The Boys Still Shout: A Young Fathers Interview

Ahead of the release of new album Cocoa Sugar, Derek Robertson meets the band at MENT Festival and finds their anger at social injustice and desire to provoke burning as bright as ever

Young Fathers are having an argument. An enquiry as to their thoughts on the power of modern pop stars as agents of change compared to more traditional “protest” music has set Graham ‘G’ Hastings and Alloysious Massaquoi off on a passionate back and forth.

“Pop music has lost a lot of its power politically and socially,” says Hastings.

“I’m not sure about that,” retorts Massaquoi. “Look at the biggest stars; they’re more relevant than politicians or governments. That’s because they’ve had hit songs, they’re all over popular culture.”

“Hits don’t have as much power as they used to. They cannae be powerful on a scale of actually inspiring people,” insists Hastings.

And so it goes for a good ten minutes, no quarter asked or given, third member Kayus Bankole a somewhat bemused witness lobbing the occasional opinion into the mix. Eventually, they agree to disagree, and we move on. But it’s a neat window into what drives this trio and sets them apart; socially conscious, fiercely independent, and unafraid to go against the grain.

It’s been three years since the release of White Men Are Black Men Too, the potent, fiery mix of politics and pop that appeared fourteen months after their Mercury Prize winning debut Dead. Their success led to long stints on the road, but after “hammering that tour for too long” the band needed time to decompress and re-evaluate where they stood. Reconvening in their Edinburgh studio early last year, they started working through ideas, the result of which is Cocoa Sugar, a stripped down, sparse affair that’s an attempt to locate the very core of Young Fathers.

Gone are the bangers, party tunes and thumping beats, replaced by a more solemn, serious mood. “What’s the price of the light / When you’re stuck in the shadow?” they ask on opener ‘See How’, setting the tone early. Dualities appear all through the record, and not just in terms of light and dark; love and hate, wealth and poverty, and power and weakness are all prodded and dissected over a background of drones and rumbles. Such juxtapositions are a common device for the band now; flipping sentiments on their head and exploring the friction caused by opposing ideas rubbing against each other fuels their confrontational nature. No wonder they’re so keen to subvert traditional notions of pop for loftier ideals.

The album artwork and title are, once again, somewhat provocative. What’s the inspiration behind them?

Alloysious Massaquoi: It’s about making it more exciting for ourselves, and opening up to work with other people. Collaboration is going to cause tensions, and we’re open to that because we know that’s the way forward. Allowing someone inside a self-contained group can be difficult because you don’t trust them; do they understand what the group is, where we’re coming from and where we want to go? We wanted to have something that’s iconic, and to push ourselves to be uncomfortable, whether we enjoy that or not. And as long as you apply those values to creativity, then great things come from it.

Graham ‘G’ Hastings: The cover was based on a photo Kayus took of Ally one night after recording, with a cowboy feel to it. The madness of it leant itself to what we were doing and how it was sounding. We met up with Tom Hingston and showed him these references, and we talked about the feel and the madness we wanted to touch on. And he nailed it. He just knew what we were trying to achieve.

The photo is one of two hundred – Ally just happened to have his mouth like that. Those things excite me, when you leave a bit of space for those moments to happen. The album title sounded good, if a bit mad, but we just kept playing the songs and thinking about it. We talked about how we felt about the process and decided that was the statement that we wanted to make. Especially with the sugar reference, because the music feels sweeter.

You’ve said before that “pop music, not protest songs are the best political space within which to operate and can achieve things that alternative music can’t.” But, to play devil’s advocate for a second, isn’t that the sort of thing people say when they want to be bigger and more successful as a pop star?

AM: I still stand by that.

GH: I think pop music has lost a lot of its power politically and socially though.

AM: I’m not sure about that. Look at the biggest stars; they’re more relevant than politicians or governments. That’s because they’ve had hit songs, they’re all over popular culture.

GH: Not really, nah.

AM: Ultimately, it comes down to the songs; everything else is a byproduct of that. You put in the work, you get to a point, and everything else pans out.

GH: Even with hit songs, I don’t believe they have as much power now as they used to. Look at ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ for example; I don’t know if a song could be as powerful as that now and change as much. I don’t think you could have punk music again, or the effect that Motown had, or the effect of James Brown’s music.

