Interview: Young Fathers
“I don’t think you need to learn how to sing. No one teaches you how to cry.”
Young Fathers are a pop collective from Edinburgh, Scotland who prefer not to affiliate with any genre. Their sound follows no guidelines and obeys no laws. Pulling influences from every corner of the known music world, Young Fathers have developed one of the most unique sounds in contemporary music today. Graham Hastings, Alloysious Massaquoi, and Kayus Bankole have been making music together since they met when they were 14. A few false starts and two tapes later, Young Fathers released their debut album Dead (Ravedeaf Review) this past February through the American label Anticon.
I met up with Young Fathers at the beginning of April in Albuquerque, New Mexico (USA) after a sound check for a show they were about to perform. We talked about America, their album artwork, and their early experiences with music.
So how has America been so far, you guys got here last week right?
Graham: No we have been here for like a month now, we were in Los Angeles for three weeks. After Texas we went to Los Angeles and we had a few gigs there and we were recording some stuff as well.
I heard you were doing a couple of songs for a TV show?
G: We were recording sessions and new stuff as well. That was good. It was different for us, because usually we are in a dingy basement in Scotland.
So the studios are different here?
G: No not the studios, just the surroundings. For me a studio is a studio. As long as I can get great speakers, it doesn’t really matter. Just the surroundings being really hot. California in the summer; I just have never experienced it before.
A: [The heat] is just constant.
G: Its funny how it shapes our writing as well.
So how has America received you this year compared to Europe?
G: Good, I mean, I am one those people who believes people are similar everywhere. The more you travel the more you realize that people are different, but they are [also] the same.
A: There is a version of a certain person everywhere you go. We have noticed that when we are touring.
G: Its good to see people in America when we go to a gig who know the songs and stuff like that. It seems like we have noticed at our gigs that people who [have] soul are coming out. It’s not like people who are part of a cool crowd or some other crowd. It’s like a group of people who are there and they have passion and soul. They move and dance, it’s not like they are standing there, folded arms and watching. [The Soul] is what we wanted. You get a varied bunch of gigs because we are relatively new here as well.
A: As well as the audience, there is the young folk in their mid twenties and there are older folk as well and that’s great.
G: Its good. Its usually one set group of people and I love the fact that we are getting people from all different ages.
Do you think performing with Baths affects that at all?
G: Well the funny thing when you are touring with someone else is the mixture of crowds. For us, we just want to be heard, we want people to know we exist so we can sleep at night. And that for me is the best thing. With Baths and America in general a lot of people haven’t heard us. We are trying to get everybody’s ears. So the last couple shows it’s been nice to speak to people after and for them to say they have never heard us before but still buy our record.
So I have always wondered how you guys came up with your name, Young Fathers.
G: We are all juniors so all of our fathers have the exact same name as us.
So on similar lines, I have wondered about your artwork. For Tape One and Two, might that be you guys as kids?
G: No, that’s my girlfriend, and Tape One and Tape Two are the same person. Some people sometimes confuse it with Kayus and I don’t know if that is a complement. I know he looks like a little girl, but yeah that was just [what] we were making at the time, Tape One and Tape Two. There was no real thing for [the songs]; we were just recording wondering what we would do with them at the end of that set. [My girlfriend] was showing me photos and I just remember seeing those photos, one was next to the other but it was her at different ages. I remember just thinking “oh those are nice I’ll keep those,” but I didn’t know why. You make a song and you can put an image on it, like a single cover. Eye always beats ear. You can change the feeling of a song, how people perceive, it by just having a single cover on it, something that you wouldn’t have expected.
A: I think it just embodied everything; the songs and all we are trying to be. The ethics behind the production and everything like. We are just trying to keep ourselves in a childlike mentality, we want to absorb as much as possible. And the best people who are doing that is children with their imagination. So I think [children] are a symbol of our creativity, to see things through the eyes of a child you know?
Thats really awesome. I guess that leads to the artwork of Dead, is the embrace symbolic of something?
G: Yeah, we had made the album and [we] had to think of an album cover as we usually do. There was this picture in an old Life magazine from the 60’s of a war. And basically there was this photo of this man who’s village had just been pillaged by the rebels and the armies fighting. So he is crossing this river, which is very large. He is basically drowning and when he gets to the other side this guy is holding him up. He is holding him for life, it’s not like it is an embrace. We liked that picture and we wanted to recreate it. We did a photo shoot where we set it up. I had that photo and I wasn’t even thinking of it. [Later] we were looking at photos and seeing if it would work with [Dead] and it just worked. It worked with the name of the album and actually that was before we had named it Dead. So the picture was more based on the feelings of the songs. It’s different from the original picture we saw.
