“LIVING LIFE LIKE A BUBBLE-WRAPPED APE”
Words: Andy Cowan
Photos: Violette Esmeralda
It’s second time lucky for Bonafide and Young Fathers. The last time we tried to speak, 12 months ago, the email wires got irretrievably tangled amid the rigours of a gruelling three-month American promo trek for their full debut Dead. Much has changed in the camp since. The trio trumped aggressive odds of 14-1 to snare 2014’s Mercury Prize, triggering a huge sales spike that finally pushed them into the UK top 40, while their infamously non-whooping or hollering acceptance speech spun them into the locus of a bemused and openly hostile tabloid press.
Having sat on Dead for 12 months, waiting for industry machinations to catch-up, this year’s deliberately provocative sequel White Men Are Black Men Too was turned around swiftly in an ice-cold Berlin basement studio. Still fresh in its creators’ minds, there’s nary a second of dead air as Edinburgh-born Nigerian Alloysious Massaquoi, Liberian Kayus Bankole and native Scot ‘G’ Hastings hold forth around a tiny table at deserted Hackney Wick nightclub Bloc, fuelled by little more than steak McCoys and bottled water.
“A lot of people find a zone and if it clicks with other people they’re not going to move from it,” says G about the progression between albums. “We could have done that too, but you’re going to go fucking crazy once you’ve toured it for a year. Your mental health will suffer. For us there’s too much involved, personally and emotionally, to just go through the motions.”
While chunky traces of soul, Afropop, blues, gospel and post-punk percolate through its raw sonic soup of primitive organs, xylophones and the dying wasp attack of ‘G’’s vintage EMS synth, the trio also made a deliberate decision to strip back their wordplay.
“We always want to challenge ourselves and push each other to do something different from before,” explains Alloysious. “That’s how it should be if you care about what you do. We wanted to simplify the structure of the words but still keep it very driven musically. It really allowed us to sing a lot more on the tracks. Instead of using more words we’re using less words, but we’re taking the best of those words to cause a different impact. It’s like that James Brown song ‘Please Please Please’ – sometimes that’s all you need.”
“Refining the structures is important to us,” adds ‘G’. “We’ve been touring now for three months, playing most nights, and every night we’ve found something new. That’s healthy, I think. Sometimes you want it to be a struggle.”
“We like to make things difficult for ourselves with the music that we make and the long journey that’s it been,” finishes Alloysious. “That’s ’cos we care and we want to have something out there that represents us as people.”
The ‘long journey’ he refers to is genuine. All three are now nearly twice as old as the 14-year-olds that first bonded at youth club hip-hop night Lickshot, their primitive early bedroom demos augmented by synchronised shape-throwing that saw them initially labelled as a boy band.“We were just trying to work out who we were and try and find ourselves,” explains Kaysus.
“We were just trying to work out who we were and try and find ourselves”
“We did have choreographed dance moves,” fesses up ‘G’, “but I think our references are different to most people. If you mention dance moves people are like ‘Ah, fucking hell’, but if you think of The Four Tops or James Brown you definitely don’t think that.”
“We still have dance moves now,” qualifies Alloysious, “but we do that when we feel inspired. When you get good at something and master it, then you can deploy it in a way that’s much more effective.”
“We were already of the mind-set of ‘How can we change people’s perceptions of what a boy band is?’” adds Kaysus. “That was our interpretation. It’s the same mentality we have now.”
They also baulk at the blinkered perception of them as a Scottish hip-hop group making difficult, experimental music, to the extent that vinyl copies of the latest album arrived stickered with the directive ‘File under Rock and Pop’.
“We’re not devout,” says Alloysious. “We don’t just love one particular genre. We’re just sponges and we just concentrate on trying to create a good song. We all have that moment when we hear a good song – it’s instinctual, we just know.”
“We’ve had that since we were really young,” chips in ‘G’. “It’s always been about the song, not the artist or the album. Sometimes it’s just a moment in a song, just a millisecond that can inspire a whole album. A lot of our recordings include accidents, mistakes or first takes because they have the most impact. If you’ve done it once with pure feeling that’s better than trying it over and over again. That’s when the energy is real.”
Quick as a flash, Kaysus adds: “Most of the time we can’t do it again anyway!”
For all its rough edges White Men… is their most playful and accessible offering too. Is it, as their label Big Dada seemed keen to stress, Young Fathers’ big pop statement?
“I think a lot of the stuff that we consider pop, other people just think is weird,” laughs Alloysious. “It’s really down to how it’s defined as pop. If the album got rinsed on mainstream radio I don’t think it would sound as strange as some people seem to think it is. I think people look at us and go ‘Oh, they look weird’ and that gets applied to our music. We can see it for what is. And I suppose we are weird in the sense that we’re different from everybody else.”
“I think a lot of the stuff that we consider pop, other people just think is weird”
But a song like I Heard (the lead track on 2013’s EP Tape Two) is pop. “If I Heard was played on the radio nobody would bat an eyelid,” agrees Alloysious. “To me, I Heard is one of the best pop songs ever. I truly believe that. It’s simple, but it’s got an edge, and it’s got everything that’s screaming out pop hit. Y’know, Shame currently gets the biggest reaction when we play live. Why’s that? Because it sounds like a pop song. It is a pop song.
