kayus was saying, you’re creating a moment you know, a vibe. That can easily be destroyed. So when we perform on stage, of course there’s an audience there. We care about what we do, so we want the performance to be good. So the audience can be included if they want, or they don’t have to be. They can go get a drink at the bar. It’s one of those things. We’re utilizing the space to showcase what we can do. You know, who we are as performers, as artists…

CitC: You’re on the tail end of the U.S. tour now, pretty much the homestretch. Are you guys planning on getting back into the studio soon?

Kayus: As soon as possible. The ball keeps rolling.

Graham: Yeah. We did a couple things, put some ideas down in L.A. So we’ll look at some of the stuff there and see if there’s anything worth keeping. And then, like Kayus says, just continue and keep the ball rolling, and try and get something done.

Alloysious: We’re trying to get some space, take ourselves away from the place where we recorded our other stuff ‘cause, you know, we’ve done that. So we don’t need to do that again.

CitC: What will that space be? What are you looking for?

Graham: [Laughing] Twenty foot by twenty foot. If anybody in Edinburgh’s got a twenty foot by twenty foot thing, then get in touch. Where we can make as much noise as possible, that would be nice.

CitC: We’ll put the call out. You might be able to record it here in Portland (Oregon).

Graham: Yeah. Anywhere, in fact, not just in Edinburgh. Anybody that’s got a twenty foot by twenty foot that wants to give it to us…

Alloysious: For cheap.

Graham: …then I think it would be alright.

CitC: Have y’all given serious thought to relocating from Edinburgh?

Alloysious: That’s always a continuous debate, you know. It’s always in the air. But, at the same time, it’s not that easy.

Graham: It’s not entirely a big deal for us. I think we could record anywhere. I think we could settle anywhere, really. The only thing I like about not being in a place that’s…

Alloysious: …that’s maybe rich with music…

Graham: …or rich with culture and stuff like that. I mean, Edinburgh’s… ‘cause it’s not really got much going on, it’s kind of ideal for us because you’re away, you’re not in a box, you’re not surrounded by people who… you know, a group of people who think alike and all that shit. We never wanted to be included in that anyways. We don’t think like other people and that’s why we make what we make. So it’s good for us to be away from everything.

Alloysious: It’s also good for us to try different things and be open to things as well. It’s a balance thing. If there’s a time for us to do that and we’re all in the same place, then, yes, I think we’ll happily do that. But, until then, we’ll just keep on doing what we’re doing.

CitC: Well, it’s working so far…. One quick question before we’re finished. Has there been anything on the radio in the van that grabbed you? Anything you’ve been jamming to?

Kayus: A whole bunch of random stuff…

Alloysious: Yeah, there was that… the show was Mexican. I can’t remember…

Graham: The station was in Albuquerque, I think it was. It was like… soul songs from the sixties covered by Mexican artists.

Alloysious: So good… It was so good…. You’re nodding you’re head like…

CitC: Yeah. I’m from Texas, and sometimes you just stumble across that on the radio, a Mexican or Tejano band doing some random cover like that. It’s great.

Alloysious: Yeah, yeah. That was us. It was great. It’s great ‘cause you think… you translate those songs into any language, they’re still hits, they’re still amazing songs. Even if you don’t…. It’s the feeling, the way people are singing it, the melodies… just amazing. It’s just like… It’s just great.

CitC: So my last question… I’m kind of obsessed with those moments… like on “Paying” where, Kayus, you forgot the lyrics and kind of just screamed and it ended up on the album. And it’s actually a really great moment on that track. So how does…. What went into the decision to keep it or not? To leave that in there?

Kayus: Yeah, sometimes you’re not sure.

Alloysious: I mean, Kayus was… really didn’t like it.

Kayus: I hated it. Hated it. When I first did it, I was like, “no, it needs to be changed.” And I was very assertive that I wanted it changed. And then, the way we record and the way we settle with the songs… we’re like, “alright, cool, give a week or a few days.” And you go back to it, and it blossoms in a whole different way. You know what I mean? And then you can hear it objectively in some manner, and then you realize, “oh hey, that is good, that is special, that is a moment. You have captured that organic moment,” as you would say.

Graham: I think sometimes when you go to record an idea or a verse or whatever that you’ve writ for yourself, you think, “I want it to be like this.” At the point when you’re recording, you want it to be like that, and when you record it and it doesn’t work out, you’re fucking annoyed. But when you hear it back three weeks later in context, and you’ve forgot what you trying to get at, it doesn’t matter. It’s the closest you’ll ever get to hearing yourself as other people hear you.

Alloysious: Sometimes each and every one of us can hear it as it actually sounds. And the person that’s recording it. So I think that has it’s advantages. And also, that’s what happened on “Paying,” but also on “Dar-Eh Da Da Du,” on Tape One. And he does that, and it’s a mistake and he goes, “ahh…” And he continues…

Kayus: You’re just in that moment.

Alloysious: And I heard that, and it’s just like that… mistake-ology, as Tim (Young Fathers’ manager) would say, mistake-ology. And it works because it’s like, “why no?” It’s not about it being prefect. A lot of imperfections are what makes the track. It gives it something. It gives it this human touch, your “there” moment. It’s like, “oh, yeah.” I think a lot of people can resonate to that and understand it and they get the vibe.

Graham: I mean, a lot of the production is mistakes just put together. You do certain things or, sometimes, you’ll fall over when you trying to drum or whatever and you take that rather than the drum. There’s no rules. We apply that to video, we apply that to everything. It’s the in between stuff that’s usually the most interesting, rather than the actual fuckin’ thing you were trying to get in the first place.

Alloysious: In the end, it becomes that thing. So it’s… it’s the same.

CitC: Just three guys in a room…. That works for me. Thank you guys so much.

Kayus: Thank you.