Search The Line of Best Fit
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Young Fathers Dec 2022 Guy Gooch2

Daddy Issues

23 January 2023, 09:00
Words by Sophie Walker
Original Photography by Guy Gooch

A shared obsession to make people care has driven Young Fathers, helping them to create a sound that finds the sweet spot between the cerebral and the primal, they tell Sophie Walker.

In the first light of an Edinburgh morning-after, Alloysius Massoquoi walks home, joining a trickle of clubgoers humbled by the glaring sunrise.

He puts in his earphones and listens to “Tell Somebody”, a song drawn from Young Fathers’ fourth record, Heavy, Heavy – finally finished. The volume couldn’t be higher; he’s drowned in the thing. It begins with the expectant hum of an orchestra, a strange lightness like a held breath. He watches people as they pass by. There’s a guy who can barely stand straight, pissing up a pole; a group of girls roll their eyes, stifling laughter at the Sunday morning spectacle. The percussion is explosive, and night-shift workers rub the sleep from their eyes; the violins soar, the falsetto almost touches heaven, and people who have just woken up run for the bus. The drone of the organ in his ears lends something extraordinary to this entirely ordinary, and strikingly human, performance.

“I’m looking at people and I think, ‘Everyone’s got their own stories, everyone’s having this human experience’,” he recalls. “I don’t want to sound fucking ‘kumbaya’ about it, but I had this moment where I realised we’re all connected. I love when music does that. It’s special, especially when it’s your own.”

It’s this idea that Young Fathers have been striving to capture, the elusive thing you might call ‘soul’. Since the trio’s inception as three teenagers at a hip-hop night, bound together by a refusal to express themselves in the two acceptable avenues of the boxing ring or the football pitch, their music has existed far beyond the margins of anything comfortable or familiar. Emerging with mixtapes TAPE ONE and TAPE TWO in 2013, theirs was a kind of hip-hop found deep within an uncanny valley where sweetness was poisoned by abrasion. It cemented their reputation for a sound that is almost recognisable yet remains firmly beyond the remit of experience, deeply distorted and unknown.

2014 album DEAD earned them the Mercury Prize, plucking them from obscurity and holding their strange sound to the light: a warped mind’s interpretation of almost-pop, fused together by forces that should otherwise repel. While the Mercury Prize conferred legitimacy, Young Fathers still would not play nicely – the more elevated their profile became, the more obstinately they refused to court convention.

DEAD was succeeded by the frenetic White Men Are Black Men Too, a provocative statement that wrestled with the weight of the world’s binaries before unleashing a primal sense of joy in defiance. While six of their songs were selected by Danny Boyle for the soundtrack to T2: Trainspotting, they were using their voices to denounce European treatment of refugees; while the trio toured with Massive Attack, becoming your artist’s-favourite-artist, they subverted a commission for a song from Nestlé into a boycott against it. The company aggressively marketed baby milk powder in developing countries which has been linked to perpetuating disease and malnutrition, so, of course, Young Fathers wrote the lyrics: “Feed me mama / Food for the village”, backed by a refrain of “baby” over and over. Nestlé loved the song, apparently, before the penny dropped.

Young Fathers Dec 2022 Guy Gooch1

Things shifted with 2018’s Cocoa Sugar, when Young Fathers stopped making statements. They came interested in the world’s reflection, holding the mirror up to our collective faces so close we could see our breath on it. Their lyrics weren’t playful riddles to be solved, but abstractions awaiting interpretation – more revealing about yourself than anything about Young Fathers. “They sounded like nothing else around”, remarked The Guardian on their emergence, but maybe the thing about Young Fathers isn’t that they sound like nothing, but rather, they sound like everything. A culmination of thousands of years of movement and feeling without borders.

After a four-year hiatus following the intensity of Cocoa Sugar, the band returns with the long-awaited Heavy, Heavy – a title which speaks to the gravity of their ambition. In their fifteen years together, Massoquoi, Graham ‘G’ Hastings, and Kayus Bankole have grown from boys to men, have survived and studied our volatile world. During those years, Bankole traversed Africa in search for inspiration, while Hastings found it in the birth of his first child. Today, it’s an unfriendly climate to return to as artists, but when I ask what draws them back again and again, they unanimously agree: “The result”.

