The girl with the pink hair and Gang Of Youths t-shirt standing by a busy intersection in L.A.’s Echo Park neighbourhood can barely believe her eyes. Striding toward her, dressed uniformly in black, his thick thatch of chocolate brown hair bobbing atop his head, is the Sydney band’s frontman, David Le’aupepe, who only minutes earlier had, ironically, expressed his delight at the anonymity he enjoys in America. As he crosses Sunset Boulevard and moves closer toward her, she gasps audibly and says, “Oh my God, you’re beautiful!” He shrugs off the compliment, extends his hand, smiles, and offers a friendly “Hi, I’m Dave.” She asks for a photo, he obliges, and then he’s off again, bounding up to a nearby café to pat a German Shepherd. It may sound like Le’aupepe’s staking his claim for World’s Best Bloke for the benefit of Rolling Stone, but there is nothing calculated about the affection he showers on this pooch. His love of animals was the determining factor in his recently giving up meat. “I really miss fish, that’s the only thing I miss,” he says.
I mention I have some vegetarian friends who’ve said they still find the smell of bacon intoxicating, and he furrows his brow. “Have you ever hung out with a pig? They’re fucking adorable.”
A few seconds later he’s off again, striding up Sunset Boulevard, past the row of shops that share the block with tonight’s venue, The Echo. A 350-capacity room located in an increasingly hip area of Los Angeles that, in the Nineties, was better known for its police corruption and gang violence, these days its streets are dotted with cafés, record stores and Mexican restaurants filled with young families. Outside the venue stands the band’s mode of transport for the past two weeks, a white, 15-passenger Ford Transit that’s had the back two rows of seats removed to make room for all their gear. It looks cramped and like it could do with a good airing out, but befits Gang of Youths’ profile in this country. “No one [here] gives a fuck,” Le’aupepe smiles. “Some cities yeah, some cities no. We’re perceived as a lot more underground and alternative here, which is really fucking nice.”
This morning the band – completed by guitarist Joji Malani, keyboardist-guitarist Jung Kim, bassist Max Dunn and drummer Dom “Donnie” Borzestowski – drove six hours from San Francisco, where they played last night. It was an emotional show for Le’aupepe, as a good friend of his ex-wife’s was in the audience. The encounter was made more poignant by the fact that his former partner – whose battle with cancer informed so much of the band’s 2014 debut, The Positions – passed away three and a half months ago. They stayed up for hours after the show talking, which explains why, earlier this afternoon, the 25-year-old could be found lying face down on a bench seat in the band’s dressing room, attempting to grab a few minutes’ sleep.
This evening’s gig is the last of a 10-date U.S. tour, and by the sounds, sleep has been something of a rarity. Not because of any wild partying – tonight’s rider consists of corn chips, nuts, muesli and chocolate bars and a solitary case of beer – but because of multiple 12-to-14-hour drives between cities.
Save for their amiable tour manager Caleb, the quintet aren’t travelling with any crew, meaning they’re responsible for lugging all their gear, setting it up, breaking it down at the end of the night and packing the van again. It’s been a while since they’ve had to do that in Australia. “It’s kind of funny, ’cause Australia still feels fake to us,” says Malani, midway through his pre-show routine of stretches, which he’ll follow with a shower. (“The best shower I’ve had in three weeks!”) “Not that what we’re experiencing [in Australia] isn’t real, but because it happened so quickly it almost feels like it’s a dream. Whereas this, it’s abrupt and confronting a lot of times, but it feels like reality. This feels like the natural trajectory of a band like ours.”
For Le’aupepe, touring America is the realisation of a dream he had as a 10-year-old growing up next to Strathfield station, spitting distance from the busy M4 freeway in Sydney’s inner west. “I became intoxicated with the idea of exploring the iconography of America myself. You listen to Bruce Springsteen, you want to be where he is, you want to gun it down the Garden State Parkway. When Hank Williams is talking about being so lonely, you want to know about the place he was gazing out at when he wrote that song, or when he sang it.”
By 9.30pm, it’s clear there are people in Los Angeles who “give a fuck”, as the numbers in the venue start to swell. L.A. hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for the band, with Le’aupepe still burned by their last show in town a year ago and the “abhorrent music industry arseholes” who turned up wanting short songs and a short set and, upon being presented with neither, left halfway through. As their 10.30 stage time approaches, the band gather in a huddle in the dressing room. Le’aupepe’s pep talk basically amounts to one thing – fuck the industry people out there, let’s do this for those we care about, for the people who’ve paid, for the ones we want to make proud – after which a prayer is offered giving thanks for the tour. And then they’re gone, down two flights of stairs and onto the stage. Before a note is played, Le’aupepe steps up to the mic and, unable to help himself, flashes a grin. “We have a nice long set for you tonight, L.A.,” he quips.
