Heavy Heavy, out Friday (Feb. 3) on Ninja Tune
Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham ‘G’ Hastings formed Young Fathers in a nightclub in Scotland, and after a series of false starts, including a stint as a “psychedelic boy band,” they honed in their sound on Tape One and Tape Two, a pair of mixtapes recorded with producer Tim London that established them as the kind of band to rap over the “Be My Baby” beat. After winning the Scottish Album of the Year award with Tape Two, they released their debut album, DEAD, in 2014. That year, the album beat out projects from critically beloved acts like FKA Twigs and Damon Albarn to win the Mercury Prize.
From there, the band just kept working, putting out the lower-fi but even more ambitious pop record White Men Are Black Men Too in 2015. After the release of 2018’s relatively streamlined Cocoa Sugar, the pandemic forced a break from touring and recording, but the downtime proved invigorating for the band.
Ask Young Fathers what they sound like, and they’re happy to call what they make pop music. There are soaring hooks and efficient song structures. It feels organic while listening, but try describing their sound and it gets a lot more complicated: it’s too intricate to be lo-fi, too raw to be hi-fi, too poppy to be “alternative hip-hop,” too harsh for easy listening. The most frequent comparison is TV on the Radio, but that doesn’t quite work, because Young Fathers aren’t really a rock band, either.
Whatever their sound is, it’s dense – taking elements from various musical genres and cultures, less as a manner of pastiche than what the band members are thinking and feeling at that particular time. While Heavy Heavy is some of their most purely joyful work to date, Hastings doesn’t view that as a deliberate decision.
“We’re not trying to make concept albums,” he explains. “We’re not trying to make anything other than what’s based on the spontaneity that happens when we’re together.”
Heavy Heavy was named for that aforementioned density: as with previous records, it’s still fairly minimal, but this time what’s there is blown out. The project finds the trio, this time working without their mentor Tim London, honing even further on their sound, which is a mood of simultaneous celebration and paranoia.
On “Drum,” lyrics like “Feel the beat of the drum and go numb/have fun,” co-exist with the lines “They’re gonna get you either way/whether you cry about today or die another day.” Even the sequencing of the album feels like you’re with the band in the studio as they dart between ideas: “Tell Somebody” gradually builds into a sense of euphoric, heavily saturated desperation, right before the unexpected jazz piano on “Geronimo” provides a serene comedown. Meanwhile, there’s a gospel rave-up on “Sink or Swim,” a 6/8 stomp on “I Saw” and the delightfully bizarre, bouzouki-led “Ululation,” where Bankole’s sister, Tapiwa Mambo, takes the lead and vents in Shona.
The last song, “Be Your Lady,” is everything that makes Young Fathers unique in one three-minute blast, alternating between a soulful piano ballad and erratic drum breaks (created by a literal drum machine accident while recording), as the band members take turns shouting, “Can I take 10 pounds worth of loving out of the bank, please?” in different accents. It’s almost zany in its audaciousness, but winds up a loving tribute to Bankole’s different identities as a Black Scottish man. “I switch back and forth in different accents [in conversation] because ] I’ve been able to spend time in Nigeria and the United States. So it’s all a mishmash of that and being born in Scotland.”
Bankole admits that “Be Your Lady” is the most challenging new song to pull off in rehearsals: “The drum machine is not really syncopated or in time, and you can’t really catch it!” The trio is planning on bringing their intense live show across Europe in April, including the Roundhouse in London. There are also several songs from the sessions that didn’t make the record – not due to their quality, but because they didn’t fit in the sequencing – so there might even be more music in the pipeline.
THEIR FAVORITE PIECE OF GEAR
Hastings: “EMS Vocoder 2000 are transcendent keyboards.” When asked about real-life synthesizers versus software synths, he continues: “I have them, but usually the whole thing has already been made by things that you can touch. The whole premise is anybody can hit anything in the studio and for soft synths it’s not really the same because it’s more fiddly.”
THE ARTIST THAT THEY THINK NEEDS MORE ATTENTION
Hastings: “I’ve heard the new music that Law Holt has done that’s not out yet, and it’s one of the most radical-sounding things I’ve heard ever. Callum Easter is also a great musician and has great pop albums that have this dark side to it, but they’re still these beautiful pop songs.”
THE THING THAT THEY THINK NEEDS TO CHANGE IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY
Hastings: “There should be more creatives. People who are not artists should wake up every morning, look in the f–king mirror, and say ‘I am not an artist’ a hundred times.”
Bankole: “If you work with creative people, it doesn’t automatically make you a creative [person].”
Hastings: “And if you’re not an artist, don’t try to be the artist, and f–king listen to them.”
THE PIECE OF ADVICE THEY BELIEVE EVERY NEW INDIE ARTIST NEEDS TO HEAR:
Hastings: “Being able to describe yourself. ‘Cause the industry is not about to understand you in any f–king way. You have to be able to be precise and even when you are that precise, it still won’t f–king connect. But at least it can convey something.”
Bankole: “I think it’s important to be match-ready, but there is a real thing of over-rehearsing, to the point where you are blocking yourself from being spontaneous, and having room to wiggle about within the moments in the different environment every time.”