“You know you’re in the liner notes, too… right?”
David Immanuel Le’aupepe – singer, songwriter, lyricist, rhythm guitarist and occasional pianist in the Sydney-bred, London-based pop/rock band Gang Of Youths – has a list of names up on his phone screen. It’s a part of the ‘thank yous’ section of the liner notes for Go Farther In Lightness, the second studio album from the band, arranged into a square that will presumably be printed for both the CD and vinyl versions of the record’s physical release.
Among those names being thanked personally is Natalie Files, the band’s Australian PR representative, to whom Le’aupepe has just posed this question. Files wanders over to get a closer look at the text – and sure enough, there she is, along with a mention of her company, The PR Files. “I’m so touched,” Files remarks, her cheeks gaining colour and a smile stretching across her face. “That’s really sweet!” Le’aupepe is somewhat dumbfounded by this response. “Are you kidding me?” he asks. “Of course we’d thank you. You do everything for us!”
Watch the video for Go Farther In Lightness single ‘What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out?’ below:
What may seem like a grand gesture to some – a public profession of gratitude – is a mere pittance for someone like Le’aupepe. That is, by the way, meant in the best way possible. Le’aupepe is inherently kind, passionate and affectionate. Throughout our conversation, he will go on to refer to several people as his “best friend in the world”. You believe him each and every time the phrase escapes his mouth. You believe that Le’aupepe is best friends with everyone he knows, such is his nature as a being. You believe that every person Le’aupepe describes as such would immediately turn around and describe him in turn the exact same way. And if you believe in David Le’aupepe; you believe in Gang Of Youths. It’s human nature.
After not actively pursuing music since his high school days, Le’aupepe began to write songs again when his then-wife was diagnosed with cancer. It’s a mythology that has woven itself into the Gang Of Youths narrative, to the point where it is indelible, inextricable and omnipresent. These songs were private, written purely with the intention of making her battle that little bit easier. Eventually, Le’aupepe assembled a group of musicians – including close friends from his church days – in order to play the songs live. This became Gang Of Youths – and the rest, as they say, is history. Working their way up through the ranks of support slots to small pub shows, the momentum of their debut album – 2015’s The Positions – ultimately lead to them becoming one of the most in-demand bands in the country. This month, shortly after releasing Go Farther In Lightness, they will begin their biggest national tour to date, with the Hordern Pavilion show serving as the centrepiece. It’s a lot to take in – especially because Le’aupepe is still wondering whether people will hate Go Farther or not.
“I am a long-winded, ambitious, terrified person,” Le’aupepe begins. He’s seated on a leather couch in a room closed off from the offices of Sony Music in Sydney, a few floors above where he and his bandmates would record the bulk of Go Farther. “I had to express that the only way that I knew how: making a 78-minute record. All the songs serve their purpose. This is the most accurate representation of who I am, sonically. I wanted to challenge something about our consciousness as people who listen to modern music.”
Le’aupepe points specifically to the usage of strings and orchestral arrangements which factor heavily into the album. It’s something the band has tapped into previously – in ‘Strange Diseases’, for instance, the lead single from their 2016 EP Let Me Be Clear. On Go Farther, however, it’s a part of nearly every song – and, in cases like ‘Achilles Come Down’ or single ‘Let Me Down Easy’, it’s the central musical focus.
This is the most accurate representation of who I am, sonically. I wanted to challenge something about our consciousness as people who listen to modern music.
“I was raised on classical music,” he says. “I’ve spoken a lot about my father being interwoven into everything that I do – he raised me on this music. I’ve never really strayed too far from it. It felt very natural to employ devices that would have normally been used by, say, Vivaldi or Bach. I think it requires a lot of patience and diligence to understand and to love. There was something about including that in the record that felt like it was an extension of me.”
