Ahead of this year's Mercury prize, DiS in partnership with Naim Audio's new wireless music system, mu-so, will help you GoDeeper into 2014's nominated albums. Today, we would like to turn your attention to the extraordinary Young Fathers.
For our special Mercury competition, interviews and mixtape by Young Fathers, plus coverage of all of this year's nominees visit our Mercury Prize 2014 mini-site.
Why do you like something?
No matter how many times we're asked, the question remains as exasperating to answer now as the first time you tried to trace the roots of gratification. The only legitimate answer then is that there isn't really one. Every attraction is built upon an immeasurable number of nuances, some clear and pronounced, others that stem from the strands of ourselves, intimate and imprecise.
The first time I heard Young Fathers the attachment was entirely factitious. They were fun. I didn't know who they were or where they were from, I cared only that they made music that lit up a room. And, if I'm being honest, there isn't else I can add to that summation a year and whatever down the line. I now know who they are and where they're from but it's not what matters. At all. What hits me, powerfully, nearly every time I listen to them, is the raw power they possess. In lyric, in voice, in tone, they roar with a passion; heady, illuminating and utterly dizzying.
This almost-primal ability to entertain - emphasised in their astounding live shows - remains one of their most fundamental characteristics and yet, if you've ever read anything about the trio, you probably wouldn't know it. The world loves a narrative, after all, and Young Fathers have one that's constantly held under a microscope or at least used as the bones of an often-repeated script that's used to tell us why we should like them. In reality, however, theirs is somewhat ordinary and it's certainly not one that the band project as a story you need to know.
They got together at the age of 14, made some records, made a few wrong choices, and then a few years down the line they got their break. So much can be added to this, of course. There's the varied heritage which takes in Liberia, Nigeria and Scotland, their roots in a local scene that nobody in mainstream media ever even glanced at (hip-hop?! From Scotland?!) and the beautiful inability of people to comfortably pigeon-holing their music; something which probably peaked, if you will, when NME labelled them as "3T...re-imagined for the hipster generation." Anyone? Thought not.
So for me, the most interesting thing about Young Fathers has always been the music itself. Not because I'm trying to take some holier-than-thou stance but because the music they make really is utterly thrilling. It is who they are, and why they are. Their breakthrough came on 'Tape One' - an EP recorded and released in a single week. Eight tracks of cacophonous disquietude, mind-bending and meaningful, the record would eventually lead to them being signed by the prestigious Anticon label, who would put out a re-release of Tape One and it's follow-up Tape Two - the latter of which would go on to be named Scottish Album of the Year last year despite being both an EP and being recorded only a few weeks after Tape One back in 2011.
If all of this forms the roots of Young Fathers then their debut full-length 'Dead' is the blooming flower at the heart of it all. An amalgamation of all that came before, it's a blunt and unrefined depiction of life as they know it. Ideas flow like the most untamed of fireworks, firing off in all directions and never once pausing for breathe. And yet, despite it all, Dead feels seamless. A manic mind, perhaps, but one that carries in it a singular vision far greater than itself.
Over half a year on from its release, and with a spot on the Mercury prize short list in the bag, Drowned In Sound sat down with the trio in a cafe on Leith Walk in Edinburgh to talk about next weeks ceremony, the march of Young Fathers, and all that came before.
DiS: How are you enjoying your time in the spotlight?
Graham Hastings: We've been together since we were fourteen, so it's been a long time coming for us. We've been about for years, listening to people tell us all kinds of things and it got to the point where we were just fed up so we decided to record something in a week and whatever it was we'd put it out. Even though there were people who didn’t want us to do it, we did it anyway and as soon as we did it felt like a release of sorts, but it also felt good to disobey people. Tape One was also the best music we'd ever made. It felt like we'd figured ourselves out and found our sound.
Then it wasn't long after that Anticon got in touch. The main thing for us signing with them was that they were American. That was a big deal for us. We'd grown up listening to American music and to get a foot in the door there at such a stage was ideal. We'd never actually heard of them before, it was all new to us.
Was it really as straightforward as that?
Kayus Bankole: We'd put the record out for free download and thanks to the internet it just travelled. They listened to the record and they must have felt something and believed in us. After we signed they told us they'd never actually scouted a band before, so that was nice.
What do you think Tape One had that led to that effect?
