Conviction, spontaneity, and the noble art of going underground – Edinburgh trio Young Fathers open up on the creative synergies and struggles behind the bold and unflinching ‘Heavy Heavy’

Cut through the accolades and the hyperbole, and there’s a punk attitude and fiery passion coursing through all three members of Scottish outfit Young Fathers. After 15 years together, the sounds on their fourth album, ‘Heavy Heavy’, are more prickly, anarchic and tightly coiled than ever before.

“For us, it boils down to having this level of soul,” says the band’s Alloysious “Ally” Massaquoi. “It isn’t about singing note-perfect. You can sing out of tune, but because of the conviction, you hold the note and it takes on this deeper meaning. Over the years, the ambition to get to the root of our music and connect has stayed with us.”

Like previous Young Fathers releases, ‘Heavy Heavy’ is a sharp blast, swinging effortlessly between sweet harmonies and abrasive swells, as Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham “G” Hastings flex their sonic prowess across 10 scintillating tracks. The album was recorded in a windowless basement, with the goal of getting as close to their shared artistic source as possible.

“When you enter the studio, you have to be ready to take each other on,” says Bankole. “We are three strong individuals full of ideas, playing this tug of war, and I enjoy it a lot.

“Out of all the bullshit that comes with making music and living life, being in the studio and having these exciting creative bursts are top for me.”

For this interview, we’re in the depths of big-coat weather, and Young Fathers are huddled together in a new rehearsal space. Despite the cold, the trio make for intriguing conversationalists, injecting different vibes into our chat when scrutinising themselves, their shared past and this new record.

G is forthright, Massaquoi is thoughtful and unflinching, and you can almost feel Bankole’s mind spinning before he drops an impassioned quote. For a group without fixed roles, fluidly embracing different aspects of playing and singing to serve the needs of their work, they are in sync as comrades and creatives.

“We first met when we were 14,” notes G. “It was on the dancefloor in a club for teenagers. They had an open mic night in this place, and we used to go up there and do songs with choruses and hooks. Everyone else was into rapping, but we saw it as a platform to express the music we were into.”

Amid the freestyle battles, the fledgling trio’s melodic manoeuvres stood out. Even during those first forays, they were at odds with what was happening around them, heading on an alternative tangent to their peers.

“Never underestimate the power of a place where youngsters can be encouraged to try things out,” says Bankole. “Even though we did get booed sometimes. People were taken aback by what we were doing as it just didn’t fit with their preconceptions.”

Initially weaned on an array of soul and reggae drawn from their parents’ record collections, the trio’s tastes have evolved through the cracks between electronics, R&B and gospel to push their own style into experimental territory. While all three cite disparate influences, there are unifying threads.

“You can link groups like Sly And The Family Stone and Suicide by the passion in their music,” says G. “Even though their sound is ostensibly different, there’s a very human aspect at the fore.”

Running alongside is an affinity for the concept of “the song”. Since those early days in the youth club, Young Fathers have been enamoured of musical form and shape, and the potential it has to soak up and dispense as much emotion as possible. Tracks can be freewheeling and tricky to neatly define, but all share underlying vital forces.

“Our process is usually the three of us banging our heads together, trying to find the most interesting sound and the sharpest point of emotion,” continues G. “But the song dictates everything. It’s the most important thing for us – nothing gets in the way.”

Photo: Jordan Hemmingway

Young Fathers have enjoyed an upward trajectory over the last 10 years, informed by an unwavering devotion to their art. In the 2000s, they recorded an album, ‘Inconceivable Child… Conceived’, which was shelved, and self-released the EP ‘Tape One’ in 2011, before inking a deal with Anticon in the US the following year.

After releasing their ‘Tape One’ and ‘Tape Two’ EPs, they signed to Big Dada in the UK and unexpectedly beat favourite FKA Twigs to win the Mercury Prize in 2014 with their debut long-player, ‘Dead’. The follow-up, ‘White Men Are Black Men Too’, was released in 2015, while ‘Cocoa Sugar’ – a record reportedly born out of creative strife – came almost three years later.

Each of these releases offers its own take on the band’s raucous and writhing fusion of primal beats, energy and vocals, but ‘Heavy Heavy’ offers a back-to-basics methodology, with the tracks recorded in their underground studio where working speedily is prioritised.

“For us, this often feels like the only way,” says Massaquoi. “You have to capture ideas quickly – where you hear them, like someone else might – before that energy vanishes. After that, you need to approach the music with fresh ears so you can make better decisions about the direction you want to take it in.”

Strict adherence to these rules allows Young Fathers to make music that’s as pure as they can get it, focusing on the reverberations and connections that propel their sounds, unsullied by ego or opinion.

“A lot of it comes from us still feeling that this creative space is something sacred and magical, and you don’t want to fuck with that,” says Massaquoi. “You just want to tap into it so it feels fresh. Any other way just wouldn’t make sense for us.”

To help with this, none of them discussed their thoughts ahead of the ‘Heavy Heavy’ recording sessions. It was only when they came together in the studio, with all the equipment close at hand and ready to go, that they shared ideas and attacked them as fiercely as possible.

“We started from zero with each song,” says G. “When someone began doing anything – whether it was vocally or hitting a drum – we captured it as soon as we could to tap into the essence of what we were trying to achieve.”

This way of working comes after years of experimentation, using different methods in various spaces and places. Instead of risking being exposed to distractions, the group zones in on streamlining their writing and ramping up the intensity.

