Step outside Australia, as Gang of Youths have done, and you may struggle to find someone who knows them by name. They’re unforgettable live – frontman Dave Le’aupepe has the charisma and intensity of a preacher, howling his songs like a burly Michael Hutchence. And, just like the songwriters he loves (Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits), his lyrics tell vivid stories: of a troubled but decent man, outrunning debts and trouble, wrestling with fear and depression, losing faith and finding it again. But Le’aupepe’s lyrical verbosity – “A rough arsehole using big words” as he puts it – along with the unashamedly redemptive note that carries through their indie rock, and the faintest echoes of their beginnings in Christian music, means that the very reasons their fans love them so have also earned them a reputation for being, well, a tad uncool.
“Are Gang of Youths too earnest for America?” asked Stereogum. The ABC described Le’aupepe’s lyrics as a “tendency to get all Bono on us.” Somewhere along the way they were labelled “the Ted Lasso of music”, which makes Le’aupepe roar. It’s not that they don’t translate overseas – they do the US late-night shows and European festivals – but it’s nothing like the popularity they enjoy at home. Go to one of their gigs abroad and you will be immersed in the unmistakable hum of hundreds of Australians in one room.
“Our fame in Australia actually fucked me up really badly,” Le’aupepe says. He’s sitting with bassist Max Dunn in the band’s studio in London (“The belly of the colonial beast,” as Le’aupepe puts it), where they’ve been living since the huge success of their second album Go Farther in Lightness. “It made me horrifically anxious and nervous, and it still does to this day. I came to London for a quiet life. Being big is not really what we were after. I don’t really want my face everywhere. I’m Australian, I’m proud as shit, you can hear it. But it’s really important that we just get treated like normies.”
Gang of Youths’ debut The Positions was released in 2015, when the band were barely in their 20s, but they had already lived a lot of life. It told the story of Le’aupepe’s marriage at 21 to his first wife, who had been diagnosed with cancer; her subsequent recovery and then their divorce; his substance abuse and suicide attempt, which Le’aupepe sings about in detail in Magnolia, a hugely catchy song named for the tree that the police sat him under after rushing to stop him. It is the only song Le’aupepe will admit is “a fucking jam. If I go tomorrow and someone says: ‘Did you write Magnolia?’ – fucking right I did.”
Two years after their debut came Go Farther in Lightness, packed with big, gutsy songs filled with raging drums and mournful strings. Le’aupepe went to New York, where he met his second wife; he asked her to move with him to London four days after they met. (“Dave is not here to fuck spiders,” Dunn says – in other words, Le’aupepe doesn’t waste his time.) He had no idea how big Gang of Youths had become until he returned to attend the 2017 Arias, Australia’s answer to the Brits. Watching them that night as they won best group, best rock album and album of the year, it was striking how young they all looked, jostling each other on stage, their faces gleeful and baffled.
Jesus wasn’t a prick to people, so try your best to be kind. Love the poor, fuck capitalism. And fuck megachurches that rip people off
Four years on, the final touches to their third album, angel in realtime, are done. Out in February, it is a euphoric work that sees Le’aupepe celebrate the peace he has found in his late 20s, and tell a remarkable personal story, about his father. The album is filled with strings, synths and Pacific Islander choirs – some new and others recorded decades ago by the English composer David Fanshawe. “He was concerned that these beautiful things would be lost to colonialism,” says Le’aupepe. “He wanted to save them for future generations – people like me, basically. It’s fucking important that Black and Indigenous artists reclaim our stuff.”
Sitting with Le’aupepe, now 29, and Dunn, 30, the tight-knit nature of the band is immediately clear. Le’aupepe lives with a seemingly crippling sense of impostor syndrome, which he discusses quite cheerfully, while Dunn looks on with despair. Le’aupepe hates his voice, his lyrics and both of their previous albums – though much of this seems rooted in who he was when he made them: younger, angrier, vulnerable. “I constantly feel like an impostor, always. Am I a good-enough person to be in this position? I hope so. Am I a good-enough musician? No … shut up,” he says to Dunn, who is groaning. “I’m literally not. I can’t play anything as well as the other guys can. I’m not a good-enough songwriter. Our whole career has been informed by my impostor syndrome.”
It is easy to feel as if you know Le’aupepe when so much of his life is in his songs: the scrappy Pacific Islander boy from Sydney’s western suburbs. His family lived on his mother’s disability pension while his father stayed home to raise Le’aupepe and his sister. The family attended Hillsong, the Christian megachurch, which was where the 10-year-old Le’aupepe met guitarist Joji Malani, keyboardist Jung Kim and former drummer Sam O’Connell (Donnie Borzestowski replaced O’Connell in 2014). Le’aupepe met Dunn in high school, and Gang of Youths was formed.
The band all identify as Christian but distance themselves from what Dunn calls “big C church”. “I have no qualms saying that I disagree profoundly with a lot of how I grew up,” Le’aupepe says. “I haven’t been associated with Hillsong for more than 10 years because I have chosen not to be. Those people treated me badly and rejected me, and as soon as we got successful, they’re suddenly nice. I don’t ascribe value to any institution any more but to the values I learned. Jesus wasn’t a prick to people, so try your best to be kind. Love the poor, fuck capitalism. And fuck these massive megachurches that rip people off.”
It is clear Le’aupepe is torn about his fame: on the one hand, it can make him miserable but, on the other, success has a greater emotional meaning. “I was a complete fuckup as a kid, I have no skills and qualifications, I can’t hold down a normal job,” he says. “But one of the things my dad always said to me was that he wanted me to do something that was helping the world. I don’t think that me being a musician does anything, honestly. But he wanted me to care about people who are struggling. And that’s what the whole thing is about; it’s about making him proud.”
I don’t know why Dad left his kids. I don’t think he spent a day in his life not regretting it. I think he punished himself
Teleso “Tattersall” Le’aupepe was a “radiant, astonishing, lovely, gentle, funny, scary, intimidating, intelligent, brilliant, energetic, decent man”, says his son. In 2018, Tattersall died at the age of 70 – or so Le’aupepe thought. Digging into his father’s ancestry, he learned many secrets. First, Tattersall was not born in New Zealand in 1948, but in Samoa in 1938; he was actually 80 when he died. Second, he’d told Le’aupepe that his mother had been a German Jew, and that he had only visited Samoa as a child. It came out that Tattersall was entirely Samoan and he’d lived there until he was 26. Third, he had two children there. Suddenly, Le’aupepe had two older half-brothers. “My entire world completely flipped in the space of a day. Sneaky bastard,” he says, fondly.
In 2018, Le’aupepe tracked his brothers down in New Zealand: “Fucking top lads. We’re really close now. So part of this album is about giving light to a story that needs to be told. I don’t know why Dad left his kids, and I don’t think he spent a day in his life not regretting it. I think he punished himself. But I feel as if I have a responsibility to my brothers to allow their stories to be known.”
The new album is Gang of Youths, but perhaps not as we have known them. Guitarist Malani has left the band to return to Australia; their newest member is violinist Tom Hobden, formerly of Noah and the Whale. The instrumentation was finished years ago, but Le’aupepe has struggled with the lyrics. “Dave had all this happening in his head and it felt like no one could help him with the final step of being OK with saying it,” Dunn says. “It was like the longest university group assignment, but you love everybody you’re working with and it goes for two years. It’s fucking awesome. I’m really proud of it. Dave won’t be able to say that.”
“Nah, you know what?” Le’aupepe has a think. “It is OK.”
Gang of Youths are touring the UK and supporting Sam Fender to 30 Nov, then going on a world tour in 2022. Their third album angel in realtime will be released in February.