With their new album White Men Are Black Men Too, Young Fathers look to shake people from complacency and change their understanding of pop.
Young Fathers might be the strangest pop group in existence. The Scotland-by-way-of-America, by-way-of-Nigeria, by-way-of-Liberia trio once described themselves as a “psychedelic hip-hop electro boy band” and all those adjectives fit, without quite explaining just how wonderfully weird their noise was. After their darkest album Dead, Young Fathers went the other direction, putting all their energy into making White Men Are Black Men Too a pop triumph. Catchy as it may be, the album still holds plenty of despair, with visions of the apocalypse coupled with critiques of police brutality and a general smashing of political systems.
PopMatters talked with Young Fathers member Kayus Bankole about injecting fear into music, finding musical instruments in the dumpster, and getting drunk to explain his lyrics.
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You guys have said again and again that this is a pop album. But, despite the fact that it’s catchy and has sing-along parts, there’s a lot of darkness here. On “John Doe”, you sing, “call me John Doe let the good times roll.” How do you balance that?
Kayus Bankole: In my eyes that’s the beauty of it all. Where you can have that contrast and balance, when you mix the dark with the light. You can’t place it or fully identify it; it’s what keeps you there and keeps your interest and keeps you intrigued. That reflects the contrast we believe should be present within pop music as well, where you should have what you hear on the radio now and a mix with something like us. I’ve said this constantly, it’s all about seeing fear and exposing people to differences and reality.
At the moment, I feel there’s no variety in popular culture. It’s been stagnated. And if you look through history, pop went through a lot of transitions. There was a time where Motown was considered pop, when hip-hop was considered pop. The best thing we can do is convince people this is pop and they should be exposed to something they’re not used to. And when you have so much similarity people become afraid, ‘cause they're not used to us.
How do you decrease fear? You make it more common. You make people more aware of it, and you make people more susceptible to it. If you’re hiding things in the corner, when you open the door for it and people see it, the immediate reaction is to be frightened by it. It just boils down to breeding fear within popular culture and having contrast and representing, honestly, what popular culture is. No one is the same, no one looks the same, everyone goes through different experiences. There’s ups and there’s downs, and if you’re constantly portraying something that’s polished or something that’s extremely stagnant, it gets embedded in peoples’ heads that’s how it should be.
When listening to White Men are Black Men Too I thought that “Sirens” did that contrast the best. It's a gorgeous song, but all the images of police brutality are horrific.
And you think about it and it’s happening now, and it’s in our psyche right now, because we see it so often, depending on the publication. For us, we are very aware of what goes on around us. It was just at that moment where we felt we could trap that into a pop song. It wasn’t like we’re shy to say how we feel. It’s more important to say how you feel than having no fear. And the feeling that you can discuss issues that people might shy away from.
With that, how have you guys not burned out? There’ve been four albums and gigs upon gigs over the last five or so years. How do you guys not keel over?
[Laughs] Well I think there’s two parts to that. One is the way we work. We capture moments and we have a set up that allows us to be anywhere and get started and record. And we have that luxury of not be confined to be polished or having to be in a particular place to record or feel like it’s necessary to have like a big shiny screen and a big mixing desk and all that stuff. It’s just the raw essence of getting everything out of yourself.
It’s built into each of us. We get bored easily and we want to constantly create. We have ideas in abundance; we’re not short on those. So if ideas are in your head, then the best way to lay it out is to be able to set up and record. The ball keeps rolling for us; we always want to push it as far as it can go. That’s why none of the records sound the same.
That’s something else interesting. Dead feels like it was recorded on another planet as compared to White Men are Black Men Too, but you can’t mistake them for anyone but Young Fathers.
You have to get the idea out of your head that, “Oh I want to sound like this person. And I want to do it how they did it.” Once you get in that trap or mindset, you’re not allowing the space firstly to express yourself and secondly to be as creative as possible. Because you’re always trying to get what they’re getting and catch their style. At that point, you always fall short; you’ll never achieve what they achieved because you’ve never suckled on the same breast that they’ve suckled on, or seen the same light that they’ve seen. For us, it’s a case of being inspired by anything. Even being on the road right now and speaking to different people, looking outside and driving past Tucson, Arizona, right now, looking at the cactuses and the air force -- [we] just soak it in. It’s not necessarily that it will come out on one specific song, it’s just how we accumulate ideas in abundance.
What happened with “Rain or Shine”, then? How was that created? Because it sounds like four different songs all smashed into one. You’ve got a gorgeous choir section then this dark instrumental thing, it sounds like they all could have been separate songs but you’ve weaved them together as one.
We wanted to make something very concise and very to the point, and disregard anything that was unnecessary. We just wanted to be like “OK, cool, let’s keep the best bits.” That’s what allows the sections you were talking about, where it’s all together. Even in the writing process, it was about setting everything perfect. It’s the beauty of the arrangement that makes you feel the way you feel. Sometimes when you’re listening to other stuff it feels like you know what to expect next, you know where it’s going to take you next, and sometimes that takes the fun out of it. So part of it is keeping ourselves exciting. With “Rain or Shine” in particular, it started with creating a vocal and there wasn’t any form of ego in there; we just wanted what would make the best song.
“Rain or Shine” also has that eerie organ that seems like it was ripped out of a Zombies song, and a lot of the album has this sort of vintage feel. Did you find a new way to record to find that sound?
We just managed to find things. It’s funny, at my house someone chucked away this huge organ, it sounded fucking amazing and I took it up to my house and that’s fucking great. We found this amazing Casio organ at a charity shop and we bought it for like 60 bucks. It was just one of those things that you just stumble across all these pieces of equipment. But in the studio you kind of have to respect yourself sometimes and you get though a whole bunch of stuff that’s unnecessary. You can use anything to create great, great sounds and not be afraid to try new things.
On some of the promo material for the album, while describing “Feasting”, it says “bad things, you don’t want to know, ask Kayus.” I feel like I have to ask.
The reason why we said that was you need to get me drunk first, and I’ll be able to sit down and chat [Laughs].
The promo material also says that “Get Started” and “Still Running”, the closing and opening tracks, can flow into each other, so the album just keeps flowing in this cycle, and I found that was true when I was listening.
Everything just chugs along in terms of repetition with the lyrics or how the music is driven. It just chugs and keeps in your head from start to finish. So even if you then push repeat, you’ll just continue with that, even if you listen to the album about 67 times [Laughs].