Flow Like Water: Young Fathers Interviewed

“We're all living in fear of extinction. We all want to survive...”

Life is a little hectic for Young Fathers just now. In amongst the furore around the band’s return with their fourth record, ‘Heavy Heavy’, they’re currently neck deep in press interviews, meetings and rehearsals for their album tour, which is only a week away when Clash snatches some time with them. Graham ‘G’ Hastings joins the call first, visibly bleary eyed, kids’ toys scattered about him on his living room sofa, having just put his two-year-old son down for a nap. His bandmates Kayus Bankole and Alloysious Massaquoi are elsewhere, busy prepping for another afternoon of rehearsals in their studio in Leith, Edinburgh. 

It’s a small insight into the demands that Young Fathers were forced to balance up to their last album, 2018’s ‘Cocoa Sugar’ – and why they chose to take so much time away afterwards. The release of ‘Heavy Heavy’ this year closes the longest gap between any Young Fathers album yet. “We had been on the road for the best part of ten years, just tuning, recording, tuning, recording, and never really had a moment to relax a bit and rest,” says Hastings. “I think we needed it in more ways than I expected, because you got so numb to it that you couldn’t see all the great bits any more.” 

As it turns out, burning out and then stepping off the music business conveyor belt has been more than restorative. Hastings describes a newfound certainty around what makes Young Fathers so much themselves. “By the time we felt like we were wanting to be together again, there was a kind of a honing in on exactly what it is that makes us special,” he says. “The enjoyable bits for us, wrapped up with what it is that we actually excel at, and trying to nurture an environment that lets that happen freely.”

We’re just about to dive into what it is exactly that makes Young Fathers so distinctive, when – “Zoom is so weird” – Bankole jumps on the call. He’s leaning against the wall in his home, taking a break from packing up any last bits he needs for an afternoon in the studio. He readily backs up Hastings’ point that, with ‘Heavy Heavy’, the band have calcified their creative process. “Personally, I think I’m subject to change all the time,” he says, “but there are things that we solidified amongst ourselves. That’s the constant need to be surprised and embracing moments while recording. Those are the two main things for me.”

“I love having the space set up so everyone can be instant and spontaneous, but also that you’re capturing that as it happens,” says Hastings. “It’s always been there, but I don’t think we’ve ever set it up as much as this time.” 

More than on any other Young Fathers record, their uniquely raw, tireless, almost virile energy saturates every note, whether in the cantering bass riff on ‘I Saw’, the clanging percussion on ‘Rice’ or the cut-and-paste collage of vocal samples in ‘Shoot Me Down’. It sounds like a whip around tour of whichever instrument happened to be in reach, which, in a way, it was. In the studio, the band works quickly, preferring to sprint their way through a new song each day, only listening back to their recordings and refining the finer points at the end. Each member might turn up to the studio with scraps of lyrics, or an idea for a bridge, but more often than not these are shunned in favour of what emerges in the moment. Bankole sums up their impromptu process best: “I’m starting to know the guys better through interviews – know how they feel towards the recording process – because we don’t talk while we’re in the studio.”

“The way that we work isn’t really ‘singy-songwritery’,” Hastings elaborates. “It’s definitely not that kind of, ‘I’ve written a song, guys. Listen to these chords.’”

Bankole guffaws at this. “It doesn’t allow space for those moments of surprise, or the ‘mistakeology’ that we have coined in the past to stumble on words, to lose yourself in whatever you’re trying to portray,” he says. “It’s too regimented. It doesn’t allow things to flow like water.”

Incredibly, for a band that has won the Mercury Prize (in 2014, when they beat Damon Albarn and FKA Twigs to the prize with ‘Dead’) and became the first outfit to win the Scottish Album of the Year twice (for ‘Tape Two’ in 2014, and later ‘Cocoa Sugar’), Young Fathers put their spur of the moment style down, at least in part, to a lack of technical ability. They’re simply not the kind of band to sit at a piano and patter out an arrangement for each other. “That’s another thing that you lean into, your amateur side and the limitations that presents,” says Hastings. “You could see them as limitations, or you can see them as liberations. You’re not going to write a song like anybody else, because you literally can’t play it.”

“I’m remembering when I was in Nigeria and listening to the guys playing the talking drum,” says Bankole. “I’m like, ‘I wish I could do that, but I cannae.’ So what can I do that makes it sound like it’s an extension of myself? I’ll call us professional amateurs.”

That “professional amateur” status is even more pronounced now on ‘Heavy Heavy’, the first album the band have recorded on their own since the early days, when they were three teenage boys hiding out in Hastings’ bedroom cupboard. Producer Tim London (previously of pop trio Soho fame) was introduced to the band in 2010, and he has mentored, managed and guided them ever since. It was London who first gifted Young Fathers space in his Leith basement, where he let them have at it and shape their musical identity, which culminated in the release of ‘Tape One’ in 2013. But since London relocated closer to Birmingham, the band have had to make do without his presence in the studio. “We had to trust ourselves again, and be in a position to feel comfortable when you don’t have that outside voice,” says Bankole.