“For us it’s a struggle against the politics of radio and TV, and the people who run things on a major scale,” adds ‘G’, the frustration palpable. “You get upset about it because, really, when you look at it, it’s not about the song. Our songs are pop songs that could be appreciated by all ages, but people are either against our attitude or what we talk about in songs. We always tell our label, ‘We want it played, we want to go everywhere with this’ and then they come back with ‘Oh no, you sound too tough’ or the lyrics (on No Way) say ‘AK47/Take my brethren straight to heaven’.”
Alloysious has the final word. “For a band like us these things are just excuses. The real question is: ‘Does it sound good?’ And if the answer is yes, nothing else should matter.”
THE INAUGURAL BONAFIDE BISCUIT TIN CHALLENGE
Staying firmly on the pop tip, Bonafide challenged Young Fathers to answer some questions shamelessly ripped from irreverent genius 80s rag Smash Hits. Picking out queries at random and answering off the cuff, their lighthearted replies nonetheless betray an unstinting, clear-eyed dedication to the cause.
Who do you think is the silliest person in pop music?
Have you started getting recognised yet?
K: No. The only time is after we’ve played a show. And then it’s usually, ‘Oh, you were that guy onstage’. When we played in Newcastle I was confused with someone who doesn’t even look anything like me, just someone who was black.
What’s the best thing about finally becoming successful and what’s the worst?
A: We’ll let you know when it happens! It depends what the word success means to you. To someone else success might mean a million pounds, living it up and blah-de-blah-de-blah. For me, success is being able to express yourself in the way you want to and having the courage to get to that place where you feel you’re moving forward and progressing.
G: To me we’ve succeeded every time we’ve made an album.
A: You succeed every time you go onstage, face your fears and perform. You succeed when you win the crowd over. And even if you don’t, you will still have succeeded in giving them food for thought.
G: Don’t get us wrong, we want to make money. We still have that background where we need money to eat. We can’t go back to our parents, they’d chuck us out! You want to get paid for what you do because it’s about respect as well, but it’s never been about wealth. If you want to be wealthy, don’t get into music. That’s the first thing.
A: Or sound generic!
G: If you’re gonna sound generic you have to be really beautiful or really ugly.
K: Or have shedloads of money.
G: I think a lot of big pop stars’ talent is probably equivalent to 100 other people that could have been pop stars, but it comes down to who’s got the face for it.
A: You need to be confident in yourself to perform. Sometimes someone’s vulnerability adds to that confidence. It’s like someone’s really good looking, that’s great, but if they’re not that good-looking it’s much less threatening. If you see some really handsome guy and he’s doing generic pop music, most people would be like ‘He looks too good’. We all think that sometimes…
G: What we were talking about again?
“As a band we’re not scared of anything”
If your life story was made into a book what would be its title?
A: Massa Massa’s Palace!
When was the last time you caught a bus?
K: Yesterday. I got a bus from Shoreditch station to Spitalfields to buy some earrings. Then I came back to do a soundcheck.
What are you like when you’re drunk?
G: What am I like when I’m drunk?
K: Loose is the best thing I can say!
G: I’ll go through periods when I’ll have a drink before I go onstage, because that’s what made the last gig good. And then I’ll go on and I’ll have a shite time. The last few weeks I’ve been completely sober. Some people think I’m on heroin when I’m onstage…
K: The amount of people who have come up to me and asked: ‘Is Graham alright? Is he on drugs?’
G: You know I go to the toilet just before I go onstage, right?
K: People forget that drugs are fun, but we don’t actually indulge.
G: We hardly even drink before we go onstage. We’ve played with a lot of bands we used to hate watching because they drink so much before they play…
A: And take drugs as well. And we’re like, ‘No mate, I’m fine’. We don’t need it. I’m very aware onstage. I’d get paranoid if something went wrong because I’d had a drink.
G: I’d get paranoid if I took a drug and then had a whale of a time, because then I’d be like ‘Fuck I need that to play’. I’m glad that, for us, we’re able to do it completely sober. It may sound like a cliché, but we get that high onstage and you genuinely can’t get it anywhere else.
What’s the biggest hair disaster you’ve ever had?
A: I don’t think I’ve had one. It’s always been of its time, although I’ll look back at old photos and have a laugh.
What are you most scared of?
K: I don’t know…. as a band we’re not scared of anything.
G: We’re pretty fucking fearless. We do what we want, really and truly.
A: I think I’ve just forgotten what that word means. Growing up I was really, really shy. So I worked to be better; I played more sports, got into conversations, all sorts of things to try and overcome it. Now I don’t lose sleep about anything. As Graham said, as a group we’re just fearless.
G: I am really scared about going deaf though. It’s pretty loud onstage and I already get a wee bit of tinnitus.
K: Tinnitus is not that bad. Being deaf, however…
G: Our sound engineer is often like, ‘It’s too fucking loud, you’ll go deaf’. We’re like, ‘It’s alright’. He’s trying to get us in-ears and we’re like ‘No they look, shite’, but it is a worry. I come from a family where my dad’s like ‘Eh!’ My granddad’s even worse…
Have you ever thought, ‘That’s it! I’ve had enough’?
G: A few times. Sometimes you just reach that point when you go ‘Ah, fuck this!’ You can’t put the amount of honesty and feeling into music we do without it taking its toll. This is not an act or a theatre show for us, it’s our life.