Young Fathers are not the types to let the glare of the media spotlight distract them from their number one focus: making distinctive, infectious, essential and danceable music.
Sure, since landing last year’s Mercury Prize the trio have become a regular fixture on radio playlists and festival posters, but none of this is likely to affect them.
The band’s roots go back to 2008, when three Edinburgh teenagers from diverse backgrounds (‘G’ Hastings from the council estate of Drylaw, Alloysious Massaquoi, originally from Liberia via Ghana, and Kayus Bankole, born in the Scottish capital to Nigerian parents but partially raised in Maryland) came together after meeting at a hip-hop night at the city’s Bongo Club.
‘Straight Back On It’ was an early taste of their raw talent, and after winning over a small but loyal fanbase through their live shows (their loosely choreographed dancing, command of the microphone and off-the-hook energy is something to behold) they eventually produced the mini-album/mixtape TAPE ONE.
Spotted by the highly respected LA label Anticon, TAPE ONE was given an official re-release in 2013, and since then it’s been an unbelievable rise for the group. And amid all the critical adulation, awards and US chat show appearances, they’ve stuck to their guns, releasing two more utterly brilliant records in 2014’s DEAD and the quickfire follow-up, White Men Are Black Men Too.
Having just returned from a US tour, we caught up with ‘G’ and found that the band’s granite-like resolve to stay true to what they do is as unshakeable as ever.
How did you find the US tour? How did it compare with your previous trips Stateside?
“Back now. Big difference doing a headliner. It’s been a long tour, covered a lot of miles, seen some weather, played to packed out in San Fran, LA, Brooklyn, Minneapolis, to bemused in Boise and Nashville and crazy in Austin and Alabama. Before we had a fingernail hold, now it’s a whole toe.”
You travelled to Berlin to record most of All White Men Are Black Men – what was the motivation behind that, and did you draw upon any Germanic influences?
“The album was recorded all over, but finished in Berlin. If you listen carefully you can hear a particular Teutonic cold sound. Plus the railway yard’s next to the studio. We just wanted to get away somewhere, breathe some different kinds of fried food smells, be slightly alienated and challenge ourselves without getting into serious danger.”
What was the background to this record, and did you approach it in a completely different way to DEAD?
“We wanted to make something pointed, like a bullet train, going to one place with each track. No fucking. No meandering. We trimmed and trimmed until all that was left was lean and bone.”
The new album feels very immediate. How important is it for you to get across a sense of spontaneity or performance on record?
“It’s not even getting it across so much as capturing it. You can fake the sensation but not the reality. When the mouths open, the microphone is on.”
Obviously the Mercury Prize brought you to a mainstream audience. Have you noticed a major difference in your audience now?
“We’ve always had a really varied audience, all ages, all types. There’s a few more nowadays which isn’t just the Mercury effect – people hear about us from other people. There’s never been any exclusivity to us. If you can stand the bass then you belong. We are a church for freaks and the disconnected, even if they hold down a regular job.”
Is there a different set of expectations or pressures around you now, or do you try to stay detached from that side of it?
“All expectations are batted off at the gate. Label, management, agents etc know us and don’t try to force us into Top Of The Pops situations. That’s why we work with them.”
What was your experience of the media coverage around the Mercury win, and the aftermath?
“It’s always a surprise to find out that some things really are as shit as you think they are. And that some people aren’t as square as they make out.”
Do you view awards as a necessary evil?
“Totally unnecessary, but great when you win.”
You’re often defined as ‘hip hop’ by the media, yet that’s something you’ve always questioned – and there’s a ‘File Under Rock and Pop’ sticker in the new album packaging. How unhelpful are those kinds of genre tags and conclusions, and is it possible to shake them off?
“The music industry has a tendency to make ghettos. It got a shock when the biggest selling genre came from a marginalised ghetto but it soon coped and created more around it. But hip hop hasn’t matured enough to allow real difference. We need to be able to make what we do without worrying about the boom bap. Hence ‘rock & pop’.”
You’ve previously made the point that the authorities in Edinburgh and Scotland are not too supportive of new talent. Did this push you harder in the early days, or was it more of a struggle?
“There’s no reason why the authorities should be supportive, apart from the fact that cities famous for music can exploit that and make money. But it’s pretty fucking stupid in the 21st century to be trying to keep a protective bubble of apparent respectability in place over Edinburgh when we have generations who are OAPs and who saw Bill Haley, ripped up cinema seats and combed engine oil into their ducktails, right? For fucks sake, some of these councillors would have dropped an ecky back in the day and danced for 12 hours straight. How they end up like 1950s throwbacks is a mystery.”
How attached do you feel to Edinburgh and Scotland, and how much has this identity informed your sound?
“Its only influence has been that it hasn’t had any.”
You recently put the band’s name on a letter which was published in the Observer calling for the UK’s nuclear deterrent to be scrapped. Is it important that you find ways of making a difference outside of the music, especially now that you have a platform to do it?
“When we believe in something and it fits then why not speak up? People are afraid all the time, afraid for their careers, afraid because they think it will affect their lives in some fundamental way. If a nuclear bomb goes off, then you could say that’s them being affected more fundamentally.”
There was an extremely quick turnaround between the two albums. Is this a trend you’re hoping to continue?
“No, we’re touring this year, all year. We will still record when we can but there aren’t many gaps.”
Finally, are there other emerging artists that have caught your attention recently?
White Men Are Black Men Too is out now via Big Dada. Follow Young Fathers at www.young-fathers.com
Young Fathers play the following UK shows:
4 June: The Sugarmill, Stoke-on-Trent
5 June: Norwich Arts Centre, Norwich
6 June: O2 Academy, Sheffield
7 June: The Kazimier, Liverpool
9 June: Central Hall, Edinburgh (part of Neu Reekie)
27 June: Glastonbury Festival
19 July: Latitude Festival
4 Sep: Festival No.6
11 Sep: Bestival