Family is, unsurprisingly, one of the dearest things to Le’aupepe’s heart. In the opening track of Go Farther, entitled ‘Fear And Trembling’, he sings of getting older – and, by proxy, of his family as well. “I was waiting on the future / But the future only came / In the form of greying matter / In my only father’s brain.” Last year, both of Le’aupepe’s parents entered an assisted living facility, not long after they got to see him perform what was the band’s biggest show at the time at the famed Enmore Theatre. This meant they would move out of the house that Le’aupepe had grown up in – and, indeed, was still living in when he wasn’t away on tour. Aside from leaving Le’aupepe temporarily homeless, couchsurfing for a few months, this transition also had a considerable emotional impact on him. “It still affects me,” he says. “Every day.”
“I mean, my parents, I…” he trails off – for once, at a loss for words. He grows quiet – normally mountainous in frame, he arches inward and somehow becomes small. There’s a rattle, as Le’aupepe fumbles and reaches for his chest. “I have them with me everywhere that I go.” He reveals a necklace with a locket in the middle, which itself reveals photos of both his mother and his father in its two frames when opened. “One of my best friends in the world, she photographed my parents… I had this made.”
Having this invaluable possession serve as an impetus, Le’aupepe is once again right back into the flow of discussion. “My relationship with my father, in particular, is one of the biggest lyrical inspirations of this album. I talk about his magnolia tree. I talk about the frailty in old age he’s experiencing, and missing out on the humanity he’s really starting to demonstrate at this age. I talk about how I’m not there to experience it, missing out on it, because I’m overseas. I talk about things that he and my mum have imparted in me – wisdom, religious ideology, identity. My mum’s Judaism, and my dad’s Samoan culture.”
We are not predominantly white, middle-class progressives producing music self-aware and effete — nor are we making a new fetishised brand of garage punk that inexplicably makes a soft return every 15 years.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned from your parents?
Le’aupepe pauses, reflecting on the weight that comes with such a question. “Empathy and humility,” he replies. “That a bank balance does not determine our ability to do great things. We didn’t grow up with much, but we grew up with all the things that make a human rich.”
This leads Le’aupepe to also make mention of his older sister, Giselle, who he says was one of the most important figures in his life growing up – and still is. “I don’t think that I would be playing music if it wasn’t for her,” he says. “She used to play me Joni Mitchell records when I was three, four years old. The religious lessons and the social lessons that I learned from her are a part of what helped raise me. She’s a part of this record, too, in a big way. In the song ‘Persevere’, I talk a lot about the bigger religious questions, and often, my sister has influenced so much of that, as well. She and my brother-in-law were with me for a lot of the time that I was writing this record.”
He smiles to himself at the thought of them, laughing. “There’s a line in the last song, ‘Say Yes to Life’, where I talk about getting drunk at their wedding.”
It may seem surprising from an outlying perspective just how easily these bigger-picture conversations – family, religion, identity – weave in with talk of the music of Gang Of Youths. That’s just the thing: Gang Of Youths doesn’t just see the bigger picture. They’re in it. They rotate in the same atmosphere. It’s something Le’aupepe and co. have never shied away from – which may be why they’ve never sought affiliation with any sort of movement that isn’t their own.
A bank balance does not determine our ability to do great things. We didn’t grow up with much, but we grew up with all the things that make a human rich.
That’s not just evident in the ongoing battle of genre semantics – although, hilariously, the album’s press release does see Le’aupepe note that the band are not “cool”. “Nor,” it continues, “do we clothe ourselves in ornaments of what is currently in vogue re: indie rock in 2017. We are not predominantly white, middle-class progressives producing music self-aware and effete — nor are we making a new fetishised brand of garage punk that inexplicably makes a soft return every 15 years.”
Rather, this is to do with any religious associations one may have with Gang Of Youths as a band. Because of the backgrounds of the individual members (as well as the initial ties to Hillsong), some have come to Gang Of Youths’ music under the impression of them being a Christian band. That’s something that isn’t lost on Le’aupepe, and while he’s obviously grateful for every GOY fan out there, he hopes that his own personal message isn’t lost in translation.
