Ed Cooke

Gang of Youths Find the Flow of Energy & Emotion

Tom Hobden is a multi-instrumentalist whose talents have taken him around the world and then some, to stage and studios of all kinds, with a wide variety of artists and musicians. Still, he’s a simple man (albeit too talented for his own good). “I’ve just been off my flight and I’m in London at the moment,” is how he just about started our half hour phone call on what was for us a pretty April afternoon. He is chipper, personable, and honest about how thrilling life can be when you’re doing what you love, with who you love, and for people who are loving you right back. (Ie: Fans who are so caught up in a song of yours that they don’t let you sing anything else.) 

Gang of Youths are a band consisting of the aforementioned Hobden, David Le’aupepe, Max Dunn, Jung Kim, and Donnie Borzestowski. The latest edition of the slightly alternative, musically sound rock band is taking their new record, their months of waiting to tour some of their biggest rooms to date, and allowing it to take over the United States – including a show right here in NYC on May 10. Bold Aussies and a Englishmen making bold music that is new, exploratory, and Oasis-esque with a little Southside Johnny thrown in there. Every personality and every skill shines, drawing you into their palpable exhilaration.

“Ah, yes, I’m enjoying a nice cold beer this evening,” the former Mumford and Sons musician says to us, a smile clear in his voice as he prepares to talk to The Aquarian about finding his footing in GOY and embarking on a high energy, familial journey alongside them. “I just got home, I’ve cracked a beer, life is great.”

Tom, everything about Gang of Youths seems so genuine – on stage and off, from the first song to the most recent. Coming into the band, do you feel that? 

I think it’s very much absolutely genuine. I don’t know if everyone knowa my history with the band, but I actually only joined…. Well, I guess it was two-and-a-half years ago now which actually is much longer than I’ve realized [Laughs]. It’s a real family. It’s a group of friends who’ve known each other for a long time. It’s hard to miss them being friends and acting like brothers, so it’s been interesting coming in as an outsider, because, obviously, you have to learn the dynamics and you learn what makes people tick. You do that no more so than when you’re actually making music. I was fortunate because when I joined, even though it was at the very, very start of the pandemic, we were making music. We were creating, we were writing, we were in the studio, and you really get a sense of something when you’re working that close and in that kind of proximity – especially at heightened emotional times, which is what the pandemic afforded everyone. We really get a sense of people pretty quickly. I was welcomed with nothing other than love and instant friendship – a lot of respect, too. We also just sort of realized that we had a lot of shared passions and interests, so, musically, we were exploring new poetry on this album. It was sort of a learning experience for all of us. I was just so glad to be able to share in that, especially going forward given the sort of busy year you always have after releasing an album; you’re touring here, there, and everywhere. It’s super nice to have been a part of that creative process beforehand. 

Now we’re gonna go out on the road and we’ll see different parts of each other’s character. We have to learn from each other and learn who we are in that setting [Laughs], because it’s kind of cheesy in music, but there really is a very cerebral, very emotionally raw time – often – in the studio where you’re creating. You have to flick a switch in your head to then be able to go and talk about music you’ve written, play it out. You’ve had very intimate sort of connections with it and you have to know how to transform that into a live setting. We are learning how to find what sort of vibe to tackle, that you tackle, with these some songs – and it’s exciting. We’ve done one UK tour, so we’ve got the ball rolling. It takes time, though, and I feel like just in the last couple of shows in that UK run, we really took a stride. Hey, more important? We’re all getting on!

[Laughs] Oh, good. Fans can feel that in the audience for sure. It also must emphaize this sense of equality in the band that is heard. Everyone has a role that they play, but everyone plays off of each other so wonderfully. 

Absolutely. I think you touched on it there. I think we are definitely a band that is made stronger because we’re all quite different people. Sometimes in bands you find that there are two personalities that are sort of jarring because they’re actually so similar – they sort of occupy the same sort of space in terms of the relationship between band members. That can lead to difficult situations. In all honesty, we are all so different. That’s our strength. If you look at Dave’s background, for instance, he’s been telling his story on this new album about learning about his father and his roots and trying to connect with his background. He grew up in a poor district in Sydney, Australia. Max grew up in New Zealand and Don grew up in Australia, but over in Newcastle, which is a sort of beach town, and then Jung has been here, there and everywhere. He’s Korean, but he grew up in Chicago for a bit, then Sydney, so he’s a real mix of background. I grew up in London – I’m the English guy in the band. It’s a really crazy mix, but I guess those guys had their connections going back years and years to when they were kids. My connection is through meeting them on tour. Actually I was playing in France for about five years on violin on tour with Mumford and Sons. We actually supported them on a European tour and then also on a US tour. We were hanging out every day. […] I think what really struck me, just going back to the point about the band and just how outgoing and friendly they are – which isn’t a given with musicians, especially in the context of shows where often a support band can be overlooked or whatever by the headline band…. Some bands are more equitable than others and are still like that, but I remember those guys – we literally were building our sound check and they just all bounded onto the stage just to introduce themselves day one, which precisely how it should be. It’s funny how often it’s not like that. Personally, the band and the people are, yeah, tons of fun as a bunch.

