Ed Cook

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When London locked down, Gang of Youths bunkered in a Hackney studio creating their stunning third album, 'angel in realtime'. Now that the band is out of the trenches, they're ready to take on the world.

It has been over a decade since Gang of Youths first emerged from an evangelical church youth group in northern Sydney.

In the last ten years the band has collated an impressive body of work which has garnered them everything from ARIA Award wins to Rolling Stone Australia Awards nominations, festival sets at some of the world’s most prestigious events, and a dedicated fan base that spans across generations and genders.

The members have all remained fairly constant throughout the band’s career. Original drummer Sam O’Donnell left the group shortly before their album The Positions debuted in 2015, replaced by Novocastrian Donnie Borzestowski. Much-loved guitarist Joji Malani also left the band in 2019, when the band was touring the US with Mumford & Sons. His replacement, Tom Hobden – who also plays violin and keys – came from Mumford’s own touring party.

Hobden – who was a founding member of Noah and the Whale – also hails from the UK, where the band currently reside.

Gang of Youths returned to Australia for an intimate gig at Sydney’s Oxford Art Factory last month, performing to a room of 500 fans as a replacement headliner at the Back The Night festival. It was their smallest Australian show for several years, and bassist Max Dunn tells Rolling Stone it was a special post-pandemic homecoming for the band.

“Everyone thinks it’s this big nostalgic thing, but for us it was like, parking tickets, loading out, getting on stage, getting off,” he says. “We also got tons of really bad reviews there in the early days.”

Calling last month’s gig as a “cathartic experience” for the original band members, Dunn laughs as he describes the band’s feelings about the gig. “I think we’re all a bit emo about it,” he laughs. “Just because we felt old and… yeah, I don’t know. It was cool. It was really special.”

It was Tom Hobden’s second show in Gang of Youths’ country of origin, after joining the band right before the pandemic began, performing a fire and climate relief show at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl in early 2020.

“The Down to Earth show, that was my second show and our last show before the pandemic,” he says. “We were literally coming back through Singapore or wherever it was and getting our first encounter with the thermometer guns.”

The enforced hiatus from live shows was a blessing in disguise for Hobden and the rest of the band, who used the time during London’s strict lockdowns to write and record their latest chart-topping record, angel in realtime.

“Obviously being involved right from the outset writing and recording the new album made me feel incredibly invested going forwards,” Hobden explains. “And especially because our live set at the moment involves so many new songs, it’s really quite loaded towards the new material, so yeah, it’s kind of worked out well for me.”

Dunn notes the band wanted Hobden to join them “so bad,” and thought they could offer a big drawcard in markets like Australia, where Gang of Youths already had festival appearances lined up for the following year.

“It was going to be this great year, and Tom was basically getting, like, ‘Be in Gang of Youths – all this cool shit is going to happen, it’ll be worth your time,’” Dunn laughs. “Then it was like, bang, bang, bang: pandemic; the emotional trauma of making an album with Gang of Youths. It was just the hardest two years, making and re-making in this bubble… Poor Tom had to come to all our shitty drinks and stuff.”

The band bunkered down in a locked-down London, finding a studio 500 metres from home in which they wrote, recorded and experimented to create angel in realtime. There was also a time when the band members all lived together, with their respective wives and girlfriends, which Dunn describes now as “a bit fucking funny”.

Hobden says it was a force of circumstance, while the world was in the throes of a global pandemic, that led the band to begin self-producing the album in the Hackney studio, with very few concrete ideas to begin with.

“It was like a few starting points,” Dunn interjects. “It’s kind of like a blind squirrel finding a nut eventually. Like, we were in our own room so we could just shoot from the hip. It could be midnight and we’re recording together, having a crack, and then something magical happens – and it may not happen when you’re in there with a producer, paying a grand a day and you don’t want to look like a prick.”

“It could be midnight and we’re recording together, having a crack, and then something magical happens – and it may not happen when you’re in there with a producer, paying a grand a day and you don’t want to look like a prick.”

He then looks at Hobden, reminding him: “You would literally let me mic up a bass without plugging it in, and then it ended up being this really cool section of a song.”

“That was super shit, you would be humiliated doing that with a real producer,” Dunn laughs. “But it was just Tom, you know what I mean? And for Tom, he’d be with Donnie, and Donnie would just be sort of sitting there hitting the buttons for him and you could tell it was something… it was very in the trenches.”

