Interview

Are Gang Of Youths Too Earnest For America?

David Le’aupepe isn’t one for small talk. That much was obvious when Gang Of Youths dropped a 77-minute album that begins with a song named after a Kierkegaard treatise, ends with one titled “Say Yes To Life,” and in between finds time to dunk on Ayn Rand, self-pity, political apathy, and any emotion that doesn’t evoke “The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows.” You know that one song on most indie rock albums that’s about five minutes long, adds some strings on the way to blowing the roof off this hockey arena, and is described as the “epic, cathartic” centerpiece? That’s every song on Go Farther In Lightness. Except for the string interludes.

And so as the Gang Of Youths frontman and I nurse Diet Cokes prior to one of two sold-out shows at the Moroccan Lounge in Los Angeles, he’s quickly bypassed the usual banter about the weather or whatnot to expound about every private misery that was blown into public spectacle for the sake of his art: being married twice by the age of 26, the guilt over having a fraught relationship with someone suffering from Stage Four cancer, getting sober (hence the Diet Cokes), and the continuing crisis of confidence that he feels can only be put to rest with making a 77-minute album.

Self-disclosure can be infectious, and after going blow-for-blow with our respective tales of catastrophic breakups, career epiphanies, and sobriety, it’s time for me to get truly vulnerable with Le’aupepe. When I first heard “What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out,” the barnstorming first single from Go Farther In Lightness, I was extremely skeptical. Then I heard the rest of the album. I told Le’aupepe my first thought: These guys are completely full of shit.

“It deserved to be hated,” he immediately responds.

Self-deprecation is a pretty common technique for disarming music journalists, and it’s a good look in Le’aupepe’s case. He describes himself as a “6’2″ wanker lead singer,” conveniently eliding the fact that he’s 6’2″ and the lead singer of a powerful and increasingly popular rock band. A Google image search will probably turn up pictures from what Le’aupepe describes as his less-flattering “fat days.” But with a greater focus on self-care, he’s the kind of guy you’d call a “rock star” out of habit, even if he doesn’t exactly look the kind of guy who actually serves as the lead singer of a band in 2018. These are the people you see in Los Angeles all the time and vaguely sense that they play an important role in an AMC drama and don’t have to pay for a lot of things with their own money. Imagine a brooding-handsome, soft grunge version of Jim James with a more stylishly tousled haircut.

I don’t think Gang Of Youths are full of shit anymore. Halfway through 2018, I’d say Go Father In Lightness would probably come close to topping my Best Albums Of 2017 list in a revote. But I do think that even their fans appreciate how it’s impossible to uncouple the supposedly tacky things about them from the same things that make their sophomore effort so invigorating.

“Sometimes I worry that this shit sounds too twee or cliché,” Le’aupepe muses on, in particular, the messages of “Persevere,” “Our Time Is Short,” or “The Heart Is A Muscle” (“Love without apprehension even if it hurts”). He compares them to the typical climactic scene in a movie when someone says “Tell my wife I love them” with their dying breath: “We always cringe, but in reality, anybody would fucking do that. All I do is apply that to my music. If it seems kinda cringe-y and cliché but something that most people, including me, would probably say, it might be OK.”

Likewise, setting aside the nearly avant-garde sound mixing, the energy put into their performance of “What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out” on Late Night With Seth Meyers was just not normal in 2018, whether it was the rawk gesticulation or just the intensity and belief they invest in rawk. Writing about Go Farther In Lightness, Steven Hyden — who hosts a rock-celebrating podcast called Celebration Rock — argued it “demands to be loved with a white-hot fervor that burns hotter than 100 suns, or disparaged as pretentious and bloated with extreme prejudice.” And he felt the need to say these things because here was the weird part: Neither really happened.

As someone who indiscriminately loved just about every single British rock band that got on MTV during the ’90s, a “Can this band break America?” debate feels as antiquated as trawling through a used CD store. And yet, when prompted to assess the question of “How big are you in Australia,” Le’aupepe figures they’re something along the lines of the National or maybe even Arcade Fire, a band that can fill 7,000-8,000 cap rooms and anchor a festival date.

