Photos by Sam Brumby
Last weekend, the Gang of Youths lads were sleep-deprived and festival bound, driving their tour van through the English countryside.
It was then that Max Dunn, the band’s scruffy Kiwi bass-player, answered my phone call with a bit of confusion – “Sorry bro, you’re calling from where?”
When I explained that I wanted to interview him there and then, he didn’t skip a beat, jumping into the conversation while his bandmates ridiculed his thick Kiwi accent in the background. With surprising frankness, he spoke about his mental health struggles, the band’s “evil plans” for their Splendour set and a tour schedule that sounds utterly gruelling.
Gang of Youths have a rep for consistently delivering the goods when it comes to wooing stadium-loads of hyped-up punters. And while their studio sound is incredibly tight and heavily produced, their live shows are driven by frontman David Le’aupepe’s intoxicating ability to captivate every person in any given room or arena.
“I think Dave’s a really inspiring person,” says Max. “As someone who’s a very close friend of his, I completely see the effect he has on people because it’s the same on me.”
David Le’aupepe is tall, dark and handsome with a knack for clever lyrics and a reputation for being super friendly. But at 26-years-old, his life story is peppered with heart-wrenching moments. Le’aupepe was inspired to form Gang of Youths in 2012 after his then-wife’s cancer diagnosis.
A couple of years later, his marriage fell apart and his ongoing battle with depression and substance abuse led to a suicide attempt. The suicide attempt, on June 3rd of 2014, was immortalised in the song “Magnolia” from Gang of Youths’ 2015 debut album, The Positions. It details the night he got drunk and planned to jump in front of a truck.
After a stint in rehab, a six-track EP (Let Me Be Clear, 2016), a chart-topping album and a move to London, Gang of Youths are now arguably the biggest Australian indie-rock band since Tame Impala. Last year’s Go Farther in Lightness won a bunch of ARIA awards, including Album of the Year, with critics hailing it as the band’s “magnum opus”.
But while Gang of Youths’ indie-rock sound is certainly catchy and compelling, their message is what really seems to grab hold. A big part of the band’s popularity comes down to their ability to be emotionally vulnerable, both on stage and in public life more generally. Le’aupepe has often spoken openly about his personal struggles with mental health and suicide, which has proven disarming, relatable and sometimes cathartic for Gang of Youths fans.
“I guess he believes in sharing his story and that’s a big part of his art,” Max explains. “He really just takes his own experiences and makes art around them in a pretty raw way.”
But beyond the task of creating music, Le’aupepe’s candid admissions about his struggles have played a part in de-stigmatising mental illness, which is something that the band now sees as part of their mission. They offer hope to anyone who needs it.
“I’ve had full on mental health struggles my whole life,” Max declares. “I’d rather be open about that and about how getting help was a huge part of me having a better quality of life and growing as a person. Being open about it might save some other kid the drama and the bullshit. If you’ve got things going on your head and you feel like you need some help, just go and get it. That’s how I feel about it,” says Max.
Though their second full-length definitely still has its dark parts, critics have described Go Farther in Lightness as “a victory album”. Rather than total recovery, the victory is the band’s ability to look after themselves and each other. Max describes the band as “a brotherhood” and explains that it’s a relief to see Le’aupepe “in a much better place”.
The album’s reception was another victory, with three tracks from Go Farther in Lightness making top ten status in the Hottest 100, including the happy indie-pop anthem, “Let Me Down Easy”, which scored the second slot after Kendrick Lamar’s “HUMBLE.”. Max says the boys were particularly stoked to hit those ranks on the year that triple j changed the Hottest 100 from Australia Day.
“That was huge for us man,” Max beams. “Two of the guys in the band are indigenous to Oceania, so it’s massively close to their hearts, even though they’re not indigenous Australians. Seeing the emotion and the weight off the shoulders of the indigenous artists who are friends with the band was really, really cool as well. It really means something to people on a personal level. It’s not just political bullshit.”
While Gang of Youths are billed as an Aussie band, the members’ ethnic origins are pretty diverse: Le’aupepe has Samoan-Jewish heritage; Max is a Kiwi; guitarist Joji Malani is Fijian; keyboardist Jung Kim is Korean-American and drummer Donnie Borzestowski is Polish-Australian. They’ve also collectively relocated to London, where they all live together in a six-bedroom flat.
Their Saturday night set at Splendour will mark the beginning of a mammoth tour, much of which is already sold out. Max says it will be a good chance for the guys to catch up with friends and family, but that “there’s also a fair bit of pressure not to balls it up”.
The Saturday of Splendour will be a particularly special day for Gang of Youths because it coincides with their manager’s buck’s party. Max drops a few hints about the partying and pranks but he doesn’t want to spill too many of the details.
“We’ve got some pretty evil plans,” he laughs. “Nothing disrespectful, but I wouldn’t be surprised if [our manager is] forced to play a glockenspiel in the middle of our set at Splendour. I think we’ll get pretty creative with it, so if you see any crazy shit, that’s probably why.”