Coming off their critically acclaimed debut album, Young Fathers are back with one of the best albums of the year thus far with White Men Are Black Men Too. Alloysious Massaquoi took some time to discuss the role of pop music, the album’s production, race and identity, and the power of messaging through music.
Would you describe this is an overtly political album?
It’s just coming from the heart. It’s honest. It’s from the gut. It’s how we think as people. We’ve got conscious. So, the album is just about fairness. We’ve got stuff on our minds we want to say and we’re fortunate enough to use music to get that out to people.
What was the message you wanted to get out regarding race?
Everyone’s experience with race is different. Growing up in Scotland is gonna be different from America or South Africa. We took the title to South Africa and you think about what it means to people there. Things are still fresh for people. There’s still healing, emotionally and psychologically. They took that on and use it as a new identity. And that’s how we see it. We’ve always seen it as a positive thing. Because it’s addressing issues we feel should be talked about. It’s putting it forward for people to have a conversation. So we can talk about it, and I wonder what people in America are gonna think.
Do you feel your respective backgrounds shaped your outlook?
Yeah. I was born in Liberia and moved to Scotland. Kayus was born in Edinburgh, his parents are Nigerian, stayed in the States for six or seven years, then moved back to Scotland. So he’s got this transatlantic thing going on. It makes things very interesting.
Because race plays a big role in all three places.
Everywhere. And for Graham as well. Growing up in Scotland, he experienced a lot of racism as well because of his tan, olive skin. It’s mental. Everybody’s united in that sense. With issues of race there’s always a gray area, because it’s based on people’s experiences and their association with color. What is a black man? What is a white man? And it’s sexual as well. How women are treated all the time. But all in all, it’s about acknowledgement. Acknowledging difference. Things aren’t just black and white. That’s what’s put in the media, in society, but everything is in-between, and that’s the beauty. And this publicizes that, puts it out there for people, because it can change people’s mindset. Music is a powerful tool. So having this title, White Men Are Black Men Too, can get people thinking. We could’ve just tweeted that or used it as a clothing thing but we embodied it. It’s an album and we’re promoting it so journalists and radio have to say that statement. And it goes deeper than that. Look at us. We’re a multiracial group. Us performing together is a statement in itself.
‘Dare Me’ is a really interesting song on the record. What’s it about?
It’s up to interpretation. It could be a love song. It could be suicidal.
There’s some violent imagery.
Definitely. It’s open to interpretation.
How about the phrase “I could do more. I could care less.”
The sentiment behind it is that feeling where, like if it’s a love song, you’re either in love or it’s ended. But what about the stuff that’s in-between? That feeling of ‘I’m just not sure.’
That gray area seems to be a theme.
Because it doesn’t get talked about. It’s either I’m this or I’m that. Well, what if you’re a little bit confused.
Do you feel that that uncertainty comes from where the world’s at or where y’all are at, being 27?
For most people, I think 27 is a pivotal age. We’re older now, but still feel young. So it definitely comes from that realm.
I heard our lives can be divided into 7 year increments. So by that logic y’all would be on the cusp of a new cycle.
The new album sonically feels less polished than Dead, a bit harsher.
With Dead, we were experimenting, having some fun with some reverb and delays and things like that. Whereas this one, it’s a lot dryer. More stripped back. Closer. It sounds like someone’s like this *places recorder up to mouth* on the mic. And it’s a bit more driven. Because we were touring last year, and we were listening to a lot of gospel stuff, and a Mexican cover group. They were singing Motown covers. And they’re music was very driven. And we wanted to keep that. Less starts and stops. And we wanted to simplify the words. We didn’t want to over explain stuff. We felt like, okay, you have 20 lines. How do you say the best 5 lines, and then repeat that in a pop format. When you have more space, it lends itself for you to repeat things and the message will become stronger than adding more words to try and over explain things. For example, ‘Old Rock n Roll’, I’ve been wanting to say something like that for years. I had more lyrics than that. But instead, say the best 8 lines out of 30 or 40 lines, and avoid being excessive. So we just kind of confined everything, but still kept the weight.
Did you record the album with the show in mind, considering you were on the road at the time?
No. We had a conversation in Washington, D.C.. We had a show, and we were talking about the next steps. And we all had the same feeling: we wanted to simply things, we wanted to make things more driven, we wanted to make our interpretation of a pop record. It stemmed from that really. We never go in saying we need this type of song. But after making a song, during the album process, you think to yourself that would work. I can see this working really well live.
The record seemed spontaneous. Like there’s a small distance from y’alls emotion to the actual sounds on the album.
The way we work, we like to capture things very quick and move on. We don’t dilly dally for hours and spend a week for one song. It’s just a session, which can range from a few hours to 6 hours or whatever. And after that, we just move on to the next one. By the end of a few weeks we go back and listen to it and see what we’ve got. We recorded some in Austrailia, Illinois, Berlin and finalized it there with the mixing.
Did environment affect the process?
Not that I’m aware of but it must have somehow, because we try to absorb as much as possible.
You mentioned some of the technical aspects of your production earlier. What type of gear, hardware, software etc. do you use?
It’s a secret. But it’s a mixture of analog and digital. For the string section on the record, we used a broken one-string violin and it sounded terrible, that plucking on ‘Old Rock n Roll’. Folk wouldn’t use that because it’s broken but if it makes a noise, then it doesn’t matter, it’s fucking music. Do whatever is necessary and have no fear. ‘It needs to sound like this.’ That’s rubbish. Some of the stuff we do sounds distorted. So? Who’s to say it can’t sound distorted.
There’s an interview with Hank Shocklee where he talked about how hip hop producers aren’t given enough credit as technological innovators because the way they were programming 808s wasn’t the way it was intended but it spawned great music and the whole subwoofer industry.
Exactly. ‘This is the way it’s supposed to be.’ Fuck all of that. Just do what you want. If that’s how you feel like expressing yourself then you gotta do it.
Do you feel that’s integral to great pop music?
Definitely. It should make you feel uncomfortable. You never want to do something that’s been done. We never make the same record twice. Once you did it, it’s done. Move on. We stick to that ethos. And you just gotta push yourself. You never wanna be a second-rate, third-rate whatever. We destroy all our idols. They’re just human beings. Once you do that, you can hone your own abilities and get better.
Why did you feel it is important to call what y’all do pop music?
That’s how you help change things. Because it’ll change people’s perception of what’s normal. Our music won’t sound so strange. Whether people hate it or love it is beside the point, as long as diversity is there.
Watch Young Fathers perform songs from their new album below. They are on tour now.