With culture now, there isn’t one channel that everyone feeds through – everybody has their own lane – and you can’t compare a number one record now to a number one record before. You can’t say they’re of equal success or equal impact because they are not. It is just absolutely factually different.

AM: But look at how it used to be on, say, television, and what was happening at the time. There were a lot of restrictions back then, so if something did get through it had an affect. The flipside is that now there are no restrictions – there are less gatekeepers – so of course you can reach a wider audience.

GH: Even so, it only goes to the people that want to hear it. The difference nowadays is that the people who don’t want to hear it, won’t hear it anywhere. It doesn’t touch a whole side of the world that music used to touch and change because now people choose what they want to hear.

AM: No, listen. You have more reach because more people can now form their own opinions based on the vast information available to them. Before, that wasn’t the case.

But if you do want to instigate change, is pop the way? Is Beyoncé a better protest singer than, say, Billy Bragg?

AM: Probably, yeah. She has more power.

GH: But it’s hard to find someone in that position who’s really gonna make a difference because there’s too much at stake for it to be a proper, radical movement that actually fucking changes what’s happening on the street. They do their best, but they’re on a leash. They have to be because of the kind of industry that’s set up above them, and people only want to hear so much of that.

So within the pop stratosphere, superstars are allowed to push up to a point but won’t go beyond that for fear of alienating fans?

Kayus Bankole: Obviously we can’t speak for everyone, but it depends on the artist and whether they want to affect their own pockets, because that’s what normally happens.

AM: It’s bad for business!

GH: A lot of the time they do their best in the situation, but yes. It’s also relevance. To get people to listen to you, you have to create something relevant that people are going to like and come back to you for. When artists create such big, popular albums that make others believe in them, it’s a whole different ball game.

AM: But at the same time, if they’re trying to be active and change things they could be giving to charity and setting things up. That’s the balance. There’s more excitement and more to jump on when an artist does something that’s deemed radical – instantly there’s an attraction to them – but protesting isn’t new. In the 60’s and 70’s it was easy to inspire people. Now, the way to inspire is different, and a lot of the time people just don’t care enough.

What was the inspiration behind the trip to Africa after winning the Mercury and recording White Men Are Black Men Too?

AM: It was our first opportunity to go over to Africa [as a band], and it was the first time for us to test a title like that, test an album in a country that has a bad history. These things are still relevant there. How long has it been [since the end of Apartheid], twenty-three years or something? So it’s still very present in people’s minds. Something like White Men Are Black Men Too is going to mean something completely different to them, and it was an opportunity which we faced head-on; that was the whole point of the title. We wanted to start a conversation and to get people’s ideas. And we found everyone to be very open-minded and very progressive; there are a lot of very smart people there.

What did you learn from the experience, not just as a band but on a personal level?

GH: For me, the greatest thing was that South Africa is so ahead. Art wise, social wise, creative wise, anything artistic; it felt like it was light years ahead.

KB: It felt like they really cared about being engaged with music. There was a huge culture of experiencing and listening to different stuff; they listened to our music and welcomed us with open arms. Personally, the most effective thing was talking to people who have a lot of self-navigation, or identity, which is still fresh in their mind. It helped me understand my identity as well in terms of commonalities.

Was part of that the fact that as a successful UK band, of all the things you could have done you went there to engage with people, and listen to what they had to say? Especially going out to communities, doing gigs in car parks and interacting with young people.

AM: We turned up and straight away we found out that everything had sold out. These people hadn’t heard of Young Fathers but there was a natural interest in something new. “Oh, these guys are from there, and they are multi-racial.” For some people there, being multi-racial is a problem, you know? Some of the conversations I had with the people who held those views were really black and white.

GH: As soon as we started playing, you heard the encouragement. “Yeah, yeah, fucking great!” Hardly anyone there knew us so to get that kind of reception was weird. Then you start to understand how driven and creative the community is, because that’s how it is.

KB: It was nice they were so accepting of us, but I genuinely don’t think it was just because of us; it’s in their culture to really want stuff to succeed, especially if it’s good.

