For their new album Cocoa Sugar, Edinburgh band Young Fathers challenged themselves to leave their sonic comfort zone, writes Fiona Shepherd.
Down in the bowels of Young Fathers HQ, there is a choice to be made – do we do the interview in chilly studio or sweaty lounge? Given that the Edinburgh trio have a self-confessed reputation for thoughtful dissent in the ranks, it’s probably just as well that Ally Massaquoi is running late, leaving Graham “G” Hastings to make an executive decision. Chilly studio it is – a makeshift place of creative clutter (a piano here, a violin there, piles of books all around) where the band members can think straight.
“We’ve always liked working in places that are not professional studios,” says Hastings, who is the band beatmaster, mixer and co-producer. “The madness and cabin fever that takes over, that’s part of the sound.”
Young Fathers rent their Leith basement studio and rehearsal lair from Out of the Blue, the Edinburgh arts charity who run the irrepressible Bongo Club where, once upon a time, three Edinburgh teenagers – Hastings from Drylaw, Massaquoi, originally from Liberia, and his Boroughmuir High classmate Kayus Bankole, of Nigerian descent – met at an under-18s hip-hop night and decided to form a band.
Fifteen years later, Young Fathers have evolved from their puppyish hip-pop roots into one of Scotland’s most outstanding bands, stirring electronica, gospel, R&B and rap into an intoxicating but unclassifiable sonic stew. Director Danny Boyle recognised their singularity, describing their music as the “heartbeat” of the T2 Trainspotting soundtrack. They are the only act to achieve what no one is (yet) calling the SAYM – winning both the Scottish Album of the Year Award for their 2013 EP Tape Two and the Mercury Prize for their full-length debut Dead.
“We have this weird confidence when we’re making music,” says Hastings. “We don’t really talk that much, we’ve always had this weird telepathic thing. We’re so honest with each other that sometimes when we speak to other people we forget that they don’t have that filter. For us, saying ‘can you change that, I don’t like it’ is like saying ‘can I have a cup of tea?’ We’re a band that probably should have split up over creative differences ten years ago but you batter through it, that’s what makes this band what it is.”
Their new album Cocoa Sugar – so titled because the music is bitter and sweet – was almost a deal breaker, involving a long, fevered gestation and a difficult birth, followed by proud parenting of its warped pop tunes and shapeshifting rhythms.
“We wanted to reject everything that we had built,” says Hastings. “We felt like we wanted to do something normal – knowing that we could never be normal. We’ve tried to be normal when we were younger but we were always too weird, we never fit in.
“With this album we gave ourselves a palette sonically and lyrically. But the hardest thing for us to do is to stick to one thing. That’s why we always say we are a pop band. Looking over 70 to 80 years of pop music and how varied it’s been, that’s what we mean when we say pop music.”
Massaquoi joins us, and the conversation turns to the band’s striking visuals, particularly the unsettling but beautiful sleeve designed for Cocoa Sugar by Tom Hingston, who has created work for such immaculate stylists as David Bowie and Grace Jones.
“The mouth’s weird, the eyes are a bit funny but it’s still aesthetically pleasing,” says Massaquoi of the cover image. “That’s the definition of the record and how we see the world. It’s an imperfect beauty.”
“We grew up watching three different music channels on cable, so eye beats ear every time, and that’s coming from musicians,” says Hastings. “You put up a flag to say ‘look over here’.”
“Music is the bread and butter but how you position yourself, how you come across, all that stuff really matters. You have to figure a way to navigate in that space,” says Massaquoi.
Young Fathers navigate with boldness and intelligence, whether encouraging debate around the title of their previous album White Men Are Black Men Too or responding, at the invitation of the National Portrait Gallery, to their exhibition on male image and identity with a short film of Bankole gatecrashing the gallery while Massaquoi’s narration questioned the lack of diversity in the portrait subjects. What was intended as a critique of privilege and elitism provoked a knee-jerk social media storm in a teacup accusing the band of being “anti-white”.
“The whole piece came about from general conversations about if you enter a gallery, do you feel part of it?” says Massaquoi. “You go in and there’s paintings of random white guys you dinnae ken. They’ve all come from money so I don’t know how an everyday person would fit into that. Where are the pictures of the firemen, the doctors, the nurses?
“If Graham had broken into the gallery in a pair of jogging bottoms, swaggering about, I think there would have been a completely different reaction. It’s very visceral, a black dude in front of white paintings. I came here when I was four-and-a-half, but because I’m black I can’t be Scottish?”
“It exposed a level of intolerance,” says Hastings. “The reaction felt extreme but that’s just scratching the surface of what’s there. Walking out on the streets of a multicultural city like Edinburgh, life’s going to become hard if you are hateful of everybody. We’ve never really seen ourselves as being political or pushing an agenda but us just singing the songs we sing or standing on stage together, it looks anti-establishment, even anarchist.”
Rather than shy away from the controversy, Young Fathers choose to engage and interrogate. “I prefer to know where I stand with somebody, I would rather have the conversation,” says Massaquoi, who took a series of screenshots of some of the more extreme abuse the band received. “I might do some art thing about it later,” he says.
That’s Young Fathers – always questioning, always creating. ■
Young Fathers play Barrowland, Glasgow on 24 March. Cocoa Sugar is out now on Ninja Tune.