“He’s fucking sexy, man. Honestly, I think I’m turning for him,” Sam Fender tells NME about his close pal, Gang Of Youths frontman David Le’aupepe. “Have you seen him move? The way he dances and his hips gyrate. It’s insanity. He’s a mammoth giant of a man, yet he moves like a dancer.”
Fender’s speaking having just come off the road from his sold-out UK arena tour with Gang Of Youths in tow as his support act. Much like Fender, the tens of thousands of fans that the band were introduced to every night were equally seduced. “There would have been a lot of people at these shows that never heard them, and they really won them over.”
To many Australians, the idea of their own Gang Of Youths playing second fiddle to anyone might seem absurd. Down Under, they’re a stadium-filling, chart-topping, multi-ARIA-winning indie rock behemoth. They’re a late night show-bothering big deal in the States, too. But in the UK, despite their ability to play iconic theatres like Brixton Academy and have recent singles ‘The Angel Of 8th Avenue’ and ‘In The Wake Of Your Leave’ blow up on radio playlists, they couldn’t be further from a household name.
That’s exactly why Gangs chose old Blighty as their new base, and why they’ve called London home for the last five years. NME heads to a restaurant in Soho to meet the band and talk their grand and joyful third album ‘Angel In Realtime’. Bassist Max Dunn is waiting patiently, apologising that Le’aupepe is going to be a little late. The frontman was up until the wee hours having his dance moves truly tested while filming the spectacular, Broadway-worthy new video for ‘In The Wake Of Your Leave’. In his exhaustion, he then headed to a different branch of said restaurant across town.
While we wait, we compare our hometowns and the band’s ability to enjoy relative anonymity here in London – not that being recognised was ever an issue for ‘Maxie’. “I’m the bass player bro, so all that was non-existent unless I was with one of the band!” he laughs, with an unshakable modesty. “I’m just like generic ‘Max from accounts’ if you see me on my own. I’m as different to Dave as Dave is to The Rock, in terms of what he had to deal with. A lot of my job is to be a support for Dave.”
“I resent the artifice of fame; success gives me anxiety” – Dave Le’aupepe
You see that as soon as Dave arrives, Dunn a calming counterpoint to Le’aupepe’s boisterous and infectious energy. The singer’s machine-gun mouth lets off a loud round of apologies for tardiness – with few curse words thrown in – before their double act begins and talk turns to the previous night’s choreography masterclass.
“I was totally out of place among all of these fantastic dancers,” chuckles Le’aupepe. “It must be so fucking heartbreaking for them to see this total fucking dilettante tap-dance his way in with absolutely no consideration or knowledge for the art form!”
Dunn coyly replies: “I feel like you should do some acting one day. You should find a role that’s like a villain!”
While the frontman admits he’s “suspicious of his own dancing credibility”, his reputation as a fluid-limbed lounge lizard precedes him, playing no small part in Gang Of Youths’ reputation as a truly electrifying live band. Without prompting, he unreels the story of the first time he unleashed his moves on stage.
“It was my 23rd birthday – February 27 at Secret Garden Festival 2015,” he recalls. “That was the first time we played ‘Magnolia’. An unnamed band were absolute trolls that night. I’d been through all this weird, bad stuff and I was asking myself if I was going to let my insecurity with my size, my body and movement dictate the way I communicate this shit for the rest of my life.
“I went for it. I never thought about it. I didn’t have a philosophical choice because I’d exhausted everybody in my life’s patience with me. I didn’t want to exhaust my patience with myself because I’m the last bastion.”
That on-stage exorcism comes as no surprise when you consider all that led up to it. The band’s 2015 debut album ‘The Positions’ traded in heartbreaking tales of the then-21-year-old Le’aupepe’s marriage to and divorce from his first wife, her battle and recovery from cancer, and his trials with addiction. The bittersweetly euphoric single ‘Magnolia’ is named after the tree that police sat Le’aupepe under when preventing him from taking his own life.
The 2017 follow-up album ‘Go Farther In Lightness’ – chocka with sturdy and earnest National-meets-Springsteen indie rock nuggets – went in at Number One in Australia and bagged them four ARIA Awards. With the fame came all those pitfalls you read about and a questioning of purpose. In six years they’d been through more than most bands would in a lifetime, and something had to change. Le’aupepe went to New York, met his current wife, and within four days he’d asked her to move to London.