That’s exciting, you know? To have that enthusiasm for what you do and who you’re doing it with?

Yeah, we are just honest, quite normal blokes who, if you meet us in the street, will be happy to go for a drink. [Laughs

When working with a band like that, and having your background with Mumford and Sons, and having so many talents that I couldn’t even list them all, Gang of Youths must have been pretty exhilarating to be able to find a new spot in music. 

Absolutely! When I was 18, I started a band, a sort of folk rock band. We were a band for eight years. We released four albums and I was sort of a legend band member. That’s a certain position to occupy, so when the thing split, for me it was a bit messy. I actually got a call from Marcus Mumford literally a week after the split asking if I wanted to go and tour them. Obviously I needed that sort of healing, getting back on the road, and starting [to move] on. So I did, and that was wicked. I am always so grateful for them, for reaching out to me in the way they did. Then I toured for five years. It’s a very different experience as a session player because you’re paid to play the show! Apart from being on tour, there are days where you are not on tour. You have to think about just anything not regarding the band and then sort of get on with your life. Whereas, I have to admit, like, I did pine after having that sort of feeling of being at the top table again. [Laughs] Then the Gang of Youths guys told me that someone was leaving and that he’d actually given his blessing, personally, for me to come and join the band. It just all felt so right. After that, I was hanging out for all those weeks on tour and really getting on with them as just mates rather than anything else. It wasn’t a hard decision for me. Then David gave me little signs of what he wanted to do on the next album, which turned out to be an engine in real time. I was obviously intrigued by what might go down there, too, musically, which made it such an easy call for me.

They say timing is everything and you might be the proof.

[Laughs]. Yeah, I’m really the living proof. I’m a big believer in taking opportunities, as well. I think change is good. I’m a big advocate for change… probably just ‘cause I’m a bit of a restless character. I’m always doing some new project or something. Actually, it’s funny – in the three weeks we’ve had off since the UK tour, I’ve gone and made another album [Laughs]

Oh my goodness.

Yeah. I have this sort of side project, this modern classical sort of instrumental thing. It’s like a string quartet. It was a kind of piano, strings and piano, with a bit of electronics that I do. I met with an old producer friend. We wrote the record from the start and we literally finished yesterday. It felt a bit nice, really. Then off again on Sunday, off to the states and then some.

You don’t stop, Tom!

It drives my fiance crazy, but that’s me.

What is this tour going to be like, this stop in NYC and everywhere else in America?

It’s such a transition in terms of the songs’ subject matter and the record. We’ve got a sense from this UK tour and the way people were reacting to certain things not necessarily how we would have expected. We’ve realized that our set takes on this really, interestingly dynamic pace, which is much more nuanced. I’d say it’s a show to be known for its high energy – a proper rock show. There are cetertinly some emotional chords struck on this new album with a few slower songs, but it’s balanced. I think we kind of like the new record live; this new bunch of songs give us confidence. The real bit of craft is building the set of songs, but we manage to find the flow of energy and emotion. It’s really quite exciting and feels very affecting at the moment. It’s really great and we have some of the biggest States’ shows to date, so we really care about it.

[Laughs] You make a great point, Tom, about how these songs and this album itself are this rollercoaster of musicality mixed in with prowess, but it still has such heart to it where you can dance and you can groove and you can learn from every song. To see that translated on stage I think might shift the narratives at hand – kind of change perspective for fans who thought they knew a song only one way.

Certainly that shift of gear during the set is evident, but also even with the personality, everyone’s sort of moving around on our instruments on this tour. We’re bringing an extra player, our friend Louis, for more sounds. There’s a lot of moving around the stage, people playing different things on different tracks, which is great because it keeps the dynamic flowing. At least, that’s what I would imagine from a viewer’s perspective. There’s some high highs, but no low lows – some theatricality even and it’s really fun.

While talking about the on-stage experience and the set list, what have you learned from the UK dates, the European dates? Were there any songs that resonated with an audience that surprised you guys more than others? Did you get anything changed for this American leg of the tour?

Great question. Yes. There was one particular song in a way that, when we were writing it, we knew that it was catchy. You write into a tune and can feel it through you. We were so blindsided at the first show we played it in. [Laughs] We tried to end the song, but the crowd just was singing louder than we were – I think they were coming out of the PA system singing up that loud. We started the next song, but we just couldn’t go on with that next song. We just couldn’t start it. We had that one song mid set, but since we couldn’t get people to stop singing it… well, we sort of went back noting how people loved it and that it was more than just catchy, quite surprinsging us, and ended up moving it to the end of the body of the set. It was a happy revelation, I have to say. Another night people came out to the lobby after the show still singing it, too, so that was pretty fun. That was nice – and a surprise, especially when you release something in a time like last year when you [couldn’t]  play shows. You are left to wonder how much it has connected with people. Sure, some people are really into the song and you can look at streaming numbers and you can look at radio pages to see thatm but when it comes to live shows and whether or not people want to hear a song or not? That’s something else and it’s special. Live music is special and I think it’s good for everyone. I know that we are very happy.