Describing the experience as “fucking hard” for everyone involved, Dunn explains it’s different when music literally feeds your family and you’re no longer kids taking a shot at a music career, like they were when The Positions was recorded.

“All of us at a different point kind of broke and were there for each other,” he says. “Like, I have a memory of Tom once sitting on a park bench staring into space and I was like, oh, he’s been Gang of Youths’d. It’s happened. And he was there for me in my many fucking breakdowns.”

“I have a memory of Tom once sitting on a park bench staring into space and I was like, oh, he’s been Gang of Youths’d. It’s happened. And he was there for me in my many fucking breakdowns.”

Hobden agrees, although he says allowing the process to unfold naturally was the best part of creating angel in realtime. “All those months we were actually essentially just creating music we liked; interesting sounds, beautiful arrangements – that was the focus,” he says. “The songs were on the distant horizon.”

The band members were simultaneously worried but not, as label reps repeatedly called to check in on the status of primary songwriter/vocalist Dave Le’aupepe’s writing, Dunn explains, affecting a British accent: “Maxie, mate, you reckon Dave’s got any lyrics for that song?'”

Dunn, Hobden and the others didn’t hear the lyrical bulk of the album, besides earlier singles like “the angel of 8th avenue” until the final fortnight in the studio, Hobden says. Dunn now describes the album’s final track, “goal of the century” as a masterpiece, but says the band didn’t hear the actual lyrics until the day of recording.

“The lyrics are like: should I be in a band, I don’t know, life’s fucking brutal, fuck it, I’m the asshole in Cuban heels. And then it’s like, ‘what is a life?’ It’s going with the flow and letting it happen to you, and then at the end it’s like, a bunch of shit’s happening and I miss my dad,” he says. “It’s literally a song about what Dave was experiencing at that exact moment. And in my opinion that’s why it’s the best song on the album.”

Dunn says Le’aupepe took on a “giant task” with the lyrics to angel in realtime.

“He was taking on, like, my dad, my cultural identity, and he was nailing it: ‘brothers’ and ‘the kingdom is within you’ and ‘in the wake of your leave’ – the lyrics are just extraordinary, the melodies, everything,” he explains. “I’m allowed to say that because it’s Dave, you know, I’m not bragging.”

As individuals, Gang of Youths are all self-deprecating, but as a group they take music very seriously. So the experience of working on a record without traditional deadlines became a challenge to stay motivated. It was the small victories that kept them going, he says, like the release of “unison”.

“I think we were like, ‘fuck me, that’s good. I don’t care if no one else thinks that, but we were like, shit, that’s sick’,” Dunn laughs. “And it captured the Indigenous instrumentation from the ’60s that David Fanshawe took at the end so well, it kind of gave us hope. That was kind of the moment where it was like, we need to make an album around the great beats that are in there, using the chants that we sampled from the Fanshawe estate.”

By this point, the album’s first single “the angel of 8th avenue” had already been released. Dunn explains the track was still layered in tradition Māori instrumentation, but it was subtle enough to pass off as “a really good post punk song”.

“You’d think it was a synth, but it’s a guy blowing a horn – that’s the start of ‘angel of 8th,’ so it’s still tied phonetically to the record,” he says. “But that was kind of the rock song, and then ‘unison’ was how we wanted to sound, so it just flowed on from there.”

Hobden explains the desire to create a sound inspired by great American minimalists was something he discussed with Le’aupepe during casual chats on the Mumford tour, long before he even joined the band.

“I soon became aware that I was very aligned with what he was at the time talking might be a future sound of Gang of Youths,” he says. “Talking about wanting to embrace a minimalist angle, but also the richness of strings that are on other Gang of Youths albums.”

When one person in the band is the main songwriter, it helps for the other band members to have a sense of their overarching vision, he continues. “And us as band members are there to try and help them reach that vision,” he says. “I guess with Dave, there was a concept early on, but it just took so long to get there.”

Both Hobden and Dunn admit there were times they thought they wouldn’t be able to successfully reach Le’aupepe’s vision for this record, despite going “to the nth degree” – including travelling to Budapest to record a 42-piece string orchestra. Dunn admits they probably recorded “angel of 8th avenue” more than a dozen times before they were completely happy with it.

