Interview: David Le’aupepe & Joji Malani on Gang of Youths’ continued strides forward into the light

It seems just yesterday that we were celebrating Gang of Youths as a recently discovered band destined for success – yet here we are at the release of their sophomore record, Go Farther in Lightness. I caught up with frontman Dave Le’aupepe and lead guitarist Joji Malani about how Go Farther in Lightness came together, racism in the Australian music industry and their shift from Sydney to big-city New York and London.

When I heard “What Can I Do When The Fire Goes Out?” for the first time earlier this year, I was stopped in my tracks. The introduction is one of the most powerful openings to a rock song that I’ve ever heard. The song is a driving force, simultaneously strong and unashamedly vulnerable – and this seems a great way to describe Gang of Youths’ entire sophomore record, Go Farther in Lightness. The album is luminous, inspired and bold. It is long, yet measured; loud in parts, tender in moments. Dave Le’aupepe and Joji Malani are the embodiment of two musicians who have just finished an album: they are exhausted, but proud smiles rarely leave the corners of their mouths.

Le’aupepe and Malani’s comfort with each other speaks volumes about the band as a whole. Le’aupepe has previously referred to them as “family,” and looking at these two this sentiment could not feel more genuine. It also speaks to the stage in their career Gang of Youths are at now – a little less fresh-faced, a little more world-weary, but with more to say every day.

It has been two years since Gang of Youths’ debut album The Positions was released, and just over a year since their follow up EP, Let Me Be Clear. Yet Go Farther in Lightness is about healing, and fittingly, this release process sees the band refreshed, with a shifted philosophy this time around. “It feels different because I found things that I care about more than work. One of them is sitting right next to me,” Le’aupepe says, whacking Malani’s knee. “I realise more and more that I need to care less about what strangers think of my work and what strangers think about me and that’s a pretty significant thing. I love what The Positions was but also it turned me into a really anxious, shitty person, and so I’m trying to reduce the amount of time I spend unhappy because of work, and this sort of process is good.”

This shift in mentality can perhaps be seen in the way the songs for this record came together. The last time The AU Review caught up with Le’aupepe, in 2016, it was revealed that the band already had the title for this sophomore LP. But at the time, they had only written two songs that made it onto Go Farther in Lightness: ‘Deepest Sighs’ and ‘Fear and Trembling’. The rest of the album was written in the second half of last year, a far cry from the way The Positions came together. “The Positions was sort of written over a really long period of time and it was pretty disjointed, I think. There wasn’t a whole lot of reflection I was doing on the songs – I’d write them, we’d play them, and that would be it. I think this whole process has been significantly different because we wanted to have a whole block of time – the reflection process took a lot longer in this regard, and the chronology was more meticulously planned. Honestly, to even talk about The Positions requires so much energy, thinking about like, what was I doing in 2012, 2011 and 2012 when I started writing the songs, like five fucking years ago,” Le’aupepe shakes his head. “I was a kid.”

The Positions really reflected Dave’s life and our lives at the time,” Malani elaborates. “Over the course of that recording, from when we started to when it came out, Dave’s life changed dramatically. Because everything Dave writes is a reflection of his life and our life… obviously, the story changes. So, different songs come out, and then different songs got scrapped because they just don’t fit with the storyline anymore.” This created difficulty when it came to the extensive touring the band did for The Positions – “we had…not grown tired of those songs before it came out, but just – the meaning wasn’t the same,” Malani explains. In contrast, Go Farther in Lightness feels a lot newer, and Le’aupepe suggests the record is “going to have a slightly longer shelf life to us, because the song are still relatively fresh; they’re not packed with trauma and meaning.”

This by no means suggests the songs are any less emotive than the music we’ve come to love from Gang of Youths. A particular thing that jumps out on first listen to the new LP is a number of beautifully scored string interludes. “Since The Positions I always wanted string interludes cause I love classical music,” Le’aupepe explains. “It’s my father, his spirit, his influence…he loved classical music, still does.” These interludes also have a deliberate, musical function: “There’s so much context and information that is very unsubtly projected into listeners’ ears, and I wanted to be able to break up all the information with something peaceful, enjoyable, that also had a vast litany of the musical motifs and harmonic motifs scattered throughout the record. So the interludes themselves serve a few purposes: to give the listener a breather, but also to reinforce some melodic information.”

The way Le’aupepe speaks about these instrumental tracks, eyes alight, it’s clear that he’s very proud of them – and rightly so. They add a beautiful dimension to a gorgeous, lush record. But they didn’t come easy. “I had been scoring the thing over the course of about three or four months, and then I spent three days downstairs in the writing studio at Sony, scoring the motherfucker. It’s 450 pages or some shit. The scores were vaguely printed out, and then I’d just handwritten all the incidentals for a quartet of two cellos and two violins. I believe in the idea of trying to encase the power of a raw string quartet… I think that it’s more emotional and more human than using a whole bunch of fucking software. I think we’re finding that out a lot more now, we want to become a lot more reliant on our performance and playing than production tricks.”

