When we spoke to Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz last September, Duritz made sure to namedrop an up-and-coming group he called “the best rock and roll band on the planet,” called Gang of Youths.
“That record Go Farther in Lightness, you should get it, it will freak you out,” Duritz said at the time. “It’s a little between Tom Waits, Springsteen, [Counting Crows] and The Clash. That singer David Le’aupepe is as good a writer as you’re ever going to find … I saw them at Irving Plaza a few years back and [it was] the best show I’ve seen anyone play in decades.”
Eight months and a new LP later, Gang of Youths will return to North Texas for a show at The Echo Lounge & Music Hall on Tuesday, May 24 with special guest (and DFW natives) Drugstore Cowboy.
While characterized by frontman Le’aupepe’s intensely personal wordsmithing, Gang of Youths’s sound is much bigger than that, wearing Coldplay’s globe-trotting stadium-rock sensibilities on their sleeves in a manner that suits the band’s multi-cultural lineup. Le’aupepe is of Samoan and of Austrian-Jewish descent, while the other members of the band are Korean-American, British, Polish-Australian and from New Zealand. The band is based in Australia, where they have enjoyed a significant amount of commercial success.
In the months since the release of their third full-length LP Angel in Realtime, Gang of Youths landed spots on Fallon, Kimmel and Colbert and got the CBS Saturday Morning treatment with Le’aupepe sitting for a coveted conversation with Anthony Mason. By all means, Gang of Youths is primed for a breakout on American shores.
The sole Englishman in the band, former Noah and the Whale violinist/keyboardist Tom Hobden, is the latest addition to Gang of Youths, having joined in the waning months of 2019, after Gang of Youths supported Mumford and Sons on tour (including their Dallas stop), with whom Hobden was an auxiliary live member.
“At the end of that final U.S. Mumford tour, their guitarist Joji [Malani] left the band,” Hobden recalls. “So they were looking for someone new, and it had been great hanging out so much. We had similar ambition and vision, so they asked me if I wanted to join the band full time. Having been a session player for Mumford, I was hankering to get back to being in the top table, like actually contributing to the making of the music rather than just the performing of the music.”
Developed before and throughout the pandemic, Angel in Realtime is a joyous elegy for Le’aupepe’s father, who died in 2018 of cancer. The record is peppered with samples of Pacific Island drummers woven into the band’s massive sound.
“Most of the samples you hear on the record were recorded by [composer] David Fanshawe in either the late ’60s, ’70s, maybe even early ’80s,” Hobden says. “He basically set out to that part of the world and all these different Pacific Islands to record indigenous communities singing local songs, Christian hymns, all kinds of things.”
Hobden says that despite the slickness and arrangements of the recordings, many of the album’s sonic attributes were flights of fancy before the songs were even complete. “We actually went out to Budapest and recorded a whole string orchestra, and that was for songs that weren’t even on the radar,” he says laughing. “So that was quite an interesting process. David would go away and write like a bombastic orchestral arrangement, and it made the record! It’s on a song called ‘Returner.’”
Hobden says the band’s process of experimenting with sounds as they came was a luxury ironically provided to them by the pandemic when the deadline to finish the record was extended.
“To be honest, we were just not ready,” he says. “We didn’t have the songs, we were paying money for these great places in London to record at, but we weren’t in a position to do it. And I, as a new guy, I wasn’t really querying the method because I just assumed this was how this band works. We would go in the … studio to smash it out. But it wasn’t working out. Dave was going through a sort of writer’s block.
“The boys had toured extensively in 2019, and you need a better break before you start trying to switch your mind around to not touring and writing instead.”
At the time, the band was in a creative rut, and having spent a significant amount of money in the studio without results meant they had to come up with a more economical method of recording.
“We were forced into a circumstance whereby we had to go and find our own space,” Hobden says. “We had to self-produce. But thankfully, Dave wasn’t having to write songs when he was in that state of mind where he wasn’t really feeling it.”
All of a sudden, when the heat was on outside, the world stopped turning and COVID lockdowns went into effect.
“We had our own studio in East London in Hackney,” Hoden says. “We could go there every day, and even though we were under quite harsh lockdown restrictions in the U.K., we were able to go back because it’s a place of work. So we could go and hang out and be creative under no sort of time pressure. We would not have made this album the way it is the way it came out if we didn’t have the time and freedom to explore things.”
“Everyone is just coming with different ideas, and when you set the sort of parameters that wide in terms of influences, you can really just go to town with it … You can just follow your ear. If it sounds good, it’s good.” – Tom Hobden
Before the lockdown, the band’s initial sessions were with producer Peter Katis, who produced Go Farther In Lightness and is likely most known for his work behind the boards on esteemed LPs such as Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights and The National’s Boxer. However, the unproductive nature of the sessions and the sudden change in global lifestyle led to Katis’ contributions being more advisory than sonic.
“Peter is actually a dear friend of the band’s and a sort of mentor figure to Dave,” Hobden says. “But in all honesty, we just were not ready so for the whole three weeks, so whenever he was in London, we really didn’t do much. He ended up cooking more meals and actually did end up being in the kitchen more than behind the desk — a different kind of producing.”
Hobden continues with a restrained laugh: “Honestly it was a shame he ended up not really contributing that much. He did a thing that is almost more important as a producer. Not necessarily pulling sounds but guiding everyone through the process. There was a lot of heart-to-hearts, and that was almost as invaluable at that stage. Obviously, we won’t get ourselves in that situation again going forward. We’ve learned a lot of lessons on this album, and I’d love to make another record where his skillset is put to better use.”
Now that Hobden has settled into his role in the band, he says he feels comfortable with the seemingly endless creative environment Gang of Youths has become.
“Everyone is just coming with different ideas and when you set the sort of parameters that wide in terms of influences, you can really just go to town with it,” he says. “You can just follow your ear. If it sounds good, it’s good. That was pretty much the philosophy. There’s a sense of, like, ‘Let’s just make something that doesn’t sound like anything on the planet.’”