Gang Of Youths’ David Le’aupepe Talks Jesus, Blackface, New Music & Life As A Lonely Millennial

With a one-sentence bio and a shroud of mystery surrounding them, Gang of Youths became one of 2015’s biggest success stories in Australian music. Their debut album, The Positions, sparked universally-glowing reviews and prompted a run of completely sold-out national dates. They have evolved into a commodity – a movement, even – with their fervently-passionate live shows cementing their status at the top. Considering the album was spurred on by a broken marriage and cancer treatments, one could certainly consider it a matter of triumph over tragedy.

It’s now 2016. Gang of Youths began the year by scoring #21 in the Triple J Hottest 100 for their single Magnolia, and have announced a national run of theatre dates for April – their biggest yet. An EP of previously-unreleased songs, Let Me Be Clear, is also inevitable.

There’s a weight of anticipation around the group’s neck – as if to ask, “What now? What next?” It’s not something that is lost at all on the band – least of all its leader and figurehead, David Le’aupepe. Among other things, he talks with Music Feeds about being a lonely milennial, loving Jesus and black metal, his family and life beyond The Positions.

Music Feeds: Gang of Youths just played Secret Garden Festival – how was that experience for you guys? You’ve done quite a few festivals now…

David Le’aupepe: We have, yeah. It was actually really good. Adam [Lewis, promoter] put on a hell of a festival. He and everyone involved should be really proud. I mean, I’ll be honest… I’m not the type to enjoy festivals all that much. I just sit and read at them. I don’t like all the backstage schmoozing, all the drinking, all the heat… it just doesn’t suit me.

This had a really great vibe to it, though. It has this subversive, Alice in Wonderland style vibe to it. It’s pretty cool. It’s honestly one of the best festivals in Australia, because it’s so low-key and so small. And I got to stand at a kissing booth! [laughs] That was fun.

MF: It’s great that things went relatively smoothly, considering those two tasteless individuals Adam had to deal with…

DL: Oh, mate. Don’t get me started.

MF: It comes so quickly off the heels of the abuse that Thelma Plum and Briggs received over a similar situation. Obviously, you’re a person of colour from a different heritage to theirs, but it still must sting to see things like this still happening in 2016.

DL: Here’s the thing: These kids have no idea about post-modernism or the concept of post-modernity. And yet, they apply this bizarre bastardised version of post-modernism to their way of thinking as it pertains to their perception of race. It essentially boils down to them saying, “I have black friends, and they don’t mind it. It’s just a joke. Why should anybody care?” They think that if they don’t intend for it to be offensive, then it’s not offensive.

I would compare it to someone who DUI’d and them saying, “I didn’t intend to kill anyone.” But they did! Your actions have consequences and repercussions outside of your immediate sphere of reference. There’s a real philosophical issue that I take umbrage with here, assuming they can be the arbiter of what can and cannot be offensive. 

Objectively, a white person cannot be the arbiter of what I, as someone of colour, find offensive. You can’t disrespect me or my Samoan heritage, have me tell you that I don’t like or appreciate that, and then turn around and make yourself out to be the victim in that situation.

Their histrionic response is directly connected to a position of privilege; of ignorance, deep-seated within them, of what it’s like to actually be undermined and excluded. A white person doesn’t get to tell me what I’m allowed to get offended by. Especially considering I’m two easy targets rolled into one: I’m a slovenly Samoan that’s only occasionally good for playing rugby or being a security guard; and I’m Jewish with a big nose.

MF: Does religion still factor into your life; or do you only identify with Judaism culturally?

DL: It’s interesting… my mum is the daughter of two Jews; and my dad’s mum was a German Jew who met my grandfather in Samoa, so he’s partly-Jewish, too. There’s a movement called messianic Judaism, in which people profess their faith in Jesus – in a quite a hardline Protestant way – but also integrate their Judaic heritage.

It’s a professing that Jesus is a fulfilment of the prophecies in Isaiah and Jeremiah and Deuteronomy. Those that follow Judaism without the acknowledgement of Jesus in this light are considered orthodox.

That’s how I grew up – my parents were a part of that movement for a very long time, and my sister still is a part of it. Personally, I don’t have any religious affiliations anymore – those are ties I cut some time ago. Within conversations about faith, however, I still align myself with Jesus. I’m just not a great poster-boy for it – I’m a fornicating drunkard who swears a lot and listens to a lot of black metal. [laughs]

MF: Moving on, we’ve got some new Gang of Youths stuff to talk about…

DL: Oh shit, we have a job to do, don’t we? [laughs]

MF: What’s the latest on the EP that you’ve been working on? Are we any closer to hearing it?

