Meet Gang of Youths, the hell-raising rock band whose songs grapple with God
By TRAVIS M. ANDREWS | The Washington Post | Published: December 31, 2018
David Le’aupepe was looking for salvation. Instead, he found rock stardom.
With his tight black jeans, black button-down, wild mane of curly black hair, unkempt beard, armful of tattoos and silver nose ring, the 26-year-old looked every bit the rock star during a recent interview. But his is a strange origin story.
The rocker, born to a Jewish mother and a Samoan father, grew up in Sydney, where he became involved with Hillsong, a Pentecostal megachurch that connects with its young congregation though music. It was there that a hammered-drunk Le’aupepe met a girl who was suffering from an aggressive form of cancer (before they eventually married -- and, later, divorced). In an attempt to lighten her dark days, he and some friends recorded songs, which he released on YouTube -- where they were seen by an "A&R guy, and that was that," as he described it.
Gang of Youths was born.
The unabashedly sincere and tremendously loud rock band has become one of Australia’s most famous groups but remains relatively unknown here in the United States. Its 2015 debut studio album "The Positions" was nominated for several AIRA awards -- the Australian version of the Grammys. The band swept them in 2017, winning best group, along with best rock album and album of the year for their newest studio album, a two-LP epic titled "Go Further in Lightness."
The songs concern all manner of philosophy, religion and humanity’s darkest impulses, while being absurdly uplifting at the same time. Still, it’s not Christian rock by any stretch of imagination. Le’aupepe creates the rare mainstream music that grapples with whether God exists.
Much like the Book of Revelation, his songs are studies in contrasts - in this case, between loud music and quiet ideology, between believing in the Almighty and declaring that He doesn’t exist, between bars and churchs, between love and fury.
"What is the most engaging, contrasting way to make this music appealing and hopeful? I believe in exploring every avenue of the darkness of the human condition," he told The Washington Post during an interview at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., in December before taking the stage. "I guess it was the church in me and how I was raised, but I’m always looking for the minor chord and the major lift, in a Leonard Cohen sense."
In that vein, "The Positions" deals with his ex-wife’s illness, their marriage and subsequent divorce, his drunken suicide attempt -- you know, light topics. "Go Further in Lightness" focuses on his late father’s cancer, the death of a friend’s newborn, his attempts to define his relationship with God -- you know, more light topics.
On the song "Fear and Trembling," in which he tries to find some capital-T Truth, Le’aupepe references writing by Soren Kierkegaard ("If faith is to lose the mind to win God, then I guess I got nothing to prove") and Shakespeare ("A kind of existential loneliness that struts and frets a stage") before screaming, as if in pain, "I feel everything! I feel it all! I feel it in my bones and in my f---ing skull!"
Another song, "Persevere," finds him having a conversation with the friend who just lost a baby. "I couldn’t count the times I’ve ragged on heaven as an opiate invented by the weak. ... So I throw him 40 lines about how I don’t think He exists," Le’aupepe sings. Then, the friend replies with what must be the most expletive-laden argument for a greater power ever recorded: "God is full of grace and his faithfulness is vast. There is safety in the moments when the sh-- has hit the fan. (He’s) not some vindictive motherf---er, nor is he sh---y at his job."
The lyrics may be personal, but the music is bombastic. The songs are gargantuan, many stretching well beyond the seven-minute mark without losing their pounding energy, bolstered by Donnie Borzestowski’s mercilessly relentless drumming and Joji Malani’s soaring guitars.
"The synergy between lyrics that are introspective and turning the gun on myself combined with music that feels grand and beautiful and resolves well ... I think that works for people," Le’aupepe said
It does seem to be working. After years of touring in the United States, Gang of Youths has finally moved from barrooms to larger venues like the 9:30 Club after the band’s U.S. television debut in March on "Late Night With Seth Meyers."
"I think we sort of hit our stride here, because I think here there’s kind of an absence of broad, appealing rock music that attempts to be relatively insightful or intelligent," he said. "I’m not saying we’re succeeding in that, but we’re attempting it. I always thought there was a death-defying hope and courage in humanity that was really underrepresented in rock music."
Gang of Youths probably shouldn’t be popular. Irony has long been the currency of the Pitchfork brand of indie rock.
But Le’aupepe never considered placing his heart anywhere but on his sleeve, a remnant of the earnest singing at Hillsong. (He paints a picture in one song: "We were raised by the preachers. They danced in the aisle, with a mosh pit up front full of youths.")
"I hate irony. I can’t even do it well. Irony is inherently divisive, and I don’t like to be divisive." Music "puts people of all creeds, colors and on the political spectrum together," he added, before bringing up a libertarian he met who also happens to be a fan of the leftist band Rage Against the Machine. To Le’aupepe, music connects people if it’s honest, and that’s what he’s trying to achieve. He belts out his mission statement in "Say Yes to Life": "Go be part of the new sincere."
Bring up David Foster Wallace’s comments against irony, and he’ll pull up a sleeve to reveal a DFW-themed tattoo and begin quoting "Infinite Jest." Bring up fellow rockers like the Hold Steady or Titus Andronicus, and he’ll wax poetic about the "honesty" of their respective lyricists, Craig Finn and Patrick Stickles. Bring up contemporary, irony-free artists like Julien Baker or Leslie Feist, and he’ll immediately begin stumbling over his words to point out how fraudulent he feels being mentioned in the same sentence as them.
Most of all, though, he’s sincere about his search -- one that will continue.
"I will always be searching for God somewhere. ... For a while there, it always felt like I was supposed to be ashamed of my religious heritage. But I can’t be. I can’t be," he said. "The most rewarding thing that I can do is explore human belief and tragedy and religious ideas - ideas of Jesus and God -- with a purity of heart, the human sense of searching for something good."
Or, as he says in verse:
Say what you want with blood and bone,
And stick a finger in their faces when they say you’re overblown!
Say yes to sun! Say yes to pain!
Say yes to sticking with a city through a thousand days of rain!
Say yes to grace! Say no to spite!
Say yes to this! Say yes to you!
Say yes to me! Say yes to love! Say yes to life!
And if that doesn’t work, there’s always rock ’n’ roll. As he sings on "Let Me Down Easy": "If it’s late, you’re drunk and wanting a reason, some reason to live, I always say just put on some Whitesnake."