It seems these days you can’t go an hour without hearing about Gang of Youths, with the Sydney four piece ready to release their debut album The Positions. Over a middy of stout, frontman Dave Le’aupepe talks heroism and justice in the real world, the genius of Margret Atwood, depression and carving out a music career with his three best friends. But first we break the ice over some movie talk.
Photos by Liam Cameron.
DAVE: Have you seen Girl Interrupted?
HAPPY: No I haven’t, I don’t watch enough movies these days.
DAVE: See I watch a lot of movies, lots. All my friends are not real. They’re not available for playdates. (Burps) And now I’m burping, sorry I’m derailing this interview already.
HAPPY: Not at all dude, I spent 10 minutes talking donuts with Winterbourne the other week.
DAVE: Who are Winterbourne, are they any good?
HAPPY: Yeah they’re pretty good, lots of folky, acoustic stuff.
DAVE: That’s pretty cool, at least they’re having a go.
HAPPY: Yeah that’s the best thing about people I interview, they just have a crack and if they’re lucky doing music full time can be an actual job.
DAVE: It is a fucking thing! I still don’t know how it happened to us.
HAPPY: Do you do music full time now?
DAVE: I do it, I do it, because of publishing and stuff. I still play a guitar in a cafe in Cronulla to make spending money.
HAPPY: Does anyone recognise you?
DAVE: No, fuck no. It’s the Shire, I’m not even sure if they have the internet down there. I play a lot of stuff I like, I play a lot of songs people haven’t really heard before. I play a lot of Sonic Youth but that doesn’t really translate well. Sometimes I play The Strokes‘ This is It back to front. I’ll play more modern shit like The National or acoustic versions of LCD Soundsystem.
HAPPY: Which you’ve done on radio now.
DAVE: Yeah! That was fun, but that was weird.
HAPPY: How so?
DAVE: Because I was on the radio doing fucking Like A Version, don’t you think that was weird? Three years ago I was sitting on my couch scratching my balls wondering what the fuck I was gonna do with myself.
HAPPY: I wonder if anyone in the Shire heard it on the radio and thought “That sounds familiar, I know that guy…“
DAVE: I hope not (laughs). There’s nothing worse than being recognised by someone and you think that you know them because they’re so friendly when really they’ve just seen your band play. They’d say “Hey man! How you doing?“, and I’d be like “Yeah, really well…um Josh? Jessiah? Matt?” Nah, I don’t pretend that I know people. I have trouble lying so I’m pretty transparent. So I’ll just be like “I don’t remember you man, but hi!“.
HAPPY: So no one’s recognised you?
DAVE: (pauses) I don’t want to say that. I’ll tell you when the recording’s off. (laughs) I’ll say that to you as my new friend in the after hours interview. I wanted to maintain so much anonymity for so long that I just, I don’t know, it’s hard. And you have to do press stuff. I don’t want to do that cliche electro thing of “We’re not gonna show our faces“, that shit is so fucking boring. Your face has to be out there. My fucking face and all of our faces are on the album cover.
HAPPY: The first thing on that album cover I’m drawn to is you. Image is such a huge part of being a muso and how people will first receive you. If you’re profile picture is a black screen no one will be that interested.
DAVE: Exactly. At least present yourself as something! Not some benign, meaningless apparition.
HAPPY: That personal connection is important. I was thinking about this a few weeks ago, how there aren’t many bands with that magnetic, charismatic frontman. But then I immediately thought of you man. You’re name and image is such a huge part of the band.
DAVE: (laughs) That was a huge struggle for me, I never wanted that shit. I wanted to remain anonymous but I realised the story of what we fucking do is so intrinsic to my personal life. It’s so deeply and profoundly involved with the past four years of my life, I can’t be some nameless ghost. I can’t be non-existent, you have to make an appearance. For anybody to give a fuck about the meaning of this record and how profoundly important it was for the four of us to make it, they’ve got to know who we are. I don’t want to pretend to be some hipster douche who doesn’t want to be seen. Which sucks when someone recognises you and you’re initially like “Can’t you see that I’m fucking eating?”, but no, it’s cool.
Cool shoes by the way, you have Batman shoes!
HAPPY: Thanks, I walked by a shop by chance and saw them. I was broke too.
DAVE: (Laughs) You didn’t do anything I wouldn’t approve of did you?
HAPPY: (Laughs) No. It was between paying my phone bill for the month or owning fucking Batman sneakers.
