If there’s anything Young Fathers have shown over the last half a decade, it’s that they’re not predictable. From smashing their way into the spotlight with a Mercury Prize win for 2014 debut ‘Dead’ to following it up with second effort ‘White Men Are Black Men Too’ just a year later and getting a reputation for being one of the most furious, incendiary live bands on the circuit, they placed themselves firmly in heads and hearts, carving out a specific niche while managing to never scratch the same itch twice.
With third record ‘Cocoa Sugar’, released back in March, the Edinburgh-based trio - made up of Graham Hastings, Kayus Bankole and Alloysious ‘Ally’ Massaquoi - flirted with lighter, more instantly appealing textures while continuing to relentlessly tread their own path. Speaking to Young Fathers comes with the same atmosphere as listening to ‘Cocoa Sugar’ or seeing them live; a band consistently second guessing themselves, their music and their fans, creating an atmosphere that sits on a knife-edge, they’re never the same from one moment to the next, and all the more thrilling for it.
“We’re not really into trying to fake it,” Graham lays out, looking ahead to a huge year-ending tour which heads to the States in November and finishes up in the UK with a massive show at London’s Brixton Academy. “We always think that if we’re enjoying ourselves, then it’ll reflect and the crowd will pick up on it. Playing live is one of those situations where every moment you’re on stage, people are watching. There’s not really a millisecond where you can fake it. We’ve built it in such a way that…” he continues, before re-evaluating once again. “I don’t know if it’s bulletproof, but no matter how we’re feeling, whether it’s good or bad, as long as we’re there then we’ll play the show. There’s not really a recipe for a great show - sometimes the greatest shows are when you’re feeling the worst. But it’s making it so we can have the ability to be spontaneous and in the moment every night, because if we didn’t have that, I think we’d go a bit crazy.”
“People sometimes struggle with us, ‘cos we’re a bit of a weird band.”
The trio’s live show is one of spontaneity and fluidity, the songs from ‘Cocoa Sugar’ taking on a new life and encapsulating the band’s singular vision while also expanding and changing night after night. Far from simply recreating the band’s studio albums, their hugely lauded live show sits in a completely different realm. “For us, the songs are just the basic root,” says Graham. “When you’re trying to transcend something in a show, you need to build on it. A lot of people that come and see us, we speak to them and it’s always that comment of ‘I never really understood it fully until I saw it live’ and that for us is a compliment. Our ultimate goal in this whole situation, with the studio albums, with taking pictures, with making videos, doing artwork or whatever, is trying to encapsulate what happens on the stage. It feels like that’s the only way that people get it. 100%. People sometimes struggle with us, ‘cause we’re a bit of a weird band, but when they see it live and see how we are on stage, they’ll say ‘Ah, it makes sense to me now’.”
As well as seeing all the pieces of Young Fathers’ world fall into place, the live show also shows the meaning of the band’s songs to be as malleable as the instrumentation. “Without sounding too cheesy or cliche about it,” Kayus begins, “the more you play a song, the more it becomes a whole new thing on its own. When touring in America, a lot of songs start meaning something different depending on where you are. Some people take the words differently. The word ‘war’ for example - that can mean something to you, like a battle with your love. To someone else it can mean something completely different. We even change the words sometimes, depending on where we are. It’s exciting that you have this platform to do whatever you want, where you can reconstruct what you thought at one point and then change it for the next.”
For a band so lauded for their political conscience and knack for making ‘important’ music, their creative process more often than not thrives on the spontaneous, latching onto a feeling rather than holding focus groups on the next political statement they’re going to make. As such, ‘Cocoa Sugar’ is an album undeniably influenced by the scary, often paranoid world we’ve found ourselves in over the last few years, but the impact of such change is transmitted via much more subtle methods; there’s an underlying feeling of instability and insecurity splattered across the album, just not handed over in bite-sized lyrical soundbites.
“Allowing ourselves to act on basic fuckin’ impulses is the foundation of the whole group.”
“Sometimes when you make songs, you don’t know what you’re feeling, or can’t articulate it in that moment,” says Ally. “It’s only after it that you can realise what you were alluding to, or where it stems from - it doesn’t even have to stem from anything, it could just be a series of great words and great sounds that you put together. It doesn’t have to have meaning. As people, you can automatically put feelings towards that because you’re part of that journey,” he continues, before Graham hammers the point home: “Every moment, whether we’re in the studio or on stage, allowing ourselves to act on basic fuckin’ impulses is the foundation of the whole group.”
Currently putting the finishing touches to some fancy new additions to their stage show in time for the US and UK tours and that Brixton show - though they’re nonchalant about it, labelling the night at the iconic venue “just another show” - Young Fathers are set to end 2018 with their crown as the country’s most hard to define but oh so easy to love trio, asking as much of their audience as is asked of themselves and creating a collaborative, two-way community in the process.
“We’ve never been a fan of making anything that needs to be explained before you see it or hear it,” says Graham. “For us, it’s kind of the opposite to how it all works. We shouldn’t have to explain anything, and we don’t want to, and it’s open even to our own interpretation between us. The three of us have different opinions of the songs and what they mean when we’re making them, and if that can happen between three of us, we hope that that can happen tenfold between everybody else. To try and sit down and say ‘No, this is what it means, and you need to listen to it in this context’ is the opposite of how we work. Everybody should be allowed in the door, and then make whatever discovery you’ve got to make, or think that it’s shit, or think that it’s brilliant - that’s all we want. Come in the door and then go wherever you want.”
‘Cocoa Sugar’ is out now via Ninja Tune.