It doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to religion when you’re talking with David Le'aupepe about his band Gang of Youths. And in a way, it’s pretty unavoidable. The band, originally based in Sydney, Australia, has it’s roots in the church. It’s not a topic he seems to mind talking about either. In fact, he almost seems invigorated by it. While on the phone walking through the busy streets of New York, the Australian songwriter talks quickly and decisively. He can jump from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to David Foster Wallace without taking a breath, while fitting in observations of someone wearing a Jawbreaker shirt passing him on the sidewalk. He speaks like a philosopher with the spirit of Sid Vicious.
It’s good that Le'aupepe likes to dialogue on these high-level concepts because there’s a lot to talk about with the band’s latest LP, Go Father in Lightness, out now on Mosy Recordings. God, humanity, politics, and almost every weighty existential topic imaginable comes up in the 16-track, hour and 18 minute long record. Despite Le'aupepe’s punk attitude, listeners won’t find short, crunchy tracks in the vain of the Dead Kennedys on here. Instead, it’s a sweeping record packed with massive piano ballads and enveloping string arrangements. It’s a record that feels as large as the emotions and ideas it’s grappling with. As Le'aupepe himself explains it, it’s a “take it or leave it” opus made because it was what he wanted to do – not necessarily as a means of garnering more praise or success for the band.
VMP: From what I understand, the band met at church. Could you describe a little bit about how that came about?
David Le'aupepe: We actually met at an evangelical youth group. We grew up in a gigantic fucking mega church. And we're from Australia, so if you put two-and-two together and you're good at Google you can probably figure out which one it was. I was playing music with Joji Malani and Jung Kim, the two guitar players, but I've been friends with everyone between seven and 10 years. We've all known each other for a really long time.
In 2012, I had the bright idea of recording a bunch of songs for this girl I was dating who I ended up marrying. She was really sick; she had stage four melanoma. It was essentially me trying to chronicle that relationship from the genesis to its inevitable breakdown in the end and all the highs and lows of living and loving someone with cancer. That record was recorded over three years and Positions came out in 2015. That was the first Gang of Youths record, but it was never intended to extend beyond that one record. I was gonna cash in all my chips and do something kind of more substantial, but I never got around to it so we're on album two [laughs].
You also grew up in the punk and metal scene, right?
Yeah, I grew up in the hardcore punk scene in Sydney. That was the world with which I was I sort of fixated and fascinated throughout my teen years. I cared a lot about indie rock, but I think my homing beacon was always hardcore punk and black metal. I think partially because it was so antithetical to the world I was raised in and the worldview I was constantly exposed to as a child, obviously being raised in the evangelical church... I gravitated toward these things for a long time. Primarily because they served as a good community and I loved the music. It helped me bond to something that I felt a part of that wasn't looking down upon me.
You talk about that a bit on the new record, but there's also a spirit to your lyrics that feels rebellious as well. Was that something you always wanted to bring into the band?
I think a questioning of the faith that I came to as a child and was raised in as a child is sort of paramount to the songwriting process and in the moment. A reevaluation of my values, a reevaluation of my being in relationship to the world and in relationship to God — or the absolute spirit in the Hegelian sense. I think for the most part, faith and religion is going to be at the beating heart of what Gang of Youths is. It's such a fascinating world to me to delve into still. On a spiritual level, personally, philosophically, and academically. I think it serves as a provisional component for all my other philosophical, academic adventures after that. I'm still trying to wade through all the impossible bullshit provided to me as a child. So that's sort of integral to what we are. It will never escape me. You can take the boy out of church but you can never take the church out of the boy.
You can definitely feel that on this record too. You have a song like "Perserve" where you talk about God and use the words "vindictive motherfucker"...
["Persevere" is about] my best buddy's baby who just died, this beautiful, innocent fucking baby. And he's saying, “God isn't a vindictive mother fucker, contrary to what you may believe. Contrary to what the world believes.” And here I am. The guy that this song is about, he played piano on "Persevere" and most of the record. This is a deeply, faithful, intelligent, Christian man with wisdom beyond any of mine. In my opinion back then, he was cutting God too much slack. But he had this completely different set of core values in relation to God. Part of that was so inspiring and also infuriating to me. I sort of felt dwarfed in the shadow of this guy's wisdom and grace and belief and faith. I was almost envious that he could manifest that, even in light of the death of his child.
I think there's part of us that clings to anything and everything when we experience crisis. We are so confounded by the implausibility of it all that we tend to look outward. We tend to look beyond. And I argue that we should look inside ourselves and he disagreed, and it was an important and life-changing conversation that I'll remember the rest of my life. Being in the car, talking to him about that.
When you started this record, did you go in knowing you wanted to make something so large in scale?