Graham: We started Tape One on the Monday and by the Sunday it was released. It could have been anything, any set of songs. We recorded a song a day and mixed it on the way. It was just a fucking release. It was never thought of as an album, or anything like that. We made it for us. It was a selfish thing to do but we needed it. We need to enjoy our music before anyone else. We'd been listening to other people for years, trying to make music to please someone else, but nobody really respects that. You can have success that way, but you're not going to sleep at night.
Alloysious Massaquoi: What Tape One did was lay the groundwork. We needed to do it. We weren't expecting anything from it. It didn't matter what anyone said about it. It was as simple as that.
Are you hear because of Tape One or do you think that change would have happened at some point?
Alloysious: You want to put stuff out that represents you in that moment, it's the only way to do it. We captured something at that time, luckily for us it was the best thing we'd done. It's one of those things where we've enjoyed five years of working together and fine-tuning and then we had that moment where everything came together. So on one side I'd say yeah, that would always have been the moment we came of age, just because of the release it gave us. It's that thing where you put something out like that and you dinnae ken what it is, but you know you like it. You know you feel something. You know it's different to what you've heard before.
So given how you recorded it, and the effect it had on you personally, how did you transfer that to Tape Two?
Graham: That was a few weeks later. There was a big gap in the release between them but it was done with the same mentality just a couple of weeks later.
Alloysious: I think we'd actually put a song from Tape Two online and Anticon were like no, no, no! They wanted to re-release Tape One because they didn't think enough people had heard it, which worked for us because we want as many people as possible to hear our music, because we're ambitious. We want to be heard worldwide. That was also a learning curve; learning to be patient and take advice from the right people. When you have a label as prestigious as that, run by music lovers, then that's going to have some bearing on your attitude towards them. It definitely made sense to hold stuff back a little, at that point.
Did you notice an instant change when Anticon became involved?
Kayus: It was always an extra bonus. After we'd done Tape One, we just wanted to do everything ourselves. We never had a plan, we wanted to just keep pushing forwards.
Alloysious: When things took hold, you could sense more people talking about it. And that's what you want. You want people be able to hear it, whether they like it or not isn't important. The people who last the longest are the ones that divide opinion. You either like them or you don't and that's the kind of group we want to be because that's the kind of people we are. It means you're saying something. We're not just happy to be here. This is serious. We take all of this seriously. We can have a laugh when recording but it's a business at the end of the day and we want success and we're hungry for it.
It's nice to hear someone being so open about desiring success. A lot of bands will shy away from saying things like that…
Graham: We hate that! It's maybe one of the reasons we bonded at the age of fourteen. We'd go to these underground hip-hop nights and you'd see guys rapping for ages, or making music for their mates about their local area and all that shit. But we never had that mentality. We always made music thinking about a wider audience and compared ourselves to much bigger artists.
Alloysious: It wasn't just for your pals, it's world-wide. We're like-minded guys, we don't want to be a big fish in a small pond. You have to look outside of that and that's the angle we've always come from. We want to have as many years doing this as possible.
Graham: The music we make is, first and foremost, for us. We don't think about anybody else, but that doesn't mean we don't want them to hear it.
Alloysious: We spend all of this time, writing lyrics and coming up with abstract ideas, and we're always thinking outside of the box. If it sounds like a straight-forward song then we're not satisfied so we have to push ourselves. There has to be some awkwardness about it. If you think about music in general, pretty much everything has been done, but we're still able to consistently create something that sounds new which I think is a very hard thing to do.
Has having the stability of a label and moderate initial success affected how you work, or you worked when it came to making 'Dead'?
Graham: Firstly, I don't think enough people have heard us, to be honest. So we're still in the same mentality because of that belief. We're not trying to hide, we want everyone to hear us. It's funny because people break themselves over shit like that but you soon realise it works when you don't think about outside influences, when you do what you want. People like it or hate it but either way there's respect there. People will always say that you're new stuff isn't as good as your old stuff: you could release the exact same album and they'll still say that, that's endless. For us, we could never make the same thing twice. It's not in our nature to do anything twice. Even in the studio we find it really hard to do a re-take because we're constantly moving on and wanting to try something else, to see how something else works in that space.
It's something we'd never thought of before doing interviews but it's not something we can really express. It's just how we are.
Alloysious: We're all about capturing the moment. It's full of truths and half-truths but it's real, so to talk about it or deconstruct it takes away the enjoyment. We absorb stuff all the time, conversations we have, even the questions you're asking us now, we take notice of that and it's in our heads and all of those things come out and inform what we do, it pours out - but how do you explain that? How to break that kind of thing down?
Do you ever find yourself making answers up just to play the game?