Go Farther Than Lightness was distributed by Sony and debuted at #1 domestically, going on to earn eight ARIA nominations (the Aussie Grammy). It also received a five-star review in Rolling Stone Australia. They’re nowhere near that big in the States, which is surprising. It’d be one thing if Gang Of Youths were the kind of populist, successful rock band that’s expected to be ignored by the press — the metalcore and alt-rock acts that regularly debut in the top 10, bands that rack up Spotify millions and large festival fonts in relative anonymity like Hippo Campus, rootsier throwbacks à la Lord Huron and Dawes. But Gang Of Youths often comes across like a band that takes every “indie rock is dead” thinkpiece as a personal affront.

Le’aupepe grew up in “crappy Christian rock church” and, thus, U2 and Bruce Springsteen were amongst his first loves. Of course there was an early stage where he listened to little else besides Minor Threat and a stint as a budding snob doing an “internship” in the packing station at a record store. His love for emo and post-hardcore acts (“growing up music”) from Underoath to Thursday to Touché Amoré to the Hotelier still continues to this day. Just to put his age in perspective, hearing Boxer was a formative experience when he was in 10th grade. Le’aupepe considers The Monitor as one of the most important albums ever released in his life, and Celebration Rock is up there as well — one of Gang Of Youths’ first crushing failures happened when Japandroids chose someone else as an opener for an Australian tour.

Take all of the bands mentioned in the previous paragraph: “What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out” sure sounds like all of them at the same time. Maybe that was the problem. As Ryan Leas pointed out, 2017 saw many of the past decade’s biggest indie rock bands return to robust touring business, impressive Billboard debuts and even Grammy nominations. And yet, these comebacks never felt triumphant — LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, the National, and Fleet Foxes were just as popular as ever, but they’d aged out of relevance. They were basically classic rock now.

In the year “Indie Rock Meant Something Different,” Gang Of Youths could initially be heard as a loud, last gasp for the same old thing. “I understand the attitude that has people against [Go Farther],” Le’aupepe states. “But if i was gonna make something that felt true to the life I was attempting to lead and reflective of the artists we wanted to be, we had to do it.”

Except, if something different meant more diverse and inclusive, hearing the past sounds of indie rock through new perspectives, then Gang Of Youths should’ve been an even bigger deal. Whatever their touchstones, Gang Of Youths aren’t actually white guys at all. “We were once told by somebody that I was too big and not the right kind of dark to be a lead singer,” Le’aupepe recalls and while it still stings (“Do you know how insulting that is? It’s super racist”), there’s enough distance to find some humor in its absurdity.

Le’aupepe identifies himself as Samoan-Jewish, though the peripherals can be hard to keep track of. He describes his upbringing in Australia as poor, basically trailer park. And though his uncle was a Lubavitch Jew, the religious component was more of a “Jews for Jesus sort of thing.” “The rest of my 20s are gonna be a cataclysmic discovery course of how to be true to my heritage and identity,” he says in typically grand fashion. For the record, he’s never been Bar Mitzvah’d, but he has worn tefillin and “bought a wide-brimmed black hat while living in New York City.”

Fijian guitarist Joji Malani sports a crown of budding dreadlocks, while keyboardist Jung Kim identifies as Korean-American. The band is rounded out by Polish-Australian drummer Donnie Borzestowski and Kiwi bassist Maxwell Dunn, who according to Le’aupepe, is angling to start a band that only plays nu-metal covers at Bar Mitzvahs; Unleavenescence and Rabbi Roach are candidates for the band name. While Le’aupepe understands how his band’s ethnicity can be used as a news peg in 2018, he’s also relieved that hasn’t happened. “It’s easier to exist in our own framework and not have all the pressure of being a spokesperson for people of color or whatever,” Le’aupepe says. “It’s very easy for the internet to grab a hold onto these very idiosyncratic expressions of indie rock and to magnify beyond recognition where it becomes this self-perpetuating parody of culture.”

Le’aupepe is the kind of person you run into a lot these days when discussing music online — someone who religiously followed the music press as a teen and internalized its canonical logistics. (He was “freaking out” when Gang Of Youths’ debut The Positions was mentioned in a 2016 Pitchfork list of “Albums That Empathize In Times Of Cancer And Loss.”) But now that’s he engaged with it professionally, he maintains both a nostalgia for the times of being part of a captive audience and anger at how the zeitgeist can feel arbitrary and overly predetermined at the same time.

“If you’re big in the indie press world, maybe five people will show up and you’ll get every website and magazine talking about you,” he snipes, attempting to explain how the infinite variations on city scenes differs from that of Australia. “Or if you’re incredibly uncool but you have an audience of mainly 25-35 year olds who are interested in branding, you’ll be able to sell out MSG.”

