Grabbing the only available ten minutes between now and the next year, Sean Hayes talks to Mercury Prize winning, Young Fathers’ member, Alloysious Massaquoi, about their unexpected win, ignoring everyone’s opinions and his upmost respect for pop music
Young Fathers is a very difficult group to pin down for any amount of time, having tirelessly and continuously toured throughout Europe and the United States for the last year, not to mention releasing one of the most highly acclaimed records of recent times and stopping, only briefly, to pick up a Mercury Prize along the way. So when the opportunity presents itself to interrupt the band during their soundcheck, as they prepare to take to the stage later that evening, one can only jump at the chance to do so.
Speaking to Alloysious Massaquoi, who makes up one third of the Scottish, alternative hip-hop group, is like a breath of fresh air. His hair may be perched precariously upon his head, but his words are collected and grounded. Speaking about the show ahead and, clearly, about the sound check he has just stepped away from, he quips in a Scottish brogue, “I just want to get a move on.”
Moving on and up seems to be a particular speciality of the band. Young Fathers is probably best known as the winners of the 2014 Mercury Prize. However, having been portrayed as the underdogs of the competition from the very beginning, the group rose from obscurity with only 2,400 copies sold of their nominated record, Dead. Their win came as a shock to many, having beaten bookie favourites and veteran names such as Damon Albarn and Bombay Bicycle Club. The win, however, was far less of a surprise to the three Scottish musicians. “We were confident in ourselves to know that what we do is good. What we do is different and it hasn’t been done before” Massaquoi enthuses. He’s also firm in pointing out that winning the award was not their main priority of the night. “For us, the main focus was the performance and just getting that across. We had the opportunity to perform in front of a live crowd and people at home. That was the best part. That’s what we were looking forward to. It wasn’t necessarily about an award that says, ‘Oh, you guys are good.” or “You get a thumbs up from us!”
The group had barely enough time to place the trophy on their mantlepiece before taking off to Germany to begin work on their next record. They also managed to record the entire album in just a matter of weeks, an impressive accomplishment for any act, especially one now burdened with the pressure of having to live up to the runaway success of their previous release. The Mercury Prize has been viewed, in the past, as a bad sign for any winner’s future career. Many acts have failed to regain the recognition and acclaim after winning the coveted award and have faded into relative anonymity. Yet Massaquoi physically laughs off any concerns he or his bandmates might have. “There’s no pressure. We’re doing what we want to do and we love what we do. We’re constantly pushing ourselves anyway. We didn’t worry about that stuff, living up to it, because we never want to make the same record anyway. That’s a sin for us.”
While recording their upcoming album, Young Fathers took the unusual step of inviting select groups of people to listen to a number of their freshly laid tracks. Reminiscent of the quality control meetings held by Motown’s Berry Gordy, they were encouraged to answer questions set by the three bandmates and write down their opinions on what they heard. Being faced with the opinions and criticisms of others must’ve had an influential effect on the finished sound of the record. At this part of the conversation, Massaquoi pauses and scoffs, “We’ve not actually looked at them, to be honest. We’ve got their answers, so we might use them for something. It’ll be interesting to see people’s first reactions to it and what the response was, definitely.”
Confidence seems to be a key contributor to Young Fathers’ success. Speaking about their upcoming album, Massaquoi sees no problem in proclaiming, “The new album is the best thing we’ve ever done. As an artist, you want to progress, you want to grow, you want to make yourself feel uncomfortable, in the best way possible. So I think the new stuff is something we haven’t done before and we’re very proud of it.” Throughout the conversation, one cannot help but notice his complete honesty. Massaquoi says what he means, frankly and directly, and it’s wonderfully refreshing. Musicians can often offer up convoluted tales of spontaneous and artistic inspiration, but Massaquoi makes no such qualms. Speaking about his musical influences and how they play a part in his sound, he admits, “It’s not anything we think about, really. The most times we have to talk about it is due to interviews and stuff, but we don’t actually think about it. We’re very like-minded people and we want to do something we haven’t heard. I think, fundamentally, that’s where it lies. You don’t want to recreate what’s already been done. All your influences, you need to destroy them and come up with something new, that’s the only way for you to be able to sleep at night.”
It is interesting to note, then, that despite all their apparent breaks with convention and tradition, Young Fathers aspire to make great pop music. Massaquoi states, “We love pop music. Pop music is the hardest music to make because it’s got so many elements.” While ‘pop-group’ may not be the first term that comes to mind when describing Young Fathers, Massaquoi expresses disappointment at the unvaried, market-orientated music that gets repetitively pushed through the radio. “It would be ideal if it changes because there’s other music out there that’s not heard. I would love to just listen to a mix of different stuff… from James Brown to Iggy Pop to Joy Division. There are so many, you just mix it up, even slipping in Sean Paul stuff. It’s a mixture of so many different genres. It would just be a whole lot healthier that way.”
While that sort of change, indeed, may be a while coming, there is little doubt that if there’s anybody up to the task, it is these three, formidable young men.
‘Dead’ is out now. Young Fathers’ upcoming album will be released later this year.