An EXCLUSIVE Q&A
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
The first thing you notice while listening to White Men Are Black Men Too by Young Fathers is that it is nearly impossible to categorize. The sticker may say, “File under Rock and Pop,” but the music says something entirely different. If you are searching for music that has a solid identity but exists without borders or barriers, then the sounds of Young Fathers will inspire and challenge you. This Edinburgh, Scotland-based trio – G Hastings, Alloysious Massaquoi, and Kayus Bankole – has created an aural formula that consists of different elements every time they record. In many ways, their music evolves, morphs and redefines itself with every listen. It is confrontational but not violent. It is melodic without being commercial. It is avant-garde without being pretentious. It is music that operates outside the walls of conformity yet remains commercially viable. It is focused but can be interpreted many different ways. It is an album that takes elements of Rock, Hip Hop, Jazz, Prog, Pop and Electronica and molds those genres into something new. Though nobody in their right mind would classify the band as Rock ‘n’ Roll, Young Fathers has crafted an album so original that it is going to divide the listeners into two distinct groups – lovers and haters. And that, my friends, is what Rock ‘n’ Roll is all about.
The trio of friends began their journey as 14-year-olds in Edinburgh, writing and recording together shortly after meeting each other at an under-16s Hip Hop night at a local club. They spent a few years honing their craft and creating a sound they were happy with. A few years into their career, they settled on the name Young Fathers and recorded their debut album with a local production company, but eventually decided to do things their own way, following their own path. Producing themselves and creating music without the interference of outside forces certainly did the trick, and they released the mixtape/mini album Tape One in 2011. With the industry buzzing about their release and an ever-growing fanbase, they followed it up with Tape Two in 2013. Their first official full length, Dead, was released in 2014 and earned them rave reviews across the board. The album ended up winning the coveted Mercury Prize Award in the UK, which introduced the band to a bigger audience who may have missed – or ignored – them first time around. The trio didn’t take time to absorb the new-found attention and immediately resumed work on their next album, which they had been writing and recording while touring to support Dead. The result – White Men Are Black Men Too – is a completely different beast that roams the same audio wastelands. Young Fathers has pushed things up – and sideways – a notch or two.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to toss some questions at the band about the album, and both G and Alloysious were gracious enough to take the time to throw some answers back…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: White Men Are Black Men Too is about to be released. How are you feeling about the album and the reaction you’ve had to it so far?
YOUNG FATHERS: The album is finding the reactions we expected.
SPAZ: The album most certainly defies any categorization. Does casting aside any and all musical barriers make it easier for you to create?
YF: We don’t so much cast the musical barriers aside as never acknowledge their existence in the first place. Why would we want to build our own coffins when there is so much life in our bodies? Box us in when we’re dead.
SPAZ: The tracks on the album sound very powerful, with some of the songs filled with more ideas than most bands can muster on an album. Yet, you are able to achieve this with an almost minimalist approach to some of the recording. Is it easy to achieve this balance?
YF: The approach is simple: keep the good, lose the bad. Like Jack Spratt’s wife.
SPAZ: The album’s title initially created a bit of controversy. Do you think that people may have become a little over-sensitive in this day and age?
YF: No, it’s right that there should be conversations and controversy. We weren’t even sure of the title ourselves. We were sure of the intent, though. In some ways, it’s better that people rediscover their sensitivity – if we are empathetic and touchy, then perhaps that’s how it should be. If someone is upset or suffering, then maybe we should feel their pain. If something is wrong, then maybe we should be upset. You sometimes get the feeling in the UK, Europe, USA, that there is a dead-eyed generation being born, happy to embrace the volcano’s blast simply because they are so bored with things the way they are.
SPAZ: Did the success of your Mercury Prize-winning album Dead give you more artistic freedom? Or was there more pressure to come up with ‘the goods’ this time around?
YF: It was somewhat irrelevant. The main pressures we feel are from ourselves – the hardest people to please.
SPAZ: Artists are always eager to move on once they have finished with a project. When you began recording White Men…, did you want to build upon the foundation you created with Dead? Or was it your intention to wipe the slate clean and start fresh?
YF: We are incredibly proud of what we do. It’s never swept away and always acknowledged. But a new album needs its own space and we have low boredom thresholds so the previous album is more like a landmark than a totem. We know we went past it on the journey, we can see it back there in the distance, but it no longer has a relevance beyond history.
SPAZ: Has your approach to songwriting and recording changed since the days of Tape One?
YF: Yes. We are more self-reliant and confident. But certain things remain with us: we need to work quickly, to capture the feeling, the first feeling, which is the best feeling. We also use much the same equipment, which is a grounding thing.
SPAZ: Like some of the classic Post-Punk records of the early ‘80s, White Men… has some great melodies that are often overwhelmed by inventive and dynamic musical arrangements. Do you prefer those hooks to become part of the tapestry of the song rather than the main focal point?
YF: The hooks are there. When we go fishing we always catch something. The thing is, a beat can be a hook, so sometimes you take a melodic hook down in order to emphasize a rhythm. It’s not rocket science but it’s also much more complicated than pouring a glass of water.
SPAZ: For those not familiar with the band’s background, what are your main musical influences? Like I said, it is almost impossible to pinpoint. I hear Hip Hop, Rock, Avant-Garde, Electro, and Post-Punk… but not necessarily in that order and each song leans a different way.
YF: We are the R&B Hits 2003 generation. The influences are so ridiculously varied it’s almost impossible to name them. As much films as music. As much Pop as hardcore Hip Hop. The weirdest and most obscure African sounds and ancient Rock ‘n’ Roll. In-jokes and mind-worms.
SPAZ: Outside of music, what inspires you on a creative and personal level?
SPAZ: You’ve been working together a long time. Do you feel that you understand each other musically, and that your differences are what make the Young Fathers sound so fresh?
YF: That’s a fine way to sum it up. There is a not so subtle intrinsic understanding between us. We aren’t ashamed or afraid to be blatant. ‘Try this’. ‘Use that sound’. ‘Stand there’. ‘Sing with a smile’. We are like a school choir after their first trip abroad. Everyone has lost their cherry. In and out of the sexual trenches. Connected, but different.
SPAZ: Are there any personal favorites on the album? With each listen, my favorites change – right now, my money is on “Shame,” “Nest,” “Liberated” and “Still Running.”
YF: Favorites change all the time. My (G) mum likes ‘Get Started’ best, and so she should. But our faves change all the time.
SPAZ: What’s next for Young Fathers?
YF: A year of traveling the world, even more so than last year. When we have finished, which will be next year, many people will have seen and heard us. The show will grow. We will fight each other and love each other and sometimes make people feel as if the bass has jumped into their mouths. We are looking forward to a nice rest in May, 2016.
SPAZ: What do you currently have spinning on your CD, record, DVD and Blu-Ray players?
YF: All of us are on a quest for new music to fill the endless requests for mixes. The truth is, after making the album, not much tastes sweet. But we listen to LAWholt and Callum Easter and the Pop music that we bump into every day. Who’s good? Who can say?
Thanks to G and Alloysious of Young Fathers
Special thanks to Steve Dixon, David Scadron, Lori Miller and Nick Kominitsky
WHITE MEN ARE BLACK MEN TOO