Australian juggernaut Gang Of Youths’ new album debuted at Number 1 in their home country’s Albums Chart earlier this summer, but the past few years haven't all been smooth sailing for frontman Dave Le’aupepe, who’s just trying to make sense of the world.
It’s midnight in Adelaide, and Dave Le’aupepe is eating pizza. In the heart of a city beating with energy at every corner, he sits - taking a moment in the midst of a mammoth headline tour around Australia that has already seen his band Gang Of Youths described as one of the true ‘great Australian bands of all time’ with only two albums to their name. Life in the city spirals around him, life happening, moving, starting and ending, and those very fabrics are entirely what make up a man that doesn’t just write music, but breathes it. It’s not a case of throwing himself into it, he’s already there, and Gang Of Youths are ripping down walls because of it.
It’s been a matter of weeks since ‘Go Farther In Lightness’ was released down in Oz, and its reaction has been staggering. Hailed as one of the defining albums of a generation, it’s all come as a product of Dave’s unflinching ambition for honest, raw and heart-moving anthemic rock - soaring for the biggest moments with a centre that doesn't shy away from the vulnerable moments that make up the human condition. It’s a truth that cleanses away any bravado and results in a band of immeasurable importance.
“By their very nature, there’s so much of my very being tied up in this work,” details Dave. “It manifests itself out of my experiences and out of my life. There’s nothing about this music that isn’t entirely me, so it can be very difficult. I’ll aways be looking at what I do as somebody deeply entrenched in those experiences, even if I’m 10, 15 years down the track. I look at ‘The Positions’ now like I’m still that kid.”
For a debut album, ‘The Positions’ is a rarity. An album not looking for buzz-hunting glory, but instead sits as a devastating body of work that delved into a period which found Dave dealing with cancer, the disintegration of a relationship and the struggle within his mind to cope with the darkness surrounding him. It’s an emotional, but once again unflinching examination of the depths life can throw at you - and sparked a reaction that saw Gang Of Youths play the biggest stages across Australia and beyond. Yet its most powerful moments were those connecting to thousands who found solace in its vision and in turn, Dave found in himself, something that continues through ‘Go Farther In Lightness’.
“Dude, I belong in fucking prison - I shouldn't be doing this,” starts Dave, when thinking of the personal connections and stories he’s heard over the past few years. “For a 21 year old girl who is suffering from depression and anxiety or has a really fucked up childhood or has had a parent die from cancer, for them to come up to me and say ‘Hey this song means a lot to me, this helped me through a really dark time’ - damn that’s a fucking good feeling. I’m not sure I deserve to be feeling it, but there it is. To experience that as a person who thought they never had anything to offer in life is like fucking cool - I’ve just got to hold tight to that feeling.”
After something so personal yet mammoth, Dave and the band had to look for what was next. “We didn’t know how to follow up an album like ‘The Positions’ with something compelling,” he explains, “so it was kinda a scary process. This whole fucking record was ‘How the fuck do I follow that up?’ and it was so terrifying and difficult for me. ‘The Positions’ seemed like an insurmountable piece of work because I thought that was all I had to say, but lo and behold I had so much fucking more. Obviously, my recovery from that moment is very evident in my life, but it’s hard for me to detach myself from who I used to be when it’s so deeply ingrained in the way I am now.”
As far as second albums go, ‘Go Farther In Lightness’ is staggering. A 75-minute tour de force of passionate Springsteen-meets-U2 songwriting that tugs at the heartstrings yet comes out fighting with the sound of a band surging and looking for more. Touching upon life, death, joy, fear, self-loathing and longing, it’s a gripping heavyweight of an album that finds Dave once again pouring himself into every note but this time, looking at how to recover from the dark and come out fighting. Much like human life, it jumps between highs and lows but feels vital in each moment.
It’s a mirror to the man he is, growing up in the tough inner-cities of Sydney. “I grew up poor, Samoan and in an area surrounded by council estates. Single income family with Mum and Dad doing their best, so expression on a public level was never really an option for me until I started making music. I think growing up poor means something to me that I’ll never shake, it’s like a chip on my shoulder that feeds into a desire to be singular or perfect in a sense.”
