Young Fathers have just given birth to their third album and are looking forward to playing in Trabolgan, writes Ed Power.
Storm Emma had made landfall in Edinburgh and with much of the city claimed by snowdrifts Young Fathers’ Kayus Bankole isn’t sure how he’s going to make it to band rehearsal on time.
“I don’t know when I’m going to get to the studio. I might have to walk the whole way,” he chuckles in a deep voice that will be immediately familiar to fans of Young Fathers’ intense and uneasy hip-hop.
The laughter is a surprise as Young Fathers are not exactly renowned for their jollity. When the Scottish trio won the prestigious Mercury Music Prize for their 2014 debut album, Dead, and they were trooped in front of the obligatory scrum of photographers, they glowered as if they’d just received some bad news. As curmudgeonly cherry on top they also declined to be interviewed by several right-leaning publications.
This wasn’t grumpiness they would later insist. They felt uneasy in the spotlight and didn’t see why they should pretend otherwise. The tone is very different as Bankole chats to the Irish Examiner.
He is easy-going, his conversation peppered by humorous asides. Perhaps it’s a case that he is more well-inclined towards a fellow Celt than towards the London press pack. Or maybe he’s in a good mood because Young Fathers are about to release arguably their best album to date, the astonishing Cocoa Sugar.
The popular line on Cocoa Sugar is that it’s Young Fathers’ most commercial record. Concocted during a protracted period in the studio, it is undeniably melodic and if you were straining for a comparison, you might describe it as the Beastie Boys featuring Irvine Welsh (the band were all over the soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s Transporting 2).
And yet going “pop” wasn’t on the agenda, says Bankole. When making an LP, they tend not to have fixed
destination. “The impetus from the start has always been to push ourselves, allow ourselves feel uncomfortable. That’s where we get inspiration from. With each record, we want to embody a different part of ourselves — something we weren’t aware existed.”
So if the results are catchy… well and good. There’s no grand plan to woo a more mainstream demographic. And while not lacking for hooks, there is also much about Cocoa Sugar that is strange, starting with the shrieking choral effects and lurching grooves, over which all three members exchange spitfire rhymes.
“It wasn’t,” says Bankole, “Like somebody was whispering in our ears… this is how you need to do it.”
The three rappers who would become Young Fathers met 14 years ago at Bongo Club, an under-16s hip-hop open-mic night in Edinburgh.
Alloysious Massaquoi was born in Liberia and moved to Edinburgh aged four; Bankole and his family lived for several years in his parents’ native Nigeria; Graham ‘G’ Hastings was born in Edinburgh, growing up in the suburb of Drylaw.
In view of their cosmopolitan backgrounds and the UK’s fraught relationship with immigrants — one of the triggers of Brexit lest we forgot —Young Fathers have inevitably been labelled “political”.
It is a perception they have sometimes fuelled. Last year they made a video for National Galleries of Scotland in which Bankole boxed with several grandees depicted in the portraits as a voiceover proclaimed “Does this mean I don’t exist? That I’m not a man?
Because I don’t see a face like mine framed in gold hanging on the wall?” There was a backlash — the group were accused of anti-white racism — and, at Young Fathers’ behest, the piece was removed from the gallery’s website (it will of course live in forever on YouTube).
They don’t flinch from the political badge, says Bankole today. Nor, however, do they embrace it.
“At the end of the day we’re just human beings man. I don’t have the answer to world problems. If it comes to being Beyoncé or something… we’re not there… I don’t think any of us likes the finger-wagging. At the end of the day we’re also fans of music. Get me dancing and then tell me something political — that’s more effective.” ”
They return to Ireland shortly, with live dates in Dublin this March and April in Cork, where they headline the It Takes a Village festival at Trabolgan Holiday Village in Co Cork. Young Fathers have frequently blazed a trail here. They were astonishing at Electric Picnic 2017 and lit up a grey Dublin afternoon when opening Forbidden Fruit Festival in 2016.
