“Art is how we make sense of the void” – a life affected by Gang Of Youths

“…there’s no kind of right way / To do what I’ll do, but I’m king of the earth / With impossible blood on this 3rd of June…”


On June 3rd, 2014 I was a 19-year-old student attending my first year of university in Newcastle. Studying Communication, my understanding of the world around me was forever changed by an introductory course detailing the major schools of thought in the field. From structuralism / post-structuralism, cultural studies and sociological perspectives, it was a pivotal moment in my life to gain ‘an answer’ to what communication entailed; something I hadn’t given a great deal of thought to previously.

At the same time a man not that much older than myself, whom I had no knowledge of, was experiencing a life-changing episode.

It is the result of pure imagination to think my developing understanding of communication and a traumatic moment in the life of David Le’aupepe are somehow related. It is nothing more than the projection of an idea upon a stranger as a means of self-rationalisation. Yet the events of that day resulted in a life being saved and subsequently bringing about the creation of beautiful things capable of changing lives for the better.

On the anniversary of Magnolia, this is how Gang Of Youths affected my life.

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I’m not quite sure how I consciously came across Gang Of Youths.

I would have heard Magnolia (#21) and Strange Diseases (#50) as I listened to the 2015/16 Hottest 100s, but for reasons unknown I wasn’t compelled by what I heard at the time.

Being somewhat familiar with the band’s origins when their debut record came in at number six in the 2015 triple j album poll, I was interested from a distance by the events that led David Le’aupepe to construct The Positions alongside friends he met at “Jesus camp”.

When The Feed featured Le’aupepe in 2016 my social media feeds more than likely came across the interview, yet I still wasn’t sold.

There were enough preceding events to hook me in to what is now my favourite band. I would love to say that ‘from the first moment I heard their music, I just knew’ – that is not my experience and like a number of events in life, things aren’t as serendipitous as we would like them to be.

So why then was I drawn to the music of such a diverse group of Australians vastly different from my own life?

My upbringing was completely removed from that of Pacific Islanders, Korean Americans, New Zealanders or Polish descendants. I grew up in a regional centre of NSW, greatly contrasted from the inner surroundings of one of the largest global cities. The ‘adult’ life I had lived up to that point was nothing like the devastation of confronting mortality. I had felt isolated at times, but not to the extent of intending to take my own life.

Perhaps these are all just projections I’ve constructed in my head to lionise what Le’aupepe described as “falling over really hard and as I was getting up people started clapping”.

While the temptation to place David Le’aupepe, Joji Malani, Jung Kim, Max Dunn and Donnie Borzestowski on a pedestal is present, I would be understating just how important the music and philosophy of Gang Of Youths has been during uncertain times in my life.

I remember purchasing a deluxe edition of The Positions just before Easter last year after revisiting Magnolia, the euphoric anthem depicting the events of June 3rd, 2014 – the night Le’aupepe intended to act on an overwhelming sense of anhedonia, before finding solace in the uncertainty of life and the optimism that can bring with it.

“The want (was) gone. The want, the desire for anything. The lust for change. You don’t want sex… love… anything”.

It’s an incredible song that despite its initial subject matter is in fact the very reason to keep going. In just over five minutes Magnolia is passion and joy distilled into a rock song; in the face of hopelessness there is a renewed belief of taking on all that life can confront you with.

“(In rehab a lady made it very clear that) Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Which I don’t think she intended, but I took as ‘your life is a temporary problem’. That actually gave me a weird sense of hope that life is this temporary problem and it’s so much f***ing fun trying to solve it”.

On those initial listens of their 2015 debut, I remember being less enamoured with the first half of the record, while finding the closing tracks to be the strongest of the hour-long runtime. Revisiting the record regularly in preparation for the follow up due out in September, I began to appreciate all ten tracks and additional output by way of the Let Me Be Clear EP.

Seeking out interviews and live recordings it became evident that while a surface level perception of the band was removed from my upbringing, the ideas espoused rang true to my own academic interests.

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Delving into the human concerns of youthful terror, retaining a sense of wonder amid the realities of daily life and facing the implications of impending mortality; the emotional and intellectual stimulation present in The Positions allowed me to reconsider preconceived notions of culture and the means in which discourses are formed.