It’s during his teenage years, where Dave played in a number of hardcore bands around the area, that he first met guitarist Joji Malani before linking up with bassist Max Dunn, keys man Jung Kim and drummer Donnie Borzestowski. It’s a bond that allows Dave to paint out his tantalising insights on life yet amplify that up to a sound that shakes you from the very first listen. For frontman Dave, it’s an indescribable connection.
“It’s the single most liberating and exciting thing in the whole world to be surrounded by people you love and have loved for more than half of your life who are there for me. I don’t have a great risk assessment on life - I tend to attack it with such ferocity and to have people happy and willing to follow me into that world, who gave up Unity Groups, security and comfort, relationships, that’s incredible.
“I’m not that fucking good at what I do to warrant that kind of attention from my friends; I’m just not. To feel like an inherent responsibility for these guys on a multitude of levels, not just as workmates but as best mates and for them to reciprocate that love - you don’t get that in any other job, and it makes it all worthwhile.”
For someone who feeds everything, they are into the music they make, facing criticism can sometimes be hard for Dave. When the music you make focuses on such open wounds, it can be difficult to acknowledge - something Dave is learning to overcome and prioritise in the way he creates and experiences art. It’s not about how many stars are next to your album, what those sitting at desks think, what matters is the emotions and words written across thousands of fans’ faces when they step on stage, and the power that has. Unabashed, it’s all about allowing yourself to care - and let natural reactions take over. After all, that’s the core of who we are right?
“I think the real problem for me is getting addicted to critical acclaim - it turns into a drug, with the way people reacted to that first record and now with this album,” explains Dave, in between bites of his pizza. “I’ve started to learn how much more powerful that response from a live audience is, and need to let that critical talk be dwarfed by that sense of comradery in an audience.
“Of course, what we do can be met with potential cynicism, but for fuck's sake, three guys on the internet or some fucking dipshit fanboy or music critic can’t replace the screams of thousands of kids and adults alike who are experiencing something vital with the music. I think it just comes from having a foundation in some way in the belief in the redemptive power of rock music. The ability to kickstart someone’s fucking life, to put an end to sad times, to elevate suffering and to bring good things to dark situations - there’s a part of me that still believes in that. Yeah, it may be cheesy or corny, but I don’t give a fuck.”
It’s that message that rains through ‘Go Farther In Lightness’. From the ‘Thunder Road’ echoes of opener ‘Fear & Trembling’, the ripping scuzz of ‘What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out?’ and ‘Atlas Hands’, the heartbreaking tales of ‘Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane’ and ‘Keep Me In The Open’ and the cathartic life-affirming majesty ‘The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows’ and ‘Say Yes To Life’ - it’s bold and unguarded, and oh so powerful because of it.
“Y’know,” points out Dave. “I would never say that music has ever been an escape to me. For me, music is a coping mechanism, a protection to the dark times, to heal and also a way to bring up old shit. I tackle the world head on, I tackle my life head-on, so music isn’t the escape pod, it’s the fucking helmet.”
As Dave Le’aupepe prepares to get so much-earned rest as Gang Of Youths continue their trails across the globe, there’s that feeling of tangible change. The power of music in its most guttural form - written across Gang Of Youths and every word that spills from their frontman’s mouth. It’s not about being ‘cool’ or ‘hip’, it’s about it being there when you need it the most, and in opening up for the world to see, Gang Of Youths have made themselves an essential voice.
For Dave, the ambition couldn't be clearer. “I want to reach people; we want to reach people! If there’s a 13-year-old Samoan kid in the back of The Horden Pavillion in Sydney who doesn’t really fit into footie, doesn’t fit into church or doesn’t fit into school, and they pick up a guitar and feels a sense of urgency and belonging as soon as that monstrosity comes out of the amplifier, then I’ve done what I wanted to do.
“To feel a sense of fire in your gut. The desire for meaning and to be meaningful. To feel a sense of longing more substantial than just being a flailing body. Whatever getting through to people looks like, we don’t care how many that may be but as long as we reach one. That’s pretty fucking cool.”
Taken from the November issue of Dork, out now. Gang of Youths' album 'Go Farther In Lightness' is out now.