On April 18th this year, Dave Le’aupepe posted the front cover of The Positions on his Instagram account with the caption: “wishing a happy two year anniversary to this unholy pain in the ass. i love you and i hate you. thank you for the healing you gave me, and fuck you for the calamity you brought upon me also.” Referred to in shorthand as “the album about cancer” – a reference to the fact it documents Le’aupepe’s relationship with his ex-wife, whom he met as an 18-year-old and nursed through her illness before they divorced in 2014 – the songs were written initially to help her in her fight, but came to document a man struggling with the breakdown of that relationship and the disintegration of his own mental health. With its Springsteen-meets-the-Replacements-via-U2 grandeur and heart-on-sleeve lyrical content, The Positions became a Top 5 hit, catapulting Gang of Youths onto festival bills and some of the country’s biggest stages less than three years after this group of friends came together to help bring Le’aupepe’s songs to life.
Three hours before showtime, Le’aupepe is perched atop a milk create on a crumbling sidewalk a block from the venue, tucking into a vegetarian burrito and taco from the Tacos Ariza! food truck and considering that Instagram post over the buzz of the truck’s generator.
“When we released [The Positions] it felt like a release within myself. [Prior to that] I was never able to compartmentalise and express the feelings I had about that relationship with people properly. I used to be very non-verbal about stuff. Oh,” he smiles, “how the times have changed.”
And the calamity it brought upon you?
“It brought enormous calamity because it led to the breakdown of my marriage, it led to the destruction of my mental health. Having to tour this thing, write the thing, record it, go back and forth between Sydney and Nashville [where his wife was receiving treatment] and New York [where the band had relocated], that fucking sucked. And I was constantly surrounded by alcohol. Constantly. And just the anxiety following releasing the record… That fucking album, dude, The Positions,” he sighs. “I thought I’d never make anything again after that.”
“We’re all gonna die,” says Le’aupepe. “I want to make sure I spend the time on this earth being the very best I can.”
As winter 2015 became spring, he was flirting with the idea of giving it all away, concerned his identity was so closely tied up with the band’s he didn’t know who he was anymore. Worse, he had nothing left to say; he didn’t “fucking mean anything”. (In paying tribute to Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell upon his passing in May, Le’aupepe took to social media to reveal that Cornell’s encouragement during their solo tour together in 2015 went some way to convincing him to stick with it.) In one year Le’aupepe managed to write only two songs – “Fear and Trembling”, which opens the band’s second album, Go Farther In Lightness, and “The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows”, which bassist Dunn refers to as “one of the spiritual centres of the record”.
By mid-2016, with nothing to say and no songs with which to say it, Le’aupepe booked studio time for Gang of Youths to start recording the follow-up to The Positions, hopeful that the deadline would kickstart his creativity. It worked. “I just wrote as we were going,” he says. “I like the pressure.”
The majority of the album was written in Los Angeles over a two-month period in September and October last year, and recorded largely in Sony’s Sydney studios between October 2016 and January this year. “I found a lot of shit to say,” says Le’aupepe. “Probably too much.”
If The Positions is an album about “clinging to love and trying to fight impossible odds”, Go Farther In Lightness is unequivocally a record about life and living; about overcoming fear and embracing everything that comes with being a human with a finite amount of time on this earth. It’s an album of intense searching and questioning, particularly around the concepts of faith and religion. It’s also one of the boldest statements ever made by an Australian artist, a case study of a man searching for healing after the tumult that surrounded the creation of The Positions.
A concept album in which Le’aupepe is “trying to document my period out of the cancer album and into… newfound adultness”, it’s broken up into four musical movements. Each is separated by an orchestral interlude named after the psychoanalytic concepts of French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, with whose works Le’aupepe is infatuated: “L’imaginaire”, “Le Symbolique” and “La Réel”. Le’aupepe had wanted to execute a similar idea on The Positions, but didn’t want the events of that album to be represented chronologically so decided against it.
The first quarter of the record sets in play the themes and recurring motifs of the LP, with opener “Fear and Trembling” focusing on “issues of mortality, issues of rejecting the faith of my childhood in order to try and find something more substantial and life affirming”.
Le’aupepe has been obsessed with death “since the first moment of sentience probably”, and mortality raises its head time and again on the album. “My grandmother died a pretty gross, horrific old lady death, I saw people die in the shitty neighbourhood I grew up in, surrounded by death,” he explains. “My obsession with it is lifelong: mortality and the shortness of life.”
