As they return with their sharpest, leanest album yet the ‘three Beyoncés’ of pioneering Edinburgh group Young Fathers discuss visibility, relationships and the strife that's gone into Heavy Heavy
Young Fathers never meant to take a five-year break between records. The goal was to use the energy from the Cocoa Sugar live shows as momentum for a whole new run of recording sessions. Family commitments and the pandemic got in the way, and the group found themselves coming back down to earth after a hectic few years. Graham ‘G’ Hastings had his first child. Kayus Bankole used the time to travel to West Africa, while Alloysious Massaquoi reconnected with family and soaked up life’s mundane moments.
The group have just moved into a rehearsal space in Leith to get “match ready” for live shows, as Alloysious puts it. Graham welcomes me in with a handshake and a chocolate digestive from the cornershop. It remains half-eaten in my pocket during our chat. He apologises for the mess of wires and the cold of the unit. We sit underneath a plastic chandelier, which feels at odds with the group’s vibe (Kayus soon joins, while Alloysious meets later via Zoom). All three members admit they’re still figuring out what the live shows will be like after time away. They still need to learn the words. It’s been a while since some of the songs were written. Still, that danger has been central to their appeal since the beginning. They thrive on it.
“We’d walk into the studio, take our coats off and start playing something without even saying hello,” Kayus says on their close connection, even after time away. “I love these guys, but it sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t have time for hello?”
“From there we’d just start trying ideas and seeing what sounded good,” says Graham. “That spontaneity is a big part of what makes us unique, and being able to be free with how you record was a big part of this record.”
“It’s a testament to how Graham set up the studio,” says Kayus. “You could go from singing to playing something really easily, so you could build on someone else’s idea and keep the feeling going. I love extreme frequencies – I used to say I want to hear all frequencies, all at once. It’s become a joke for us, because that would just be white noise. But the layering on the album does that too.”
“Sometimes there would be a weird element buried in there that you couldn’t hear, but if you took it out the track would lose something,” Graham adds.
Heavy Heavy is a fitting title for the new Young Fathers album. When you think of emotional heaviness, you think of being weighed down by depressive feelings. But that repetition of the word brings a playfulness to it, while adding to the weight. Like its name, the music is dense with sound and feeling, all emotions pushed to the max. At just 30 minutes, it’s a short, sharp collection of tracks that have been whittled down to deliver the most impact. Young Fathers have always worked with a heady mix of minimal and maximal. Their return explores the extremes in both directions, finding common ground in how their separate perspectives come together. “We’re three different people. We’ve forged an existence together in terms of knowing each other since we were kids,” says Alloysious. “We have different opinions, but also we do agree on the root of what we’re trying to do. That’s what brings us together, us celebrating our differences. There’s democracy in the group as well.”
The songs were recorded in batches on the fly. Sometimes it wouldn’t be until the group came back to listen that they were able to piece together what a song was about. At the centre of it is a feeling of communal catharsis and capturing the magic in the room.
“We’d have listening days where you listen back to the songs a while after you recorded it,” says Graham. “You’re never sure if the feeling is still going to be there, but ‘Shoot Me Down’ was one where that feeling was there. That formed the centre of the record. We had that as the opener for ages. We really care about the album as a cohesive thing, so we spent more time arguing about the sequencing and the order. We recorded so much stuff. Probably about three albums worth that didn’t make it, but these were the songs that worked together and had that communal feeling.”
“I told you there’s three albums here!” Kayus shouts, echoing the passion and hearty disagreement that comes with having three equal voices in the room.
“We had debates and battles about what songs should be in and what shouldn’t be, and this one worked the best for the feeling we wanted to go for,” says Alloysious. “This has been the longest experience to date. Usually when we record, that’s it and we put it out… When you’re idle, people start being pernickety. People start losing confidence and second-guessing stuff.”
“Eventually we decided to try ‘Rice’ at the start,” says Graham. It was the one that seemed to work everywhere. That’s a funny one, because when we showed friends and family, they weren’t sure it was ‘us’.”
The record is full of subtle surprises and subversions. ‘Rice’, like many other tracks on the record, is an upbeat, borderline cheery gospel-leaning song in a major key. Kayus and Graham laugh when I ask if the focus on major keys was intentional.
“We’re definitely not thinking about keys or anything like that. We play and figure out what it means after,” says Graham.
All three members lead in different ways, and reiterate that there’s little ego when it comes to who sings what part or who’s the lead writer. Alloysious jokes that “there are three Beyoncés in the group.” It’s clear that he is the band’s biggest optimist. He has complete faith that they can take over the world. It’s surprising to hear that the break gave him pause on whether he’d want to.
“For me it’s been a whole process of finding that feeling again,” he says. “I have a love-hate relationship with music. I’m passionate about creativity in general, but when the rug gets pulled from under your feet with Covid, you start looking at art as redundant. They say: ‘Hemingway wrote this masterpiece, or Picasso painted this during a time of strife’. I don’t give a fuck about any of that. What matters? It’s all the interpersonal relationships that I have. Family, friends, people that you have in your ecosystem. Those are the things that matter. That’s the experience that went into the record.”
Anyone who’s seen Young Fathers live knows that they can shake you awake. Part of their approach has been to use doubt and fear to their advantage.
“I used to be confrontational with the crowd,” Graham says. “We used to play a game and see how long it would take for us to win them over. For years, we played to crowds who weren’t there for us, [supporting] people like Paul Weller or playing festivals. It wasn’t until Cocoa Sugar that really changed, and I realised people knew the songs and were with us right away.”
“You’re in a space and creating a moment that could easily be destroyed,” says Alloysious. “It’s a conversation with the audience. It doesn’t have to be said. Most of the way we communicate is non-verbal communication. That balance in-between space is the sweet spot where there’s jubilation. It’s almost spiritual… Sometimes people just need you to show them how to dance to the songs and they understand it.”
In the decade that the band have been working together, music has caught up to the kinds of things they believed in from the beginning. Rap, electronic and indie categorisations aren’t as rigid as they once were, and the underground and mainstream are more amorphous as labels as they’ve ever been. Still, the group have frustrations with how many barriers there are for artists who can’t as easily be quantified.
“For me, visibility is so important.” says Kayus. “We’re a multi-racial group playing music that I wouldn’t have heard when I was younger… Why have we never been played on Radio 1Xtra? Am I not Black enough? Is our music not urban enough?”
“It happens when we’ve played in America too,” Graham says. “No one knows where to put us. We played a hip-hop TV show there, where it went well and the crowd loved us, but we didn’t get the call back.”
Later on, Alloysious passionately tells me that they should be considered alongside the Ed Sheerans and Drakes of the world, just to show people there are more voices out there. Still, he can see the impact they’re having.
“Let’s call a spade a spade: music is all based on external validation. As human beings you need to be validated by your family or whoever else. But for me, if you pour into yourself, other people can be inspired by that. Coming to Scotland from a civil war as a refugee, you would never know. You’d never know what my mother especially has been through. Being alive is because of her and the sacrifices she made. It’s a bonus to do all that kind of stuff, so I’m not feart.”
Graham admits that when they started the group, it was a selfish endeavour. He didn’t realise the impact their music had on people until he saw it reflected at live shows.
“The diversity that you see at our shows in terms of ages, clothes, race, and everything proves what we do is good. Good music is good music.”