Hastings, responsible for caustic vocals and the production - those dislocating and yet oddly beautiful sounds – cuts a solemn, contemplative figure, often the first to wrestle with the right words for his thoughts. Then there is Massoquoi, who commands a voice capable of religious depth; he’s prone to sprawling ideas that he describes best in images. The way he sees it, songs are trees that grow, and to create an album is to create a landscape: “You add all the freakin’ foliage, the grass, the greenery – and then you start building the houses, you start putting in the family…” Bankole, however, spends great lengths of time listening, hands clasped, head bowed. Considering he brings raucous, and at times maniac vocals to the table, he is softly spoken and measures out his words carefully.

It should come as no surprise that, since the beginning, Young Fathers have been driven by obsession. “It’s a classic,” says Massoquoi. “You always want the next thing, then the next thing - and it’s never enough. We have this insatiable appetite where we’re like, ‘How far can we push it?’” But then that begs the question: how far is too far? “Sometimes we just go mad from it,” Hastings shrugs. “At certain points, even down to the track order, would take us months to come up with. It would make us so delusional. Some of the best shows we’ve ever done, we’ve been fucking knackered for.” Glastonbury is an example they all leap to. “We could barely see straight. We just hadn’t slept…”

And by that point - the point they always seem to reach after they’d spent at least twelve hours a day in the studio; after they’d stretched themselves on tour to inhuman extents – it felt like they couldn’t summon another fuck to give. “When you’re each that point of ‘I don’t fucking care anymore’, interesting things start to happen,” Hasting ventures. “Your voice is hoarse, but you’ve actually sung better than you’ve ever sung before –because your voice is hoarse. Someone could have stepped in and stopped us, but at the same time, we wouldn’t have got that moment.”

Young Fathers Dec 2022 Guy Gooch5 LAND

It’s a devotion those “surprises” that they risked their wellbeing to capture. Step into Young Fathers’ basement studio, and you won’t hear a word said between them, no discussion of intention. The mics are always turned on. “I know if I play something, someone else is going to start doing something in response,” says Hastings. “And you better have that mic set up, because if you don’t capture it, that moment is lost. We struggle to do things twice the same way. Whenever we’ve been asked to recreate something for a performance video or something like that, we’re just like, ‘Nah, we cannae do it like that’. It’s everything, from the room you were in, where you were standing, how your voice is a bit croaky that day, or you were hungover – you know what I mean? All those elements would be missed if they weren’t captured. That’s a real risk for a band like us.”

Massoquoi is still weighing up the merits of not giving a fuck: “Well, it’s a mentality, though, if you think about it. Your body knows what to do, it’s muscle memory. It makes it easier to believe it: you find liberation in tricking yourself into thinking you don’t care because, the thing is, we actually do.” Hastings is quick to clarify: “When we say we don’t give a fuck, all it means is we zoned into what we actually cared about. We’re the opposite of a band who doesn’t give a fuck. We’re anti-nonchalant. We’re pro-passion, we’re pro-care, we’re pro-emotion. That’s what we like about ourselves: the fact that we’re normal. We give plenty of fucks.”

Besides monumental personal and global shifts adding to a delay in the arrival of Heavy, Heavy, the toll of their own process of making music – intense and all-consuming – made it harder to return to. “I have a love-hate relationship with music,” Massoquoi confesses. “I’m trying to find the feeling of excitement again, this feeling of things being as real as when we’re recording a song. I’ve been struggling with that, because I feel I’ve been so rooted in real life and responsibilities, family, providing, all this shit - so it’s been a lot. This only seems like a little sprinkle in my life, and I want it to be the main thing, like, ‘this is what you do’. I’ve been building toward that emotionally. I feel like I’ve lost that feeling and I’m still trying to find it, gradually. I think you have to rejuvenate yourself, you have to realise: ‘This is a part of me, but it’s not all of me.’ You have to balance certain things. I think you have to lose something to appreciate it again.”