In a practical sense, this obsession has become one of his primary motivations – “We’re all gonna die, I want to make sure I spend the time on this earth being the very best I can” – but in an artistic sense, it fuels some of the album’s most poignant moments. Case in point is “Persevere”, in which Le’aupepe recounts in heartbreaking detail the passing of his best friend’s baby, before exploring notions of faith via a conversation he had with the child’s father, a deeply committed Christian (who, incidentally, plays keys on the song). “I visited her grave about a year after she died, and I had a lot of questions,” says Le’aupepe. “I had all these philosophical quandaries regarding baby death. That’s the one thing that keeps me from believing in God, is why babies die, why babies get cancer. It’s sheer fucking absurdity.”
In “Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane”, Le’aupepe recounts a recurring dream in which his imaginary wife and child are killed in a car accident while he’s at home, drunk in the basement. It’s not, he believes, a harbinger of heartbreak to come, but rather his self-conscious “trying to tell me not to take the beautiful, transient things in my life for granted. Don’t fuckin’ waste my life.”
His failed marriage is addressed in “Keep Me In the Open”, while “The Heart Is a Muscle” is about overcoming his fear of loving again after the catastrophic dissolution of that union. By the time we reach closer “Say Yes To Life”, which “is the culmination of everything I believe the record is leading up to”, the mood of the album has turned joyous, with Le’aupepe extolling the virtues of being part of “the new sincere” and, as its title suggests, saying yes to life. “Obviously that will be received with a lot of smirking and cynicism,” he sneers, “but I don’t give a fuck.”
The album is uplifting, raw, and challenging – most notably on the seven-minute string-laden epic “Achilles Come Down”, complete with soundbytes of French philosopher Albert Camus – and clocks in at just a tick under 80 minutes. Oh, and did we mention it’s a double LP? At which point you look Le’aupepe in the eye and ask him, “Where, on your second album, which logically should be designed to capitalise on the success of your debut, do you get the balls to make a record like this?”
“I don’t know, man,” he smiles. “I’m gonna die one day and I don’t want to fuck around. This is the thing I care about, and I want to do the shit I care about. I don’t give a fuck about the commercial possibilities of the music. I just wanted to swing for the fences and attempt not to care what people thought and attempt to convey my thoughts about life, my musings, my aspirations, my fears, my anxiety, my empathy for others, in a way that I found pleasing. So it was healing for me.”
A day later, on a sunny Friday afternoon with the temperature hovering in the high-twenties, David Immanuel Menachem Sasagi Le’aupepe is nursing a beer in a knockabout bar in West Hollywood called The Den. Located in the shadow of the famed Chateau Marmont, if the latter is the playground of the A-list, The Den is where the B-list go to sing karaoke. Earlier in the day, Dunn referred to Le’aupepe as a “complicated” man. Which as far as understatements go is like saying the Titanic hit a large ice cube.
As passionate, warm and engaged a conversationalist as you could ever meet, he can also be a removed, world-weary, brooding presence. In those moments there’s a good chance his brain is working at twice the rate of which he talks, which, when he gets excited, is somewhere approaching lightspeed. In such moments he has a tendency to run his words into one another, or to reduce his deep baritone to a mumble, particularly while finishing a thought, a frustrating trait when trying to converse in a bar blasting classic rock like Journey and the Vines.
The band’s sole songwriter, he admits to perceiving criticism of his lyrics and songwriting as a direct attack on him. So while a conversation with the singer is likely to be littered with references to philosophers such as Nietzsche, Lacan and Camus, it will also contain passionately delivered expletives, often aimed at the “horn rimmed dipshits on the internet” who have taken a pop at the band. (“I’m starting to work toward not caring, but it’s fucking hard.”) He is confrontingly honest, but bears the burden of a man painfully aware of the ire that can draw. (“I speak with a lot of conviction and passion about things, and I think that upsets people, ’cause how fucking dare someone speak with conviction?”) There are complexities at play that one just has to accept – at one point, when talking about his detractors, he says, “If it pissed me off in 2005 I’m plotting your demise for 2020; I hold grudges”, the next he’s expressing that the new record is “about empathy, I just want to fucking relate to people” – but there is no doubt that Le’aupepe believes everything he’s saying with the utmost sincerity.
“I’m still trying to get back at the kids that called me a fag in high school, still trying to be included by the cool kids,” says Le’aupepe.
