Interview: David Le’aupepe of Gang of Youths talks his uncompromising devotion to beautiful lyrics

Every few years it seems, Australia manages to churn out another solid indie band or artist that manages to make headlines with a stunning debut–so it’s understandable if you’re having trouble keeping up. However, it would be criminal to continue overlooking one such act that made its damn-near flawless debut in 2015 with The Positions, a gift from the aptly named and soulfully riotous group Gang of Youths. Comprised of a tightly knit group of five close friends and led by the songwriting prowess of David Le’aupepe, the band executes its impassioned songs with a strenuous balancing of poetically dense lyricism and equally complex sonics. Mincing no words and giving listeners a voraciously intimate encounter with his own struggles and demons–of which Le’aupepe is admirably open about–the band mingles bittersweet hopes with crushing realities, while also refusing to engage in any cultural glorification or romanticizing of such griefs.

Their songs are chock full of personal anecdotes, with Le’aupepe giving little glimpses into his own life and emotions that are somehow dually personal as they are universal. It’s also hard not to notice that nearly every second of their longer than average songs–with the exception of a few instrumental crescendos–is filled with the frontman’s singing. He just doesn’t stop, and frankly, you won’t want him to.

“I’m not exactly a soft-spoken, reserved person, I’m pretty fucking loquacious–on a good day,” Le’aupepe says with a laugh. “On a bad [day] I’m downright fucking yappy.”

For Le’aupepe, his lyrics are one-half of the lifeblood of Gang of Youths existence–which sounds like maybe a redundant thing to point out, until you actually listen to his lyrics, which to his and the band’s credit, are actually quite intelligible for all their guitar riffs and thundering percussion. Then once you’re done listening and singing along, go look them up, seriously, it’s the kind of literary snippets you might dive into in an English course. It’d require an essay to dive into all the nuances here, but songs like “Magnolia,” “Poison Drum,” and “The Diving Bell,” emit a beauty through Le’aupepe’s choice words alone. And of course, it doesn’t just happen by accident–in fact, the effort is quite strenuous at times.

“It’s a struggle for me to get anything out because I’m sort of in this period of my life where I’m starting to care a lot more about what people think about my work, and that can be distracting and hard. But I always have to temper it with a sense of authenticity to myself, authenticity to the kind of shit I want to make, and the kind of thing I want to leave behind on the earth when I die,” Le’aupepe explained. “What I think is most authentic to me is I want to write lyrics that are meaningful to me, potentially meaningful to others, and sound beautiful. When I read a book I’m looking for beautiful writing that speaks to me in some way, even if it’s simple and minimalist or dense and verbose. I just want to speak to people in a way that’s life-affirming.”

In many ways, according to Le’aupepe, sub-par lyricism has found its way into our entertainment, and he refuses to contribute to the degradation of an art form he is so passionate about. Acknowledging that sounds “harsh,” as he puts it, he also genuinely believes that for people who aren’t interested in lyrics, there’s melody and music to keep them entertained, while for people who are, there are “themes, concepts, complexity, and density” for them as well. But even so, for the former, Gang of Youths has more than a few hot licks, catchy hooks, and gorgeous soundscapes to keep even the most casual of listeners caught by their ear.

One of the first things you’ll realize as you listen to The Positions for the first time is that the song’s opener, “Vital Signs,” is a seven-minute journey that entreats you to everything. It’s a veritable journey of emotional release that’s unraveled simultaneously through Le’aupepe’s lyrics and the band’s various melody changes–like some high-strung drama in four acts, their songs change and evolve alongside their themes. Like his lyrics, Le’aupepe and company have deep running ambitions and expectations for the very notes they play. As someone who was once apart of the hardcore punk scene in Australia, Le’aupepe refered back to how such bands managed to communicate a wide range of emotions and all these sides of humanity, using solely a two to three minute hardcore punk song as a conduit.

“I can respect that and I think that’s really admirable, we’ve just chosen not to do that. We’ve decided that we want different moods and different sides of our musicality to come through in order to embody the vast scope of human experience,” Le’aupepe says of the way they arrange their songs. “The songs on our records need to reflect the vast array and litany of human emotions and experiences. We need to reflect all the sides of humanity, not just the ones that rock super hard. I want to reflect the emotional environment I was in when I wrote a particular song, what the song was about, through the sonics.”

WithThe Positions now aged two years and now on the road for an exhausting bout of touring that sees Gang of Youths traversing the most of North America in the span of two weeks, Gang of Youths have returned with two new singles. “Atlas Drowned” and “Let Me Down Easy,” the band’s introduction to the tumultuous nature of the past year–politically, socially, culturally, take your pick–are as poignant as they are ruthless. Between obvious references to the rise of polarizing and divisive movements, as well as an allusion to last year’s Paris terrorist attacks, Le’aupepe and company avoid getting into the messy specifics of political alignment and instead aim for its larger implication for the individual, the people listening to their songs, and the soul.

Shouting, spitting, cussing, and foaming at the mouth, Le’aupepe tackles a philosophy of irrational self-interest that has stricken our society in “Atlas Shrugged,” its title a well-prepared pile-driver rather than a subtle dig at Ayn Rand’s novel and monument to rational egoism “Atlas Shrugged.” It’s rare to see any artist in any genre so willfully name drop the likes of Rand and Nietzsche in the explanation of a song, but that’s exactly what Le’aupepe did in an Instagram post when the song was released–but more so than the broad, overarching themes and philosophies that inspired it is the band’s ability to make it not only digestible, but so potently personal.

Gang of Youths

Gang of Youths at Constellation Room — Photo: Steven Ward

With all this accentuated energy going on behind the scenes and in the studio, for a band whose unapologetic zeal for life roars through effortlessly in their baroque-rock anthems–it’s perhaps understandable that their live shows are absolutely insane. Personally, I’ve only seen Gang of Youths once in the Constellation Room in Santa Ana. The room was decently filled and my defining memory is of Le’aupepe dancing on the bar counter (the man shakes his hips and howls like the most on-key demon in existence) and jumping into the crowd to dance and twirl fans. They were one of the top five acts I’ve ever seen live and it’d honestly be a disservice to your very soul to not see them on their current U.S. tour.

“Every show we attack in the same way–I mean it comes from our attitude towards life, attacking life with a sense of ferocity and engagement. It doesn’t matter how big the fucking room is, it doesn’t matter how many people are in there when you believe in the power of an artform its unifying and emancipatory power you can’t help but be excited,” a serious and passionate Le’aupepe explains. “Everybody in this band desires to be the very best at what we do.”

Gang of Youths will be playing the Echo this Thursday. Tickets are still available here. For more information on their tour and to stay up to date on future release visit their Facebook and website.


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