On the Monday before Thanksgiving I took a field trip down I-94 to see the band Young Fathers in Chicago. The Edinburgh-based trio caught my attention earlier this year when I heard the gorgeous, soaring melody of “In My View” on 88Nine’s Rhythm Lab Radio.
After putting out two audacious EPs, Young Fathers’ 2014 full-length debut was awarded the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize. The band’s latest release—”Cocoa Sugar“—is easily one of my favorite records of the year.
In Young Fathers sonic landscape, genre is fluid. The band combines elements of soul, electronic, hip-hop, industrial, pop and African rhythms.
A soft snow swirls against an ebony sky when I pull up to Bottom Lounge in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. The venue is nestled under a set of “L” train tracks. As I enter the building the “WHOOSH” of an eastbound Pink Line rumbles above my head.
Minutes later, in a green room adjacent to the concert hall, I wait for Kayus Bankole, Young Fathers’ Nigerian-Scottish vocalist and spark plug.
The moment Bankole walks in the door he illuminates the space. The 30-year-old cracks jokes and playfully barks orders at the staff. He floats into the green room, his tour manager advising him to use breathing techniques to control his explosive energy during our interview. We are off to a rollicking start.
Throughout our conversation Bankole is thoughtful and engaging, despite a general aversion to interviews. Our exchange touches on the band’s early days, his respect for Missy Elliot, Nigeria’s creative class, supporting LCD Soundsystem and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs at the Hollywood Bowl, among other topics. When we turn off the microphones, Bankole asks me about American holiday traditions.
“I didn’t realize Thanksgiving is such a big deal here. Is it bigger than Christmas?”
“You know, in terms of going back to your hometown and being with your family, it might be,” I reply.
“It feels less stressful than Christmas. I think everyone should just have Thanksgiving—eat a meal, be around your family and rebuild that sense of community,” he says.
“You know, villages have that like 24/7. When I go back to Nigeria, to my family’s village outside of Lagos, they do that every night. The whole village will come together and eat. It’s such a good vibe. It feels like people are looking out for each other. Everyone is concerned with everyone’s best interest.
“I’ve been asking people back home [in Scotland] what would make them happier. They say, ‘If I had a house, a car…’ stuff like that.
“But when I’m in the village I ask people the same question and they say, ‘If things were better for everybody.’ You know, if everyone had more food, less stress. That individualistic approach of looking at the world is pretty much non-existent.”
Hours later, following an impressive opening set by Atlanta electro-gospel rockers Algiers, Young Fathers take the stage in front of a white canvas. With colored lights pulsing to the live percussion of Steven Morrison, Bankole and his bandmates—Alloysious Massaquoi and Graham “G” Hastings—deliver a brilliant set that leaves me sweaty and euphoric.
Between the performance and my conversation with Bankole, I have plenty to think about on the drive back to Milwaukee. Not to mention, I’ve built up quite the appetite for the Thanksgiving meal that awaits.
You can listen to my full conversation with Kayus Bankole and read transcribed excerpts below.
Kayus Bankole on the music of his youth
KB: Nigerians like to celebrate. Going to weddings or naming ceremonies, stuff like that, we’ll be listening to [King] Sunny Ade. Being from a Yoruba family specifically, that was predominantly the kind of songs we would listen to. Fugee music and a lot of Afrobeat…
JG: Fela [Kuti]?
KB: Yeah. Fela, for us, wasn’t really a song you’d hear at a party. It was a song you’d play in the house. Members of your family would come over to visit and you’d all have dinner together. You’re just hearing it in the background, the political messages. For us Nigerians, Fela is our equivalent to Bob Marley.
The band normally has a playlist that we listen to after the show to kind of unwind. It’s a mixture of tracks that we can reminisce to. One of the tracks that I haven’t heard in a long time is Missy Elliot’s “Get Ur Freak On.” You forget how good it is. I’m sure she was popular and doing s***loads of shows and stuff like that, but I still feel like she was underrated.
As popular as Missy Elliot is, she’s still underrated.
On the band’s beginnings
JG: Are you a trained musician? Did you study singing or an instrument?
KB: I don’t even know what that means. (Laughs). I genuinely don’t know what a trained musician means. That’s in my world. I don’t take anything away from those that have spent the time to master their craft. To a certain extent, I’m a f***ing renegade. Excuse my French, but I’m wild as f*** and I just go off impulse.
I’ve never had a singing lesson, I’ve never had a piano lesson or any other instrument. I literally just go on feel and I think that’s the same for the rest of the guys in the band. We have our own way of doing stuff and I think that’s what makes it special in a sense.
JG: You and your bandmates met at an under-18 club night, right?
KB: Me and Alloysious were friends first because we went to school together. We met Graham…it was one of those boys stay in one corner, girls stay in one corner situations. It took that one brave person to start busting shapes on the dance floor for everyone to join in. And those brave people were the three of us.
