Gang of Youths’ 2015 debut record, The Positions, was a look into the depths of tragedy. David Le’aupepe, the frontman and chief songwriter for the Australian-based rock band, wrote songs about how his drug addiction brought him to his knees, his suicide attempts, his then-wife’s battle with cancer and their subsequent divorce.
In conversations, the band referred to The Positions as a “cancer record.” They didn’t anticipate having to go into a similar depth—literally and figuratively—for a second time, at least not so soon. But last year, Le’aupepe’s father, a huge influence on Gang of Youths, passed away after his own battle with cancer. That has been weighing heavy on the singer-guitarist and his bandmates, who are now preparing to make the follow-up to 2017 hit album Go Farther in Lightness.
“Dave has this spooky ability to kind of just have this bigger thing to say,” bassist Max Dunn said in a recent interview. “With The Positions… his wife was dying of cancer and [he had] a bunch of other shit going on, so … that record almost tracked the grief process in a way.”
A similar cathartic foresight went into planning Go Farther in Lightness. The band went to a Sydney bar in 2016, where Le’aupepe said the name that had come to him for the album, and what he wanted to accomplish.
“‘It’s going to be about finding beauty in the mundane and finding massive meaning in tiny moments,’” Dunn remembers Le’aupepe saying. “He goes and does it. We work together, and we produce this record. All the guys bring their whole heart to it and it kind of works out.
“I know that our record that we’re about to start making will definitely be touched by what happened with his father. I think that will be a lot of the bigger issues. But it’s never small with David.”
Gang of Youths have never attempted to be a “cool” band, instead focusing always on how to get their listeners to feel something big and specific. Dunn acknowledged that big-picture themes have permeated the band’s discography. In its songs, the quintet—which includes drummer Donnie Borzestowski, guitarist Joji Malani and keyboardist Jung Kim—has attempted to address that life is worth living, even when it’s a difficult life.
“That’s probably what’s going to happen on the next album and you know, Tattersall, Dave’s dad, will obviously be a huge inspiration for us,” Dunn said. “Writing from experience is one of our greatest strengths and abilities—to kind of take these huge, fucked-up things like death … and go, ‘This is me being human.’”
In Australia, Gang of Youths, who have been playing together since the members were in school, are one of the biggest bands. Malani, Kim and Le’aupepe met in church when they were 11. It was no ordinary church, but Hillsong, a massive music-centered congregation linked by churches spread out in Sydney.
None of the members are actually Australian other than the frontman, whose father was Samoan. Kim is from Chicago. Malani came to Australia with his family as Fijian refugee and Dunn is from New Zealand.
Dunn met Le’aupepe in high school, and the two played together often. Years later, when Dunn was 22, the frontman was starting a band and invited the bassist to join. Dunn didn’t meet Malani or Kim unil the first practice. There was another drummer at the time, but he was eventually replaced by Borzestowski, who was playing in another band at the time.
Even Dunn and Borzestowski, who didn’t attend Hillsong, grew up on gospel music. And Hillsong gave the band a stage.
“It’s a place where you’re allowed to be really, really shit and still be given an opportunity,” Dunn said. “A lot of people grow up in it because you’re allowed to have a go or learn to play in a band, and you learn to be musical. You learn the sort of spooky power where music is used in a context of a belief system. It may be a good parallel of a Bruce Springsteen concert, when you listen to ‘Born to Run’ and that music reaches into the working-class American heart and connects the story to the person, and the music’s part of it. That’s what church music is really good at doing. I think it would be bullshit to say it had no impact on who we became as musicians. Even though we’re not trying to make music that’s specifically for that, we grew up in that.”
Le’aupepe’s upbringing is well chronicled. He and his parents lived a lower-class life, off his mother’s disability payments. He has said many of the children he grew up with eventually ended up in jail. He eventually got into drugs and alcohol, as well as problems at school.
At Hillsong, he met his wife. He was just out of high school at the time and was often drunk. She was diagnosed with cancer. He started writing her songs and uploaded a few to YouTube, which attracted some industry attention.
His wife recovered from cancer, but their marriage didn’t. He drank and did more drugs. He tried to kill himself.
“I think Dave is super shaped by where he came from,” Dunn said.
But most of the members in Gang of Youths have faced their own tragedy. Malani’s family escaped Fiji after a coup. Borzestowski’s brother, himself a musician who performed as Szymon, took his own life. Dunn said that only he has lived a relatively easy life.
“I’m pretty much a WASP—privileged Anglo Saxon Kiwi kid who grew up in an idyllic New Zealand community. It [was] like a really great Southern Californian suburb but without the bullshit, in a tiny peaceful progressive country,” he said.
“But you know, each guy has had this kind of woven tragedy and ups and downs of life—no one more than Dave. I think that definitely formed some of the heart of the band, and this theme of overcoming.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.