An irresistible carnal energy courses through the music video for Young Fathers’ single ‘I Saw’. A wild visual explosion of flailing bodies and roaring flames, its climax depicts a circle of dancers who are transfixed by a raging fire pit; the track’s feverish choral chanting adding to this deep sense of the primal and a connection with a kind of ancient tribalism.
That feeling is present throughout ‘Heavy Heavy’, the fourth LP from the Edinburgh trio which continues to stretch the hazy boundaries of modern pop music. “Being in an environment where everyone is singing along and present… it’s infectious,” says Kayus Bankole, pondering the importance of capturing that “communality” in their music.
Ever since Bankole and childhood friends Alloysious Massaquoi and G. Hastings formed Young Fathers in 2008, they’ve strived to foster a spontaneous creative approach that mirrors the expressive, communal feel of their live shows. Their unique sound has been on the receiving end of seemingly endless praise: their first two mixtapes, ‘Tape One’ and ‘Tape Two’, gained widespread acclaim and laid the foundations for their debut album ‘Dead’ to win the 2014 Mercury Prize.
Their provocatively-titled 2015 follow-up ‘White Men Are Black Men Too’ further developed Young Fathers’ complex blend of murky and sometimes discordant electronic ideas, afrobeats rhythms, soulful group chanting and rap. 2018’s ‘Cocoa Sugar’, however, featured a more linear, stripped-back sound as the group implemented “a strictness and a certain kind of goal” during the recording process. But when it came to ‘Heavy Heavy’, there was no such intention.
“There’s a space and time where you allow yourself to expel whatever the fuck is happening, whatever you’ve soaked up and absorbed in the space since the last [album],” Hastings explains. “We need to record quickly and that spontaneity needs to be captured. It’s the act of doing that’s the most important thing.” That process of expelling energy has helped create an album that, according to Massaquoi, is “steeped in humanity”, immersing the listener in a cacophony of energetic percussion, synth noise and a majestic use of the human voice as instrumentation. The sense of density that’s created by this mix is what gives ‘Heavy Heavy’ its name — the record is an experience, and one to be savoured.
NME meets Young Fathers on an icy day in south London at their record label’s HQ, but the band seem warm and energised as they excitedly discuss an album they’re clearly very proud of. “Making music, I just wanna feel, that’s it,” Bankole notes. “I don’t want to painstake and dissect exactly what it means. I wanna feel, experience and then move on.”
This idea shines through throughout ‘Heavy Heavy’, a richly-textured 10-track collection that blends haunting yet lyrically simplistic group vocals with jangling folk instrumentation, vibrant live drumming and pensive moments of spoken word. The record is the product of a lengthy creative process with conflict at its core: whittled down from an initial 40 tracks using a method that involved creating playlists of songs that best suited certain moods, the final result was only achieved after some brutal edits and constant clashes of opinion.
“Everything’s a battle or a conversation in some way with us,” says Hastings. “With certain songs we all thought, ‘We can’t take this off the record because it’s a great song’. But [then] that song changes the album.”
Massaquoi chips in: “You need to get away from that and be like, ‘Does that work?’ There was a version of ‘Tell Somebody’ that was more modern, more forward-thinking, and I preferred that… but when we started listening to the record, it was like there was another feeling that was missing. [Hastings] presented a new version and I didn’t like it — in my head, it just wasn’t right. But when we sorted out the playlist, it was like, ‘Alright, this one just works better for the greater good of the album’. You have to put egos aside because we all genuinely want the best record. We care about the record, we care about the visuals, we care about everything we’re involved in.”
This care for their craft also involved the realisation that they had to take some time away from each other. The ‘Cocoa Sugar’ touring schedule was preceded by a relentless cycle of live shows and recording sessions that left the group feeling like a serious break was needed. “We were knackered after being on tour and [then going] straight into recording for 10 years,” Hastings recalls. “We never really understood the concept of time off. You need to recognise when you’re doing something that you love and that you’re obsessed with, you’ve got this need to do it — but you need to draw a line in the sand sometimes.”
That period of time off helped more than just the music. For Massaquoi, stepping back and taking in the mundanities of daily life was a powerful experience. “You start having more meaningful relationships. You have to work on them with family and friends, and that propels the record because you start to appreciate that you can create something that’s special and that transcends the mundane, and lives in its whole new world,” he says. “Living the mundane life, there’s a lot of beauty and power in that: you realise how hard it is. We’ve always realised that because we’re working-class guys, and if we didn’t do music we’d have to get a job. But doubling down on that gave everything that we do with this record a bit more meaning.”