Up to this point, Gang Of Youths fit into neither group, and Le’aupepe feels that their music is lost on the types who control the narrative; types he variously describes as “liberal arts kids,” “upper middle-class white kids staring at their shoes,” or “people leaving bad Yelp reviews of coffee shops in Brooklyn.” While Le’aupepe has lived in London, New York City, and Nashville, he unsurprisingly views himself as a heartlander. “We played Buffalo and it was one of the most profoundly life-affirming experiences,” Le’aupepe recalls. “It’s cold and it’s harsh and people love music and grew up like me — poor people.”

In the days before we talked, a question came up amongst music writers whether bands preferred to be reviewed harshly or not at all. Le’aupepe assumes the latter has worked to his advantage, since “the words of strangers were like icicles cutting my soul.” “It’s just easier to have a relationship with people who just like your music,” he continues. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be Father John Misty, where everyone writes about whenever he takes a shit.”

No amount of self-owns will undo certain assumptions about his band that are almost definitely true, but Le’aupepe’s a generally harsh critic of his own work; he’s eternally grateful that the “Arctic Monkeys facsimiles” he wrote as a teenager have disappeared into the digital dustbin, never to emerge. He’s not so lucky with Gang Of Youths’ debut The Positions, despite the praise it garnered in Australia. “I honestly fucking hate that album,” he snorts, alluding to it being beset by too much drinking, too much shuffling back and forth between studios and strangely, despite being 19 and “very angsty,” emotional detachment. Even with Go Farther In Lightness being overtly designed as a magnum opus, he’s also “humiliated” that it has “an eight-minute string song” — (cheer up, Dave, “Achilles Come Down” is only seven!) — and more so that he’ll probably have to play it live at some point due to popular demand.

But music of this sort works best against some kind of resistant force and if Gang Of Youths are filling a void that isn’t being acknowledged, all the better — especially when Le’aupepe describes the goal of every Gang Of Youths show being to create the moment where the fan feels their existence has been validated. While “poptimism” and “rockism” are viewed as being in constant conflict, there are bands like Gang Of Youths that find a powerful hybrid between the two in utilizing the populist reach that rock music excels at.

Of course, any band that treads this path has to prove it live, and that’s an interesting challenge in Los Angeles. This night feels like an industry showcase in the way any show in Los Angeles can feel by default; even if the venue’s filled with fans, there’s a good chance that they work in some facet of entertainment. Gang Of Youths counters by opening with “What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out” and playing it as if everyone in the room had seen their Seth Meyers set and now they must top it. In the moments of rest between the slashing, dissonant guitar chords in the intro, Le’aupepe pounds his chest with his free fist. Malani breaks two strings by the time the song is over.

Thereafter, Le’aupepe’s tendency to begin each song with a short monologue about its inspiration does feel like Gang Of Youths are in an audition. Shortly after he got divorced, his friend’s daughter died in her infancy. Watching her family proceed with grace and dignity put an end to his self-indulgent wallowing. This is how “Persevere” came to be. “Keep Me In The Open” relates turbulent final stages of his previous marriage, recognizing that advocating for fair treatment doesn’t make the other person bad.

“Let Me Down Easy” was written in the depths of his suicidal despair and then he realized something as simple and silly as dancing was the most effective OTC antidepressant. During this song, Le’aupepe performs without a guitar. He is not a natural dancer, but an enthusiastic one, and he recognizes how many in the crowd are tyrannized by their anxieties about looking cool. “I know this is Los Angeles, but loosen up!” he yells. None of this dispels the mystique of Go Farther In Lightness; there was none to begin with, and that’s the whole point. If it is an audition, it’s like that old U2 quote about them reapplying to be the biggest band in the world with All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

But my god, weren’t U2 corny? How dare they act like a rock band can bring us unity? Likewise, Gang Of Youths do a lot of things that scan the same way when it’s done in a rock club rather than a stadium: Le’aupepe flexing his bicep during the chorus of “The Heart Is A Muscle” (“And I wanna make it strong!”), coming out into the crowd to hug and handshake, starting “Persevere” as a solo performance and having the band slowly reenter the stage. To those predisposed to disdain for rock bands who dare to aspire towards populism, Gang Of Youths may trigger memories of the craven opportunism of the Airborne Toxic Event, or at least the more painfully earnest moments of Beach Slang, or even how Funeral would’ve felt if Arcade Fire acted like this since the beginning. (“The Heart Is A Muscle” baldly resembles the second half of “Wake Up.”) All of which leads me to believe that the critical spotlight probably won’t be kind to Gang Of Youths if they become too big to ignore.