“Here’s the reality: a lot of Christians get into our music, thinking that I’m going to reaffirm their biases,” he says. “All I am doing is echoing the doubt that they are repressing. That is an irrevocable and unequivocal part of what I am attempting to do with my music, my career and my life. This is about me asking questions; challenging the conventions of becoming the iconoclast that most Christians claim that Jesus was. There’s a part of me that misses that community of church; but at the same time, there’s a part of me that wants to challenge it, always.
“I don’t want to be part and parcel of the cultural Christianity that is embedded in hypocrisy and conservatism. Even the more progressive strands of Christianity, I find, are obsessed with the wrong things.”
As for where Le’aupepe stands now on his own personal faith and religious subscription, he describes it as ever-evolving. “Any honest person would recognise that their philosophical and spiritual identity will change day-to-day,” he says. “No one is 100 per cent stoic all the time, just like no one’s 100 per cent utilitarian all the time. I mean, today I’m not interested. Tomorrow, I might be.”
Note the operative words that open that last quote: “any honest person”. While someone like Le’aupepe may seem one of the most forthright and open people in Australian music, it simply boils down to his own idea of what honesty means and how it reflects on his own actions. Some songwriters never want to give away their real stories – myth swallows up everything from ‘In the Air Tonight’ to ‘You’re So Vain’ in an attempt to build urban legends. With Le’aupepe, there is no other story. No one can debate the true meaning behind his songs – everybody already knows it.
It should come as no surprise, then, that he is able to vividly answer a question concerning who he was at the beginning of writing Go Farther in contrast to who he was upon its completion.
“I was afraid,” Le’aupepe begins. “Lonely. Terrified of love. Down and out. Still recovering from horrible shit. Trying to make sense of the world. There’s a line on the record: ‘Now I don’t know if I believe in anything’. When you’re at the point of trying to save something so desperately, you become a vague impression of yourself. I was trying to emulate this guy called Dave. I didn’t trust anyone.”
And at the end of writing the album? “Still all of those things, but more content. I’ve embraced love. I’ve embraced life. I had to learn how to believe in things again. I came to advocate for believing in things as an antidote for nihilism. I care so much less about work than I used to. I found things to care more about.”
For the time that I’m alive, I want to spend my moments meditating on people who give a shit about me. I want to give a shit about them back, tenfold.
“One of them is sitting right over there,” Le’aupepe replies.
He points to a corner of the room, where Joji Malani – Gang Of Youths’ lead guitarist – sits quietly, minding his own business and eating his lunch. Malani will later head out to radio press commitments with Le’aupepe, and will also perform a secret stripped-back show with him at the reopened Lansdowne Hotel the very next day. For now, however, he’s simply content to noodle away on an unplugged electric guitar and occasionally look at photos of his dog. Unsurprisingly, Malani is yet another of Le’aupepe’s best friends in the world. He takes the acknowledgement calmly, although the seemingly spontaneous call to his attention evidently came as a slight to his alone-time. With a smile in our direction, he quietly retreats back to his own company.
Le’aupepe continues: “I opened myself up to love, and I found someone that I want to love for the rest of my life. I opened myself up to pain, and I experienced a lot of it. I overcame so much of it. That’s what this record is about: overcoming. Becoming human. It’s about realising and recognising that the absence of meaning, objectively, in the universe is not a death-knell for us all. If anything, it’s a liberating and motivating force that can propel us into better, more illustrious places as people. This notion that we can all master our humanness. There’s this great line that Colin Firth’s character says in Kingsman: The Secret Service. ‘Nobility isn’t being superior to others – it’s being superior to your former self.’ That stuck with me. There’s a Nietzschean element to it.”
The devotion Le’aupepe shows to his own family is equal to that of his bandmates – Malani, drummer Donnie Borzestowski, multi-instrumentalist Jung Kim and bassist Max Dunn. With the exception of Borzestowski, who joined shortly after the release of The Positions, these musicians have been with Le’aupepe from the very start. Not only are they his most-trusted friends and confidants, they are also vessels in their own way for his story. It’s a lot to ask of someone, which explains why they are akin to family in Le’aupepe’s eyes.
