Lifelong Brotherhood: an interview with Young Fathers

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Young Fathers

A decade is a long time for anything, a near eternity in the world of music. Most bands stick around for a few years at most, creative relationships giving way to bitterness and bickering as they disband and move along to start new projects. But for the members of Edinburgh’s Young Fathers, playing together has become something of a second nature. They’ve been together for more than 12 years now, never looking back from the sweaty hip-hop club where they met at age 14.

Although the trio’s unusual blend of Liberian, Nigerian and Scottish origins makes for an interesting talking point, there’s something more notable at work here. They’ve been called “leftfield hip-hop,” “psych pop,” and “Afro-Scottish avant gardists,” The critics seem bent on putting a label on this stuff, packing it up into a catchy byline that their readers can easily digest. And yet with Dead, Young Fathers declare that they can be each of those things and none of them all at once. They create a sound that refuses to conform to any single genre, pulling from 80’s pop, reggae, dancehall, rap, soul; the list goes on. They come back from the melting pot with a sound that’s electric and visceral, pulling from a dense pool of influences to create something undeniably unique.

Hailing from North Edinburgh’s Drylah scheme, Graham “G” Hastings is probably the least descript member of Young Fathers as far as the public is concerned. He’s never lived in Africa, but he does create most of the music for the group and keeps a schedule that is unduly busy. Somewhere between the t-shirt screening and video-editing, we linked up for a brief Skype-call to talk about the Dead LP.

Can you tell me a little about the new record you guys are doing?

Dead is the new record. We recorded it between November 2012 to February 2013. We recorded it in Tim’s basement. To me it sounds like nothing that we’ve done before. It sounds like some kind of glorious funeral occasion. Sadness and dread, but uplifting at the same time.

Did you produce the whole thing?

Yeah I make the music.

I wasn’t sure if you did it all yourself or worked with other producers too.

Yeah, I mean Tim London, our manager, he’s our producer as well. He’s like the overseer. I make the music then me and Tim will be in the studio doing the production and stuff. I’ll usually get something going first and then we’ll start writing the three of us together when the guys come in. But Tim is a producer in the classic sense of what a producer is. An overseer kind of thing, not what people class as a producer now, which is someone who makes music.

What’s the writing process usually like for you guys?

The writing process is different every time. We always keep it open so we can really come up with anything. We write for each other, we write for ourselves. Usually we’ll have a bunch of lines and stuff prepared, we’re always writing. If there’s a bit of music made beforehand, the guys will come in and the three of us will sit and I’ll press record and just keep the beat on a loop and sometimes we’ll come up with stuff that way. Or sometimes another person will come in with a line and we’ll build the music around it. There’s no definite process for writing, but the three of us all do equal parts and write for each other and tell each other what’s good and what’s not.

And you’ve been playing music together now for more than decade?

We’ve been together since we were 14, so it’s almost 12 years now.

That must make for a pretty intimate relationship as far as writing goes.

Yeah. We’ve always been close and able to be blunt with each other about stuff and not take it personally because it’s for the group. We’ve grown up together. We’re brothers in a sense, we’re family, so yeah we’re close.

How did you the three of you meet and start playing together?

We met when we were 14 in a sweaty hip-hop club. We met when we were dancing. It was one of the first times I’d ever danced, ever, in public. I remember the music was so loud and we shook hands and never really spoke until after. I was introduced to the guys and I couldn’t believe, coming from where I come from, I couldn’t believe how much they were expressing themselves in a public place just dancing. For me I just started dancing, and I was acting like “Yeah, this is what I usually do,” but that was actually the first time I’d ever danced in front of people that wasn’t in my bedroom. It wasn’t until after the night ended that we started speaking to each other and I told them that I’d been making beats basically secretly in my bedroom. My mom and dad never even knew that I was doing that. I just asked them to come round and we just started recorded from there.

What kinds of shows were you playing back then?

When we were younger, we couldn’t play clubs and stuff so we’d still be playing the under 18 teenagers, in front of people our age when we were young. I had a hi-fi that had a minidisc recorder and we’d just basically prepare freely made pop songs kind of, three and a half minute songs. We’d go to 8-Mile style rap battles and we’d come up prepared. So most people would just be rapping an instrumental for 84 bars or whatever, but when we went up we wanted to do actual songs with arrangements, and choruses, and bridges and hooks and stuff like that. So that was always there. That was a good thing I think, for us. We certainly annoyed a lot of people but it never bothered us because we knew what we wanted to do. We weren’t bothered about being seen as hard or coming with the same kind of rap that everybody else was doing.

Did they eventually grow to accept you guys for what you did?

No, we were never accepted. We were never really accepted by any scene but we’ve never really wanted to be a part of one either. We’ve never looked for it. We’ve always done our things, taken what we want from it and leave. There’s no reason for us to stick around. And that’s fame for us. We’re not looking to be acknowledged or accepted because we accept each other and that’s enough.