Cut a long story short, Graham says, “I make beats at my house, come to my house”…and we were winging it from there. When we started recording, it was reminiscent…of what happened during the Motown Era, where you huddle up to one mic, push each other aside to do the verses, or do whatever bit was allocated to the individual. We just went for it. It was a free-for-all. We were recording on a freaking tape recorder the first time.
JG: I read that 2008 is when you officially formed as a band, which is kind of crazy because I lived in Edinburgh that year. I was on a UK work visa after university, but I never saw you. Were you playing shows in 2008?
KB: We were playing shows earlier than that mate. We met when we were freaking fourteen, started doing shows at like sixteen. It was a struggle for us when we were younger and even when we did the first tape and the second tape, for our city to get behind us.
F*** knows what the case was, whether they felt like we were too weird, not pop enough, not patriotic enough, not Scottish enough I should say, I don’t know what the deal was at the time. But it was a super struggle, we were playing for five people at times. Sometimes it takes a band to leave their city and then come back for them to pay attention.
In a way I still feel like it’s a struggle. I still feel like not enough people know about our music. You know, love it or hate it. I don’t really care. I just feel like…it should be heard.
On the band’s process
JG: How did the operation look ten years ago versus today in terms of your approach to making music?
KB: It’s still the same [laughs]. If you asked us that question individually I think we’ll all have different answers. I don’t want to speak for the rest of the guys, but for me personally, I feel like we’re the most beautiful, glorious mess.
When it comes to the recording process and we get in the studio together it is the most liberating feeling…where I feel like it’s okay for me to be who I am. It’s genuinely hard to be yourself completely. So I cherish that.
Alloysious will say it feels like he’s in a band with three Beyoncés—where everyone is free to be themselves and express themselves. It’s not something where it’s like, “Oh, don’t do that. Don’t be too fancy mate. Like, calm down.” It’s not like that. It’s like, “F***ing right, go for it. Go for it! I want to see you do it. Just f***ing do it mate. Give it big licks.”
JG: For me, good music, the kind that I can feel in my heart and my soul, has a spiritual element to it. I think there is something particularly spiritual about Young Fathers music. Do you have any sense of what that might attribute to?
KB: I would have to say it’s the humanistic side of it all. To be able to keep the imperfections. You know, me and Alloysious were talking about this earlier, about rap songs where you can hear a rapper rapping, but you can’t hear the breaths in between. And we’re like, “Why? We know you took a breath here. Why would you, during the edit, take it out?”
To us all of that matters. The breath. The mistakes. The emotion that you have when you’re singing a song can sometimes allow you to go out of tune. But we cherish the emotion more than it being perfectly sung. And that connects to the human side of things.
On being compared to BROCKHAMPTON
KB: Yeah, I don’t know. Musically we’re very, very far away from each other. But I really like the collective. With the records that I’ve been listening to, it seems like every individual has something and they can stand as an artist in their own right. It’s great, the unity and celebration of difference. For me, that’s the only thing I can take away from them and say that it’s a resemblance, the celebration of difference.
JG: You both seem to have a brotherhood too, like familial bonds.
KB: That’s what happens with time and knowing each other for as long as we’ve known each other. And you know, we argue all the time. We argue and we disagree on a lot of stuff. But it’s important and it’s challenging. Most of all, we embrace it and we understand it’s good for the band. We work in a democracy where we vote for stuff. If two people feel like this is what is right, the single person gets vetoed. I’ve been in that position many times. (Laughs). And I’ve been on the opposite side.
On the music and art of Africa
JG: When you guys were on Mike D’s Beats 1 radio show you played some Shangaan Electro music from South Africa, which you described as music of the future, which is interesting because that’s how some people describe your music…
KB: South Africa is the epicenter of that man. When we were there it was impressive. It was impressive how they were able to have so many layers that I could identify with and at the same time it sounded so new, it sounded so fresh, and it was unadorned.
JG: Speaking of other countries, you’ve said that one of the goals of the band is to be global. What are some parts of the world where you would like to share your music?
KB: Nigeria. I went there two years ago and had such an immense feeling that I’ve never had before. I felt super light on my feet. I felt like I wasn’t carrying a lot of baggage. It felt limitless to the possibilities of what you can do creatively. To me, it was a blank canvas.
The people dictated what was right and wrong. The people dictated how far you could push things. When there’s no kinds of laws, in essence, the possibilities are endless. I’ve met so many artists in Nigeria who are empowered by that idea—that their ideas have no limit.
I never thought that in a [big] city like Lagos, that artists could operate on a low level in terms of funds and still be able to do that for a living. And that’s it. “I’m just creating my art. I’m enjoying it with its ups and downs. And I’m surviving.”