Gang of Youths was in rehearsals in late February for the launch of the European leg of its global tour in support of its third studio album, angel in realtime, as bassist Max Dunn and multi-instrumentalist Tom Hobden talked about the tribulations of a pandemic, love, death and an insistent drummer banging on a kit on the other side of the door behind them.
“We made a record and this poor bastard joined the band and probably thought he was sailing into this smooth operation,” Dunn said of Hobden, laughing. “And then we just got shut down. And so he spent two years locked in a room with us, behind that door.”
Behind “that door” was a London rehearsal space, which Gang of Youths has come to know well over the last few years since relocating from Sydney, Australia, in 2018. Hobden, formerly of British indie folk/rock outfit Noah and the Whale and a touring member of Mumford & Sons, joined the band in 2020 following the departure of guitarist Joji Malani.
And “this smooth operation” that is Gang of Youths? Almost nothing about Gang of Youths is simple, or uncomplicated, including its music and especially not frontman, guitarist, vocalist and principal songwriter David Le’aupepe.
Le’aupepe is an arresting, sometimes manic yet somewhat reluctant frontman with a majestic voice, preferring to see the spotlight shine on his full band rather than focus on himself, according to Gang of Youth’s longtime manager, Kurt Bailey of Mirror Music Group.
“Dave loves connecting with people, he genuinely loves trying to interact with every single person in a room wherever he goes, and he’s so good at it,” Bailey says. “He also wants the people within his orbit to feel valued for the work they’ve done, so it’s become quite natural for them to find the balance when it comes to their music – there has always been such a deep sense of brotherhood with these guys and never a one-person show.”
Le’aupepe’s lyrics are deeply personal, and sometimes quite dark – “Magnolia,” from Gang of Youths’ 2015 debut studio album, The Positions, bares sometimes uncomfortable witness to a 2013 suicide attempt – but just as often are as life- and love-affirming as the best anthems by U2 or even Bruce Springsteen, artists to whom Gang of Youths is increasingly compared.
But putting Gang of Youths into a box is much more complicated.
“We’re not really anything close to being in a scene,” Dunn says of the band’s origins. “Even though we come from a storied city like Sydney with a lot of different waves and music scenes, and Tom [Hobden] obviously comes out of that British sort of folk scene, Gang of Youths is really just five guys that like each other, that like music, and there’s really no style thread.
“We don’t dress like a band. It’s probably to the chagrin of our label, but we don’t really fit neatly into any marketable boxes. Tom’s a classical genius composer. Dave’s a ridiculous songwriter. Danny used to play a lot of jazz drums. We all have like a different ship that we come from.”
The Positions quickly won the band a big following in Australia, where it was nominated for five ARIA awards.
That was followed by 2017’s Go Farther In Lightness, debuting at No. 1 on the ARIA chart. A single, “The Heart Is A Muscle” rose to No. 37 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Airplay chart in the U.S.
Yet, the band was virtually unknown beyond its home turf, which itself was getting increasingly claustrophobic for Gang of Youths. In 2018, the band decamped to London in order to work on angel in realtime in relative peace.
London also provided a change of scenery in a melting pot of a world capital that, like Sydney, would complement the personal journey of identity that Le’aupepe undertook as he grieved the death of his father in 2018.
“London has a crazy rich fabric with all kinds of people from everywhere,” Hobden says. “There’s a huge amount of UK garage influence and there’s a lot of that Manchester sound and it affects some of the ways we’re using synth and rhythm. It was recorded across generations. We have samples from the 1970s and the Pacific Islands, paired with current things we recorded in Auckland with the Auckland Gospel Choir and with Okinawa drummers.”
Expected to be released in 2020, angel in realtime was waylaid for two years by the COVID-19 pandemic, and finally dropped on Feb. 22.
The extra time enabled the band to fine tune the album and its team to do the same with its global strategy.
“There was a big silver lining for us because we were actually meant to be releasing this album, to finish and deliver it, literally two years ago,” Hobden explains. “It was nowhere ready at that point, and [the pandemic] probably saved us from releasing something shit.”
It also gave Le’aupepe time to further process the events that led to angel in realtime. The death of his father, Teleso “Tattersall” Le’aupepe, who left his family in Australia and started a new life in New Zealand, revealed a second family and a heritage of which David had grown up unaware.
