By Sam Harris | @samewlharris
The first time I saw Gang of Youths was at Festival Hall in 2014. Although probably the wrong type of band for the job, they supported Vampire Weekend on their Australian tour. At the time, VW were one of my all-time favourite bands, and all-ages gigs were a rarity. So of course, my friends and I decided to line up about 8 hours early, catching the bus that replaced the train from Bendigo as the sun rose. The wait was tough, but queue culture is cool, and we made friends – the type of friends that would later screen print a t-shirt with my face alongside Steve Buscemi’s for my birthday – who kept our company through that January heat. When the doors finally opened, it felt like the gates of heaven shining upon us, and a quick dash for the front landed us a prime spot for all of VW’s indie glory. But what we forgot through our big day out in the line was that there’d be a supporting act, before Ezra Koenig would educate us with grammatically-themed pop songs.
With our aching legs, we watched a bunch of dudes walk one-by-one on stage. With their big instruments and big beards, they rocked out before me, but I just wanted it to be over; the crowd was over it. I felt bad, because I’d previously listened to and enjoyed their debut single ‘Evangelists‘ – but I hated the awkwardness that emanated from the hundreds of teens sitting through this pure, redemptive rock, wishing for it to end, not giving the band the time of day that they so damned deserved. One of them played guitar with a violin bow.
Following the show, as sweaty bodies emerged from the doors attempting to remember and collate the experience, two friends and I – after landing photos with a couple of VW band members – jumped in the back of the car one of their stepdads drove down to pick us up in. He asked us how it was, we surely said “incredible” as we waited for the crowds to dissipate behind Festival Hall. Before we could get out though, we saw a group of dudes we recognised from the stage strolling through the car park. In some moment of excitement, we shouted “hey, it’s them!” My friend’s stepdad, rolling the window down, shouted “hey, come here!” In all their kindness, they did, and we had a chat to them from the backseat of the car. This is the moment I was sold on Gang of Youths, the Sydney five-piece, headed by Dave Le’aupepe and supported by an embarrassingly talented bunch of musicians, transforming raw human emotion into tangible strings and sorrowful, empowering lyricism. They didn’t receive their dues that night at Festival Hall.
The second time I saw Gang of Youths was at 170 Russell in 2016. Footpaths drenched in rain led me to the venue, emotions inexplicably heightened by the storm clouds above. That year was a challenge for me. I was moving out of home into compacted student accommodation in another city, living on my own – but for a distant roommate – in a room no wider than the length of my extended arms, complete with a sliding room divider that made it feel like my privacy was being invaded every second of the day. It was a shock to my system, a heightener of my anxiety; my comfortable existence leeching off my parents and not doing much besides going to school and playing PlayStation was long gone. I’d taken a giant leap into uni, picking the only course at the only campus I actually attended an open day for, and hoped for the best – I’d never considered anything otherwise, pushed from VCE into the big wide world of adulthood. Time to grow up, the world said. By this time, Gang of Youths’ debut album, The Positions, was well ingrained in my mind – scaling my ‘Great Albums’ list at breakneck speed, unrivalled. I picked up the CD on a rogue trip to Ballarat to boost the 120 learner hours towards my licence, and played it from end to end on the lengthy trip back home, stunned by both its power and the prospect that this band wasn’t already mythologised as modern rock legend. Of the piles of CDs that I’ve amassed, across a terribly wasteful if not invigorating collectors phase, it remains permanently fixed in the pile of stuff most important to me. It takes pride of place at the front of the pack, not collecting dust like many of its contemporaries – the cover art alone is enough to keep it close, trailing beams of light evocative of its spiritual sound. Lead single ‘Magnolia’ quickly became my favourite song, an unskippable song, its energy transcending any other piece of music released that year.
And so, the day had come to see them in all their (now fully realised) glory. This was my first 18+ gig and to this day remains one of the only gigs I’ve even been to since becoming old enough to go – either some part of the excitement of the restricted shows I wished I could’ve gone to as a minor had given out in the time between birthdays, or the pressure of living up to a gig this good kept my hands off other tickets. I met a friend out the front of the venue who’d also been with me at that Vampire Weekend show in 2014 and we went in. We dropped a little too much money on two vodka raspberries – the blissful ignorance of youth – but it didn’t matter, because we were here, at a Gang of Youths show, with a crowd that wasn’t a bunch of screaming teens but a crowd that felt the same way about the band that we did, that loved ‘Magnolia’ just as much as I did – just as much as Dave Le’aupepe did. And the performance was incredible – they played all my favourite songs. And the acoustic rendition of ‘Knuckles White Dry’ sent shivers down my spine. And when they played ‘Magnolia’, Dave jumped into the crowd and rode the wave, trudging through the masses. At the climax of the song, he fell from above and landed beside me – together we shouted “every mother-fucking time!” in graceful unison. It was one of those special, milestone moments, a definitive movie moment coming to life right in front of me, and I was the protagonist.
The third time I’ll see Gang of Youths will be at Festival Hall in 2017. The band, now emitting a cultural radiance big enough to land them the headlining spot at a venue where they once performed to a silent crowd of impatient kids, are evolved, developed, well-travelled – ready to face the world. Their new album Go Farther In Lightness finds me at a point in my life where I’ve overcome the apprehension that held me back, where I’ve torn down the self-supplied barriers that have halted me in advancing towards who I want to be, where I want to be, and what I want to do. A year in student-filled solitary confinement coupled with the legacy of The Positions undoubtedly encouraged this reinvigoration in some way, and their spread of heart-aching tunes extends beyond just myself – you don’t have to look far to find the hundreds upon hundreds of people that their music has helped in some way, shape or form. With this latest work, they cement an ambitious journey of self-fulfilment – triumphant victory transposed into sonic form – an album brimming with enough rupturing rock anthems and graceful, intelligent instrumentation to give you the strength to face the days ahead. It’s the type of music to make you wanna fuck around and read the hundred greatest works of literature before going out to head bang until your brain stops working, consumed by the reverberations.
Here, on their sophomore record Go Farther In Lightness, they’re at their fullest, most life-affirming sound. Lengthy acoustically-charged tunes clock the album in at a whopping 77 minutes. No moments are spared – they constantly inject their sound with every last drop of pure emotive sap that Dave so meticulously layers atop their elegantly ambitious array of strings, keys, chords, and French dialogue. Each song feels subject to the same amount of care as the next, no filler, no half-thought sentiment. It’s a truly wholesome body of work that demands your attention and rewards your patience. It finds momentum in visceral cycles and across songs, with the transition from ‘L’imaginaire’ to ‘Do Not Let Your Spirit Wane’ a glowing highlight. With the structure of Arcade Fire’s Reflektor and the homemade, symphonic sounds of their debut, Funeral, Gang of Youths puncture these influences with lyricism that doesn’t dance around the point. Instead, it tackles life head on, head held high. It’s a literary, textured piece of art, and a crowning achievement – given the sheer undying quality of their catalogue – that this is their most fulfilling work yet. Pure rock royalty.
I don’t know exactly when or where I’ll see Gang of Youths in the years ahead. I know if they’re on stage, though, I’ll be there in the crowd, singing along to ‘Say Yes To Life’ – as if there was any other option.
Catch Gang of Youths (and our writer, Sam) with Fountaineer and Gordi at Festival Hall on Wednesday September 6.
Go Farther in Lightness is out now.