One of two children born to father Tattersall and mother Fran – his sister, Giselle, is three years older – his dad is a classically trained opera singer who used to work in finance before stopping (“I have no idea why… He wanted to be with us, which I love and admire him for”). His mother was a social worker before working for mental health charity ARAFMI; she is also mobility impaired, for which she received disability pension support. The family made do with a single income of $12,000 a year, placing them in “the lowest echelon of social and income class you can get in Australia without being homeless”.
“My parents are fucking amazing people,” says Le’aupepe. “I hate the idea of reducing my parents and my childhood to that of a poor family. I hate the idea of humiliating my parents like that. My parents tried, they did everything they could. A lot of what I do now,” he adds, “is motivated by the fact I had [nothing].”
Though proud of his upbringing, he admits that growing up in poverty has left him with a chip on his shoulder. It also provided an early bond with Fijian national Malani, whose parents and five siblings were forced to live in a friend’s garage in Sydney while awaiting political asylum as he studied Year 12 on a scholarship. “Having a chip on my shoulder keeps a fucking carrot in front of my face,” says the singer.
As a child, Le’aupepe spent “a lot of time on my own, feeling like an alien. I think I was always very inquisitive, I loved to read.” A “painfully” shy kid, he was bullied at school and church, where having long hair and being “skinny and awkward” and “kind of a weirdo” made him an easy target. His school reports had a recurring theme: “Needs to apply himself, doesn’t work hard. Extraordinarily gifted, but lacking motivation.”
The barbs of the bullies have stuck with him. “I’m still trying to get back at the kids that called me a fag in high school, still trying to be included by the cool kids,” he says. “That is my fucking Achilles heel. Acceptance. Always looking for it.”
Le’aupepe’s issues with mental health and depression have been documented, to the extent that one of the band’s most popular songs, “Magnolia”, is about the day in 2014 he intended to take his own life by stepping in front of a car. It was the fifth suicide attempt of his young life, his first coming at the age of 10. “I just didn’t like myself,” he says of that initial attempt. “I think the first time I didn’t know the full extent of what that meant. One of the times I was really numb. And that was the thing about wanting to kill myself last time, I just didn’t want anything. I didn’t care. Albert Camus [said], the basic fundamental question of existence is, do we kill ourselves or not? It’s true. That’s where everything starts. Do you off yourself or not? I just didn’t have any reason not to off myself.”
These days, with the help of therapy and a determination not to inflict the hurt his last attempt caused on those he loves, the impulse to suicide is under control. “I don’t want to die at my own hand because I can do more things at my own hand that are infinitely more positive, more aspirational, and more transcendent in overcoming, than killing myself,” he says. “There’s a sense of self-overcoming that I’ve learned to appropriate into my own life, that… I wasn’t aware of before. I believe that exists in all of us.”
Misdiagnosed with Cyclothymia as a child – a mild form of bipolar disease – Le’aupepe was prescribed Ritalin but “fucking hated it” so stopped taking it. That early diagnosis has since been rectified to “fullblown” bipolar disorder, with the singer adding, “I guess I have clinical depression, maybe some OCD shit. When I was a child a lot of medical experts thought I [was on the] autism spectrum, because I was quite gifted but had very few social skills. I still have trouble with social cues, but I don’t think [I’m on] the autism spectrum.”
The church wasn’t the most forgiving of places for a young child with such issues. “I grew up in an evangelical movement that literally demonised mental illness, saying it was demons,” he spits. “That’s fucking bullshit.”
How do you deal with that as a kid?
“You can’t. I just thought I was fucking insane and alien the whole time. I spent my whole childhood trying to figure out what it was that made me like this, and now I know. But I just got told there was a demon, that I was being oppressed by evil forces, and you can just pray it away. You can’t pray that shit away, man. There’s a reason why psychoanalysis exists, and there’s a reason why cognitive science exists, ’cause we moved past that superstitious nonsense and bullshit.”
Ask him about significant moments growing up, and he pauses. “I can only pick out the negative ones. It’s not stuff that I’d have on record, a lot of shit that happened to me as a kid, and what happened around me.” Another pause, and then a smile. “My first electric guitar.”
“I grew up in an evangelical movement that literally demonised mental illness, saying it was demons,” says Le’aupepe. “That’s fucking bullshit.”
At two points this afternoon, Le’aupepe’s eyes moisten and he wipes away a tear. The first comes when recounting the moment he found out his ex-wife had passed – he was in the backyard of the band’s shared house in London, where they relocated earlier this year: “I spent a lot of time preparing for it… and then the thing we’re both scared of happening fucking happens but I can’t grieve that, I’m not there, I hadn’t spoken to her for two years” – the second comes when discussing the electric guitar he got as a 10 year-old. It’s not the instrument itself that elicits such emotion – though he loved it so dearly his mother has a photo of him sleeping with it as a kid – but the fact his parents saved so hard to afford the $250 price tag.
