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With a debut album wrested from heartbreak, Sydney band Gang of Youths are looking up. By Mark Mordue.

Gang of Youths’ difficult positions

Left to Right: Jung Kim, David Le’aupepe, Joji Malani and Max Dunn
Credit: SUPPLIED

“It was actually a year ago yesterday,” Dave Le’aupepe says, “that I tried to kill myself.” Not exactly an anniversary you can celebrate with a cake and candles, so today’s fish and chips will have to do, washed down with a schooner of New at his local pub in the inner west of Sydney.

As the singer and songwriter behind Gang of Youths, Le’aupepe has reason to be happy. His band’s debut, The Positions, arrived in fifth place on the ARIA album charts in April. FBi Radio chose it as its album of the week and Triple J its feature album.

Reviews have been ecstatic, suitably referencing the band’s epic, guitar-driven pop rock to Le’aupepe’s beloved forebears, U2 and Bruce Springsteen, as well as The National, Kings of Leon and The War on Drugs.

A sellout run of metropolitan venues has been backed with a gruelling regional tour of Australia to meet demand. Dates in the United States, where the band is on a slow burn after solid stretches of living, playing and recording, are being locked away.

Perhaps all this is why Le’aupepe can speak about last year’s suicide attempt – and some of his life’s other twists and turns – as if he might be having a birthday, albeit a rather strange one for someone who is barely 23 years old.

Le’aupepe walks into the pub like a big cat poised on nerve-endings. He can seem overbearing in his friendliness, with dark Samoan looks and a mane of wavy hair – sometimes pulled back, samurai-style, into a ponytail. This affable vibe can switch to vulnerability, even something wild-eyed and cornered. When Le’aupepe is happy he must be very happy; and when he is not it must be quite a task to deal with him. So much so it appears Le’aupepe doesn’t always know how to deal with himself.

He waves his hand around the hotel dining and Keno-playing areas as if this is his second home, describing the pub grandly as “one of the last holdouts against the gentrification of the inner west”, before dropping his mood to downcast as he admits “this place has a really sad history for me and my family”. He cuts off his train of thought with, “Better I don’t talk about that. It doesn’t matter.”

Gang of Youths’ third and latest single from The Positions, “Magnolia”, relives Le’aupepe’s suicide attempt. Too astute a lyricist to merely heroicise or wallow in dark events, Le’aupepe mocks himself “in braving the last of this terrible wine” before describing how he staggered drunk onto a highway and into the path of oncoming traffic: “Quit honking your horns / there’s five other lanes / and I am king of them all.”

As well as finishing off that bad wine, Le’aupepe tells me he downed two bottles of whisky, phoning his friends to say goodbye. Band members went out looking for him; police were called. It was, he says, “the third or fourth time I had tried to do it”. His pure, sometimes rasping baritone breaks into falsetto as “Magnolia” reaches its climax: “just tell everyone I know / what I did I did for us / and in haste / because I’m terrified of dying in vain.”

Out of this Gang of Youths constructed a pop song that sounds faintly like Electric Light Orchestra. Le’aupepe sings in a manner more victorious than miserable, in a narrative as self-aware as it is self-indulgent. Deep down, he is a craftsman when it comes to making music: “My falsetto’s pretty weak,” he worries.

Gang of Youths’ debut album is named after Leonard Cohen’s Various Positions. Cohen’s title was a pun on investigating the nature of love from the spiritual to the erotic; Le’aupepe adapted this idea to The Positions when he realised his own songs were taking a similarly multifaceted look at what he had come to recognise was not just his love life but the five stages of grieving.

So who exactly is the “us” Le’aupepe refers to in “Magnolia”? The answer appears to be what makes The Positions such a persuasive listening experience. It’s an album that gathers strength as a song-cycle detailing Le’aupepe’s relationship with his young wife as they confronted her stage-four cancer diagnosis and travelled to the US for treatment. Along the way they dealt with the strain of sustaining a sometimes long-distance relationship as he was forced to retreat to Australia to overcome visa problems, their lives beset by money woes and life-threatening illness until their marriage finally collapsed.

All of this took place from 2011 when Le’aupepe was just 18 and first fell in love, through the cancer diagnosis that came 10 months later, the couple’s wedding a year afterwards, and their concurrent sojourn to Nashville, where they made a home of sorts – ending fractiously with Le’aupepe’s suicide attempt in Sydney on June 3, 2014, at age 22.

On this last occasion Le’aupepe wound up in hospital with his stomach being pumped. An enforced stint in rehab – “where they would only let me use plastic knives and forks,” he says, half-amused – was followed by the day-counting triumphs of sobriety. Somewhere after the number “101” he appears to have forsaken the teetotalling. Le’aupepe is a leaner, meaner figure today than early videos of the band portray. “I lost 20 kilos in three months when my marriage turned to shit,” he says. Playing endless FIFA computer games and living on a diet of Oporto’s burgers and cigarettes was replaced by “being healthy and exercising constantly”.

In terms of stage presence you can detect parallels with the more sensuously feline Michael Hutchence; but in terms of Le’aupepe’s interview motor-mouthing and very fine lyrics you get stronger hints of a young Bono: brilliant, sweeping, gauche. Gang of Youths guitarist Joji Malani raises his eyebrows at Le’aupepe’s growing female fan base: “They say Dave looks like [Game of Thrones character] Jon Snow.”

Not exactly lacking in confidence himself, Malani plays The Edge to Le’aupepe’s Bono. Like the other band members, they met at Hillsong Church. Malani’s interest in noise music, treated guitars and melodic, synth-like lead flourishes underlines Gang of Youths highly commercial rock’n’roll, with valve-driven humanity and textured inventiveness. He takes pride in this physical realisation of guitar sounds he regards as “warm, more natural and less stale than anything artificially generated”.