I’m starting to realise now that I want to alleviate people’s suffering. I want to give them hope, and some kind of respite from the world. Now that I’m able to do that, it’s fulfilling.
“The time it took to cultivate this relationship is time I would do over again,” he affirms. “Every lifetime I ever have, I will elect to build this relationship again. The older I get, the more detached from the trappings of a career that I get, the more I find things to care more about… the more I realise the community that I have built in my life matters more. It is infinitely more significant, more life-affirming and can bring me more contentment and make me more susceptible. For the time that I’m alive, I want to spend my moments meditating on people who give a shit about me. I want to give a shit about them back, tenfold.”
Eventually, Malani makes his way over to the second couch facing Le’aupepe. Having finished his lunch, he pays attention to the conversation more. Considering how much of the Gang Of Youths narrative – practically all of it, really – focuses solely on Le’aupepe, this can be seen as a rare chance to enter another perspective into the dialogue. Ironically, in talking about his own part within the making of Go Farther, Malani discusses having to alter and recalibrate his own perception of his role to that of an outsider’s perspective. “What we went through on this album was really different to how it was on The Positions,” he says.
“On the first album, I feel like Dave was a lot more controlling. There were also times where he had so much personal shit going on that he wouldn’t really care. I’m not saying any of this to put him down – this is stuff he’s openly admitted. He’d just be so exhausted from his personal life where he literally just did not have the capacity to make any kind of executive decision. Ironically, that kind of left a bit more space for someone like me. It was kind of like a dictatorship – again, that’s stuff Dave has openly admitted.”
Le’aupepe glances over, smiling. “It’s still a dictatorship,” he teases. “It’s just more of a lazy anarchist one now.”
Check out the video for ‘The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows’, lifted from Go Farther In Lightness.
Malani continues: “This time around, Dave oversaw everything. He saw the whole thing through. We’d compose really differently – we’d do a live take, for example, where Jung and I wouldn’t be in the room. It’d just be Dave, Max and Donnie. That was really different for me – I really play off these guys, so it was really weird. I’m someone who takes direction from energy. Maybe it was the idea of getting verbal direction that felt different. It was a new thing to take on board for someone like me.”
Of particular note and interest to Malani is the live element of Go Farther In Lightness. Having already started playing a couple of songs – the band’s Laneway Festival sets would open with the powerful ‘What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out?’ – this upcoming tour will see the band get to premiere a solid chunk of the record. It will be from there and beyond, Malani believes, that the songs will come to take on a life of their own.
“It’s more about ‘us’, per se, when we’re playing live,” he explains. “Because it was recorded so differently, I don’t feel the same about playing the songs live than I do about hearing them back recorded. That’s not entirely to say that I prefer it one way or another. I view the two as totally different things. It’s weird… The Positions was recorded in parts, as little bits and pieces, but I remember it in my head as this one hectic time. With Go Farther, it was all recorded in a very organised manner, all in one place. For me, though, because it was recorded so differently, I hear so many different things when I listen back to it. There’s all these different memories and emotions all attached to it. Doing it live is just another interpretation of the same piece.”
“It’s a better album,” says Le’aupepe, seemingly out of nowhere and to no-one in particular. “Just generally.”
“I definitely agree to that,” Malani replies.
I’ve embraced love. I’ve embraced life. I had to learn how to believe in things again. I came to advocate for believing in things as an antidote for nihilism.
Of course, the question still remains as to how audiences will feel, and whether they will agree with Le’aupepe and Malani. The band are unquestionably aware of the risks that a record like Go Farther presents to an audience. That is, after all, why they took them to begin with. As far as they are concerned, they want every creative decision that is on this record to reflect on their own forged path. “Progression is the main thing,” says Malani. “All those artists and bands that started in their own scenes and movements, they were trying to be beyond what they had. ‘Just because I have this shitty guitar and amp, doesn’t mean I can’t make something that fucking rocks.’ When you’re doing the same thing that someone else has done, and not doing so out of an actual necessity… we didn’t want to be trapped by that.”