Heavy, Heavy was just as much about reconnecting with each other rather than focusing on making something that connected with the world around them. “It felt like I found something special with the rest of the guys again,” says Bankole. “And I appreciate it even more now. When you’re in it, you don’t even realise the value of it, but we’re the living embodiment of how strong, individual ideas can build something great together.” They started from zero. Not a melody, not a bassline, was started until the three of them were in the room together. “I think we needed that after being apart,” thinks Hastings. “That togetherness.”

Every project feels like a new experiment for Young Fathers, following a wild notion of, ‘What happens if…’ When Cocoa Sugar was a mission-impossible to create something ‘normal’, this time, they wanted to see what would happen by giving themselves structure – to be strict with themselves, to relinquish their relationship with obsession. The album is a sprint of ten tracks that practise self-restraint, the product of what happens when you choose less, but maximise those elements to great effect. It’s a short listen, but in their mind, they wanted it to be shorter still. “Everything, even the kitchen sink, is in there. We threw everything at it,” says Hastings. It’s not about indulgences like length, or scale. Heavy, Heavy is about density. “I suppose this album was about, ‘Can you get these wild moments, these unthought-of things and the kind of spontaneity we love without having to be driven delusional by it? Can you get that in a structured way?’”

"I have a love-hate relationship with music... I’m trying to find the feeling of excitement again, this feeling of things being as real as when we’re recording a song."

(A.M.)

Our conversation reminds Bankole of something their drummer, Steven Morrison, shared with him a quote attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci which resonated with the making of Heavy, Heavy: “Art is never finished, only abandoned”. For the first time, they made peace with stepping back and letting it be. Massoquoi says, ‘Even with these interviews we’re doing, it’s making the record make more sense to us, adding clarity. Because a lot of the time we don’t talk. We just go in and know what we’re doing. We expel what we need to expel.”

Because of that, they all have strikingly disparate feeling about what Heavy, Heavy is. It’s a rarity for Young Fathers to reach consensus. They may be a unified group, with no single ‘leader’ at the helm, but their interpretations of their work are entirely personal; they debate and disagree, setting off chain reactions of thought with one another. Asking them questions feels pointless. They go in their own direction. “A lot of what was going on for us with this record on a personal level is only just coming to light,” says Bankole. “We’re humans with feelings and different experiences that mean something completely different to us. Even listening to the guys talk, I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s true. But it doesn’t apply to me.’” He tells me he struggled with the unbridled freedom they had with Cocoa Sugar, only a “precious thread that was holding everything together”. Massoquoi sheepishly says, “I loved that process.” Case in point. “See, there you go,” Bankole smiles. “The point I’m making is simply that our experiences with the record can be different, and I encourage it. I think it’s a great thing and another strength of ours: we have our differences, and that’s what makes this whatever the fuck this is.”

When I ask which qualities they were striving to create with this record, something they all agree on is what Massoquoi offers: “Undeniably steeped in humanity.” He explains, “There’s so many ways it can go. There’s contradiction, there’s a spiritual element. It’s antagonistic, anthemic… all these adjectives that describe certain things we all resonate with as humans.”

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There was a picture that was on the wall of the studio while they made this album. It’s of a girl and she’s dancing. People are around her and she has a big smile on her face. “It’s straight-faced joy,” Hastings ventures. “What I see is a rhythmic toil. You’re very serious about how you’re dancing because it’s a real release.” What fascinated Young Fathers more than anything was this sense of communion through music, this primal instinct to dance that we all feel reflexively but can’t quite articulate. “It’s ancient. People dance from the gut rather than the head,” shares Hastings. “We want to know, ‘What’s the rhythm that makes people want to fucking shout?’”