DL: It’s all done. It’s all mixed and mastered, ready to go. We’re hoping to have it out in the next few months. Ideally, we at least want to have the digital version out in the world by the time we head out on tour.

We had it finished about a month and a half ago, but we decided we wanted to re-recorded a couple of drum tracks, so that pushed things back a little further. We’re also in the process of negotiating distribution deals for the US and the UK. It’s all been fairly painless, thanks to our new manager – he’s really awesome.

MF: Sounds promising. Give us a rundown of what we’ll be hearing this time around…

DL: It’s called Let Me Be Clear. We wrote five new songs for it, and there’s a cover on there too. I’m not going to say what the cover is yet, just because I don’t want people to get high expectations over it.

The original songs were all part of the process of writing The Positions, but for whatever reason they were not part of the final tracklisting. I don’t know if they fit the arc of the story. The Positions, in a lot of ways, was quite calculated and indulgent.

These songs aren’t necessarily about that time in my life, but they’re definitely love songs. They’re about being in love with someone. These songs negotiate the annals between falling in love and breaking up. It’s not in a chronological narrative, though, which alone sets it apart from The Positions.

MF: Given that Gang of Youths was formed around a singular concept – and, by extension, so was the album – how have you handled the double-edged sword of freedom in subject matter? Now that you’re writing away from that concept, have you had difficulty trying to write about other things in your life?

DL: It’s been a struggle, definitely. I’m constantly looking for tragedy in things that either don’t have any or don’t matter at all. I’d conditioned myself to believe that I’m only able to write about things that are inherently sad. I had to get myself out of that habit. I had to recalibrate myself and try and find the beauty in my life, not just the tragedy.

I was so used to writing in subscription to that overriding concept. That was all entirely circumstantial writing. I’m now writing more from an ideological framework – big-picture philosophy sort of stuff. I think the next album is going to deal a lot with loneliness – being a millennial in transition.

I went through more than just being in love with someone diagnosed with cancer and having that relationship end. I went through a suicide attempt. I got sober. My best friend lost his daughter. There’s real-world stuff going on here. This record might be a lot more of a human record than The Positions, if that makes any sense.

MF: Whatever you’ve been going through, it feels like you’ve always had a really solid network of people there to support you – your bandmates, of course, but your immediate family, too…

DL: That’s true, yeah. I’m really close with my parents, and it means so much to know they’ve both gotten to see me play these huge shows. My sister, Giselle… she is everything that I aspire to be as a person. I feel like she got all the beauty and the smarts, and I was just left with the nihilism. [laughs] She’s my hero. When I was a kid, she mothered me a lot, because my mum worked full-time. She used to write notes and make my lunch and stuff like that. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for her.

MF: Is it important to have that immediate circle of people? Especially as the band gets more popular and you start getting recognised a lot more.

DL: It becomes a lot harder to stay in touch with reality. I’m such a devoted person to the people in my life because I have such a distrust of people at large. That informs a lot of my interactions with strangers. I crave human interaction, beyond simply the formalities of social interaction.

I have this one friend from high school – he’s a musician, too, and he got quite famous – and he told me the only reason he can still really talk to people is because he had that human interaction before it all happened. I don’t ever want to get to that point where I’m only talking to famous people. I want every person that is a part of my life away from music to know how much I value them.

MF: On that note, you’re planning a benefit for disaster relief in Fiji soon. How did that come about?

DL: It’s something that means a lot to all of us in the band. Especially Joji [Malani, lead guitarist]. He’s incredibly proud of his Fijian heritage, and that whole area got pretty horrendously damaged. It’s all kind of on the down-low at the moment, and we’re trying to sort some things out for it. It’s just something where we really feel compelled to get involved in some manner. I’m a Pacific Islander, so it’s certainly affected me, but Joji especially wanted to do something. Think of it as us using our powers for good for once. [laughs]

Gang of Youths tour the country this April, grab all the dates and deets below!

Gang Of Youths 2016 National Tour

Friday, 8th April – SOLD OUT

The Tivoli, Brisbane

Tickets: Live Nation

Saturday, 9th April – SOLD OUT

Enmore Theatre, Sydney

Tickets: Live Nation

Friday, 15th April – SOLD OUT

The Gov, Adelaide

Tickets: Live Nation

Saturday, 16th April – ALL AGES

Astor Theatre, Perth

Tickets: Live Nation

Wednesday, 20th April – NEW SHOW

170 Russell, Melbourne

Tickets: Live Nation

Thursday, 21st April – SOLD OUT

170 Russell, Melbourne

Tickets: Live Nation

Friday, 22nd April – SOLD OUT

170 Russell, Melbourne

Tickets: Live Nation

Must Read