Another factor to consider was the risk of burn-out, which, as Hastings is quick to suggest, is a double-edged sword. “I think we burnt out a few times,” he tells NME. “The more dangerous side of it for us is that you can have a great show or make a great record when you’re completely fucked, tired, burnt out [and] exhausted. Sometimes, your best show would be when you really didn’t wanna be there. That’s a thing that you have to be mindful of.”
Bankole, who found the adjustment back to daily life difficult at first, wonders what kind of record Young Fathers would’ve made had they not taken a break, but, as Hastings points out: “You have to be alive to make it!”
There’s a lyric in ‘Geronimo’, ‘Heavy Heavy’’s powerful and expansive first single, that perhaps reflects the most significant outcome of the trio’s lengthy break: a newfound sense of responsibility. Over an enticing mix of melodic and rhythmic ideas that build slowly to create a glorious wall of sound, the lyric “Being a son, brother, uncle, father figure / I’ve gotta survive and provide” stands out as being particularly revealing. Hastings recently became a father, but in addition to his newfound parental and familial responsibilities, the group’s shared interest in “surviving and providing” is also about creative authenticity, sticking to your guns and being proud of what you create as a result.
“I remember sweating about having a child and how I would bring them up as an artist, because all I knew were parents who were working-class,” Hastings explains. “My dad worked all day, every day to put food on the table. I had no framework. We work in a realm that the people we were brought up by and grew up with don’t understand. But when it happened, it all just clicked into place.”
Massaquoi adds: “It could be seen as a toxic masculinity thing, when you’re talking about surviving and providing. But we have the conversation, you hear the depth, the struggles, the nuances… it’s very real, having a sense of responsibility. When you put that into a song and say that there’s nuance and layers, and you achieve that, it’s so fucking liberating.”
The progress made by the Edinburgh band is largely down to the tight bond that exists between them. In the hour or so that NME spends with Young Fathers, the love, respect and trust between Massaquoi, Bankole and Hastings — which was kicked off by early performances at hip-hop clubs across Edinburgh and then nurtured over 20 years of friendship and musical collaboration — is visible to see.
“There’s a huge level of trust that we have to have for each other,” Bankole says in agreement. “I have huge trust issues: outside of these two guys, I don’t trust anyone to give me genuine feedback. I don’t trust people’s opinions about anything when it comes to art, but [Massaquoi and Hastings] understand what it means to be an artist. Coming together and making decisions this time around has been a real eye-opener of how much trust I have in Ally and G.”
Hastings adds: “20 years with us, and the weird route we’ve taken to get to where we are — [not to mention] the people along the way that helped or didn’t, or hurt us — you can’t make that up. And also the thing of being able to say [to each other], ‘Nah, that’s shit’. I don’t trust people who tell me something is good, I trust someone who tells me it’s bad. Immediately, if someone is that honest to you and can give you critical feedback of why, I feel much safer in that.”
“Ignore the noise” certainly seems to be the group’s mantra: Massaquoi insists that “most of the time, I don’t need anybody to tell me what’s good because I know what’s good”. It’s easy to see why external validation is of little interest to Young Fathers when you look at the amount of mainstream attention they’ve already received. They may embrace their widespread tag of being a “weird” band, but even though it doesn’t influence their output, Young Fathers’ lack of radio play or major industry backing has sometimes caused frustration. As Hastings puts it: “When you really narrow it down: we’ve written a song, it’s three minutes long, it’s got a chorus, it’s got a hook, it’s got singy bits, we’ve made it a single — what is the thing that leaves us out of Radio 1 or 1Xtra?”
This is a band, however, that understands the importance of creating music that genuinely represents them. With ‘Heavy Heavy’ and its focus on contrast — with clever shifts between moments of quiet, reflective ambience and sections of intense, densely-layered sound, often on the same track — Young Fathers have created their most accomplished work yet. At the core of it all lies a belief in what they’re doing, and a determination to convince others of its value.
“As a band, we come to it like being an away crowd,” Hastings explains, using a football analogy, of the band’s approach to their live shows. “We’re in front of people that we want to win over. We attack it like, ‘Yous are there for the taking, we need to win you’.” For those that haven’t yet been won over by Young Fathers, ‘Heavy Heavy’ could be the tipping point.
Young Fathers’ ‘Heavy Heavy’ is out now