“It’s honest,” Massoquoi asserts. “It’s an honest thing. You could be in a festival tent where everyone’s on drugs, or whatever, but strip that away and there’s the essence: you’re doing it from pain, stress, whatever – and the only way to liberate yourself is just by moving. When you go back to basics, when things turn to shit, you start again and things feel so much richer. It’s the starting point of all of this. Who started hitting a drum first? Who started stomping their feet? Why? When you see little babies clapping their hands, why are they moving in that way? Is it an innate thing, or a learned thing? Those are the things we find interesting and draw inspiration from.”

Hastings, in particular, was delving into this inquiry with Heavy, Heavy’s sound. While their music has always carried the hallmarks of a spectrum of traditional African sounds, with this record, they’ve leaned into it more than ever. The source of everything. “For me, anyway, if you’re looking for originality, it’s like, ‘Okay, look here’,” he says. “It’s always been there with us, it’s in everything we do.”

He started exploring the archives of Alan Lomax, the famed ethnomusicologist who dedicated his career to folk music from around the world in the 20th century. “There’s a side of music that’s not premeditated, and it might not even be a song. It might be something people were singing over and over again,” Hastings tells me. He explored ‘spirituals’, a genre of Christian music pioneered by Black Americans with its roots in sub-Saharan African cultural heritage; it was sung communally by slaves, and its signatures would later evolve into blues and gospel. Hastings had a similar fascination with ‘fife and drum blues’ which originated in Mississippi, its performances often being family affairs. He says, “It’s relentless, people just expressing themselves and upholding traditions. All that stuff was me looking for things that felt similar to how we are now, and how we react to sound and music, to rhythm.”

I bring up the song “Ululation”, the title itself defined by a high-pitched, trilling vocal resembling a howl to express emotion. The ceremonial practise has its roots sprawling through all parts of Africa, the Middle East and as far as Central and South Asia. Performed by Bankole’s good friend Tapiwa ‘Taps’ Mambo in the Zimbabwean language of Shona, the limitation of language is overcome by the universally understood emotional expression. My mentioning it makes the band look to each other and smirk. “What’s funny is with ‘Ululation’, that seems to be the song that everybody has picked up on,” says Hastings. Bankole laughs, “What is it about ‘Ululation?’”

At first, I kick myself for following the same line of questioning as other interviewers, but Hastings is quick to say, “No! That’s the whole reason we kept it.” Massoquoi tells me excitedly, as if he’d just won a bet, “We kept saying it does something! It does something.” It was a song that originally had them stumped; they’d taken it so far but couldn’t quite get it over the line. It was only the last-minute addition of Taps’ vocal that meant it made the cut. “The fact that it has been brought up a few times really solidified what we were trying to do. At the time, we were blindsided almost, because the process was such a struggle,” says Hastings. “How fucking long we spent on it, the anger or the arguments doesn’t matter – what matters is the song at the end.”

Sequentially, for Massoquoi, it feels like a transition not only in the album itself, but also in the sense of where Young Fathers are heading next: “We’ve always paid attention to dynamics, and ‘Ululation’ is the point where it changes. You go somewhere. Maybe you’re going through some stuff, you’re going through a cave and then on the other side it’s the freakin’ Garden of Eden, or whatever. It’s like a rebirth. And then you go into ‘Sink or Swim’, which has a new energy, a new directness.” As an outlier that many listeners have picked up on, he’s certain that it gestures to what lies beyond. “This felt like a tantalising bit,” he says, “a little something-something.”

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“It felt like I found something special with the rest of the guys again."

(K.B.)

Bankole asks me, “Just out of curiosity, how did you feel listening to the album?” I tell him it felt something like joy, or perhaps the sense of hard-earned release that joy brings after releasing the pressure of something trapped inside you.

“What’s mad is I didn’t hear that,” says Massoquoi, politely stunned. “What’s mental is I’m yet to get that feeling. There are tracks that feel joyous with that sense of togetherness, but for me, it feels heavier. It’s interesting that people are picking up on that side, though, I love that.”

