To make things easy, Young Fathers could be described as an alt-hop trio based in Edinburgh. However, the group’s aggressive, experimental sound and complicated biography makes it trickier to pin down than it is to piece together your blurred memories after a night at Berghain.
Following two hyped EPs, “Tape One” and “Tape Two,” Young Fathers released the anticipated debut album, “Dead” back in January. One month later, the threesome is partway through a lengthy European tour, and due to kick off the weekend with a headline show in the Kantine.
Through a crackly phone line Alloysious Massaquoi explained, with a deep, warm Scottish accent, that the group’s first ‘official’ release is really no different to its earlier tapes.
“We see ‘Tape One’ and ‘Tape Two’ as albums ourselves, you know,” he said. “‘Tape One’ was us taking things into our own hands, and going, ‘whatever we have by the end of the week, we’ll put out.’ And that’s what it was. ‘Tape Two,’ we really just chose the best songs that fit together. We applied the same ethos to ‘Dead.’ Just get in, record stuff, some songs don’t make it.”
This simplistic summary turns a seemingly complex collection of songs into something more basic, more natural. Young Fathers has an undeniable signature sound that’s hard to verbalize, and Massaquoi described it as a “something”–when “it just fuses together, it has a sound, it has something–then you’re like, ‘yeah, this is how it should be.’” Young Fathers moves organically but impatiently, trimming the fat and refusing to fuss. “You put it out. that’s it. Then you move on. If it doesn’t represent where we are right now, there’s no point,” he elaborated.
Even so, “Dead” shows a clear progression from the mixtape feel of “Tape One” “Tape Two.” Whatever this indefinable “something” is, it’s here harder, faster, and more self-assured. The trio is made of born storytellers–not in any traditional matter, but there’s a sense of journey, projected emotion, and direct attack. Textures and poetics overlap to create an experience perhaps more visual than aural; you’re not sure what you’re hearing, but it’s visceral, arresting.
“War,” for example, sounds as if it could be made from the samples of 10 different songs, but never once feels accidentally chaotic, rather intuitively constructed. Lead single “Get Up” is more immediately straightforward, inciting action, violence, revolution. The swing beat is guaranteed to fill a floor, but there’s undeniable tension and threat: “When I get down to this I’m a catalyst/Come here and do the right thing.” It’s a party song, provided you don’t scratch the surface. Standout track “Dip” is driven, accusatory, and bittersweet. Slowed-back and wound-down, it invites familiarity but drips with a sweetly sung accusation: “You dip your fingers in the water/ You wonder what’s your punishment?/You’ve gotten all your things in order/but what is your significance?”
For an album brimming with vitality, an almost intimidating call to arms, it could seem irritatingly ironic to name it “Dead.” It’s a powerful statement that doesn’t sit easily, but Massaquoi just laughed.
“Ha! Dead. Yeah…it’s just the feel of the album,” he said.
Is it really as simple as all that, though?
“I don’t know…we never spent that much time listening back during the recording process, but when we got together all the songs–and there must have been about 14, 15 of them–all of it just had this feel. This some sort of sadness. Melancholic. It’s a statement for us, but it’s something, for me anyway, of new beginnings. It’s not necessarily that’s it, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. There’s a dread going through the album, so that was it. That’s that.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Massaquoi argued that the three are really “pop boys at heart.” He explained that “it’s about finding a balance, having a pop sensibility, and being dark and weird at the same time. Our music should fit in with anything. Any audience, anything. We’re ambitious.”
And certainly, if Young Fathers is any one thing it’s ambitious. The trio bends genre in a manner that is confident and self-aware. The three borrow and push, striving for the strange and the new. They refuse to fit a niche, but not out of a need to isolate or to stay “underground.”
“We want as many people to hear us as possible,” Massaquoi said, asserting the group’s right to seek a position on a daytime radio playlist and still retain artistic integrity. It’s not, and it shouldn’t be seen as, mutually exclusive. “We’ve been put on a bill where we don’t really fly, but we still do it, you know. Even if they don’t like it, they’ve heard it. I’d rather they said we were shite, rather than, I don’t know. Nah, you’ll like it or you don’t. Case closed.”
“Dead” is not an album to overanalyze or attempt to unpick, and Young Fathers is a group best taken at face value. There’s a pure energy and urgency to the music, an artistic intellect that can’t be mistaken. It’s a soundtrack for doing, and the perfect recipe for an incendiary live show. It seems far too easy to dwell on how “alive” an album called “Dead” can feel, but as Massaquoi would say, “that’s that.”
‘There’s an honesty to us that you can’t make up,” he said. “People decide what they think it is, what they get from it. We just do it, and enjoy the process, and then whatever comes out, comes out. If it’s strong enough, and it’s something that we haven’t touched upon or done before, then all the better.”
Young Fathers plays on Friday, Feb. 28, at Kantine am Berghain in Berlin. The show begins at 20.00.