There is no absolute way to express an idea or point of view. While it may be fashionable to deride the pre-teen music of Justin Bieber from the start of the decade as the ‘worst thing ever’, for the host of people who connected with the pubescent lack of perspective that comes from having a broken heart, those emotions are real to the people who experience them. As a culture it has been made acceptable to dismiss media intended for young people, especially girls, as something not to be taken seriously. Having come across ‘Uses and Gratification’ theory during my undergraduate studies it dawned on me that just as Katz among many theorised that various forms of value can be found in all texts – irrespective of the importance afforded by a culture – the same sentiment had been expressed by Le’aupepe on FBi radio’s ‘Out of the Box’ segment back in October 2016.

“We are so afraid of being human and to love something unironically even though it’s a little bit cheesy. We are so used to being mocked and ridiculed for things we care deeply about. You can care deeply about the plight of African children, but you can’t care deeply about Celine Dion. Why? Because Celine Dion is seen as somehow low (rather than) high art; there’s a Derridian, post-structuralist approach to this. We perceive these worlds in binaries and we emphasise how much better Broken Social Scene are in terms of Canadian music than Celine Dion. But there’s still value in Celine Dion”.

Hearing these ideas expressed by someone from a world separate from academia reinforced the benefits of the intellectual endeavours I was pursuing. Through Le’aupepe’s distinct voice I found that contrary to the anti-intellectual mentality that is rife throughout a number of Western cultural practices, being someone who is interested in the world around them is not to be disregarded as pretentious.

There is nothing inherently wrong with liking popular things or not feeling compelled to be across works deemed as having cultural significance – both historically and contemporary. The social construction of alternative or indie cultures as somehow superior is rooted in the elitist traditions of the proletarian / bourgeois binary that has existed for decades. To have an appreciation of impressionistic art is not mutually exclusive from finding enjoyment at a rugby league game. To value texts that are concerned with the morality of human suffering does not preclude someone from finding value in products designed for mass consumption. There is a convergence of sorts in the work of Gang Of Youths in being concerned with affecting change among the largest possible audience.

“We’ve always endeavoured to become the sum of our parts, which is ambitious, emotive and literate. We always wanted to connect with people and that was the heart behind the record. The fact that it did well is a peripheral ambition of ours. The feeling of a kid writing to us saying ‘hey, my mum is going through cancer’ or ‘my best mate committed suicide and this is helping’ is infinitely more tangible and real to us than any kind of measurable success. We got into this work to help people… to touch people… affect people and I think that’s the motivation from the beginning to the end”.

Hearing songs informed by real life and dealing with subjects that have persisted over time work on a variety of levels. At the most basic core, the ability to energise someone through the organised noise of rock music can create a fuelling desire within people to be moved by primal emotion. Similarly, in tapping into the hearts and minds of individuals seeking connection through ideas of existentialism, mortality, love, fear and loss is an aspiration few are willing to openly admit to. In order to strip away fear and inhibition it has to be confronted and in the music of Gang Of Youths that internal struggle is brought to the fore. Their music cannot solely defeat struggles that are borne out of deeply complex phenomena, but it can empower people to strive for more and show compassion in an increasingly cynical world.

On numerous occasions the phrase ‘redemptive power of rock n roll performance’ has been put forward by the band, but more than just creating a musical world for fans to immerse themselves in, there is a great sense of post-structural intertextuality and informed creative practice throughout their work.

Described by Roland Barthes in his seminal essay The Death of the Author as ‘a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash’, intertextuality can be reduced to references made to other texts. Popular culture is rampant with this idea with shows such as The Simpsons being textbook examples. Likewise, in contrast to romanticised notions of the creator as an individual genius, the systems model of creativity developed by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi presents the process of creativity as an interrelated system in action. Comprising of an autonomous individual, a domain of pre-existing works and a field of experts that are important figures within a given context, each element is necessary but not sufficient in understanding what creativity, in the inconsequential and extraordinary, comprises of.