“It’s just the way we are, and it’s always been ingrained in us,” shrugs G. “It’s a mentality that comes from fighting with a song, a crowd or each other. Being in a band doing support slots and playing early sets on festival bills, you have to have that attitude of, ‘I want to destroy everything else’. We want to win.”

Drawing on countless influences and inspirations over the years, Massaquoi likens their creative slant to that of a hoarding magpie.

“An essential part of the process was collectively taking what each of us has been through, then expelling it into the shared space,” he explains. “Recording in the basement definitely toughened up the music we made for ‘Heavy Heavy’.”

The band have previously recorded in other parts of the world, including Australia and the USA. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they lean towards the darkness rather than California skylines and palm trees.

“We made some music in the US and it was just too sunny for us,” smiles Massaquoi.

“Although, ideally, we’d love to have windows in the place where we record.”

“But still with shite weather,” laughs G.

As confrontational and stark as Young Fathers’ work can be, it’s also an eclectic mix. On ‘Heavy Heavy’, ‘Rice’ almost borders on rockabilly, while ‘Tell Somebody’ is overwhelmingly powerful: “You sleep, but your soul, your soul is tired / You scream ’cos you know it’s a long way down”. Amid such depth, their tone is militant and pragmatic.

“We’re not gadget whores,” says Bankole. “We don’t give a fuck – we operate under the terms of necessity. Sometimes, when you don’t have much choice, you push it to the limits. I don’t know how to play certain fucking instruments, but I’d pick something up and make it work.”

Photo: Fiona Garden

G prefers to concentrate less on instruments and more on ways to make ideas come as quickly as possible. The trio confine their creative palette, implement limitations and avoid endless possibilities.

“I hate choice,” admits G. “I’d rather be told that I can only work with certain things, as I find that options can stifle a lot of the time. When you’re making music, you just want to move forward. Having too many things to consider can be restrictive.

“There’s a real sense of trying to work as a beginner. There’s gear we’ve had on plenty of albums that I don’t know how to use – and I don’t want to know. I’ll go into the studio one day, flip a different button, and it’ll do something else. I’ll never have heard it do that before, but that naivety could lead to a whole new record.”

There are no ambitions within Young Fathers to elevate the machinery they use. As long as the sound prompts a response in the listener, it doesn’t matter if the gear is broken or brand new.

“We’re getting to the point where our knives are much sharper,” says Bankole. “We embrace the ‘professional amateur’ approach so it allows us to see how we can cut up something else in a different way.”

“Our decision-making is now quicker,” adds Massaquoi. “We know what works and what doesn’t, but we still leave space to be surprised, and certain tracks on the record came out of that.”

Among all these ambitions and experiments, the group are striving to move forward. Young Fathers have respect for their back catalogue, certainly, but there’s no desire to emulate what has already been achieved.

“We are all into different things,” says Bankole. “Some are sweet, some are rougher around the edges. In the studio, it means we can go in new directions from clashing trains of thought.”

Usually, almost everything the band composes is included on an album and there is no waste, but as ‘Heavy Heavy’ was made over a longer period, they had to sift through more tracks to produce an order that was both lean and satisfying. They settled on the idea of using playlists.

“We always aim to make records that work as a ‘whole’ for listeners,” says Massaquoi. “We could have done a different version of this, and the tapes we did were really short. Old-school albums are only seven or eight songs, and that would have worked for us, but then we opened things up.”

With its piano-led harmonies and fizzing drums, closing track ‘Be Your Lady’ is slower and more introverted, yet it still has an inherent underlying toughness. It’s no surprise that the title, ‘Heavy Heavy’, was chosen to reflect the record’s density.

“It has to emphasise how everyone is feeling – the maximalist side,” explains Massaquoi. “By saying something twice, it also takes the edge off. It’s heavy, the toil, but there’s also a lot of playfulness in there too.”

Heavy Heavy’ lands at a time of unprecedented volatility, with politics, society and the established order in freefall. Although Massaquoi, Bankole and G didn’t discuss any such issues ahead of making the album, they’ve certainly tuned into the turbulence of the wider world.

“It’s always around us,” reasons Massaquoi. “There are politics in everything we do. If you have an opinion, then you’re political. There’s a lot of shit happening and a lot of wrongs – we all know that. Our aim is to manoeuvre through it and stay on an even keel.”

After some time as seemingly perpetual outsiders, the group are grateful to have made what they deem to be their “mistakes” out of earshot of a wider audience.

“We started early and got our education through listening to voices we shouldn’t have and through people trying to fuck us over financially,” admits Massaquoi. “You get tired of all that, so you take the reins and just keep moving forward. You need to go through the shit to understand what you don’t do next time. It’s made us who we are.”

“We could just have been a boy band in the 2000s that had one hit and fucked off,” laughs G.

“But we changed, took all those experiences and made Young Fathers. It was a big turning point, and confidence-boosting too. We were told all these things that we shouldn’t do. We did them anyway and it worked out.”

Having come so far, with rich and strange life lessons informing them, Bankole believes the three of them can confront anything that stands in their way.

“Making music, there’s this weird dichotomy where we can’t bite the hands that feed us,” he says. “I want to bite them a little bit so they don’t fuck with me. We’ve not been afraid to go through this journey and the shitty times. It’s a battlefield, and we’re still fighting.”

‘Heavy Heavy’ is out on Ninja Tune

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