Graham: All I'll say is that when you get an artist who knows what genre they are then they've fucking failed. It's nonsense.
So why does nearly every band or artist subscribe to that?
Graham: Because it sells! It's tried and tested.
Alloysious: Most bands come together over one particular type of music and they want to emulate a specific band or artist and, while everyone does that to some extent, it's what you do with those influences that's important. We know the stuff that's influenced us has already been done, so we question how we can do it differently. It's the journey when you go somewhere else, when you see where discovery takes you, that really matters, and a lot of people, a lot of bands, are scared of that. You're trying to create a feeling and express yourself, so why try and contain that?
Graham: Most bands exist because they think they can make money and have a laugh. So they try and fit in somewhere, but that's not fun for us. For a lot of people it's probably very simple but fuck that. Through doing interviews and putting yourself under a microscope you soon get to know what it is that feels right and what you believe in.
Do you enjoy that side of it at all?
Graham: No, it's shite!
Alloysious: You're talking about a process that you're not sure about, that has no end. It's like philosophy. You sit and argue about something but there is no answer.
Kayus: You end up examining something so much, but there is no answer. We just do it. We're in the moment, we're not questioning what we're doing, we're doing it because it's natural.
Alloysious: When we go in to work there's an idea that we play with, maybe, but it's more just a feeling. 'Dead' was just dread, the feeling of dread. We had a mentality and we knew we wanted to live in the moment, but we can't break it down to people who don't know anything about us.
So how does something like the Mercury prize fit in to that view?
Graham: It's fine because we want to be heard by as many people as possible and in order to get that you need your songs on the radio and you need people talking about us. A lot of bands on the list haven't heard of us, so for us to be included is really good for us, of course. The award itself is...fine, I guess. Look, nobody is going to tell us something we don't already know. It doesn't matter to us what happens now. We've already won, because more people have heard us now from being on that list.
Is there the incentive to react against it at all?
Kayus: Not really, the bigger you get the closer you get to the point where you can be completely selective. We can choose to only do interviews like this one, you know? We've sat down to do interviews where people don't even know who we are. How can people do that? How can they sit there having done no research at all and pretend they know us and ask us about the kind of shoes we wear and shit like that?
Alloysious: We're not afraid of the exposure just because we don't enjoy it. It's all for the greater good and if we want to be a success then things like that have to happen. It won't change us. Any little bit of exposure is good, because we want our music to reach people.
Graham: The most enjoyable part of all of this is making music and being in the studio and things like the Mercury allow us to keep doing that.
Alloysious: I want us to get some money for this. We work hard, you know? I'm not saying that's why we do this - if we wanted money from this we wouldn't be making this kind of music. It's about the love of the art form but at the same time you want to earn enough to get by.
You seemed to react slightly against the Scottish Album Of The Year award - is that fair to say?
Alloysious: Yeah, we don't get that. I mean, what is it that makes you Scottish? I came here when I was four years old - what does someone of that age know that makes them Scottish? People talk about heritage and cultural identity but how do you define that? What is it? I don't understand all that.
Graham: It's home for us and it's where our family live but none of us are proud of any nation that we're associated with; there's no loyalty to it, it's just a place. There are good people everywhere and there are arseholes everywhere, so it's hard to be proud of it as a whole. The one thing we can take away from the SAY Awards is the fact that we were there. It wasn't about winning it, it was the fact that this multi-ethnic group were included in it.
You're about to head out to Berlin for a month to record a new record. What was the idea behind that?
Graham: We purposefully put ourselves in a situation where we know there will be limits. We've done that here with 'Dead' so let's try it in Berlin and see what happens.
Have you all got ideas to bring to the table or will it all be done over there?
Alloysious: We all write by ourselves and then bring it together, so it's all a collaboration. We like to bring it in and then fine tune things. It's about getting the best out of what's there.
Kayus: And it totally depends. Sometimes one of us can come in with a full song written and then we can all look at it and break it down, or sometimes it can already be perfect. There are no set rules.
Graham: Our manager has always praised how democratic we are. He's worked with a lot of bands and he says he's never seen anything like how we work together.
Alloysious: Maybe it's because we all grew up in Scotland, eh!
Do you ever get worried that the formula isn't going to work?
Alloysious: If it doesn't work then we scrap it and we try something else. That's going to happen, we know that. There's nothing wrong with it, those bits that don't work are just as interesting and useful as the parts that do, and each mistake is as much a part of us as the parts that do work.
Dead LP is out now on Anticon/Big Dada
The Mercury Prize winner is announced this Wednesday.