These concepts may seem rooted in academic jargon, but in observing the comments made by Le’aupepe and the musical compositions of Gang Of Youths, it is evident how the influences of lives lived inform the end result.

Speaking with Richard Kingsmill to align with the release of The Positions, adoration for the likes of Bruce Springsteen and U2 is laid bare by the Gang Of Youths front man in showing great reverence for the icons of contemporary music and an ambitious view of evoking the same feeling through the band’s own work.

“His grandeur, his grandiosity, his want to connect with people in a mass context – he had broad appeal. The feelings I get listening to ‘Born to Run’ or ‘The River’ are the same feelings I get when I listen to ‘The Joshua Tree’ – huge expansive records that reach everybody and that was really important. You still listen to ‘Born to Run’ and you’re like ‘wow, this is a really, really good record’. It’s got eight songs on it, but it’s still really powerful, they’re all intoxicating and rich… they wrote things that were timeless, classic and not targeted to anybody in particular. It was pouring out this immense capacity and need to connect with people”.

Following a similar tact speaking with Ash Berdebes in between LPs, Le’aupepe’s domain knowledge of the Born to Run album opener Thunder Road can be seen as a direct influence on the way in which Fear and Trembling introduces listeners to the journey of Go Farther In Lightness. Beginning with a contemplative piano introduction that increases in musical motion and references Søren Kiekegaard’s novel of the same name, the philosophical ideas that inform the acclaimed second record set a tone for the 70-minute epic from the very first track.

Likewise, the infectious chorus of album highlight The Deepest Sighs, The Frankest Shadows can be viewed in relation to Le’aupepe’s appearance on the Talent Scout podcast at the beginning of 2016. Referring to the themes present in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the rejection of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence is manifested through the musical thesis that while every action may be simultaneously important and insignificant, the meaning individuals find in life is that which they apply to it themselves.

“This notion of lightness versus weightness; rejecting the Nietzschean notion that if something’s only happened once than it might as well have never happened. My approach is that doing one thing, it doesn’t matter if it hasn’t ever happened before, that thing has significance and is inherently insignificant in and of the same time. Why not try to make this heaviness into something that embodies lightness – make something positive, life-affirming, unique”.

Additional nods to Le’aupepe’s earliest memory of the Guns N’ Roses video for Sweet Child o’ Mine (L’Imaginaire), Phillip Glass’ minimalist score for Mishima (Achilles Comes Down), melodies of Joni Mitchell (Fear and Trembling) and further intertextual links to the bands earlier work during the Go Farther In Lightness interlude (Magnolia) demonstrate the unspoken connection to Csikszentmihalyi’s systems model in action. With Gang Of Youths serving as the individual agent capable of acting on choice, the domain knowledge of previous musical works, philosophical texts and lived experiences, along with a field of experts assisting in and evaluating the creative process, the end result extends far beyond notions of an individual genius inspired to produce works of art stemming from divine intervention.

Many creative individuals resonate with people on various levels. Past perceptions of communication viewed it as a process devoid of interpretation. At the other end of the spectrum, the post-structuralist shift rendered the original author’s intent inconsequential to individual interpretation. Just as Gang Of Youths converge established notions of rock music and existential thought, the interplay between artists and audiences is an on-going exchange of ideas in the pursuit of making meaning.

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Perhaps the quotes referenced throughout no longer hold true for Le’aupepe and co. due to artistic and personal change. It is entirely possible that my perceptions of the works published are held by a grand total of one. In an uncertain time as part of a world that can never truly be known, what I can hold to be true is the impact left by five musicians (and supporting figures) in bringing into being music that provides uplift, joy and solace to many people.

It is impossible for one person to change the world, but people can change the world around them through the means available to them. Questions of why we are here have plagued all of human history – is there a point to any of this? Who can say? One possible theory outlined by David Le’aupepe is testament to the power of Gang Of Youths in using the platform afforded to make beautiful things out of what began as pain:

Art is how we make sense of the void”.

 

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Gang Of Youths are touring Australia in October/November 2018 as part of their Say Yes To Life Tour. A number of shows sold out in minutes with additional dates added due to high demand. To experience the power of their music live, book tickets here.

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