We met Gang of Youths at the studio where The Positions, their acclaimed first album, was recorded. Joji, who plays lead guitar, was missing — stuck out somewhere near Bobbin Head, about an hour to the north. Apparently, a mate of his is a crummy navigator turned out to be a crummy navigator. In his stead, we hung out with a bunch of very friendly dogs who sometimes roam the back streets of Darlinghurst.
Frontman David Le’aupepe, whose story The Positions largely tells, is an intensely introspective person. He’s genuinely humbled by what the band has attained — dedicated fans, big audiences at major festivals and creative freedom — but wracked by his own outwardly and inwardly destructive tendencies. Those tendencies seem to have provided the stories and emotional power behind Gang of Youths.
In a moment where the internet is offering a superficial version of authenticity from live-bloggers to mundane tweets, the Gang’s music offers searing confessionality. Almost.
“The most important component of what we do is trying to convey some aspect of truth and humanness to people and give them a vernacular for their pain. That’s what we do; that’s what art is.”
“Very few poor people recognise that Rockefeller might have meant something but they remember Elvis.”
Yet at the same time, David acknowledges that “If this [recorder] wasn’t on, it’d just be me trying to convey the truth. When this thing is on… I’m conveying an image of what authenticity looks like.”
Music offers a way out of the tension of trying to tell deeply personal stories without piling more hurt on loved ones who feature in them. It lets David talk about suffering in an elliptical way that conveys universal feelings but mostly obscures the details that might hurt his friends and family.
“A teenager who has never been depressed won't identify with the lyrics of ‘Magnolia’ but their heart will resonate with the elation because they've had a big drunken night with their boys. They've enjoyed that moment of pure human madness that kind of compels you onto great things - things that become even greater memories.”
Informing David’s perspective are philosophers from Bill Hicks to Heidegger and Schopenhauer (“a bastard”), who he started reading in original as a lonely teen. “I wanted to understand why I felt so messed up and weird. That's why anyone gravitates to anything esoteric or metaphysical or philosophical.” Like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, David seems to have got a “world class education for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library”. So, as one might imagine, Gang of Youths aren’t stereotypical festival people. Once a show is over, David reads.
“At the same time”, David questions “why would I want to be doing everything different? I'm getting on a stage and doing the thing I love to do and getting paid a small amount of money to do it: trying to dismantle the awkward barrier between artist and consumer.”
“Looking at the smiling faces, singing laughing, dancing, drinking, falling in love. That's a good feeling because these people are so important…”
Even the guys wrestling in the mud pit?
“Yeah! Even the people partying but not listening to the music are vital. Being part of that moment, that they might not even remember, is really life affirming.”
Yet perhaps the person in that crowd that David wants to reach most is the “kid in the audience who needs a moment of empathy, a moment of joy. A moment of real cutting loose.” To that kid, Gang of Youths hopes to offer a moment of catharsis.
The emotional rawness offered by Gang of Youths takes a toll though. “I don't know how long I can keep dragging my friends around my moods.” They don’t seem to mind the caper, though clearly the emotional burden of the band is shared. David reckons the band has about ten years left together. “I want babies. I want a dog”, he says. Before then though, David wants at three more albums. “I’ve always said five records.” Counting The Positions and its follow up EP, Let Me Be Clear, Gang of Youths is at two.
Already, “just by virtue of what I do, I have left some kind of indelible mark on something”, says David. It’s not a boast; instead David – who also describes himself as an “indulged cockroach” – is giving thanks for the opportunities he’s had.
Certainly, the band has left its mark on BN. At some point in late 2014, David and Joji came into a Bailey Nelson boutique to get some specs. We didn’t have change, so they swapped a fifty for fives. The whole time they were in store, they described themselves only as “roadies” and never mentioned the band. Nick, then one of our casual optical stylists who was working that day, only realised they had a band when they appeared on Like a Version on Triple J.
Do they feel like musicians now?
“Yeah, but I'm a road dog first. Most musicians are like "yeah, I'm in a band". I'm like, ‘I travel with a band’... I don't tell people what I do. There's a connotation about saying you're in a band that means either it's a shitty little pub band or 'oh wow, I should be friends with these people'.”
“The most important thing you can do in your life is be outrageously sweet and kind to someone who has got to work a nine to five who doesn't want to have to put up with your sh*t. You can make someone's day by day just by being funny and cool.”
In 2014, David and Joji made Nick’s day – and, in a different way, the same thing happened to us this year.
Photography: Ben Murphy