The visceral thrill he got when plugging that Squier Bullet Stratocaster into a tiny amp remains palpable. “The sheer raw fucking power of this abomination, this over driven guitar… I had been craving that electric guitar moment.”
Some days he wouldn’t go to school, opting instead to stay home and play. “It’s all I ever wanted to do,” he says. “I felt poisonous, no one wanted to be my friend. If you want to talk about my childhood, the only thing I can remember is feeling too smart for my own good, feeling too inquisitive, but also feeling fucking crippled and shy. But as soon as I had that in my hand…”
You had the answer?
“No, it just gave me questions. But questions I knew I could answer myself.”
There was one child who wanted to be Le’aupepe’s friend, and that was Joji Malani. The two first met at Hillsong and bonded over the fact they had the same Chuck Taylor Hi-Tops. In Year 10, Malani had “crazy life changing surgery” whereby his right leg was extended to be the same length as his left, leaving him immobile and cooped up in his boarding school’s sick bay for much of the year. As his friends started “phasing [him] out”, Le’aupepe maintained regular visits. “Dave lived furthest away from me, but he’d trek it out and just come hang, bring guitars and jam. That was probably the time when me and Dave got the closest. It taught me a lot about people. I used to be a really extroverted, social person before my surgery, and after I just hung out with Dave.”
Malani’s family were prominent members of the Hillsong community, and he was warned of young Le’aupepe’s influence on him. Twice he told his friend that, as a result, they could no longer be pals, befopositre reconsidering: “Do I believe the people who forget my last name sometimes, or the guy who comes to see me when I can’t walk?”
“We’ve been through shit together,” he adds. “We all have our things where life’s given you an opportunity and you can either be overcome by it or rise above.”
For Jung Kim, that opportunity arose when he was forced to leave his childhood home in Glenview, Chicago, and move to Seoul, South Korea, at the age of 12. His father had had a run-in with the law, and though “he wasn’t really guilty of anything”, his citizenship was revoked. For a period Kim was raised by his cousin and remained in America, before being reunited with his parents in South Korea. A year later, they uprooted again and moved to Sydney. The constant upheaval of these moves, combined with an element of his upbringing that “instilled a sense that I constantly had to prove myself”, culminated in him being “an incredibly anxious person”, and his mental health became an issue during the making and touring of The Positions. “There was a lot of things I needed to address that I’d either been ignoring or wasn’t exactly aware of, and it took four of my best buddies to really bring shit down on me and say, hey, you really need to get your shit together. And if it wasn’t for these guys, who knows where I would be.”
In a superficial sense, the bond between each member is represented by a band tattoo of a vital sign, a nod to the opening song on The Positions. Borzestowski was hesitant to get inked at first, making up an excuse to avoid the visit to the tattoo parlour in Melbourne while on tour in 2015. Recruited to replace former drummer Samuel O’Donnell at the tailend of 2014, six months later he was offered a permanent place in the band, but hesitated. “I knew the weight of that decision,” he says. “‘Do I want my life to go in this direction?’ So I swept the official contract under the rug a little bit and was like, yeah, I’ll sign it one day.” He eventually put pen to paper on December 2nd, 2015 – the one year anniversary of his brother Szymon’s passing. “That day is a significant day in a lot of ways for me,” he offers quietly.
For Borzestowski, the tattoo represents “a symbol of that time, that album… so it’s a unity thing. We’re brothers, we have a very brotherly feel amongst the band.”
Le’aupepe’s vital signs tattoo is on his neck. “I just remember looking at my ex-wife’s heart monitor and thinking, it’s so weird that a heartbeat is measured by sound. By frequency. And we measure music by frequency, and that was an essential part of what I wanted to do. I want to make the music of life. I want to document experience, and make a defining [document] of my life.”
Right now, however, it’s not the most important tattoo on his body. That honour goes to the one on his left forearm – to the one that imbues some of the themes of Go Farther In Lightness; to the marking, you suspect, that is the byproduct of the “scars and contusions” he sings of in “Say Yes To Life”. He points to it and says, “I will teach this to my kids, and they’re all things that could potentially cancel each other out if you’re not careful.”
The tattoo is of three words, scrawled one under the other: Empathy. Autonomy. Humanity.
Top photo: Gang of Youths in Los Angeles in June (from left): Jung Kim, Dave Le’aupepe, Donnie Borzestowski, Max Dunn, Joji Malani. Credit: John Tsiavis. Grooming: Brendan Robertson, Styling: Alison Brooks.
From issue #790, available now.