DAVE: That’s very fiscally irresponsible of you, I like that (high-fives). I love superheroes. I know I like someone when they still maintain that child-like bewilderment and wonderment at the awesomeness of a superhero. The benevolence and kindness of this all powerful person.
HAPPY: It’s such a rare thing. Heroism, that concept isn’t really at anyone’s forefront anymore.
DAVE: Fuck yeah. It’s uplifting and human. There’s something about the human spirit that triumphs with a superhero. Sure they’re using mutations and powers but it’s all archetypal. It’s the thing about humans that make us separate from fucking gorillas and otters. The dichotomy of the graphic novel and morality figures are important. Where else are we gonna find that in the 21st century? I like The Punisher, I think there’s a part of me that likes that Old Testament vengeance. The thing I like about The Punisher is I like to live vicariously through all the visceral justice of it all. His unrelenting commitment to retribution, to claiming recompense. I like that. Being able to see that through fiction, you live vicariously through that shit. He’s like Atilla the Hun. He’s the scourge of God, that’s what Atilla the Hun said about himself. Finding all these pricks and committing heinous atrocities. Which is kind of true to life. Like when you see a pedophile standing trial you don’t want to see him on trial, you want to cut their throats. But we can’t do that, we’re a civilised society and we believe in everyone’s right to a fair trial. In The Punisher that motherfucker just kills people, and he kills the right people. Not that I would encourage that in real life. I listen to a lot of punk rock and metal, and you’re sort of able to ingest all these fantastical notions of what morality is without having to expel that stuff.
HAPPY: There’s a Daredevil comic where he chooses not to save a criminal from falling off a roof because he knows if that guys gets crippled he won’t commit more crimes.
DAVE: It’s utilitarian. I love The Prince by Machiavelli. Have you read that? It’s all social engineering man. He’s a horrible man but he gets that shit done. He’s trying to make his way up the ladder of a royal court.
HAPPY: Have you read a book called Infinite Jest by David…
DAVE: David Foster Wallace? I fucking love that shit. I love Foster Wallace. I was really sad when he died. I like David Foster Wallace because he was never smug. He never pontificated to his reader, he’s never about intellectual superiority. Sometimes you find a lot of those writers who were popular in the 80’s and 90’s wanted to pontificate and they wanted to be professorial.
HAPPY: Yeah, Philip Roth did a lot of that.
DAVE: Yeah, he likes to placate and he likes to patronise us. Foster Wallace is very human. Another writer who did that was Margaret Atwood, remember The Handmaid’s Tale?
HAPPY: I love that book.
DAVE: That’s one of my favourite books. George Elliot, I don’t remember what her real name is, but she was the polar opposite to Jane Austen who I fucking hate. Jane Austen is one of the most patronising fucking people. Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, it was all upper class bullshit. It was Jane Austen flexing her literary muscles. Not George Elliot, she had some fucking class about her.
Middlemarch! Everybody needs to read Middlemarch! I found a copy of it when I was 15 and that was amazing. Margaret Atwood though, tremendous. Extension English in high school, that’s when I fell in love with her.
HAPPY: Have you ever had a challenging book to read? It took me two years to get through Lolita.
DAVE: “Lolita, fire of my loins, light of my life. My sin, my soul“. * I have trouble with the themes in that one but Nabokov writes a good sentence. That thing about the tip of the tongue. There’s a sense of rhythm. I felt guilty finding so many lines so beautiful because I’m really uncomfortable with the child abuse.
HAPPY: I’d feel bad reading it on the train, or even laughing out loud because it is funny in a twisted way.
DAVE: It is a funny book. Just the opening passage though, it’s iconic and beautiful. Nabokov nailed it and I find it hard to say it’s a book I love but it’s a book I enjoyed reading. It’s like how I feel with On The Road, which is the most clichéd example of fiction ever. I can’t say I loved the book and I didn’t like many of the characters, but I enjoyed reading it. It’s why people want to quote that, there’s a simplicity and beauty to the language. Truman Capote actually said about Kerouac (in solid Capote impression) “That’s not writing that’s typing“, it’s fucking good typing bitch, I’m not reading In Cold Blood twice you dick. Not that Capote was bad, but don’t denigrate this guy who’s making beautiful art. I love that Hunter S. Thompson would forget that grammar was a necessity.
HAPPY: Have you ever considered writing a book yourself?