I’ve read that when you got started you did a lot from a DIY aspect. Releasing your own tapes, videos, printing shirts etc. Has that changed as you’ve grown as musicians?

No, it’s still the same for us. We still do a lot ourselves. I just finished the edit on the video that we shot ourselves and I’m doing the website and we all do the artwork, so we’re always busy with it. It means a lot more work than a lot of people probably do as artists they probably just do the music and then hand it to the label. It’s good because we have complete control over that and then you rely on the record labels just to do what a record label is supposed to do which is distribute the record. We do have a lot of control over everything that we’re doing and we like to do it as well, we enjoy it. It’s not just music.

So it really is a full-time thing for you guys, to keep up with all that.

I mean yeah, I’ve been waking up everyday and this is what I do for a few years now. We’re all invested in it and even if we don’t have anything out we’ll be in the basement doing something whether it’s making videos or actually screen-printing t-shirts or getting designs done. Everything is done in house. In time with t-shirts and stuff you could maybe get other people to do it, but just now it’s actually quite good for us. We can do anything now. We got to a stage when we were growing up that we realized we needed to do everything ourselves if we wanted to be happy with it, and plus you have no one else to blame if anything fucks up. Then at least you tried. It’s on you and you can’t blame anybody else.

Is that something that you guys see yourselves doing for the foreseeable future, looking at the band on a more long-term scale?

Definitely. It’s been something that we’ve been seeing for the foreseeable future since we were 14. We’ve always taken it very serious. We’re no slackers; we’re not here just for the fun. This is what we want to do; this is what we’ve always wanted to do. We want to take it as far as possible.

I guess most teens end up on a career path…

Yeah it’s the opposite. I never felt like I had a career path until I started making music. And since then it’s just been one road for me. Just straight down this is what I’ve always wanted to do and what we’ve always wanted to do as a group.

What kind of music were you guys listening to as teenagers as you were starting to get into making your own?

When we met I think it must have been Ja Rule and Ashanti was like the number one record at the time. It was that period when rap and R&B exploded when we first met. Before that, we were all listening to different music like we all listen to different music now. Because we grew up in the hip hop clubs we grew up with underground hip-hop, commercial hip-hop, dancehall, that was the stuff that you went out to dance to. But we all grew up listening to pop music as well, I mean shiny pop, boy-band pop, old pop music and soul music and reggae music and African music. We all grew up listening to different things and it just came together.

I guess that left you with a pretty broad pool of influences to draw from.

I think we’re quite good at being a sponge and soaking up stuff. But when we get in the studio it’s never like let’s recreate that record or let's sample that and rip it off or that kind of thing. It’s soaked up but when it comes out it's not direct. You manage to basically take in a bunch of information but not just recreate it again. It’s never something that’s really been spoken of between us; it just seemed to happen. I think that’s why we bonded so well as well. We would never try to imitate anybody but ourselves.

There’s so much press that tries to define and categorize your music into different genres. How do you see the music you make? And why do you think people feel it’s so important to typify it in that way?

I’m not sure. I understand like… but I kind of don’t. If you pack up something in a box like a can of sardines it makes sense to people, it’s just never been part of our creative process. I mean people can call us whatever they want. If they want to call us some kind of left-field hip-hop thing, fine.

But we’ve never seen ourselves as that and we never will. We’re a bit more ambitious than that, with the sounds and the way we want to project as well. I think we wouldn’t have stuck together so long if we weren’t able to do it. It was always a natural thing that happened between us, you never just copied, you never just emulated. You’re always pushing to sometimes be uncomfortable with what you’re doing or have that feeling of something that’s completely original. But it was never spoken of until we started doing interviews and stuff, and we never thought of it. It’s just always been something that we’ve naturally been able to do, the three of us. And it’s why I don’t think anybody sounds like us. And it’s why I don’t think anybody could even if they tried because you’d have to get exact three people that would be clones of us, for us to meet by coincidence in this town in this northern part of Europe. The odds are too big, you can’t put that together.

You have a pretty unique collection of backgrounds with Alloysious having lived in Liberia and Kayus being from Nigeria and that seems to be the other talking point that everyone really tries to pursue with you guys. Do you think that everyone’s ethnic backgrounds figures into the music as much as the critics make it seem?

It’s something that I never think of, it’s never been anything to do with that. I think it gives people something to talk about. And I do think the odds of the three of us coming together from everybody’s path to meet are pretty minimal, that’s why I think it’s pretty special. But it’s never anything that we talk about or raised to each other. We’re just brothers really.

Are you guys going to be back this year for SxSW?

Yeah, we’ll be back. We’re going to be at SxSW and hopefully we’ll be staying on a bit longer. I mean we just got our working visas, so we should be looking at more dates after SxSW.

What does the future look like for you guys?

I think America is calling for us so I’d like to experience that. I think we all have the ambition to push as much as we can. We’ve always wanted to just push it, push it and just keep pushing people as well. We’re just ambitious with what we want to do. We want as many ears and eyes as possible, really.

Young Father's Dead LP is out now on Anticon.