Gang of Youths is completed by a trio of Leaupepe’s old friends; guitarist Joji Malani, bass player Max Dunn and guitar/ keys man Jung Kim. Within a few months of the band’s formation, Sydney’s FBi Radio were spinning their early demos. Blog reviewers soon caught on, rattling off comparisons to The National and The Killers. Then in mid-2013 came Gang of Youths’ first official single ‘Evangelists’, which not only received triple j airtime, but also led to a record deal with Sony Music Australia. It’s an enviable trajectory, no doubt, but Leaupepe wasn’t searching for esteem- boosting plaudits or commercial backing.
“There wasn’t any intention to be a band or to tour or become famous or to make a record,” he says. “I just wanted to hang out with my buds. I’d quit playing music for so long to concentrate on this relationship and being a well-adjusted well-rounded adult. Then I realised that the healing component and the quality of music that makes us feel whole again was a big part of that. The record became more about my buddies propping me up, holding me together after stumbling drunk down the road, throwing up blood trying to figure out my shit.”
You see, while it’s an outright contradiction to suggest that suffering can be enjoyed, The Positions is largely the product of Leaupepe’s misfortune. From inner turmoil comes bountiful creative energy; it’s an age-old scenario, and Leaupepe makes no secret of what instigated the record.
“In short, it’s about this relationship I was in with someone who had a terminal illness,” he says. “We were together for four years before our relationship broke down. The whole record was about that for a long time. In a way that’s still the thematic foundation, but it extended more to how I was dealing with these things in my life and I had these three guys in my band propping me up.” Given the emotional density underpinning the record, Leaupepe wasn’t going to let music industry pressures tarnish his vision. “There was a very concerted effort to make the most cohesive record possible,” he says. “It would be a shame to squander three years worth of blood, sweat and tears to come out with this weightless tome of facile garbage. We really wanted to emphasise the cohesion of the record as a body of work.”
Along with the lyrical focus, there’s two key factors that help to disguise the record’s drawn-out preparation. First of all, even if the rhythmic insistence of ‘Restraint & Release’ is far removed from the orchestral calm of ‘Kansas’, Leaupepe’s vocal gravitas holds the spotlight throughout. Secondly, in contrast to the idiosyncratic influence of Leaupepe’s vocals, production-wise The Positions is a very-polished modern rock record.
“I didn’t want to make some fucking scungy-punk lo-fidelity cliché inner-Sydney-sounding thing,” Leaupepe says. “I talked to the guys, I’m like ‘I want to fucking reach for the stars with this thing. I want to create a record that sounds sonically beautiful and might have broad appeal. We’re already influenced by enough old music, so I wanted to create something that’s sonically beautiful, expensive and warm and can be received by middle- America as well as the gentrified suburbs of the inner city.” That said, it’s not utterly immaculate. “I’m a punk rocker and metalhead kid,” Leaupepe says. “In my adolescence I had a taste for Pavement and a taste for Wilco, so I put emphasis on leaving this punk rock energy about it. For example I used a Dictaphone for a lot of the vocal takes. It was really important that we maintained a sense of our garage roots.”
“I wanted to make something that was democratic, not fascist,” he adds. “You know how in Bull Durham, Kevin Costner’s like ‘Stop throwing fast balls, they’re fascist. Throw more curve balls, they’re more democratic’? I want to throw more curve balls with this one.” On the subject of fascism, it’s obvious that Leaupepe is Gang of Youths’ unchallenged leader. The tragic personal circumstances that preceded the band’s inception would’ve impacted heavily on anyone, but his leadership seems borderline tyrannical. However, in Leaupepe’s defence, he’s not oblivious to this dictatorial streak.
“For a time I became incredibly clichéd in that lead singer/ frontman archetype,” he says. “It does cause a lot of friction because I’m a perfectionist and a control freak. I think I have reasonable standards, but I was very pedantic about them being met. I don’t treat them like plebs as I probably did a couple of years ago, but I made no apologies in initially establishing the ground rules. I was like ‘This is a deeply personal project and I don’t intend for anything to happen with it other than being heard,’ and they still facilitate that. I set parameters initially and they respected them, which has helped me give them a lot more leeway as well. I’ve become more secure in letting them function in their prime responsibilities as best as they can.
“For me, this process was so deeply personal,” he adds. “I was very reluctant to let anybody in. But they put up with me, they dealt with my moodiness towards my relationship and my self- destructive, addictive behaviours.”
The Positions is out now via Sony Music Australia