“If people love our music…that would be nice,” he says. “If they hate it…that’s nice too. The worst thing is to be in the middle of the road… ‘well, whatever’. You want there to be an emotion: whether that’s one side or the other. So long as they get something from it – that’s what really matters. We have created a place where people can project their own identity onto the music.”
Cocoa Sugar is released on Ninja Tune today. Young Fathers headline It Takes A Village, April 13–15, Trabolgan, Cork.
It Takes A Village is a “residential” festival, with the majority of attendees staying at Trabolgan in chalets?
I would have observed theSouthport Soul weekenders and I All Tomorrow’s Parties (residential event in the UK) over the years. Also in 2000 I went to the Big Chill in Naxos Greece – there was the same model of renting accommodation and putting on DJs, bands. I was always aware Trabolgan was sitting pretty 20 miles or so from Cork city.
What logistical challenges doesthe novel setting present as an organiser?
Not that many really. Trabolgan runs for eight months of the year and is already well set up for functions and fun. All we have to do is bring in our sound systems, lighting set ups, some choice local food stalls andthe acts.
This is arguably the first festival of its kind in Ireland – were you keen to do something different?
We run Live at St Luke’s so we always try and think out of the box. The name we use, The Good Room, comes from that Irish phenomenon where we had the best room in the house and no-one used it only for special occasions. We think these spaces should get more outings. The first show I ever put on in Cork was in Sir Henry’s, February 1989 [a DJ gig with Kelly spinning the decks] so from that point forward we have always tried to be different.
How’s the response?
Brilliant — the idea is original, in Irish terms, as Trabolgan is the only operating holiday village in the country. Obviously, they have been doing these type of “live in” events in the UK for years. This will be the first in Ireland. We’re putting 1,000 people in 172 houses and 35 serviced camper van pitches over the weekend.
Some people will ask: why can’t I buy a “day” ticket and just attend the gigs?
You can. Sunday day tickets are available. It would be too difficult to deal with 1,000 people checking in on the Friday and to have to deal with day tickets also. We want to give priority to our residents. It is something that Trabolgan and ourselves agreed on.
Also we can go later on the Friday and Saturday nights because it is residents only. If we had day visitors it would mean having to stop the party a lot earlier. We will see how the Sunday day tickets work this year and definitely come back to it next year.
Is this move towards an experience that is relatively “boutique” — no slumming it in a tent etc — part of an international trend?
I’m not sure. I would never use the word “boutique”. What we are saying is that you can have a music festival with a roof over your head and a broad cross section of acts and entertainment. Hot showers and proper facilities are not to much to ask for. I would rather say we hope to build a small village community for three days where patrons will go home with new friends that happened to be their neighbours.
Tell us about your experience putting on gigs in Cork:
Since August 2015 we have run the series of gigs at “Live at St Luke’s”. We also run Crosstown Drift at the Midsummer festival. I worked in Sir Henrys for nearly five years, then with three partners opened the old Bodega on the Coal Quay in 1996 and then ran The Pavilion from 2008 to 2014. All I would say is that between all the acts from The xx toHozier, Masters At Work to Basement Jaxx, Gil Scott Heron to Mercury Rev, Roy Ayers to Rakim, we have tried to bring some of the best music we can to Cork.
What’s the attraction of Trabolgan?
It’s in Cork which is handy for us. The site was the former family home of the Roche family of Roche’s Point fame. They always built the great houses of Ireland in great locations. It’s on 121 acres in a valley south-facing on the Atlantic coast. The site itself is beautiful and the views out to sea are exceptional.
In what way does a festival like this differ from a conventional festival?
Trabolgan has three indoorvenues that we are going to use as our main stages. Also the pool parties will be something really different. And we are doing pop-up gigs in the amusement arcade. They have just weatherproofed the central area with 18,000 sq ft of glass so we are protected from all the elements. If the weather is favourable there are numerous outdoor spots we have picked out for block parties, “ceol at hole14” and woodland riversidegigs.
Joe Kelly, one of the organisers of It Takes A Village, tells Ed Power about the innovative event
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