Do you find it difficult to reconcile your desire to be heard, and to instigate change, with doing things like that? Where some people might say, “Why aren’t you building a profile in Europe, playing to bigger crowds and reaching more people?”

AM: It is. We were having this conversation the other day; it’s like having to stand for something one week, then something else pops up and should you be standing for that, and so on. You just have to pick and choose as you see fit, and as a person, not as an artist or band. It needs to come from being a person and instinctively we all wanted to go to Africa anyway. With the history and everything we’d heard about, it was a tantalising prospect.

GH: You’ve got to walk away with something. Sometimes it’s about the effect it’s going to have on you, rather than it just being you playing to a bunch of people. But it becomes a balancing act. For us, as a band, it’s hard to choose what to put priorities on, but at the same time we’ll always go with our gut because at the end of the day if you fuck up, it’s on you.

Is part of it to deliberately take you out of your comfort zone, like you mentioned before?

KB: Definitely. And musically as well, not just the travelling aspect. That’s at the forefront of the new album.

AM: When you go there you’re hit with a lot of things. All that stuff filters through to the music – new experiences, feeling uncomfortable in certain situations – and you process it all and go: “OK, this is what I got from it.” Maybe you didn’t enjoy it, but it still influences what you create.

I’m curious about the story of Nestlé and the song ‘Nest’. Were you really going to take the money and fund an anti-Nestle billboard campaign?

AM: Initially we were like: “Fucking no way”, but at the same time, how many other products do Nestlé have? And products that we all use. So then we thought, wouldn’t it be better to turn it around and give all the money we get to charity and good causes? That would be cool.

GH: We were on a plane when the email came through, just as we were taking off, and in the air we all said, “No.” Then five minutes passed, and we all just started laughing at the prospect of writing a song and them actually going for it. So we devised a plan for a whole song about breastfeeding; we would say the word “baby” hundreds of times in the background, then also make noise about it after the fact so people knew the terrible fucking things that the company does; not just billboards. That was the plan, but it never panned out

That’s a double-edged sword though. Most people would say, “Stick to your morals and say no.”

KB: I had that conversation and yeah, you could say that, but no-one is going to prosecute you or hang you on a cross. You think: “OK, they have shit loads of money,” is it better in your hands or theirs? Is it morally right to take dirty money? So, it is a double-edged sword, but you have to do what you feel is right.

GH: The line was drawn when they wanted us to add a couple of lyrics and a little fucking melody that was their jingle or something. We thought: “If it’s actually shit then it isn’t going to work.” We weren’t bending enough to their will, and so we had to ask ourselves how much do we want to do their thing and take their money, even though we are spending it wisely.

You’ve lamented in the past how some people think your music is too “intense” for them. Do you get tired of constantly being labeled as a “challenging” or “difficult” band?

AM: That’s just the words they used; “too intense”, or it made them “scared”. What the fuck? It’s music, calm yourself down! If they’ve not heard something like that before and it struck a chord and made them feel something, those are all great things to happen. It all stems from us wanting things to be good, to be timeless, to be consistent, and if you want to do that, then there is going to be pushback.

GH: The intensity in the songs and any uncomfortableness that people get is a real achievement because it’s easy for someone to play a heavy metal song and say: “Oh fuck, that makes me uncomfortable”; it’s a cliché, it’s in your face. But with some of our sweetest songs like ‘I Heard’ and ‘Low’, if people still feel that way that’s a fucking achievement because those are really sweet sounding songs. We’ve managed to do it subconsciously, with the lyrics and the manner in which it’s sung. It’s not done in an obvious way, it’s all in the undercurrent, so fucking well done us for doing that.

‘Lord’ works like that. It has this haunting quality, like a sweet, gospel-inspired ballad, then you have these blasts and synths that come in. It’s a neat juxtaposition.

AM: It’s based on anxiety. When you think it’s going to turn into something beautiful it goes [brrrrrrrrrrrrr] and it takes you out of that comfort zone. You have to catch your breath.

GH: In moments like that you either grip people or you lose them. That song could’ve been just piano and voice; it would’ve been very beautiful, and but people would’ve thought: “Oh, just another fucking ballad.” But when you put bits in like that then you’re going to lose people, because they’ll get there, think “What the fuck has happened?” and turn it off. Or they’ll be gripped and intrigued by it.