“I resent the artifice of fame; success gives me anxiety,” he admits. “I left the two places where we were the most successful, Sydney and the United States, to live in a place where no one gives a fuck about us – by design. On the other hand, I’m a sassy pants on stage, I say a lot of insane shit in interviews, I’m constantly poised in videos to be the immediate centre of attention so my face is everywhere. There’s obviously a contradiction there, and I’m not really sure how to work that one out…”
Hiding from fame aside, native Kiwi Dunn (now married with a British son) notes more pragmatic reasons to be in the UK. “It didn’t make sense to be in Australia,” he says. “At least here we can get in a shitty splitter van, get in the Euro Tunnel and be able to play a gig in Paris or Amsterdam without breaking the bank. It’s that simple. You can only play Australia twice a year, so why be there?
“For me, it’s not an indictment of Australia, New Zealand or where we come from – it’s just that when you do something like music and grow up like we did, you want to play Radio City Hall in New York or play in Manchester where all your favourite bands are from. It’s like being a kid playing football in Sydney – it’s cool to play in Australia but you dream of playing the Premier League. It’s not better, but it’s about having ambition. I had that ambition to take Gang Of Youths as far as it could go, wherever that is.”
“It’s like being a kid playing football in Sydney – it’s cool to play in Australia but you dream of playing the Premier League. It’s not better, but it’s about having ambition” – Max Dunn
For Le’aupepe, that distance was as far as he could get from the Gang Of Youths of old and everything you might expect from them. “‘Go Farther In Lightness’ existed in this weird emotional plane for me and I have a very difficult and tempestuous relationship with it because it has all that bogus, rock-y shit on it that I have always resented and still resent to this day,” he says – before diplomatically admitting a “sense of pride” for how the album “doesn’t lean into a particular trend” and how it contains “a lot of emotional stuff and some good playing” as well as “some terrible garbage”.
He continues: “I don’t like the first album at all – but the caveat is that ‘Magnolia’ is good, ‘Kansas’ is good, and so is ‘Sjamboksa’. I just didn’t want to keep making the same fucking bullshit. With the past two records, I felt a pressure to maintain something that I wasn’t even that into at the time.”
He likens the experience of listening to his old albums to the Ludovico Technique from A Clockwork Orange – one that leaves him feeling paralysed and “physically ill”. “It triggers more than a gag reflex!” laughs the singer. “I just remember the idiot I was and the silly decisions I made in my personal life and my career. I spent 10 years sabotaging the band’s success.”
Then it’s a good job that Le’aupepe is no stranger to self-discovery and starting over. That’s largely what drives ‘Angel In Realtime’: In London with keyboardist and guitarist Jung Kim and drummer Donnie Borzestowski, the band managed to pull off that rare feat of going through a reset while somehow presenting the truest version of themselves.
Guitarist Joji Malani left the UK and the band in 2019, before Tom Hobden (formerly of British indie-folkers Noah & The Whale) joined on keys, guitar and violin. Their current location admittedly allowed them to lean in more to their Anglophile influences (they cite Elbow, The Clash, ’90s British dance and electronica), but this album is one that skips through continents, cultures and generations.
The title ‘Angel In Realtime’ has a layered meaning. Firstly, it was the London area of Angel where the band – wives and all – first shared a flat when they relocated, built a home studio and bonded as they wrote their next chapter together. That same romance and sense of place runs through the triumphant single ‘Angel Of 8th Ave’ as Le’aupepe pays tribute to his wife sticking by him from their meeting in Washington Square through to “the Islington morn” over in “this strange new town, this strange hemisphere”.
But most profoundly, Le’aupepe experienced his father as “an angel in realtime” when he lost his battle to cancer in 2018.
“My dad died, and that was big. We went through so many shifts and changes and I wanted to exhibit those in the music. There was a weird sense of falling back in love with everything I do and reaffirming how much I love the people and the band and embracing myself.”
Teleso “Tattersall” Le’aupepe (or “Tatts”, who “loved the rest of the band like they were his sons,” says Dave) was a larger than life figure. While close to his son, he wasn’t all that he seemed. After his death, Dave uncovered that his dad was not born in New Zealand in 1948 as he had been told, but in Samoa 10 years earlier, where he lived until he was 26. The frontman then discovered he had two older half-brothers living in New Zealand, who he soon tracked down and formed a close bond with. “I asked him before he died if I could go and look for his family,” Dave says, without a trace of any hard feelings. “He was a fucking cheeky little bastard for lying to me the whole time, but I think he’d be stoked!”
