Young Fathers are a force to be reckoned with. Matching danceable hooks with thoughtful messages, the Edinburgh trio are trying to start meaningful conversations through their music. After the critically acclaimed Dead won them the Mercury Prize in 2014, Young Fathers are back with their second album, White Men Are Black Men Too. The stunning album draws influences from a variety of sources, including everything from last year’s Ferguson protests, to Mexican soul radio stations. Currently on tour throughout the United States and Canada, Young Fathers are a band that you can’t afford to miss live. Last week, we spoke to Young Fathers’ electronics-master G Hastings for a wide ranging and passionate conversation.
Northern Transmissions: Hi there, where am I reaching you today?
G Hastings: Right now I’m in Portland Oregon. We’ve been all over America, Canada’s next on the list. We’re going to Vancouver and Victoria in a few days.
NT: What was the biggest difference in your approach to recording White Men Are Black Men Too, your second, compared to your first critically acclaimed and Mercury Prize winning album Dead?
GH: The biggest change was being concise. This time we really tried simplifying and not over explaining our thoughts. Our idea was to be on stride all the way through, and I think we did so successfully.
NT: Another difference is that this time Young Fathers decided to record in Berlin. Why did you decide on Berlin, and did it influence the album in any way?
GH: We really wanted to get away from the basement where we usually record and all the outside noise in the UK. Berlin was the place that we chose, but we never got to see the city that much. In Berlin we just went to another basement, so we went from one basement to another. And it was cold in there. A lot of the songs came from all over the place from touring during that year, so Berlin was just the place where we had no distractions and finished it.
NT: You’ve gone all over the world in the last year and played over 140 shows in 2014. Did you have the time to take in your surroundings, or did every city blend into the next?
GH: It’s really hard to get a sense of a city. When you’re there for a few days or a week, the experience you get is dependent on the people you meet. Say you’re in a city and some people are showing you around, they’re only showing you one side, and sometimes you want to see the other side that people don’t show you. For example, we went to South Africa for a week and we went to Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Soweto. It was nice to meet people, but you wish that you could stay a bit longer and try to get a sense of what’s happening.
NT: With all that traveling, were there any new sounds from different places that influenced the album?
GH: A lot came from just listening to the radio in America. Driving through North America, you get so many random radio stations by scanning. You get everything if you just keep pressing the scan button and that was inspiring. We took in everything from Mexican soul, to crazy right-wing religious stations.
NT: Where did the album title White Men Are Black Men Too come from and what does it mean to you?
GH: The title comes from a long discussion we had, and is a lyric from the song “Old Rock N Roll”. We chose it because it has many meanings and it makes people talk. It’s complex, people might not get it straight away and need explanations. We wanted to start a conversation, so it’s served its purpose. It’s a title that leads to a conversation that needs to be had and people can’t really avoid having it anymore. Even if people don’t know our band, if they see that phrase on a poster or in a magazine, that’s good enough because it will make people talk rather than shout at each other.
NT: Especially in racially charged times like today.
GH: Exactly. We got a tweet the other day saying “I bet you wish you never called your album that”. I think they were under the assumption that it’s supposed to be ironic in a way, but it’s not. It’s very serious and there’s nothing funny about this album title. Rather than starting to point your fingers at each other, fingers should be pointed at the people in charge, the people in power, and the people who abuse that power, like the police.
NT: From readings interviews you’ve done, one question that keeps coming up is genre. Why do you think there’s this obsession with trying to pigeon hole your band into a genre?
GH: In interviews people keep trying to classify us and compare us to other bands that we’re not. People like to take things and say it’s either black or white; they like to compartmentalize and categorize things so that it’s easier for them to sort out. We feel like there must be a better way to talk about us. When we’re making music, we never think about genre or what we sound like. For us, our music will always sound the way we want it to sound because we know each other very well, but after we make the album we always have to come up with strategies to try and combat being categorized. In the past, the press has labeled us as some kind of hip-hop group, which we’re not. Then they’ve called us some kind of alternative rock band, like a multi-racial rock band, which we’re not and don’t sound anything like. We’ve been telling people that we’re a pop/rock group and we want the album to be categorized as rock and pop, but even though we say that it’s still being ignored. I think putting bands in boxes is a business model that works. I think if we made straight forward hip-hop music, we’d sell a lot more records. For us, we never think about that, so the most difficult part about being in this band is trying to deal with being labeled by the press and ignored by radio.
NT: Is radio exposure important to you?