Together with Jung Kim on guitar and keyboards and Max Dunn on bass, Gang of Youths make for a formidable foursome on and off stage. Currently the band is happy to keep it that way, utilising the services of regular drummers-for-hire after the original stick man departed more than a year ago. If there’s a weakness, though, this core rhythmic absence may be part of it, leading to a sense of control rather than possession in their music; to craftsmanship overruling a more dangerous ferocity. Entering a packed Oxford Art Factory in Sydney it is easy from the doorway to mistake the show inside for a very loud CD.

Watching the band’s soundcheck and meeting them all earlier that day is an experience. They operate like an American machine: professional, polite, relaxed. This smooth, ultra casual and outward manner feels unusual, even weird in an Australian rock act. Within it one senses the hum of a band that means business. The unembarrassed air with which they enthuse over one another and their music can’t be denied.

Around a table they discuss early live reviews that criticised them, says Kim, “for playing as if we were in a stadium”. Malani grinds away at the subject: “This ‘ambition’ word that always comes up about us really annoys me… It’s not a need to be big.” He steers the conversation back to Le’aupepe’s fight against alcohol and sadness. “We have a relatable story. It’s not Hollywood. You can’t dream this shit up. More has happened than we could ever publicise. We have been stripped bare.”

Kim draws the conversation to a more considered edge, defining their musical attitude with words such as “urgency” and “necessity”. “It’s not so much ambition. It’s that we didn’t have any other choice. Perhaps it’s childish or romantic thinking on our part, but the band became a vehicle more important than making art. It became a vehicle to care about people.”

Dunn, who has arrived late for the conversation, chips in. “I feel like I am watching the end of a sports movie.” They all crack up.

Le’aupepe says: “I was an arsehole for two years to everyone in this band. Since the breakdown of my marriage and getting treated badly I realise, God forbid, that I am now unemployable. For a long time I was so reluctant to regard this with any positive energy or happiness. Now I recognise that I desperately care.”

Reliving the songs off the album live is something he finds fascinating. “I guess I’m addicted to the romance of emulating my former self,” he says. “When we get on stage we all assume the role of where we were at a year ago. We all assume the role of shadowy past apparitions. I think I am going to have to purge myself of those sensibilities every record we make.”

Le’aupepe wrestles with negative feelings about his ex-wife and a desire to praise her. He’s not oblivious to the conundrum of “commodifying” her life-and-death situation and the intimate struggles they shared. But he rounds on any suggestion of exploitation with a vaguely savage “more than any need to protect this person I raised up their dignity”.

When he reflects on his own experience, he says “it was [a] very solemn transition”. I ask what he means by that. “I mean it wasn’t drastic. It was private and it was resigned. I was a drunken buffoon one minute and then I had three jobs.” Medical bills had to be paid, rent, food, travel to and from America. Le’aupepe looks up at me in a way that suddenly feels like a challenge. “You know ‘the flinch’ in boxing? Well, I don’t have it.”

It was straight after the diagnosis of his then girlfriend’s illness that Gang of Youths was formed, and that Le’aupepe found an immediately potent songwriting voice. He says he wanted to write songs for his partner “to let her know someone really cared”. But the full arc leads instead from the initial healing imperatives to a map of their trials and tribulations, and that profound kiss-off in “Magnolia” as Le’aupepe forces the marriage to an end: a kind of cancer-stricken Romeo and Juliet story that moves in reverse from love and death back into life and separation.

Le’aupepe does not like to go into his former wife’s circumstances or her cancer prognosis. “As far as I’m aware it’s not in remission at all,” he says when I use that word, “but the chapter of my life that includes fretting about her health is over. I eliminated all direct communication with my ex-wife after the divorce and have no intention on revisiting the dysfunction.”

Most fans listening to the album assume she is dead and envision Le’aupepe as the tragically romantic widower. Le’aupepe has shuffled the order of the songs to end the album on a note of against-the-odds valiance in “The Overpass”, as he and his then wife find themselves caught in a broken-down car one night in Harlem, “covered in a blanket of autumn snow / and I don’t have a car and I don’t have a coat, but honey if you’re patient …”

Looking back over The Positions, and an orchestrated mood of ascension over what could have been a bleaker and rawer work, Le’aupepe says, with glancing sarcasm, “We didn’t want to monopolise the lemon market.”

He elaborates further. “It’s a biblical fucking principle. Where there’s mourning, there is joy.” A good part of that joy came through the act of making music and the support of his band members. “The album became a testament to that John Donne idea that no man is an island.”

Le’aupepe refers again and again to U2’s The Joshua Tree as his beacon light for The Positions. Lyrically, however, it is probably closer to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. It’s a little grand to go wild with such equations, but the ambition can be heard. What does emerge is perhaps the most important Christian rock debut since U2’s Boy. Which is to say it’s a pretty fine rock’n’roll album.

In the meantime, Le’aupepe’s relationship with Hillsong seems uneasy at best. “I’m a fornicating drunk on a good day. But yeah, I’m happy to out myself as a believer in Jesus. I grew up with Hillsong Church; I went last night to see a friend play,” he says. “But I have issues with organised churches because I just don’t fit in. It’s like The Joshua Tree. I’m looking for God in this thing. I’m still asking where He is in all this bullshit.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 5, 2015 as "Difficult positions". Subscribe here.

Mark Mordue
is a writer, poet and journalist.