“When my dad died I was yearning and longing for something that linked me to a part of him that I didn’t know” – Dave Le’aupepe
The whole experience is quite explicitly laid out in the tender, piano-led track ‘Brothers’, where Dave sings of how “our father had a lot of painful memories, a bunch of shit he never shared – but when he died I went out looking for them, for all the things he never said”. He mulls over the discovery that Tatts was in fact fully Samoan, recounting how his dad’s “love was unmistakable, he gave us everything he had, I guess that meant pretending he was half-white – to give his kids a better chance”.
Dave admits that “all of the songs relate to my father in some way”, even the whimsical ‘Returner’ which he describes as the sound of comic opera “H.M.S. Pinafore on an acid trip”. It harkens back to the period just after his dad’s death where he played 21 shows in one month and ended up miserable, mourning, sick as a dog, and questioning the role of art in capitalism (on the song, Le’aupepe barks: “I’m only in it for the money!”).
“It’s a song that I would have been so uncomfortable with years ago, but it expresses who I was to my father,” Le’aupepe says. “It was me trying to find equilibrium in cash when being in a band – the thing that everyone wants to do – wasn’t enough.”
Similarly on the skittering, cinematic ‘Goal Of The Century’, the frontman just needs to “take it day by day” to do what he does best. When it’s mentioned at the table, Dunn turns to him: “On that song you’re literally talking yourself through how to be a frontman. It’s like you’re doing CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] on yourself. You’re saying, ‘You know what, fuck it, I’m going to do my job – but I miss my dad and I love my wife’. It’s so you. That song is the answer to ‘Who was Dave when ‘Angel In Realtime’ was made?’”
The psychedelic ‘Tend The Garden’ retells his father’s journey as an immigrant, Le’aupepe singing from his point of view: “I hope that one day if they find my sons, they’ll tell ’em everything that I’ve become”. The track is followed by ‘The Kingdom Is Within You’, a tribute to the lives and legacy of “thousands and thousands” of Pasifika migrants who were trying to make their way in the world but were “fucked over, exploited and treated very badly” by their conquering masters, as Le’aupepe explains. “Pasifika people are individually separate. We have our own cultures, our own traditions, our own languages, but we are unified in identity.”
Lyrical themes aside, the album is a sonic tapestry of sounds and voices of Pacific Islanders, many recorded fresh by the band and others decades ago by the composer David Fanshawe. “Hearing all of these sounds and music really changed my cultural identity,” says Le’aupepe. “Not in a costume-y way, either. When my dad died I was yearning and longing for something that linked me to a part of him that I didn’t know. Finding my brothers and all this music and heritage was one of the most profound fucking discoveries of my life.”
He goes on: “Wanting to integrate that into the album gave me a little bit more of him. It’s about preserving the sense of Indigeneity and my father through this music. My dad never spoke much about being Pasifika or being Samoan, but he was a firm believer that if you’re Indigenous then we’re one people. There were many different tribes, identities, languages and moving cogs but we are us. That unity was important to him.”
Now as Le’aupepe approaches his 30th birthday, he feels that his unbreakable bond with his brothers has “solidified his place among his people”. “Every single artist should be able to tell their story, the story of their culture and their history,” he asserts with a fixed stare. “I never felt like I was comfortable enough to do that, and now I finally fucking can. No c**t can take that away from me now.”
“My relationship with Australia is strengthened because I take Australia with me” – Dave Le’aupepe
All in all, the love, wisdom, community and self-confidence that he’s found over the last five years have provided him with “courage and momentum, stripping away all the noxious nonsense that you develop early-on in life”. Dave Le’aupepe and Gang Of Youths finally feel at home in themselves, regardless of geography.
“Jung’s from Chicago, I’m a Kiwi, Tom’s very British, Donnie’s a surfer from Newcastle and Dave’s an inner-city Sydney kid and Samoan,” smiles Dunn, highlighting their thoroughly international DNA, “but our grounding in Australia allows us to do what we do. We wouldn’t be able to make music without the Aussies and we hope that they feel that from us.”
Dave agrees: “My relationship with Australia is strengthened because I take Australia with me. I don’t believe in nations or states. I fucking resent that, but the Australian iconography, the accent, the humour, the culture, the people, both Indigenous and migrant, they all live with me in a way.”
And Le’aupepe’s father lives on through this record, as do generations of his ancestors and forebears, brought back together to sing again. People come and go, but nothing really ends if someone remembers you. The dance goes on.
Gang Of Youths release ‘Angel In Realtime’ on February 25 via Mosy Recordings/Sony Music in AU/NZ and Warner in the rest of the world. Tickets to the band’s world tour – UK, EU, AU/NZ and North America – are on sale now