I go into most of what I do wanting to do the biggest, vastest and most sprawling thing I can. I genuinely wanted to express the desire and ambition within me. That's what existed at the organic root of this record. At its basic conception level. It's molecular configure was made up of this desire to produce something that was big, that felt gargantuan, that felt impenetrable to some. But still with little avenues and gateways for everybody. I'm dealing with Hegel for fucks sake. I'm talking about [Martin Heidegger]. These are things that even I after 10 years of studying these people still struggle to get my head around. These are big ideas. They aren't easy. That is a pretty fucking deft reflection of our being here on earth. It's not easy. We are not constantly surrounded by simple, easy-going, four-minute-thirty problem. They don't often have easy three-minute-thirty solutions.
And that I think is what the heart of this is. It's me trying to sort my shit out in the scale with which I believe it requires. I think there was something more to us and to me in that than I guess doing the expected thing. You know, like, “Where are you gonna go after Positions? Aren't you gonna capitalize on the success? Are you gonna try and break the American and UK market?” Probably not. I just kinda wanted to make a thing that I could be like, you know, when I'm working a shitty job, eating fucking road kill I find on the side of the road, I can show my kids, “Hey! Dad did something he didn't hate once!”
From what you're describing, the philosophy behind the record feels pretty punk.
Yeah, I mean, that's how I grew up! Some [punks] might not agree that it's punk because they're too busy listening to music that is insular or whatever... Because punk has been coopted by kids who want to be cool now instead of kids who had no hope of being cool and had to gravitate toward something that... I like to feel that [the album's] in some ways it's just me, and if that's punk then that's great because that's a scene I loved and was raised in. I'm weary of that title as well because with that four letter word comes a whole litany of really bullshitty, arbitrary, cultural distinctions.
Remember "I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in my Hair)"? I don't know who fucking wrote that song but that caused a whole bunch of stupid fucking arguments about the relativity of punk in the new world, like "What is punk now?" Punk now is not a bunch of fucking angry, misfit, working class teenagers. What punk is now is starting to look like upper middle class teenagers with daddy's money in mummy and daddy's basement, staring at their shoes and using feedback. What seems to be more punk to me is Kendrick Lamar. Punk, I think, should really be about the ethos rather than the bullshit aesthetic. The most punk rock thing you can be right now is a brazenly political hip-hop artist. I think wherever there's a status quo, there's the reaction to it, which in and of itself could be considered punk.
You've mentioned in interviews and on the album this idea of the "new sincere." Can you talk about what that idea is and what it means to you?
The new sincere, even mentioning that term I suspect will be met with groans and rolling of eyes, which is essentially why the new sincere exists in the first place. It was a reaction to this very commonplace, nihilistic, cynical fiction that had come around in the '90s. Books like Less Than Zero, for example... I suppose there was a sense of fatalism and pessimism, like this Emil Cioran kind of perception that the world was doomed and that we were only alive because we were compelled to be by will. I think the new sincere as a literary movement, loosely, began with Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace trying to channel something was little bit more, I don't know, mushy. Emotional. Emotional sincerely. Something that was predicated more on highlighting the things in our humanity that make us human rather than highlighting the doom and gloom that makes us repulsive.
I think when I talk about the new sincere on a personal level, I talk about the sense of hopefulness that I think I may have lost or we have lost somewhere along the way as we're careening toward a very uncertain future. A return to this idea of sincerity being okay, about not getting so caught up in the paragons of cynicism that seem to pervade almost all our decisions. Not getting caught up in the fact that humanity, humanness, and empathy is being fucking prepackaged and marketed to us in the form of bullshit Gucci t-shirts that have fucking nice progressive slogans on 'em. That is a form of cynicism that is probably antithetical to this notion of sincerity. The fact that authenticity is like an Instagram filter world thing. Like authenticity is drunk, cynical indie artist taking pot shots about everybody.
There's so much about that that I feel is missing some basic level of humanity. And maybe the new sincerity notion is my attempt at trying to reclaim some of that for myself. But I don't know, maybe I'm fucking part of it. I'm still part of the fucking capitalistic enterprise. I'm also a nobody. I'm a relative no one. But I think I look at that whole movement through this lens of hope. I tend to be whatever it is I am. Whether or not if that's cool is a different story. It probably fucking isn't. It's probably way cooler to shit on everything.
If this able is about making sense of the world around, what sense do you feel like you were able to make out of it all after the record was done?
I found some grounding in my own really fucked up, weird way. I realized I needed to open myself up to love. I realized I needed to care about something more than work. I realized I needed to care less about what people thought. I realized I needed to become more devoted to others and susceptible to the world in order for me to accomplished, in order for me to feel real. There's that whole journey that I wouldn't have been able to embark on had I not done all this reading and living and working through it.
Dusty Henry is a Seattle-based music journalist. His work has appeared in Consequence of Sound, Seattle Weekly, CityArts Magazine, and more. He also operates PRE/AMP, a music blog and zine dedicated to emerging artists in the Northwest.