Interview: On another planet: Young Fathers

Why so serious? Post-Mercury Prize victory, Young Fathers explain why their every move involves intention, and why they always have - and always will - stick to their ethos.

Instead of drowning in praise and receipts for champagne bottles, the night after winning the 2014 Mercury Prize for ‘Dead’, Young Fathers flew to Berlin to record their new album. Most of ‘White Men Are Black Men Too’ had been formulated, so this wasn’t some whim decision to avoid a press frenzy, but months on from its competition, Graham ‘G’ Hastings doesn’t hesitate in saying: “I think it was a very wise thing to do.”

The reception to Young Fathers’ victory wasn’t straight-down-the-line. Plenty applauded the panel’s decision, but others had more to say about the band’s direct response to winning. Solid, serious expressions (a staple of their image since day one) didn’t give way to overwhelmed happiness, or Sam Smith-style “I’d love to thank everyone, especially my team” appreciation. “We deserved to be there,” states Alloysious Massaquoi. “When we do the straight face,” starts Hastings, “it’s on purpose. Because we need to be taken seriously, more than if we were just three white boys with guitars. We need to push harder than most bands, because we need to fight for our respect.”

In the ceremony’s immediate aftermath, the next day’s headlines - released while Young Fathers were boarding their Berlin flight - focused on a stern-faced group who had little to say. “That shows the industry. If you don’t play ball, that’s what it’s about. How can you concentrate more on not smiling, than the actual winning of the award?” asks Massaquoi.

“We’ve made the record that we’ve been talking about making since we started.”

— Ally Massaquoi

“I’d love to have any kind of understanding of what the press want, really,” begins Hastings. “When we went into that room, we were straight-faced, but we answered every question. We gave them enough information. Fucking good answers. They never used none of it. They made it look like we never fucking spoke. To my understanding, there was something to talk about there. We talked about fucking everything.”

Controversy stirred when upon arrival and prior to the winners’ conference, Young Fathers refused to speak to specific publications. Correspondents from The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Star weren’t to be given any time for interviews. Once the night was over, their angle was crass but obvious: ‘Mercury Prize winners don’t care, don’t speak’.

“We’ve had that stance for years, but obviously the Mercury’s highlighted it,” explains Hastings. Kayus Bankole adds that these publications never cared about not getting time, prior to the ceremony. “We’ve told them before and it’s like, ‘Alright, cool.’ But they’re in this position where they’ll be looked bad upon if they don’t actually cover us.”

Going back to their stance, Hastings explains it in full: “They say that it was tabloids, but it wasn’t strictly tabloids. Basically it was papers that we feel have a fucking agenda of Islamophobia, homophobia, anti-immigration. We’re very aware of these papers. You see them every day. It’s an undercurrent - they’re not allowed, legally, to say racist things. It’s fucking blatant. You had fucking Murdoch tweeting about how Muslims need to apologise for something other Muslims did. And you’re thinking - this guy runs media.

“You get on that thing where you’re not talking to people because or a certain something, so where do you stop? Some papers are more corporate, more business - but for us, there’s a basic line in humanity. In being a decent human. And some of these media outlets cross it, so we just say no.”

This mostly pales into significance given the band’s next step, but it’s an important part of understanding the unfaltering ethos defining Young Fathers. In front of a camera, those serious faces are prompted without fail. But in conversation, they’re open, honest, willing to discuss anything.

‘White Men Are Black Men Too’ has its place in Berlin and in a post-victory glow, but it was largely put together on the road. Chants, laughter, the sound of someone ecstatically dancing in the background - these all appear across the record. Hastings has a ritual of playing a constructed loop or backing track to the rest of the band for the first time, before hitting record on the response. Be it a smattering of chaotic sounds or something more direct, most of ‘Dead’’s follow-up belongs to the moment. First takes stay on tape. ‘Sirens’ - a track penned in response to the Ferguson killings - sounds like it’s hosting a string section, but it’s just Hastings maddeningly scratching the same broken string on a violin and doubling everything up until it “sounds like an orchestra”. Massaquoi claims that the group are “bringing a new mindset” to the table. ‘Like being able to do what the fuck you want in the studio. Without any rules. It’s DIY and industrial. And it’s this vibe that’s carrying us through.”

“It took us years to realise that we use our ears more than anything, and a lot of people don’t have that innate, instant thing,” says Hastings. “It’s always about the mathematical equation. Because it can affect you when you’re recording. You think, ‘Oh, I’ve not done that right. I need to do it again’. But we’ve realised it doesn’t actually matter.”

“For us, there’s a basic line in humanity. In being a decent human. And some of these media outlets cross it, so we just say no.”

— Graham ‘G’ Hastings

Inspiration came from a trip to the States, particularly when they drove to Louisiana. Hastings heard music that was “traditional, but driven by rhythm”, something that spills into the never-stop mentality of the new LP. “Some of the music when we were travelling, just listening to the radio, was fucking beautiful,” he remembers. “It could be some Mexican soul station which is just playing covers, recorded in the ‘60s. You’d never know who did it. But it stuck with us.”

They returned with a full-length quicker than the Mercury hubbub could simmer down. “We’ve made the record that we’ve been talking about making since we started,” says Massaquoi. And he’s referring specifically to making a pop album, cramming melody into concise, hard-hitting moments that rarely go beyond three minutes. That shouldn’t come as a great surprise. Before having their photo taken and applying the now infamous serious faces, you can hear each member of the group singing along to B*Witched’s ‘C’est La Vie’, blared out through the Red Bull Studios speakers. There’s a big sense that Young Fathers remain misunderstood. ‘Dead’’s accolades didn’t clarify anything. But despite that, they’re happy to keep taking their own course, even if it’s a slower route to success. “In some aspects, being on the Mail Online might get us the biggest hits,” admits Hastings. “But when you have feelings about stuff, you cannot just let it ride and be alright by talking to these media outlets and letting it slide by. If we didn’t care, then I think we would have more followers. It’s a fucking easier way to do it. We would be bigger. But at what cost?”

Young Fathers' 'White Men Are Black Men Too' is out now on Big Dada. Photos: Mike Massaro / DIY. Taken from the April 2015 issue of DIY, out now. Young Fathers will play Latitude Festival (16th-19th July), where DIY is an official media partner. Tickets are on sale now. Visit diymag.com/presents for more information.

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