DAVE: Maybe. It’s a fucking commitment. I would write about a 15 year old with erectile dysfunction. It’d be a picture book, a pop up one. (laughs) I actually have no idea. When I have something to write about I can’t just write one song about it I have to write a whole album. That’s what I did with this one. So maybe. I try to do something similar to Steinbeck, finding a way to discuss mortality and liberty and all that kind of thing. The price of generosity and freedom in the 21st century, something like that.
HAPPY: That’s pretty cool, I hope one day that happens. One of the things I feel really draws people to Gang of Youths is the inherent truth to your storytelling, and that definitely shows on The Positions.
DAVE: Thanks man. I actually read the Happy review but I think he missed the point. There’s a song that’s criticised in it called Magnolia, that was about a botched suicide attempt last year. It feels weird that a lot of it is getting misinterpreted but I don’t know, I can’t control how people interpret it. But thank you.
HAPPY: Ah wow, I didn’t know that was what Magnolia was about.
DAVE: I’m actually comfortable talking about it now. I don’t really lie to anyone in my personal life so why the fuck would I do it here? I’m giving away a piece of myself and I’m telling everyone something that’s private. But fuck it, I fucked up that day. I made a really dumb decision and I wrote a song to make up for it.
HAPPY: I’m sorry to hear that Dave. I can empathise with you, I went through a similar thing once.
DAVE: I’m sorry to hear that man. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. We need to learn how to fucking talk about suicide and depression and psychotic and non-psychotic illnesses. We don’t want to talk about them. The more embarrassed I am about trying to take my own life I’m giving that shit power over myself, I’m letting the world give it power. I’m giving credence to this delusion that it’s not okay to talk about it which is fucked up and stupid. We don’t even live in 1920’s Berlin where it’s a fucking crime. I don’t feel like I’m under duress, I feel like I need to share it.
HAPPY: The more people are inspired to talk about it can start a conversation.
DAVE: Let’s start a conversation about alcoholism and suicide in the artistic community that people wouldn’t have before. People are too ashamed or fetishise it. Don’t fucking fetishise suicide and substance abuse. Why? I’m glad we’re alive, I’m glad we’re having this conversation.
HAPPY: You mentioned earlier how three years ago you were just scratching your balls on the couch, and now everywhere I look I see Gang of Youths which makes sense when now you have a big machine like Sony behind you.
DAVE: We’ve been friends for 10 years, so we’ve just stuck together through everything. We have full creative control over everything. Sony have been nothing but fucking supportive, and very very very permissive, and involved in my personal life. My fucking shit show of a personal life. I’m probably their most difficult person, and they’ve just been so fucking supportive. They’ve been with us the whole way and then some, and having the big machine is fucking great. We still have vision, we don’t want to be stagnant. If we stagnate we stop. What’s the point of doing this if we aren’t growing and changing and becoming better. So Sony getting behind their nuts behind us is pretty fucking cool. I just want to be good. I want to be able to sit back at some point in my life and say “Okay, I’m not awful“.
HAPPY: I think that’s really cool that you guys at the end of the day are just such great mates.
DAVE: Yeah we all met at Jesus camp. We all grew up in Hillsong church. I know it’s the most uncool thing to admit we grew up there but I don’t give a fuck. We all met there as kids. I was the bad kid, I got in trouble and sort of led them astray. We were rebels and whatever. Best people around those three. This whole operation, we’ve known each other for a decade. This a very family-like enterprise.
HAPPY: When I was talking about the band with the Happy chief he described you as “Serious music played by adorable friends“.
DAVE: (laughs) That’s fucking awesome. They were my best friends in the whole world before Gang of Youths. We’re just besties. There was a thing that was missing in a lot of the bands that we were in before. There wasn’t that sense of camaraderie and closeness. That mutual admiration for each others’ humanity. They are the most important human beings in my life before any of this shit happened, and they put up with me.
HAPPY: Well with that I’ll ask my last question. At Happy we always talk about things that make us Happy, so Dave what makes you happy?
DAVE: March Madness college basketball, October in the baseball season, the NBA playoffs. I love metal, I love Alkaline Trio. I like the feeling you get when you put on Daydream Nation and listen to the whole thing. I like sitting on my own doing nothing and watching anything with Tina Fey in it. I like going for really long runs. I like the armchair banality of just being and not really doing anything.
*Dave did get this line backwards, but we’ll allow it.
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