How a COVID pause and a family death led Gang of Youths to new album

The ambitious rock band brings the epic 'Angel in Realtime' to the Newport on Sunday, April 24

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Gang of Youths

Tom Hobden joined Gang of Youths in October of 2020, following a five-year stint as an auxiliary member of Mumford & Sons. “And then we were a band out in the big, wide world for all of four months, and then COVID hit,” Hobden said by phone in early April.

Prior to the shutdown, Hobden, a multi-instrumentalist who plays violin, keyboard and guitar, said he performed just a pair of concerts with Gang of Youths: a small theater show in London and a festival set at Down to Earth in Melbourne, Australia, designed to raise funds to benefit recovery from the bushfires that ravaged the country at the time. 

“So, we played that show and literally on the way back we became aware of this thing COVID-19,” said Hobden, who will join his Gang of Youths bandmates in concert at the Newport on Sunday, April 24, recalling how gate attendants in Singapore used thermometers to take the temperature of every traveler who passed through the airport. 

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Amid this uncertainty, the band members decamped to a rented studio in the London borough of Hackney, which Hobden described as a saving grace not only for the resulting record, Angel in Realtime, released in February, but for the collective mental health of the group, as well, offering the musicians a place to escape what he described as a “quite a strict lockdown here in the U.K.”

Absent record label deadlines and working at a point in history where it felt like End Times, the musicians embraced an “anything goes” recording ethos. “We indulged ourselves in just throwing everything at the wall,” Hobden said, and laughed. “It was such a mad bag of influences to draw off. We went through a real patch with Steve Reich minimalism, and then the ’90s Manchester scene. … Then we were turned on near the middle of the process to the whole archive of David Fanshawe, who was a composer but also an ethnomusicologist, and he built up this incredible mass of recordings done in the Pacific Islands in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.”

These recordings, introduced to the band by a producer friend, unlocked something within Gang of Youths, Hobden said, not just musically but also in the themes that singer and chief songwriter Dave Le’aupepe began to explore in the songs.

Throughout Angel in Realtime, Le’aupepe wrestles with his family history, drawing inspiration from his father’s illness and death, as well as the discoveries the singer made in the wake of his passing. On album track “Brothers,” Le’aupepe, accompanied solely by piano, openly recounts his father’s hidden life, including the reveal that Le’aupepe has two brothers in New Zealand who believed their father to already be dead. “So as I dig through the collateral/The secrets hid throughout the years,” Le’aupepe sings. “I know I'll hardly ever answer them/But it's the way to keep him near.”

Elsewhere, Le’aupepe adopts his father’s perspective as a younger man leaving his Samoan home (“Tend the Garden”), delves into his own struggles in trying to find a sense of purpose (“You in Everything”) and eventually makes something of a peace with not only his father, but himself (“Goal of the Century”). 

While Hobden didn’t have a direct connection to the lyrical journey undertaken by Le’aupepe, the words did lead the multi-instrumentalist to revisit his relationship with his own father, who has been going through some health struggles as of late. “So, a lot of it was very real for me, and Dave’s obviously in a different situation … where even when his father was alive it wasn’t easy for him to see him,” Hobden said. “Whereas my dad lives down the road in London, so I count my blessings. And I dare say I’ve made more effort to spend time with my dad since COVID, because we’re not all here forever.”

Musically, Le’aupepe’s Gang of Youths mates match his heart-on-a-sleeve admonitions with fittingly epic backdrops, layering massive waves of guitars, drum loops, synths, choirs, strings, marimba and the sounds of traditional Maori instruments — their sense of exploration enabled by the lingering shutdown.

“These days, everything is happening at breakneck speed — in everyone’s lives, no matter what they do — and certainly in music, where our life is this ever-revolving, without-end cycle of create, release, tour, and then do it again,” Hobden said. “And to break that rhythm was actually very beneficial for us, because I don’t know what record we would have made had COVID not happened, and we’d been forced to stick to the original label deadlines.”

For Hobden, the process of writing and recording the album wasn’t always the easiest. Coming into the band, he initially envisioned his early tenure would be spent on the road, giving him time and space to develop a musical and personal camaraderie with his new mates. Instead, he was thrown into a closed recording environment and forced to find a connection on the fly, which at times left him feeling what he termed "a sense of despair." 

“Max [Dunn] always alludes to a moment when he saw me just outside of a newsagent, just sat on a bench, looking into the distance with traffic roaring past, all these fumes kicking up,” Hobden said. “And, yeah, I don’t even remember what I was thinking about or why I was sitting there, but there were moments like that. We definitely feel like we’ve been through a collective process, you know. One of wild joy and excitement, and then other moments of complete madness, and I think we enjoyed the collective trauma of that, as well.”