Interview: Gang of Youths

Words by Bob Thornton

Originally from Sydney, Nashville based five-piece Gang Of Youths have been home in the last few weeks. With a few dates supporting Foster The People and a handful of their own shows as well, they’ve been able to back up the new video to their larger-than-life alt-rock anthem Poison Drum. I spoke to frontman, Dave Leaupepe, a self-confessed “anal control freak” who has delayed the highly anticipated debut record for the band in the hope of getting it just right with the help of music industry heavyweight Kevin McMahon. I must have woken him up at the ungodly hour of 11:30am on a Tuesday, and we discussed everything from albums, long songs and reach-arounds to getting arrested, Bruce Springsteen and getting rowdy.

Dave, you’re currently on tour here in Australia with a few dates supporting Foster The People. It’s not so long since the last set of Australian dates, is it good to be back?

Good and bad. Bad because it cost a lot to live here, I forgot. Good because my family and my wife’s family are here. And it’s fucking Australia! It’s nice to be home with people who swear a lot and drink shitloads of beer. But yeah, I guess it’s good to be back.

You guys have an album due to drop later this year?

I think it’s coming out next year around February. It got put back a bit because we’re still trying to get it just right. I’m manic and a control freak, so it has to be perfect or I cut my thumbs off and shit.

What went into the making of this album?

Blood, sweat, cum, tears… a lot of shit went into it. It’s virtually a concept album about some shit that’s gone on in my wife’s life and also my life, so to say it’s deeply personal is kind of an understatement. I’ve literally poured my whole life and marriage into it; all the boys have sort of fallen in. It’s basically 3 years accumulated into 12 tracks.

You worked with Kevin McMahon for this album?

Yeah, yeah, good old Macca.

What was it like working with him?

He’s freaky and brilliant. We became very close over the period that we’ve known each other. It’s intimidating working with a guy who’s worked on some of the most complex and influential records of the past little while. It was a bit of a novelty at the beginning, but then we started spending a lot of time sitting and talking shit and just becoming really good friends. He pretty manic and nuts as well, like he has this really funny OCD and things about his studio, which are really endearing and actually work to our advantage. Studios are usually pretty messy, but this one’s a bit tidier, it’s basically a big barn in the middle of upstate New York.

You guys have recently put out a video to that amazing song Poison Drum, how was that experience and is there a story behind the video?

Dude, I’m so glad you said it was amazing, because I can’t listen to that song without having a mini throw up!

I had it playing on a loop for a few weeks.

You’re like the sweetest guy, ever, do you know that? If I could reach over and give you a reacharound right now, I think I would.

I’d accept it.

Nah, thanks, man. We have these friends in Los Angeles that make movies and short films, and they said “Hey, you know it’d be really cool if we fucking towed you around and pretended you were hovering through Los Angeles”, that was the general gist. I wanted to do things that were more synonymous with the actual Los Angeles experience, not the bullshit touristy one, because it’s a really amazing city with wonderful culture. So we were sucking down noodles and being pulled along through this really expansive and great metropolitan area, there wasn’t really much concept to it.

What were you guys standing on during the filming of the clip?

I really wish we were standing on skateboards, but I don’t have the equilibrium for skating anymore. We were actually standing on big pulleys. We did everything pretty illegally, because the thing with filming in Los Angeles is you got to have permits from the LA County. We only got arrested four or five times.

And that’s a good result, is it?

Oh, mate! It’s guerrilla as fuck, I felt like I was going to get deported every minute.

Poison Drum quite a lengthy, to the point where they’ve shortened the radio version to four and a half minutes. A lot of your other stuff is quite long as well. I mean I love it, but why so long?

Because I’m self-indulgent, I have an obsessive vision that’s constantly dynamic and changing. I have these big aspirations that come into conflict with my need to produce pleasing music. It’s all very personal stuff and I guess I’ve taken as many artistic liberties as I like. They’re all pretty long; I just like long, conceptual, broad strokes. All my favourite records are big long concept records with 6-7 minute tracks.

Another song, Riverlands, is comparatively short at 2 minutes and 20 seconds; can you take us through that song and why it’s much shorter?

I sat down at my piano a couple of years ago and I recorded some music on a Dictaphone. The song was actually written on the spot, like a stream of consciousness and it kind of came out that way. I put it on the Internet, but there were no real posturing ambitions behind that song. I don’t really know why it is comparatively short; it’s just how t turned out.

Okay, so do you usually write the material for Gang Of Youths yourself or is it a collaborative effort?

It is profoundly autonomous and autocratic. I’m way too much of a fucking anal control freak to allow anybody to collaborate. I guess there’s one song that was kind of a collaboration, where Joji our guitar player came up with the melody, but that’s about it. I’m not the easiest person in the world to collaborate with; I just don’t have those instincts quite yet.

You guys get a lot of Bruce Springsteen comparisons, but how much of an influence is Springsteen in terms of the actual sound?

Well, I pray to him every night, so I guess he does influence it to some degree. I guess a lot of the comparisons come from the vocals; Brian Fallon from the Gaslight Anthem gets Springsteen comparisons as well. Typically I sing in a lower register, maybe a bit Nick Cave or Tom Waits, that’s what the record sounds like, I guess. The Springsteen sounds? I don’t really know exactly where they come from. But if we sound Springsteen, that’s good! He’s a good influence to have.

You guys are from Sydney but are now based in Nashville, Tennessee. Is it hard trying to build a local fan base when there is so much other music to compete with?

My wife and I are actually planning to move back to Sydney, but we did spend a lot of time in Nashville, but whenever I was there I was really just hanging around at home. We actually spent more time in New York than we did in Nashville and building a fan base in New York was fairly straightforward. Nashville is kind of a hard place to do anything, because as you said it is very oversaturated in musicians and there are very few alternative acts that I can think of off the top of my head.

Finally, the question I’ve really wanted to know the answer to: Who gets more rowdy at your shows, Aussies or Yanks? And be honest.

Oh, Jesus… I guess it depends where you are. In the cities in both countries people don’t seem to give a shit. In the big cities they’ve picked up this culture where it’s not appropriate to get rowdy.
So do you think people in the city are fed a steady diet of high concept shit?

I’m not so sure it’s high-concept, I think there’s just more adversary. But we played this show in Buffalo, New York, which is a quiet, slightly run-down town, like an industrial mecca that’s suffered a lot. The people there was absolutely bananas, it was one of the most memorable shows I’ve ever played. It was the same in Toowoomba, Queensland, where we played just last week. I think that was one of the best experiences I’ve had playing live. We find people in towns and smaller cities to be more enthusiastic. I’m going to say Australians get more rowdy.