“My favourite thing about Dave – he’s a legend, obviously – I love how impenetrable he is to people’s expectations on him,” Dunn says. “It’s very beautiful to watch; I wish I was like that. If he feels like he doesn’t want to finish something, or if he doesn’t like a song that everyone else says, ‘that’s a hit,’ he’s like, ‘it’s not happening.’”

“My favourite thing about Dave – he’s a legend, obviously – I love how impenetrable he is to people’s expectations on him.”

Emerging from the studio with new production and engineer credits to their names, a new album to promote and new markets to conquer, Gang of Youths performed a series of in-store appearances across the UK.

“It was a really personable way to connect with people who may have only discovered the band during the pandemic,” Hobden says. “Everyone had a bit more time before this to check out new music, and we were releasing that EP during the pandemic, so a lot of people had come in having heard ‘angel of 8th’ on the radio or whatever.”

Dunn laughs, adding: “When you’ve played to enough empty rooms in your career, which some bands can’t say they’ve done, you appreciate the shit out of 50 people crammed into a record store in Leeds.”

From 50 people in a record store in Leeds, to 5,000 people at the Brixton Academy on their subsequent UK tour – by which time Gang of Youths had a top 10 album under their belt – and a successful US tour with several appearances on late night television, Dunn acknowledges their “relative obscurity” is slowly changing overseas.

“Hopefully it keeps onwards and upwards, but I think we’re old enough to know we can’t control that,” he says. “You’ve just got to make your record, play your best show, be nice to people and let the chips fall.”

It is a relief for the band who once drove 10 hours to perform for seven people in Salt Lake City. “And our tour manager was watching the NBA finals, so he didn’t watch either!” Dunn exclaims, as Hobden laughs. “That was pretty fucking low.”

Returning home these days is a break for the band, explains Dunn: “Mentally it’s like we get to come to this little la-la land, where everybody has drinks for us and there’s a driver and shit and no drama and just play an arena, and then we go and get absolutely fucking shafted in a tour bus across America for six weeks,” he says. “Then we have a little break here and we do a little nice thing. So it probably gives us a bit of perspective to a band that overnight is globally huge. I don’t know… obviously if that had happened that would’ve been nice.”

Gang of Youths are looking forward to returning to Australia in July and August, where at 14,000 tickets, one sold-out show at Rod Laver Arena is almost equal to all of the 20,000 tickets sold on their UK tour. They will also be hosting a stellar lineup of guests at their own A More Perfect Union festivals in Brisbane and Hobart, including Arlo Parks, Cub Sport, Gretta Ray, Matt Corby, Middle Kids and Budjerah.

“It’s going to be amazing when we come back,” Hobden enthuses. “It’s already been a busy year of touring so far, but I daresay it’s going to be hugely emotional.”

As for the supports, Dunn notes he had a “fanboy” moment with Arlo Parks recently, who will be joining the AMPU festival lineup in Hobart.

“Man, we saw her in LA,” Dunn says, indicating himself and Hobden. “It was awkward being a fan, and being like, I’m in this obscure band but we’re big in Australia – I didn’t say this to her, but I was thinking this – and you’re playing at our festival, but it’s weird because I’m a fan of you… I think I really was quite awkward.”

Hobden interjects, laughing: “I was more awkward, because I just went up to her as she was about to cross the road, and I was sort of dodging in front of her like, ‘Hi nice to meet you, my name’s Tom, I play in this band called Gang of Youths and we booked you to play our festival’.”

Gang of Youths Australian & New Zealand Tour 2022

Saturday 30th July
RAC Arena, Perth
Tickets

Wednesday 3rd August
Adelaide Entertainment Centre, Adelaide
Tickets

Friday 5th August
Entertainment Centre, Newcastle
Tickets

Saturday 6th August
Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney
Tickets

Friday 12th August
Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne
Sold Out

Saturday 13th August
Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne
Tickets

Sunday 14th August
A More Perfect Union
Regatta Grounds, Hobart
Tickets

Tuesday 16th August
Hunter Lounge, Wellington
Tickets

Wednesday 17th August
Powerstation, Auckland
Tickets

Saturday 20th August
A More Perfect Union
Sandstone Point Hotel, Brisbane
Tickets

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