The revelation that Tattersall was fully Samoan, rather than half-white as he had always believed, sparked in David a desire to learn more about his Pasifika heritage – that of the Pacific Islander people, their cultures, and languages.
The record uses samples from composer David Fanshawe’s recordings of indigenous Pasifika music as well as sessions recorded in New Zealand.
With the addition of Hobden, a composer and multi-instrumentalist who brings violin to the band’s repertoire, the sonic result is more layered and orchestral than past efforts, and to great effect.
Those additions serve not only to expand Le’aupepe’s musical and personal journey but enhance a band that was already a rock ‘n’ roll melting pot to begin with.
Keyboardist Jung Kim is Korean-American, Dunn is from New Zealand, drummer Donnie Borzestowski is Polish-Australian and Le’aupepe also has Jewish heritage in addition to Samoan. Everyone brings a unique element to form the whole.
With more maturity, personally and musically, the challenge for Gang of Youths is building itself as a superstar act beyond Australia and New Zealand. While the band easily sells out arenas there and has been a popular draw at festivals across the globe, the pandemic interrupted an upward trajectory in 2020.
Regaining that momentum in a strategic way is top of mind for the Gang of Youths team that includes manager Kurt Bailey of Mirror Music Group, WME agent Robby Fraser and the marketing team at Warner Records.
Gang of Youths recently wrapped the European leg of its current world tour, and kicked off the North American segment of the trek April 21 at the 600-capacity Majestic Theatre in Madison, Wis.
There’s a global operation working hard to maximize Gang of Youths’ opportunities. WME has agents Fraser in Los Angeles, Sam Wald in Sydney, and David Bradley in London minding every corner of the world. Bailey, working in Australia, is in sync with his agency counterparts to make sure Gang of Youths makes the most of the post-pandemic reboot, and utilizes tried and tested methods to get there.
“I know this sounds super traditional but the band and I have never wanted to skip any steps and we’ve applied this approach globally by playing every room we need to from the ground up and building one fan at a time,” Bailey says. “We used to focus on residencies in key cities and rooms like Mercury Lounge in New York, Old Blue Last in London, and the same in Australia. It’s definitely been a challenge at times, but we’re seeing it pay off and I believe the next three years are going to be some of the best the band have had.
“We have really engaged teams in place for the band globally for the first time on this record and we plan on continuing to build the narrative through new music, plus a lot of headline touring and festivals over the next three years. There are of course other digital and marketing strategies, but that’s boring to talk about. We just love getting this band in front of as many people as possible as that’s what works.”
Fraser and his WME team are equally pragmatic about building a career to last for Gang of Youths.
“These are guys who really want to play,” Fraser says. “We want to play it really smart and not overstep this. North America is a really critical step for these guys. We want to make sure we don’t make a misstep and that we do solid business and leave room for the next step up.”
Fraser and the team are laying out a unified plan for world conquest.
“They built up their business very quickly in Australia, because they’ve got great support from radio and they make great music,” Fraser says. “We were able to play L.A. and New York a couple of times, and we’ve played some festivals but this is going to be one of our first real comprehensive runs across the U.S.”
Fraser adds that thanks to that previous exposure, they’ve established markets in New York and Los Angeles before the pandemic closed everything down. Gang of Youths plays 1,800-cap Brooklyn Steel in NYC on May 11, and the Belasco with its 1,500 capacity in L.A. May 18. They’ll return to Europe during summer and then head Down Under for what should be a thunderous homecoming run. And they plan a subsequent U.S fall leg, including another visit to Southern California with an appearance at Ohana Fest on Doheny Beach on Sept. 30.
“In America, we had a couple of stops and starts,” Fraser says. Even pre-pandemic, we’ve had a number of shows and a number of tours that were pulled down due to personal tragedies, all of which are in the lyrics of all of their songs. David [Le’aupepe] wears his heart on his sleeve. Even during the pandemic, their music has lived and grown online. We’re still starting over here in America, still taking baby steps and making sure that we sell out all the smaller clubs before we move on to the bigger ballrooms. We’re being very cautious and very smart about the size of the rooms and make sure that they sell out and as we add and get ready for the next step. We expect a very good 2023 and 2024.”