Young Fathers: ‘We were once called an experimental rock band’

Latest album Heavy Heavy echoes how life has changed for the Scottish group

Many have tried to categorise Young Fathers in the past, and many have failed. Sometimes, spectacularly.

“I mean, it’s always a surprise,” says Alloysious Massaquoi, on a Zoom call from his mum’s house in the band’s hometown of Edinburgh. “It’s like playing bingo: ‘What are they gonna say now?’”

Massaquoi was tickled last year after the band released I Saw, the first single from their forthcoming fourth album, Heavy Heavy. “One [media outlet] called us an ‘experimental rock band’, or something like that,” he chuckles. “But y’know, I think there was a time when we put out a record – I think it was [their second album] White Men Are Black Men Too – where we specifically put a little sticker on it saying ‘File under rock & pop’, because people were coming up with all these random genres for us. So we said: ‘Let’s own that, let’s direct people to what we think this record is.’” He mulls over the flurry of potential genres that encapsulates the band’s sound. “It sounds somewhere in between an indie band and some sort of rap, or whatever,” he adds, shrugging. “But essentially, we love pop music.”

Along with Kayus Bankole and Graham ‘G’ Hastings, Massaquoi – known as ‘Alloy’ to his friends – the Scottish band has defied classification since their first mixtape was released in 2011. It’s an approach that has paid dividends: their debut studio album Dead won the 2014 Mercury Prize, and their subsequent releases have flourished, with 2018′s Cocoa Sugar proving their most commercially successful album to date.


Its follow-up, Heavy Heavy, is not their pandemic response album, despite its title and its longer-than-usual gestation period (they began developing and recording it mid-2019).

“It’s more so how life has changed for all of us – both individually and together as a group,” explains Massaquoi. “We took some time apart, which I think was much needed. We’d been touring for the best part of eight, nine, 10 years. When you get some time off to spend with your family and your friends, and reconnect friendships, I think all that stuff just helps. We were coming from the angle of time changing, people growing up and getting older, and all that kind of stuff.” He shrugs. “You just want it to be better than the last one.”

The success of Cocoa Sugar (their highest-charting album to date, it also bagged them the Scottish Album of the Year award) didn’t factor into the making of Heavy Heavy, says Massaquoi.

“There’s never really any pressure on us,” he shrugs. “At least, we don’t feel it from outside sources. But we’re all pretty confident about what we do – so if we didn’t think it was better than the last record, we wouldn’t put it out. It’s a testament to us; it feels like another notch on the belt in terms of where we’ve taken it, direction-wise. There’s more of a communal aspect to it, and that just sort of happened organically. There’s always been threads of that through the records, everyone sort of singing in unison and a call-and-response kind of thing – but I think with this record, it just happened a bit more naturally. Probably because of what’s happened in the last few years; that’s probably seeped in, somehow.”

The band went through some personal changes in recent years, too. During their downtime, Hastings became a father and Bankole spent time travelling in Africa. Massaquoi used his free time to fortify his personal relationships.

“For me, it was spending time with family: just being a better son, brother, uncle,” he nods. “I think when you have so much time off, you have to look to the foundations and the relationships that have held you up and given you a lot of love and care. So for me, it was focusing on that, and spending time with friends ... just making time for people. Calling people back, and just being more consistent in that space. As long as my relationships, especially with my family, are solid, then everything else is a bonus, really.”

That undoubtedly factors into the resultant album, best heard on its more intimate moments, like Geronimo and Be Your Lady. Still, despite their thought-provoking album titles and the fact that they are a multicultural band, Massaquoi insists that Young Fathers have never set out to make any sort of political statement with their music.

“We know what’s happening in the UK and in the world; you just need to look out your window to see it,” he says. “And conversations that the guys and I have, and with friends and family as well ... it’s always there. It’s like a constant thing that’s there. I mean, we do support a bunch of causes, but I think it has to come through [in the music] in a more organic way. Not just a ‘We’re going to say that, because that happened’ type-thing ... [For example] there’s a time and a place to say ‘I love you’ in a really direct, obvious way, and then there are other ways you can maybe describe the feeling, describe the internal process. And that’s maybe a better way.”

Musically, Heavy Heavy is as experimental and bombastic as any of their previous material. This time, says Massaquoi, they wanted to capture the celebratory, anything-could-happen feeling of a second-line procession in New Orleans. You can hear that on songs like Rice and the unrelenting energy of Holy Moly: songs that encompass both light and shade.

“A New Orleans procession has always been something that we’ve loved,” he enthuses. “And just culture. People. Just humanity, basically; just how people live their lives with the little intricacies that everyone has.” He shrugs. “Those are the moments that we love to bring to the forefront. Some of our early videos were about catching people in their element, catching them off-guard. For us, that’s more interesting – when you see somebody maybe touch their face or pull their jumper a little bit, that becomes a highlight, because it’s not really seen. Everyone likes to be confident, but we’re all people and we all have doubts – so we just like to highlight that side of people, the lesser-seen side.”

On songs like Ululation, the African heritage of Massaquoi and Bankole is brought to the fore.

“We’re all open to stuff,” he says of other sources of inspiration. “There’s a lot of traditional African music that my mum had on, for example. But sometimes you listen to a bunch of stuff – even stuff you don’t like – and it can have an influence. We’re magpies; just collecting all of this stuff subconsciously, and it just seeps in. I like listening to records or songs that are not in English, for some reason. Even if what they’re talking about is mundane, it adds another layer; I don’t know if it just sounds more romantic,” he chuckles. “It just sounds new to me; I don’t understand the language, but I understand the feeling and the emotion that it’s conveying. And for us, that’s the heartbeat of what Young Fathers do. It’s getting that feeling across. Feelings are hard to describe, but you just know it.”

It all makes sense, he says, when you see Young Fathers playing live.

“I think that’s when people connect the dots and go ‘Aha, I get it! That makes sense’,” he says. “If we could get our performance in a photograph, it would be easier for people to understand, because they’d go ‘I know that feeling.’ People get us more in a live setting,” he grins, “so it’s been ... interesting to make albums.”

In any case, he is confident about what Heavy Heavy brings to the table. “I just want this album to be undeniable,” he says. “You always chase that as an artist; you always want people to connect with what you’ve done. We’ve not put anything out in a long time, but I think it’s better than the last record in so many different ways. It’s a different record, but I think it’s a better one. I could get all cerebral about it, but I just want it to be undeniable. I want people to be able to relate to it; I want them to go, ‘Yeah, this is something really special’.”

The million-dollar question is, what “file under ...” sticker would be put on the cover of Heavy Heavy? Rock? Indie? Hip-hop? Pop? World music?

“Hmm, good question!,” he laughs, thoughtfully scratching his beard. Suddenly, he has the answer. “Just put a big ‘life’ sticker on it,” he says. “Life experiences. There’s a communal aspect to this album, and that’s to do with people, and community, and individuals. So it’s just an album about ... life.”

Heavy Heavy is released on February 3rd. Young Fathers play the 3Olympia Theatre on March 1st

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes about music and the arts for The Irish Times