It’s probably more a matter of when. Gang Of Youths were included in the lineup for CalJam, a Foo Fighters-curated festival in San Bernadino whose Twitter bio reads, “Rock and Roll the way it was intended.” The Foos headline with Billy Idol and Iggy Pop, Tenacious D, Garbage and wildly popular contemporary acts like Manchester Orchestra, Greta Van Fleet, and the Front Bottoms, who’ve probably gotten less mainstream attention than even Gang Of Youths. “We play bills with bands who are totally apathetic, so it’s like being back with the crew,” Le’aupepe gushes.

They’ll also be opening for Foo Fighters for a stretch of their upcoming stadium tour. But unlike, say, Dinosaur Jr., Melkbelly, Speedy Ortiz, or most of the other acts chosen for the gig, Gang Of Youths’ music sounds designed for these kind of stages. On July 25, MTV Unplugged debuts in Australia with a Gang Of Youths show filmed in Melbourne’s Meat Market. And perhaps most indicative of their trajectory, the current issue of the American iteration of Rolling Stone has a profile of Gang Of Youths that proclaims they are “living their dream of being the next U2.” It’s written by David Fricke, the guy who dropped five stars on Songs Of Innocence and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. This is the equivalent of a college basketball star being called “the next LeBron James” by Sports Illustrated.

And yet, for a band with such outsized ambitions — “What is this thing if you don’t come at it with everything” is Le’aupepe’s pull quote — he admits being scared about getting too big in America. In particular, he’s worried about being approached too often in public, and how that could force him to give less than 110% in his time with them. “The way people treat each other [here], I’m too fucking sensitive and weak,” he says. “On the plus side, I get to hug people more.”

About 10 minutes later, our conversation is interrupted by a man in his late 40s named Robert who saw Gang Of Youths at the Sugar Factory in Amsterdam. He initially discovered the band through an Instagram post from Formula One racer Daniel Ricciardo, who has frequently boosted Gang Of Youths on his social media accounts; yeah, it was for a song on The Positions, which the band does not play live anymore, but Le’aupepe has come to terms with others loving that record far more than himself.

“Why the hell the entire world has slept on you, I have no idea,” Robert grouses, “You have the right sound, the right stories. Fucking America, it fucking pisses me off.” It’s an abnormally long interaction between fan and artist in a public place, but Robert eventually says goodbye, mentioning that his wife is Australian. “I don’t go to concerts much anymore but when I find something …” he trails off, his point being made.

Shortly thereafter, Le’aupepe’s presence is requested at a table with his manager and some vaguely industry types and I walk back towards the Moroccan Lounge thinking about what Robert means. On the one hand, this is exactly what Gang Of Youths aspire towards — to be the kind of band that makes someone feel seen, to make them fanboy the fuck out in public, to put them in the same place Le’aupepe himself was when he first heard Boxer or The Monitor. On the other, is that a good thing if you’re making older, straight white dudes like Robert and Fricke and ahem, myself, feel this way?

Mulling this over, I run into Malani outside of the venue and we get to talking about a time where he crashed on a music writer’s couch in Chicago. A young woman nearby overhears the conversation and mentions that she’s in town from Chicago, definitely to see Gang Of Youths, but it’s unclear whether she’s here exclusively for that. It starts to sound that way and it’s also unclear whether she even recognizes Malani as the band’s guitarist.

I run into both of them towards the end of the show, after Le’aupepe dedicates “The Deepest Sighs” to me; once again, a part of me wants to feel like this is embarrassing and tacky. A bigger part wants to feel like we made a legitimate bond over college football. I think back to Le’aupepe talking about the days when Gang Of Youths were touring The Positions to rooms filled with five people and the opening band. Where did they get the energy to be Gang Of Youths then?

“A shitty show for me is where I didn’t put in the maximum amount of effort,” he explains. “Even if it was five fucking people, this is my job. I don’t believe I’m saving lives like a firefighter or I’m teaching kids how to read or write, but it’s still a job. Those five people are the most important people. I want them to feel seen and acknowledged.” Does that include the people who are still predisposed to thinking Gang Of Youths are tacky? Le’aupepe’s response is definitive. “If Gang Of Youths are tacky, I don’t give a shit anymore.”