The day Nirvana’s Nevermind debuted in record stores, Color Me Badd had the number one song in the country, taking the top spot from Paula Abdul and losing it to Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. The point? The bands that move culture forward often emerge during times when popular music sounds radically different.
This brings us to Gang of Youths. This multi-ethnic rock band from Australia formed in an evangelical church, and it’s fronted by a Nietzsche-quoting singer who, at a young age, already lost his wife to cancer and struggled with substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. Three years after forming, Gang of Youths released Positions in 2015 and followed with an EP, but the band stepped up its game last year with the singles “Atlas Drowned,” “Let Me Down Easy” and “What Can I Do If The Fire Goes Out” from Go Farther In Lightness. The band’s emotionally charged rock sound goes against the current grain, and it’s what makes them great.
Gang of Youths is currently on tour for another month with dates in California, Texas and Mexico. PRØHBTD spoke with frontman David Le’aupepe about Ayn Rand, Friedrich Nietzsche, the Freedom Caucus, cancer and cannabis, and epitomizing the interview, the words “fuckin’ New Testament” do come out his mouth.
Was there a very specific event in the U.S. that first prompted you to write “Atlas Drowned“?
Yeah, I called one of my close buddies during the election, and he is quite an intelligent observer, a man from New England, and he was a bit down obviously. I don’t know, I just felt betrayed by my fellow worker. I’m from a fuckin’ poor working class family, and I think all of us felt a sting from the emphasis on “rational self-interest” above the actual needs of the population and the individual. It was so ironic and frustrating.
What’s also frustrating is the philosophical illiteracy of conflating Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Übermensch with Ayn Rand’srational man. Ayn Rand herself wanted to separate the two. What’s stunning to me is the kind of people who don’t even understand that there’s a vast litany of differences between Nietzsche and Ayn Rand. Of course, I believe in rationalism, absolutely, but Nietzsche’s teleology is different. His ontology is different. His metaphysics are different. The way Friedrich Nietzsche proposes the doctrine of the Übermensch as a means for something that all of us can acquire [is different].
Nietzsche influenced so many leftist anarchists, from Rudolf Rocker to Emma Goldman, that to deny there’s a link between Nietzsche and the left is absurd. Ayn Rand believed in a powerful state. Nietzsche doesn’t believe in states. He doesn’t like the state. He liked aristocracy. I believe the tradition of noble conservatism, and there is this noble tradition of conservatism that exists [with] economists like Adam Smith, laid the foundation for relatively healthy ideas of what capital is, and it’s being exchanged for something that’s a pale imitation. It’s not establishment conservatism, it’s not establishment Republicanism. I’m not railing against people who are Republicans at all because most Republicans I know who voted for Trump are getting screwed over by him.
These people aren’t our enemy. They’re our friends who are experiencing a bit of betrayal because we’re all stuck in this leaky ship together, and the more we try to kick each other out…. [The song] is a polemic against the power dynamic that is enforcing the will of a few “eminent individuals” upon the needs of individuals in a “lower echelon.” There’s no concessions made to people who are disadvantaged or disabled or the children.
I get the impression that you do a lot of reading.
Yes, of course, of course. Every neoliberal white guy in a band in Australia who has a problem with [what I’m saying] obviously hasn’t done enough reading, or he’s only done very surface level reading like the first paragraph of a fuckin’ Wikipedia entry. You know, these people are everywhere. They read the first goddamn paragraph of a Wikipedia entry, find a few choice words, a few choice phrases and talk around it. That’s how they form their ideas, but their ideology is garbage, utilizing this very flimsy way of using information that they have the liberty of disposing, labeling anybody else who disagrees with them as a cunt. The insult cunt has a strange Freudian overtone.
You have a complicated relationship with the church.
Ha ha ha! Yes.
Does it bother you that evangelical Christians provide the primary base of support for Trump and the Freedom Caucus?
Of course. The Freedom Caucus name is hilarious to me. Like 95 percent of the Christians I know I met in church. That’s just the reality of my upbringing. The people in my band are all byproducts of evangelical Christianity, but that also works. Does it bother me? Fuck yeah, it bothers me. Wasn’t it our dying, bleeding Jewish savior who himself said give to Caesar what is Caesar’s when it comes to taxation?
It’s absurd. We’re taking spirituality and intimacy with God and consideration for others, which is what Jesus demanded in the fuckin’ New Testament, and conflating that with left and right ideology. I’m not going to make any grand proclamations that the left’s correct in terms of gospel knowledge. I’m just thinking what a shallow interpretation of the gospel when all they’re doing is using it to reinforce the biases we have politically.
The same thing with Nietzsche’s philosophy, for example. I highly doubt Nietzsche intended for leftist anarchists or self-interest “rational man” to utilize or co-opt his very complex ideology. I don’t think he expected anyone to co-opt it with politics. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, I don’t know. I just think the whole idea of the Freedom Caucus is strange, and Christianity, a lot of times, is people sitting around in a glass case bragging about how free they are in Christ when Paul himself said that we must be slaves to Christ. Even the language is, like, strangely oppressive.