“You’re a bit more analytical, because you’re trying to replace someone that’s not there,” adds Hastings. “But we can do it. We started like that. We’ve always had the ability to record ourselves, engineer ourselves, and be brutal with ourselves.”

What has helped the band to excel in this stripped back format is a stronger sense of what makes a Young Fathers record – though precisely what that is remains difficult to put into words. Hastings describes compiling mountains of lists in the studio of other bands that Young Fathers could define themselves against, while also finding a throughline to connect their influences. 

“As much as we are so different, we hardly ever speak when we’re recording, and we dinnae think the same, dinnae like the same music, there’s a strand that we connect on,” he says. “For us, it’s trying to get those things that really wrench your heart out. It’s hard to define what that is. I still don’t really have a word for it. Soul is probably the closest thing. But as soon as you say it, people think of soul music, and it is soul music, but it’s not the style of soul music. If you look at soul and reggae, there’s a lot of it.”

Bankole cracks up again. “There’s a lot of soul in soul music,” he chuckles. 

“But you find it in everything. You find it in a lot of other music that’s miles away from soul and reggae,” Hastings warms up to his point. “The most important thing is the humans in it, and the strain in the voice and the passion.”

It’s that pursuit of the human, according to Young Fathers, that gives their music its political edge. While their lyrics do frequently allude to key social issues – Europe’s refugee crisis emerges in ‘Cocoa Sugar’s ‘Border Girl’ and ‘Holy Ghost’, for example – these moments tend to be subtle and fleeting, or obscured by meditations on more personal themes, like love and redemption. “We never like to over egg it,” says Hastings. “It’s not really just a lyrical thing. I think you can be political in the way that the rhythms are, the way that the drums go, how fast it is, and the way that it makes people want to dance.”

“Even thinking back about old roots records. Those songs do that,” says Bankole. “I’m enjoying the way the melodies roll together, before actually thinking about the words. You can talk about a revolution, and still get people dancing. To me, that’s powerful as fuck.”

“Getting people together is a political act,” Hastings agrees. “There’s a big commonality to this record that feels more political than we’ve been before.” It’s a pretty convincing image, to think of a Young Fathers album as a covert call to revolution. Their performances are famously electric affairs, with the three bringing forth their music’s dynamism with an unwavering physicality, as the audience surges and capers in front of them. The power of the crowd, and how they nurture it with their music, is at the forefront of their minds whenever they’re putting together a set, Hastings tells us. “You’re imagining groups of people toiling, working, and then letting go in some shape or form,” he says. “This album has this real imaginable community. Hopefully, a bit of that comes through, and maybe comes true in some way.”

There’s a lyric in ‘Geronimo’ that speaks to this duality between the personal and political throughout ‘Heavy Heavy’: “Being a son, brother, uncle, father figure, I got to survive, and provide”. On the one hand, it could be a matter of fact statement about global events. “We’re all living in fear of extinction. We all want to survive,” says Bankole. On the other, it describes the band’s experiences of growing older, new fatherhood, and the weight of growing responsibilities. “For us, having that time to be around the family more – because we were in a loop of album, tour, album, tour – your perspective does change a little bit,” he continues. “You realise that there’s these important things that you have to fulfil. Ali would say, if we weren’t doing this, we’d have to go get a job. This is not for shits and giggles for us.”

“Being a dad changes everything,” says Hastings. “It really brings your confidence up in what you do, and brings you the reality of why you love it, and why you should do something that you love. You want to be you for them in a sense.”

There’s a great sense of clarity radiating off Young Fathers just now. Sometimes, stepping away from a problem can help you solve it, and in their case that time apart has given them a new sureness over what they do and how they get it done together. They’re leaning into their instincts – something that they actively avoided on their last record, in a hungry pursuit of more experimentation. “I didn’t feel as wild as I wanted to feel in the ‘Cocoa Sugar’ process,” says Bankole. “But, you know, that’s me. We’re three different guys. Speak to Alloysious, he will tell you, he loved it. For him, honing what he knew and trying to be more precise, he marvelled at it. And that’s cool. With ‘Heavy Heavy’, it was the complete opposite.” 

“It’s always an expulsion,” says Hastings. “We wasnae trying to be sparse, or to break things down. It was the density between, why we called it ‘Heavy Heavy’ – the kind of extremal, maximalist approach we took, which was to keep adding more.”

Four albums deep, and sounding more sure footed than ever, it’s clear that Young Fathers have a special alchemy. ‘Heavy Heavy’ is a thrilling cornucopia of sounds and ideas, at once explosive and taut, and a fitting example of what keeps bringing the band together after more than 20 years. “It’s the result. It’s the thing that happens that we can’t get from anybody else, as much as we disagree and argue and fight,” says Hastings. “It’s a real magic set up, in a way.”

‘Heavy Heavy’ is out now.

Words: Becca Inglis

Follow Clash

Buy Clash Magazine