YOUNG Fathers are playing Edinburgh’s Hogmanay this year, but don’t expect them to be too grateful for the gig. The Mercury Prize winners talk to Andrew Eaton-Lewis
The first thing I learn when I meet Young Fathers, on a chilly December afternoon in Leith, is that their next album is already in the bag. Literally. “That’s why I’m holding it like this,” says Graham ‘G’ Hastings, clutching a black holdall tight to his chest in the Sea Breeze Café, a short walk from their studio.
The Edinburgh trio began recording the follow-up to Dead immediately after that album won the 2014 Mercury Prize. The day after the ceremony in October, they drove from London to a studio in Berlin. Three weeks later it was done. “We weren’t expecting the Mercury to turn out the way it did,” explains Hastings, “so the plan was always the same. It was good to get away from it. Awards are awards and it’s cool but they dinnae mean everything to us.”
This was apparent at the ceremony, during which Young Fathers caused a minor stir by refusing to smile for photographers or talk to newspapers they didn’t approve of. Their acceptance speech was ten words long. Asked by bemused journalists whether they were happy to have won, they responded: “What do you expect us to be doing, jumping around?”
Today, having made following up one of the year’s most distinctive and acclaimed albums seem effortless, they are both mildly amused and unrepentant about the fuss. “We’ve been doing this since we were 14,” points out Alloysious Massaquoi. “Had we won something when we were kids it’d be a different story. We’d be overwhelmed, But we weren’t overwhelmed, whatsoever.”
The plucky Scots outsiders who beat Damon Albarn
This, however, didn’t fit the narrative of a media that wanted to paint Young Fathers as the plucky Scots outsiders who beat Damon Albarn to a prestigious prize. The band’s role was to be humble and grateful; unfortunately they weren’t playing the game.
“We already know we’re good,” says Massaquoi. “We’ve thought outside the box for f***ing years. It’s a prestigious award, right, that’s meant to be for innovative music, so if we hadn’t won it wouldn’t have looked good on them because we embody that and more. I’m being serious. It wouldnae make sense if we didnae win.” For this, he laments, Young Fathers were labelled “arrogant”, or “divas”. But they’re nothing of the sort, he insists. “It’s just about being honest.”
Honesty, you sense, is important to Young Fathers, alongside confidence, passion, and fearlessness. The gang of three (Masters, Massaquoi and Kayus Bankole), who met at an under 16’s hip hop night in Edinburgh, have evolved, via years of live shows, one abandoned album, and two attention-grabbing EPs, into a formidable musical force. Dead has been compared to Massive Attack, Suicide, My Bloody Valentine and TV on the Radio – trailblazing bands all. It stands up to those comparisons, and they know it. And they insist that the new one, the one they apparently bashed out in less than a month, is better. Primal Scream aside, few Scottish bands display such a refreshing lack of cultural cringe.
We discuss this via a conversation about The X Factor, and a contestant Cheryl Cole described as showing “a fine line between confidence and arrogance”. This exasperated Massaquoi. “This guy was like the perfect pop star, and every performance was great. It’s the British mentality, you’re not allowed to say you’re good at something. If you do you’re a dick. But being humble…. tell me what being humble is. Your family keeps you humble. If we were American…”
“To make a pop song is the hardest thing”
It’s telling, perhaps, that Massaquoi cites The X Factor. Young Fathers are particularly upfront about their ambition to make pop music rather than be “some weird leftfield group”.
“To make a pop song is the hardest thing because it’s a balance of so many different things,” says Massaquoi. “The right time, the right climate…”
“We’re kind of fascinated by the pop industry,” says Hastings. “You have to look at how it works and try and involve people. Being a fan of Motown since I was a child I always wondered about those meetings where they used to get people in and play songs and ask them if it was a number one hit.” And so, while recording in Berlin, Young Fathers did exactly that, inviting select groups of people into the studio, filming their reactions, and asking them to write down their thoughts. “You always have to make yourself uncomfortable,” Hastings explains, “and this was one way of pushing it. It opens it up a bit more.”
Unusually for a process like this, Young Fathers’ record label was not involved (“The label were actually mad at us because they’ve not heard the album yet.”). And how did the reactions shape the result? “Actually we haven’t paid attention to it,” says Bankole. In fact they have neither watched the footage nor read the comments. “It’d be nice to read it after everything’s mixed,” says Massaquoi. “It’ll also be nice to burn it,” adds Bankole.
“You have a confidence in yourself then everything changes”
I’m perplexed. If they didn’t intend to pay any attention to the results of these hit factory-style consultations, what was the point? “Sometimes you just change your mind,” shrugs Hastings. “When you’ve actually done the record and you have a confidence in yourself then everything changes. With the songs now it’s like, we’re really happy with them so I dinnae really give a f*** what people think.”
If remarks like this suggest Young Fathers’ brash confidence is occasionally more of a front than they’d like you to think, the trio are also frustrated that some radio stations don’t share their vision of what pop music should be. “There’s this thing that it sounds distorted,” exclaims Massaquoi. “But to whose standards?” Hastings is “wound up” – quite reasonably – that lines like “AK47 take my brethren straight to heaven” have prevented their songs from getting airplay, while, as he puts it, “it’s alright for someone to say something misogynist like ‘shake your arse bitch’ all over the radio”.
It’ll be interesting to discover how this ongoing wrestling match with the mainstream has shaped the new, as yet unnamed album, due in April. Currently, Young Fathers are a fascinating hybrid of awkward, subversive outsiders and enthusiastic pop contenders – a mix encapsulated on Get Up, the first single from Dead, whose chorus somehow manages to make a hoary old lyrical cliché (“get up and have a party”) sound like a political call to arms, thanks to the song’s disconcerting wobbly (and, yes, distorted) bassline and references to corpses and revolution. “You need to keep the balance,” says Hastings.
“We want to infiltrate it sensibly”
“We understand pop music and we want to infiltrate it sensibly, so we can say something but at the same time someone in their car can just sing along.”
Meanwhile, Young Fathers are rounding off a breakthrough year by performing as part of their home city’s Hogmanay party. As with the Mercury, you’ll get no “it’s an honour” style quotations out of them. In fact, they happily spend a quarter of our conversation discussing Edinburgh’s appalling record when it comes to supporting live music. “We’ve hardly done any gigs in Edinburgh,” says Massaquoi. “That’s unfortunate but it’s just the way it is.”
They reel off a list of absurd situations they’ve experienced: the outdoor festival where the noise restrictions were so strict it was louder for them to perform without microphones; acoustic nights forced to be quieter than the buses on the street outside; a venue that spent thousands of pounds on soundproofing only to be shut down after one complaint. “Every kind of musician at some point has been frustrated by the city and the noise policies and the way it’s a ghost town outside the festival,” says Hastings. “We’re sitting in Leith just now. I don’t understand why Leith doesn’t have four music venues, nightclubs. Why is Leith not the alternative to George Street? Leith is screaming for it but it’s a cultural thing. It needs to be allowed first.”
Bankole nods: “You have to change the mindset of people in Edinburgh in general.” Young Fathers might just have the influence to do this – indeed, recent comments on the subject made headlines in the city and were surely a factor in spurring the City Council into rethinking its noise policy. Then again, they’ve got other things to be doing. “What’s good about the Mercury is it sets us up for the next album but we need to build on that,” says Massaquoi. “We wanna be huge.”
• Young Fathers play the Waverley Stage at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Street Party on Wednesday.