When Jesus confronted his church 2,000 years ago, his people killed him or at least contributed to his death. Do you think we’re at a point where the church is that far removed from what Jesus intended and taught?
I don’t know what Jesus intended and taught, to be honest, because the Gospels present us one very clear picture that’s been doctored throughout time by various European influences. It’s important to recognize that both my parents are Jewish, and I grew up understanding the Bible through a Jewish context and the New Testament through a Messianic Jewish context. When we talk about Jesus’ interactions with the Sadducees and Pharisees, these were Jewish people trying to preserve Jewish culture at a time when Jewish culture was being squashed by the Romans, and before that the Seleucid Empire. The context of Jesus’ time is very important in understanding what he would have thought, I believe.
When we Jewish people cried out for Barabbas, it wasn’t because we hated Jesus necessarily. We wanted Barabbas because he was a war hero. He was a Maccabean-esque revolutionary. This whole notion puts into context what Jesus was asking people to do, which was to lay down the sword, and the people at the time didn’t want that. They were tired of the oppression, tired of the imperial powers in Rome.
When you stop doing the band, you could be a college professor.
I’ve always wanted to do academia, but I always had trouble in school, and I got kicked out of class a lot. I don’t know, I think about it. I don’t have a college degree or education, which means I always got to learn for free and don’t have to pay $50,000 toward student debt.
When I think back about 2,000 years ago, do I think the element of faith has been removed from religion? Probably, probably. I think the Oral Roberts-, Kenneth Copeland-style Christianity is becoming more and more obsolete. That’s all well and good if you’re white and middle class in suburbia, but that’s not well and good if you’re white working class in Maryland or living in the middle of the Amazonian jungle with concerns that are vastly different from that of comfortable westerners like us. For a woman working two jobs who can barely afford to make the rent, that kind of pragmatic, cynical faith doesn’t really work, but if you’re looking for the meaning of life, I don’t think you’ll find it in a fuckin’ Kenneth Copeland book. If you’re looking for a transformative spiritual plan, I don’t know if you’ll find it there. I don’t know if it’s helpful. All those people traditionally vote conservative, and I don’t know why. I don’t think Jesus is left or right, if he is anything at all.
As far as the album title, how would you define the “lightness”?
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a very cliché but beautiful book written by Milan Kundera. The first few pages of the book set out the foundation for Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. Nietzsche suggests eternal recurrence is this idea that we should be living our lives knowing that everything recurs again and again for eternity, meaning we are doomed to repeat our lives and experiences repeatedly, so we should live lives we would be content to repeat over and over. Now what Milan Kundera suggests with “unbearable lightness” is the inverse—the notion that every occurrence in the universe, every occurrence in our existence, every interaction of our being with another is a split-second moment, significant and important and unique. That is what lightness is to me in that sense. What if we took this notion of lightness and lived by this principle, would it make a difference? I don’t know, but I’m trying to find out.
With the first album you dealt with a very personal issue. What do you think writing and dealing with terminal cancer through music taught you about how others can deal with it in positive and therapeutic ways?
It taught me that I have to be more empathic and understanding, even to people I don’t like, learning to be more human. For people going through it, I would just say, “You’re doing great. It fuckin’ sucks, and it’s only going to get worse.” That’s just the reality, man. There are very rare occasions where people get better, but the bulk of people don’t get better, and acknowledging that there is a fatalism in cancer is actually helpful. I don’t have any nice words other than hold on and be defiant. Be defiant in the face of shit like that. The human condition is fragile, but it’s also very tough and very strong. The human spirit is contagious when it is shared. I don’t believe in withholding truth, withholding ideas, withholding joy, withholding sorrow.
Three or four years ago you had some issues with substance abuse. Is cannabis something you need to avoid?
Yeah. Pot makes me paranoid. Last time I was in Seattle, I smoked so much pot it was not a good vibe. Anything could lead to something. I have to be really careful when I drink alcohol and do all that stuff.
Electronic music continues to dominate pop, rap and even a lot of rock acts. What value do you personally put on taking a creative path with rock music that might be less trendy right now?
That’s a great question. I’m not trendy. I was never cool. No one fuckin’ liked me. I only cared about hardcore punk and black metal and a few indie rock bands. It’s not like I’m doing it just to be different. I’m doing it because it’s something I love. I’ll never denigrate anybody using electronic music in their work because I’m a secret electronic music fan, but I personally believe in the power guitar strings, live drums, live bass, live piano had on me at school. I’m trying, not to just recapture that, but bring that to life again in my own career. I want to make the music that I care about. I don’t have the same relationship with electronic music. I just don’t. Pretending to do anything other than what I know would be pretentious.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.