Erhu, a Chinese string instrument with a distinctive tone, also makes a few appearances on Go Farther in Lightness. “We’ve always loved erhu,” Le’aupepe says. “I grew up in Strathfield, walking through the tunnel through Strathfield to Raw Square there’d always be a man playing erhu, it’s the sound of my childhood. I think it’s the most beautiful instrument – there’s something beautiful about Asian instrumentation that always feels peaceful, feels rich.”

Go Farther in Lightness is full to the brim with influences, both musical and otherwise. Art music inextricably peeks through the album’s melodic basslines, thrashing guitars and Le’aupepe’s brooding voice, with Le’aupepe “mainly listening to Philip GlassLemonte Young, John Adams, Max Richter, Nils Frahm as well.”

Malani recalls Primavera Sound, a festival in Barcelona where the band played last year, as a pivotal moment. “Radiohead was there, it was their second performance since they’d stopped touring for a while, and the album hadn’t come out yet. So they played a lot of the stuff from that–“ Malani says, as Le’aupepe interjects, excited: “I predicted every song on the set list!”

Malani continues, “I think that definitely sparked something in Dave. I know when we were in LA, listening to Broken Social Scene ‘cause they had just started touring; I remember I felt like there was something about that energy, watching them play live. Felt inspiring, and then Dave like ran back into his room and started writing.”

As the album came together, it was often music first, as opposed to lyrics – something that Le’aupepe had never really done before. “The Positions was all lyrics first. But I think all this stuff built up, and there was something stopping me from getting it out. And I think being forced to do so with a time constraint helped me to remove any kind of inhibitions and just kind of regurgitating. So we would record an actual fucking song and I had melodic ideas and I would like babble gibberish and a few lyrical ideas. But I would often take home recordings, and I would walk back to where I was living in Surry Hills through a park, and I’d write [lyrics] on my phone,” he remembers.

“Oh, the roughs, they were funny,” Malani laughs. “Just like, gibberish. Sounded like Sims!” Le’aupepe laughs too, but in seriousness changes tack: “I think people often underestimate, though, how much Joji just being literally around me has an effect on what happens with the record. So I write the songs, but Joji’s there when I’m writing the songs. I think that’s the reality there.” While Le’aupepe is the primary songwriter, it is clear that the band is extremely tight-knit, and it is the Gang of Youths voice that comes through on Go Farther in Lightness – not simply the Le’aupepe voice and story.

In an accompanying statement to the record, Le’aupepe writes that Go Farther in Lightness is his “attempt to make the lessons I learned from my heroes, my favourite texts, my friends and from my short time on earth readily accessible and available to you”. It’s a regenerative record, and the lyrics are meditative, simple yet often profound. It comes as no real surprise, then, that Le’aupepe was surrounded by almost exclusively philosophical reading material as he wrote for the album. “There’s so many books that I was reading and had around me that influenced me. Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard, The Phenomenology of Spirit by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Anxiety by Jacques Lacan, it’s a bunch of seminars he gave on the topic in the 60s. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, most of Nietzsche’s catalogue… I’m not going to say Atlas Shrugged because I wrote a song about how much I hate that book and the philosophy surrounding it. But yeah, lots of shit.”

The aforementioned track that doubles down on Atlas Shrugged, aptly titled “Atlas Drowned”, is the third song on Go Farther in Lightness, and arguably Gang of Youths’ most explicitly political single to date. Accompanied by crunchy guitar, Le’aupepe croons a wake-up call: “The whole institution is rigged and the ship’s going down”. The final lines of the song are nothing short of blistering: “And these chosen whites are anaemic and small / And are truly the lowliest sheep of them all / And their eminence is fixed upon things we could burn in one go / I’mma let Atlas fall, I’mma watch Atlas fall”.

“Atlas Drowned” may be one of the only Gang of Youths songs in which these topics come up, but throughout Gang of Youths’ career, Le’aupepe has been consistently outspoken about issues surrounding race, in music and more broadly. Over the past few years, there has been a very gradually increasing conversation about the pervasive whiteness of Australian music. Have things in the industry changed since The Positions came out in 2015?

“No. No! You serious?” Le’aupepe looks incredulous. “I don’t think the problem is necessarily in our scene, that there’s not enough people of colour, I think it’s [in] fucking music writing. The fact is that intelligent women of colour, for example, in music writing are still… how many are there? Very few. Can you think of many?”

It’s true – I can’t. As surprised as I am that this question has caused us to turn our gaze back to the industry I’m representing, I really can’t think of more than a handful, myself included.

“Whiteness isn’t foreign to Australia,” Le’aupepe continues. “So, it’s not unusual that there’d be statistically more white middle-class people making music. But I think the real issue is how much we like to pretend that we’re making progress and changing. The ideology remains the same. There are so many self-hating guys trying to repurpose our colour, repurpose our culture, repurpose our position and experience in society to make themselves appear to be more sympathetic. There’s such a patronising external layer of “Oh yeah, we get it, we get you people”. That’s the real problem. I don’t need to be lectured by white middle-class private-school educated people about oppression, thank you very much.”