Hastings asks incredulously, “You don’t hear joy in ‘Ululation’?” Massoquoi insists that he doesn’t: “No. I hear someone who’s been through a whole bunch of shit. It’s marred with this sadness happening at the same time as this joy, and that thing is sort of cleansing you. And once you jump in the water, you’re swimming, swimming and you’re gasping, gasping, gasping – and then everything stops. Then it’s like, ‘Okay, now my journey begins.’ It’s like a rite of passage.”

Bankole puts it another way. “You know when you’re crying or you’re laughing, and you can’t get that sound out? I think that’s how I feel towards the record: that built up feeling inside of you, but that release isn’t coming out the way you thought it would.” Massoquoi adds, “You can’t describe it, but you know it. It’s something magical, when you delve into that. We built everything around the feeling rather than the words. We’re often all writing about something completely different, but it’s tied to this common feeling, and some people hear that as joy.”

Hastings ventures, “It’s like reggae music.” Massoquoi snaps his fingers in agreement: “Yep, there we go.” Hastings expands, “Reggae music sounds joyful, yet they can be singing about the darkest, horrible fucking things. But that’s what makes it - ” Bankole beats him to it: “Soulful.” They’re frothing with enthusiasm for each other’s ideas, like an intense chemical reaction. All you can do is watch them spark. “I think there’s so much magic in it because sometimes, to get the most intense outcome, you’ve got to do the inverse of what’s expected. Reggae music is singular in that it’s the only type of music that does it so well,” says Hastings. “You can be dancing with your children to songs that are about the darkest shit in human history. It’s really a fucking amazing feat.” Bankole nods thoughtfully, “I like that coupling… I like the coupling of the hard with the sweet.”

He gestures to the cover of the vinyl record on the table in front of us: a Black figure in rapture of movement. Spikes protrude from their arms and their mouth is fixed in a grin, or is that a grimace? It hardly matters. What matters is they’re moving, regardless. “There’s a joyfulness with a bit of toil, a little bit of pain, embodied within it,” he says. “I’m just looking at the sleeve, looking at the spikes and stuff; the grimace and the movement, the light and spirit of it…” He catches himself, and laughs: “Man, I should be a buddha or something.”

“We’re the opposite of a band who doesn’t give a fuck... We’re anti-nonchalant. We’re pro-passion, we’re pro-care, we’re pro-emotion... We give plenty of fucks.”

(G.H.)

But at the core of Heavy, Heavy, the greatest weight their shoulders have carried is how to inspire people to care. “In a local sense, in Britain, we’re living in Thatcher’s wildest dreams,” Hastings remarks. “I suppose this was an attempt to bring people together and look at what that does, be it through protest or dance.”

But in an age of dwindling attention spans, do people still have time for real soul? Massoquoi pulls out his phone and brings up his personal notes on the record and reads them aloud:

How the fuck do you make people care? To sit down and take a moment to listen to our works when the world is overloaded with so much content; when we all have short attention spans. Music should be about what it means to be human, the thing that rings true for us, our base in humanity. We want to highlight the intricacies of the human condition and explore it visually: the subtleties, the joy, the awkwardness, the paranoia, devastation and redemption – all done through the lens of the mundane with thrown-in bits of fantasy and surrealism. We’re more interested in the idea of proximity and tend to lean towards the stuff that doesn’t necessarily have a correlation with one another, but by actively forcing them into a condensed space, to have a dialogue of some sort, you create opportunity for something new in a new language - something that’s transformational, from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Visually, I think the sweet spot lies somewhere between a Ken Loach, Lynne Ramsay and Alejandro Jodorowsky film.

My take on the record is the show starts with the first three tracks [“Rice, “I Saw”, “Drum”]. By the fourth track [“Tell Somebody”], you realise you’re at a gig and you start to dive; dive a little deeper. This is where the record starts widening and you get a sense of depth. That transformation occurs through tracks four, five and six [“Tell Somebody”, “Geronimo”, “Shoot Me Down”] And by the seventh, which is “Ululation”, you’ve reached Shangri La. And therein lies the pause. Your moment to reflect on where you’ve been to and where you are now. It’s time to acknowledge and reconcile, before proceeding to move forward.

Heavy Heavy is released on 3 February via Ninja Tune

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