A: We ended up doing [recreating] it because we tried to get the guy who originally took it. We never got a reply to whether or not we could use the photo. So like Graham said, we went in and tried to recreate it or at least an attempted of it. What came out was a lot better and it fit us. So we took inspiration from [the original] but we made our own. Its symbolic, its like a family, or a unit, a bound.
So it is definitely a lot more personalized since you guys recreated it.
I have noticed you reference war and violence a lot in Dead and the picture seems to represent it.
G: Well yeah, that’s part of the reason why the picture worked. We came up with the words before thinking too much. After Tape One and Tape Two we had a bit of time between recordings and then we came back and just kind of let out. We weren’t thinking that we wanted this album to be about war, the references to guns and bullets and all of that. But it just came to us, all three of us simultaneously. It wasn’t really like one guy on an idea. And that is the best thing because you just leave it up to pure gut feeling.
A: A girl we worked with called it love. She said it best. You know she doesn’t want to be precise; we don’t want to be precise in what we are doing when we are trying to create something. It would just be wrong, it would be a sin if we said we only do this type of music or this kind of music. I think it is better when people make up their own minds.
You definitely achieve that; it is an enigmatic feel. Your music is completely open for the interpretation of the listener. So I hate to pigeonhole you guys into a genre, but what do you think of morality in hip-hop or music in general?
G: We are not bothered by hip-hop. We don’t care. For us it is more about morality in general. Hip-hop is not new anymore; it has been around for years. There are so many different versions of it all across the world. We never think of hip-hop as a whole, it is not important to us. We are not loyal to it. We grew up listening to hip-hop as well as pop music, as well as listening to soul music as well as listening to anything. Whatever it is, it is just another genre.
A: There is never a moment in the studio when we are recording where we say “oh this sounds too hip-hop we better stop, oh this sounds too poppy.” It is never about any of that; it’s about making a statement. It’s about putting something out that we get excited about; doing something that makes us feel awkward. Obviously you have to like it, we all have to agree on it. I don’t know what it is but I like it and that’s what leads to something new. That’s what we try to capture and embrace. When you are constantly forward thinking, making music that is ahead, sometimes you don’t know if it is good or not. That is why we have a producer and our manager, Tim. He has ears to hear and tell us “that’s good guys,” because there has been instances where some of the stuff we have been doing we weren’t sure about. And sometimes you really need that.
Alloysious on their way to Albuquerque
So I know you guys met at a young age, but have any of you done former music schooling or taken music classes?
G: I wasn’t allowed into the music department at my school. It was supposed to be one of the best music departments for classical music so I wasn’t allowed in. They never advertised it to most of the students and I never studied music. So when I would try to go in and make beats on my breaks they would just kick me out. There is such a real problem with being taught music and creativity.
A: It is expression. Someone can’t teach you to be expressive and tell you what you want to do.
G: They just tell you it shouldn’t sound like that and I am like “okay well fuck you then I meant for it to sound like that.”
A: It is almost like trying to teach someone to improvise, it just doesn’t make sense.
G: Obviously I think qualities are different all over the world for music teaching. For me, I think it should just be you go into a room and press an on switch and play whatever you want to play. There is no right way; there is no wrong way.
A: In high school they told me I seemed very musical. I wasn’t sure if they meant every black person was supposed to be musical or some shit like that. Anyways I went in and started to learn the piano. I got quite good at it, but you know puberty kicks in and you start playing sports and thinking of girls and the concentration level goes away.
How about you Kayus, have you had any schooling in music?
Kayus: I always just enjoyed music for what it was. It’s like having your mom’s home cooked meal and it’s so good you don’t even want to try and attempt it. Once me and the boys understood you can express yourself and not care about what everyone else is doing we started to find our own name or whatever. I think that in itself is really powerful.
So I am guessing your vocals developed the same way.
G: Yeah, I mean we have been singing together since we were 14 so I think we developed something kind of telepathic. We know what the others are going to sing.
A: You also have to realize that our voices kind of blend together as well when we sing together in unison and that’s been developed since we were 14. It’s the whole family thing; its like we are the Jackson 5.
G: It’s like the Flintstones
A: Yeah, it is the whole family band.
K: But at the same time I don’t think you need to learn how to sing. No one teaches you how to cry.
G: Even if it is wrong. I think Graham was mentioning it before, how even if you can’t hit the note that is a thing in itself. It gives something; it is whatever feels right at the time.
Sometimes I can’t tell who is singing because it blends so well. It could be two or all three of you and you can’t tell.
G: Sometimes it is none of us. (They all laugh)
You got me there. (Laughing)