“I wanted to reach for the stars on this album,” says Le’aupepe. “Some people play in a three-piece punk band, and that’s beautiful. It deserves commendation. For us, though, I think we’ve always wanted to make big, layered, articulate, meticulous, intense rock. That manifested itself toward things that are impractical when we were recording. It didn’t matter if there were 54 orchestral parts and there’s only five of us. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Making this album, there was an urgency in me. I wanted to do something in response to that. I wanted to make something that was honest to myself.”
“Having freedom is good, man,” he concludes. “Not having a boss, making your own decisions, making your own calls, being autonomous and working with people that actually give a shit about that. That’s where we’re at right now.”
Talk continues after the interview informally concludes, mostly about music. Broken Social Scene come up more than once – both Le’aupepe and Malani are huge fans, and recently got to see them live overseas. So, too, do Arcade Fire and The Killers – “We got compared to them a lot when the first record came out,” comments Malani on the latter, “even though I don’t think we have ever had any kind of conversation about them within the band.”
The absence of meaning, objectively, in the universe is not a death-knell for us all. If anything, it’s a liberating and motivating force that can propel us into better, more illustrious places as people.
Tattoos come up, as well. Le’aupepe has an artwork tattooed on his arm inspired by Feist; another inspired by hardcore band Gang Green, who he describes as “the first hardcore band I ever loved”. This is clearly music that has impacted deeply on his own life – which leads one to wonder how he feels whenever he sees the band’s calling card, a squiggly line resembling a heart rate, scrawled onto someone’s body in a lifetime commitment to his songs.
“I care more about what goes on inside of them,” he says. “Most people get something tattooed on them if it means enough to them. Some people, 20 years from now, might get that shit lasered off. Still, if it means something to them right then and there, then that’s a win. If what I’ve done means that there’s a change that happens inside of them – they become a little more ambitious, a little more hopeful, a little more empathetic – then fuckin’ A. That’s why I’ve kept doing this. I started this career because I wanted to deal with some shit that was going on. That’s not enough to last – the therapy aspect was not enough, because it almost killed me. I’m starting to realise now that I want to alleviate people’s suffering. I want to give them hope, and some kind of respite from the world. Now that I’m able to do that, it’s fulfilling.”
The promotional cycle goes on – Le’aupepe and Malani will soon depart the building, meeting with newspaper editors and radio announcers alike all in the name of spruiking Go Farther In Lightness. Several shows on the tour have already sold out. Were you to flick through the band’s prospective calendar, you’d probably find that they already know what they’re doing well into next year. Soon, they’ll be back in their new home of London, living in one another’s pockets and reaffirming their familial tendencies. As their name suggests, they’re going to continue to band together and celebrate their new lease on life, evolving beyond their initial solitary purpose and manifesting new ones with each step forward.
People are going to love Go Farther In Lightness. What was beloved about the band previously is strengthened here. People are going to hate Go Farther In Lightness. It’s too long – intentionally – and indulges too much for its own good. Truthfully, many won’t know what to make of Go Farther In Lightness at all. It’s a confusing record at times, thematically scattered and curiously arranged. All of these scenarios are absolute givens. What, however, does Le’aupepe hope that people learn from listening to the album? For such a complicated and delicate record, the answer that comes is surprisingly simple: belief.
“Believe in something,” he says. “Believe in something that is in some way emancipatory for yourself. Believe in something that is helpful. Believe in something that is helpful for other people. The foundations of belief are rooted in more than just ideology. These are the things that keep us all afloat. You are unequivocally going to die, y’know – it is going to happen one day, at some time. Live accordingly.”
Show me the way.
Show me the light.
Go farther in lightness.
Go Farther In Lightness is out now through Sony Music, and you can catch Gang Of Youths at the Hordern Pavilion with Gordi and Fountaineer on Friday September 8.