The new album sounds a little darker, and musically more sparse. Lyrically, there’s a lot of repetition – simple, striking phrases repeated over and over. It sounds like you’re boiling down the essence of Young Fathers and trying to get to the core.

GH: Lyrically, arrangement-wise, production wise, it was all about that – stripping it down – and that’s why it sounds more sparse. There’s less of a bed of crazy sounds going on. At first it felt really weird; your vocal was exposed and you didn’t have all this ethereal shit going on in the background to back you up, so you had to punch through that. We were in LA with Dave Sitek working on some songs and he said you just have to batter through that and once you do, you get over it.

AM: I don’t think it is dark…

GH: No, I think it’s the right word. A lot of people have said that it sounds brighter and it comes from a light place, but some of the lyrics are a bit dark; depends what song it is. Other people have said it’s upbeat and I’m like: “Is it?” I dunno. It’s interesting to see how people are reacting to it.

It’s certainly less jaunty than White Men are Black Men Too.

GH: Well, that record was meant to be… not happier sounding exactly, but it is more jaunty. The way we were touring at the time, we wanted to be walking on stage and have things that would work straight away without much work. It was meant to be used live, and it had a lot of drive.

AM: We sounded like a band on that album, a weird indie band.

Lyrically you’ve always played with themes of identity and individuality. The Scots said “no” to Independence, and today the Catalan president Carles Puigdemont was caught making comments to the effect that their dream of an independent Cataluyna is over. Is nationalism and national identity, expressed in that way, a false idol?

GH: I can’t stand nationalism. I understand the reasons, socially, for movements like in Catalunya and Scotland, but there are no reasons I fucking agree with. The nationalism bits are where I draw the line and I can’t make any sense of it. It’s just pride; you can swing one way where you wear kilts and sing, but on the other side, what happens to people coming into the country, what happens to people that don’t look like you? The traditional British person, or the traditional Catalan; what happens to them?

To me, the stress on national identity or nationalism needs to be changed. Nobody chooses where to be born, it’s a fucking piece of land! I get the community side of it, but I don’t get the: “I’m proud because this is mine.” You never chose it! I grew up with people who were inherently racist and very nationalistic, and I can’t forget that because it’s still present. That has to be fucking targeted first and foremost before anything else.

AM: To love your country doesn’t mean you are necessarily racist. But it’s a thin line.

GH: Crossing it is when you want your country to do better than others, or when you have that “empire” mentality.

AM: I grew up with people who were racist, they just weren’t racist to me; they were racist to everyone else. So there is still prejudice in terms of the “other”. Is it strange for a bunch of white folks to see a black man knocking about going: “Yeah, fucking Scotland!” being super proud of being Scottish? Folk aren’t used to that. They say: “You can’t be Scottish because you are black.” So what is it to be Scottish then? What is it to be from a place? Is it what you wear, what you eat, the conversations you have? For me it just boils down to a person’s colour, that’s the only thing; you can have everything, but an Indian person, someone with a turban, can they not be Scottish too? That’s the problem, but no one wants to say it. And I’m not talking about liberal, open-minded people here; just the average joe.

Are we forever doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, or can we break the cycle?

AM: You can only hope. People need to see themselves in other people, so they can say: “He/she did that and they look like me, so I can do that.” You need that encouragement as a kid, and if you’re starved of that, then it has an effect; it breeds anger, it breeds resentment, and it breeds all these negative thoughts. History says that nothing really changes, but it could if we wanted it to happen.

GH: It’s the loud noises that are made daily now about things that are wrong. It’s nothing but positive, and I hope it doesn’t stop. People have this idea that one day peace will happen and the world will be in perfect synchronicity but it’s never going to happen, ever! All you can try and do is push to better the lives of people who are suffering by bringing it to the forefront and talking about it, making it present in people’s minds. It was a fucking problem then, and it’s a fucking problem now; everything that you were brought up to believe is actually fucking wrong. And that needs to be in people’s minds.

Cocoa Sugar is out via Ninja Tune on March 9

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