GH: When you look at radio stations, people try to place you, and when they can’t they just give up and don’t use you. I don’t even know if people have ears anymore, especially the people who run things. Being categorized is our biggest battle, it’s a battle we always face, but we only face it because we want to be heard. If we never felt we wanted to be heard, then we’d be fine being a strange band and we probably would make a lot of noise. We feel that we must be heard ahead of the stuff that we can’t believe has a place on radio. Our fans have diverse tastes, some like weirder music while others like shiny pop, and it’s a special place because we can bring people together in society. We believe in society and music at the same time.
NT: You’ve already accomplished so much that other bands have never reached with Dead winning the 2014 Mercury Prize. What level of success did you ever aspire to when you were younger, and when will it be uncomfortable, or has it already become uncomfortable?
GH: I wouldn’t say that any of us are uncomfortable yet. You just want to be heard by as many people as possible. We don’t want to be known individually or personally, if we did then it would be a lot harder, but you want people to know the music exists. The band behind it exists because we believe we have something special that not many people have.
NT: I believe that “something special” is your ability to discuss poignant messages in your songs. Why do you think there aren’t more bands brave enough to say something in their music? It seems we’re being fed constant sugar in pop music without any real nutrients.
GH: Well, if you look into it deeply, I’d say it goes back to Thatcher and Reagan starting this bullshit mentality of a business model that values the individual rather than the community. The ones in charge think “the pop music business model works so why change it”? The pop industry makes a lot of money by selling the same thing over and over and over, just like a fucking manufacturer. It’s just the same thing, and it’s not very inspiring. I think that ever since the internet came along, radio and businesses are even more scared of making money because they think that people can go and find their own music without it being fed to them. But I don’t think it’s settled down that much, I still feel that radio and TV have a big influence on people. Big media has a huge influence on people, and it’s just a shame that the people who run these institutions don’t see their duty to society. In this fear of the internet, big media has normalized everybody, and the industry is looking for a model that’s even more safe, so pop music has become more sterile and more conveyor belt. Today, music is the same all the time and no artist is really offensive in any way. Pop artists are not saying anything because the industry has become so desperate to try to make a last bit of money before they disappear.
NT: Do you feel there’s any solution?
GH: This manufactured system is why we feel that they should be playing us on the radio amongst all that crap. Play us and show the contrast to society. Even if people hate us, then that’s alright because at least people will know it’s out there and it exists. The ability to be open to different sounds goes right through from music, to racial issues, to religious issues. As long as people understand each other more and fucking see how people live, then it makes everybody get a long a bit better. It’s not hard, it’s actually easier to live your life understanding other people. I think being a racist must be one of the most tiring things in existence. It must be horrible because you have to constantly separate people. You have to walk down the street and judge people, say “I like him, but I don’t like him” just based on looks. I think it’s a tired horrible way to be living. We try to make that connection. People might hear us and say “that’s fucking shit”, or “this doesn’t mean anything”, but we believe that it does. I think some pop stars now have more power than any politician. If a pop star says something that gets noticed, it has a lot more traction than when it comes from a politician.
NT: On the topic of race, now that you’re touring America, what are your thoughts on the Baltimore protests?
GH: Last year when we were writing the songs, we were watching the events happening in Ferguson and we wrote a song called “Sirens”. It’s kind of unbelievable. It just goes to show that the universally peaceful, multiculturalism-accepting model the media wants you to think exists is not there. We’re not there yet. On TV you’ll see people shouting about how these kids are setting fires in Baltimore, that they’re scum, and how disgusting they are destroying their own communities. However, how can the years of police murdering unarmed children and racial tension not be your main issue? How can people not make the connection between all these kids setting fire to things and the real issues happening in the background? If they walk down the street and see a cop, they fear for their lives. Who can they run to? No one. You can’t run to the police because they’re the ones killing you. It’s an endless feedback loop that just keeps happening. You know, to me It’s obvious that it’s frustration. It makes it worse when people try to feed you the facts that “things are better now”, and “people are equal now”. It’s not. We’re not there yet. Things aren’t equal yet.
NT: Society doesn’t change, it just hides it.
GH: Exactly. When we play America, we see medical adverts on TV that always talk about how great the drug they’re selling is, but then at the end they have to say that “this might kill you”. It feels like that today in society. The first part is being said, that we’re all equal and happy, but the end part of the advert is not, and it makes the general public, especially white America, think that we live in great times. That’s why they’re so shocked when they see Baltimore burning; society’s done a great job of hiding racial inequality. It’s just an endless loop and it’s very sad. In this day and age it feels like everything’s gone backwards instead of going forwards.
GH: My Top 5 Albums
Toots and the Maytals – In The Dark
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures
2Pac – Greatest Hits
Otis Redding – Greatest Hits
Interview by Stewart Wiseman