It’s a topic that evokes a visceral reaction in both Le’aupepe and Malani. Being Samoan-Jewish and Fijian respectively, in a scene as white as Australia’s rock scene, they’ve both had their share of ignorance and then some. “I think the more that people try to engineer narratives around our race and our socio-economic background, the less progress we’re really making. It’s frustrating in rock music, because it’s interesting how much of the tastemaker intelligentsia is predominantly made up of white, upper middle-class, private school educated people, making constant taste judgements based on their preconceived values. You know? There’s a reason why we don’t fit in, it’s ‘cause we were never feigning to make stare-at-your-shoes garage rock for lo-fi kids with backwards caps. Low fidelity music to us was always a necessity.”

Malani chuckles at this: “It’s hilarious to me how that can be, like a sound that’s pursued. You know that’s funny, Dave, you use the same stuff to make music now that you did when we were 15. Literally the exact same computer, the same audio interface that was like $30.”

This riles Le’aupepe up further. “When we’re talking about fucking posturing, posturing artistic credibility: mostly kids who criticised us were from the inner-city and aren’t fucking from where we’re from, where I’m from? It’s like, how much bullshit vinyl-fetishism and music snobbery do you have to maintain to be part of that crew? And a lot of that is centred around whiteness. There’s nothing wrong with being white, but there is something wrong with trying to repurpose the plight of the working-class Pacific Islander kids to reinforce your fucking privilege. “Oh, I understand oppression because I’m–” you know, fuck off mate! You don’t! You don’t know what my mum and my sister and my dad and I’ve been through, you don’t. Being Pacific Islanders, we were brought here on fucking slave ships. Fucking – Joji’s a political refugee, you don’t know what the fuck he’s been through. It’s patronising, and so I get really angry about it.”

“You know, the greatest hypocrisies I see are people marching saying “Let Them Stay,” but they don’t give a flying fuck about the overrepresentation of Indigenous and Pacific Islander people in our prison system. They don’t give a fuck about the fact that most people of Middle Eastern origin in Australia can’t get fucking jobs because of their last name. Do you know how hard it is to get a fucking phone interview when your name’s um, Mohammed? White leftism has a fucking identity problem. They’re trying to repress conversations that seem offensive when they really need to be talked about and they’re trying to make big deals about stuff that they shouldn’t be, and then they ignore stuff that they shouldn’t.”

The band is currently based between London and New York, and when I ask them if it’s different in this respect, living there, Le’aupepe blows a raspberry. They both nod. “London is a place where it’s like, right near Europe, there’s a lot of immigration, it’s a place where it’s just way more culturally diverse,” Malani offers. “When we talk to even our white English friends… this whole other colour, it’s just not a thing. It’s weird to them that these issues exist, like what happens here and what happens in America, because it’s just – literally every third person is not white. Every second person is a female. So it’s very different.”

“The wars that people fight in Sydney are deeply entrenched in the fact that we’re an incredibly wealthy, well off, not-as-diverse-as-we-wish-that-we-were city. That’s it,” Le’aupepe says. “You can tell – we’re a young city, we’re a young country, and I think that the relative oldness of places like New York City and London… it feels a little bit easier to cohabit with people and exist. That’s all it really is, I think. Culturally, the disconnect we experience in Australia, growing up, we can sort of start fresh. And that’s okay. I’m still fucking hella proud of living in Australia. I love my country, I fucking love my country. In my opinion this is the greatest country in the history of mankind. But being away from it gives us perspective on it.”

Through our conversation, Le’aupepe and Malani voice many of what feel like the universal concerns of young people of colour living in Australia. And this is what is so exciting – not only does Gang of Youths’ musicality feel so one-of-a-kind, with their catalogue of songs firmly cemented in the modern Australian rock hall of fame – but they are also so inherently honest and articulate. It feels so important to have voices like these – young, bright, brown voices – circulating in today’s whitewashed Australian music industry. Despite their frustration at the stagnant state of our industry, it is precisely people like Le’aupepe and Malani and bands like Gang of Youths that are making it certain that things will change for the better, sooner than later.

Go Farther in Lightness is out today. Gang of Youths tour Australia this month and September.

August 31st | The Tivoli, BRISBANE
September 1st | The Tivoli, BRISBANE | SOLD OUT
September 6th | Festival Hall, MELBOURNE | ALL AGES
September 8th | Hordern Pavilion, SYDNEY | ALL AGES
September 13th | Odeon Theatre, HOBART | ALL AGES
September 15th | Thebarton Theatre, ADELAIDE | ALL AGES
September 16th | Metropolis, FREMANTLE

www.gangofyouths.com.

Photo by Maclay Heriot.