Sod the so-called “Curse of the Mercury” – eclectic Edinburgh trio Young Fathers are already ready to talk about their next album. I can’t recall a band moving on so quickly from a Mercury Prize victory to bigger, better things. More commonly the prestige of the award, which is for artistic merit and shines a blinding light on the less well-known, artier end of the music spectrum, has a paralysing effect on future work.
The ceremony was on October 29, where Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham “G” Hastings received the £20,000 winners’ cheque for their extraordinary debut album, Dead. Now album two of their rap/World/soul stew is ready for release early next month, and they haven’t even got round to their celebratory dinner yet. “We’ve planned it twice but it never happened. We got too busy,” says Bankole.
“Regardless of whether we won or not, the plan was to go straight out and get the album finished. The ceremony was more of a platform for us to perform on TV,” he continues. The way all of them talk, the prizegiving was one interesting day rather than a glorious pinnacle of achievement to which they are unlikely to return. That attitude saw them mocked by some sections of the press on the night who, rather than praising them for a deserved victory, criticised them for not smiling in the photos.
“If you go on my Facebook I’m smiling,” says Massaquoi, who also proves capable of laughing during our time together. “But this music is serious, we take it seriously. We’re not just here for a laugh, that’s not what we’re like.”
Smile-gate overshadowed the merits of music that adds tribal aggression to Massive Attack’s moody trip hop template, and makes itself unique by throwing in the African influences of Bankole, of Nigerian heritage, and Massaquoi, born in Liberia. The band’s manager, Tim Brinkhurst, seemed especially put out, writing an article on the music website Drowned in Sound that revealed that the band were adding the Daily Telegraph to a media blacklist that already included the right wing papers the Sun, Daily Express, Daily Mail, Daily Star, and the Times. “It’s neither pretentious nor childish not to do what a bunch of couldn’t-give-a-toss snappers tell you to do,” he said of the awkward post-prizegiving press conference.
Today I’m reassured that I’m not on the blacklist, yet. “It depends how good your questions are,” says Bankole, without enough of a wink for my liking. The meeting place is a grimy, low-lit recording studio in deepest Dalston. Brinkhurst, Young Fathers’ publicist and their touring drummer loom behind me as I talk to the band (ordinarily, superfluous personnel would leave the room) and Brinkhurst places his iPhone next to my dictaphone to make his own recording of the interview. It’s a post-Mercury security policy, he says. The atmosphere is tense and somewhat intimidating.
The band seem relaxed, in contrast, near horizontal on a knackered low sofa. You’d never cast them in a remake of The Monkees, and their low Scots mumbles can be difficult to make out, but they’re alert and enthusiastic when the subject moves away from the Mercury to their new music.
“There’s no fear,” says Massaquoi of their recording process, which generally sees them start and finish one song every day. “We don’t go in thinking it needs to be a set way. It’s left open. We’re hitting stuff, screaming, trying to find melodies. We just do it. There’s no formula.” They’re a raw, thrilling live act too, returning to London in May.
Friends since they were 14 and all 27 now, they’ve developed an intuitive working relationship that means there’s no time wasted. “Some people think they can always do it better. We’re the polar opposite – the first take’s usually the best,” says Hastings, the only native Scot in the band. “When we’re in the studio the record button is ready before we even start playing, because you need to capture it first time.” Their new single, Shame, with its propulsive beat and meandering organ, was a first take recorded while on tour in Australia. The rest of the album was made in Berlin, for a change of scene, and their own tiny basement studio in Edinburgh.
Young Fathers first gained some attention with two EPs, Tape One and Tape Two, widely released in 2013. Tape Two, confusingly, won another £20,000 for Scottish Album of the Year in 2014. They caught the music business on the hop – no one was looking to Edinburgh for cutting edge, vital new music, especially not hip hop.
Hastings advises against heading north looking for a scene, even now: “You get the festival once a year and apart from that it’s culturally pretty barren, especially for music. It’s a ghost town.” That enabled Young Fathers to evolve without much outside influence, towards a sound that’s extremely hard to pin down. A listings magazine once billed them as a “Liberian/Nigerian/Scottish psychedelic hip-hop electro boy band”. The new album will simplify matters with a sticker saying “File under Rock and Pop”.
“If you go into the record store, Rock and Pop has got the biggest section. We wanted to be in there,” says Hastings. “It’s a genre but it’s broad. People will switch off when they read ‘Scottish rap group’ so this solidifies the fact that it’s not what you think it is.”
The title on the cover will grab attention too: no image, just the words “White People are Black People Too” in block capitals. How does this multicultural band want you to react to such a statement? That’s up to you. “We spent a few weeks going over whether it should be called that, and everybody we spoke to was having a conversation about it: I like it, I don’t like it, does it mean this? What is a white man? What is a black man?” says Hastings. “That’s useful, if people use the title to start a conversation about something that they usually feel uncomfortable about or try to avoid.”
“For us it’s about equality. But issues of race are always a grey area,” adds Massaquoi. “I can’t tell you what your experiences of race are, and you can’t tell me what mine are. I can’t talk for black America, or even folk in the UK. So it’s good to start those conversations. We want people to talk about it, positively or negatively, so that it’s out there.”
When they talk about their new music, which is brighter and more energetic than last year’s album but still sounds like no one else around, and when they talk about the Mercury, it’s clear that despite their withdrawn personalities, this is an ambitious group that wants to be heard. “We don’t want to hide and be in some corner for specialist elite musicians. We want everybody to notice us,” says Hastings.
And if you don’t get it this time, these fast, restless workers have plenty more in store. They’ve drawn a bold line under their year of prizewinning and are looking towards an even brighter future.
White People are Black People Too is out on April 6 on Big Dada. May 28, Koko, NW1 (0870 432 5527, koko.uk.com)