It happens early and often as Gang of Youths, a modern-rock quintet from Australia, power through a recent set at New York’s Bowery Ballroom. In stormy guitar anthems with spiritual-crisis titles such as “Fear and Trembling,” “The Heart Is a Muscle” and “Say Yes to Life,” singer-guitarist-songwriter David Le’aupepe pounds his chest with a fist, over the heart, physically illustrating the persistent, affirmative force in his lyrics and warrior-soul vocals. He also spreads his arms as if trying to embrace everyone in the sold-out crowd and points to specific faces like he is singing only to them.
Le’aupepe, 26, looks like he was designed for rock stardom – tall and broad with handsome Polynesian features, an exploding mane of black hair and a zealous gleam in his eyes when he smiles. But everything he does on stage is an act of sharing. “Dave is a powerful frontman,” bassist Max Dunn says backstage before showtime. “He has this unbelievable ability to make everyone feel like he’s looked at them.”
“All people want in life is to feel they exist,” Le’aupepe declares fiercely, sitting next to Dunn on a dressing-room sofa. “They want to feel seen, to feel heard. That’s what we’re here for. I’ve been given a platform,” he says of Gang of Youths, who include Jung Kim on keyboards and guitar, Joji Malani on lead guitar and drummer Donnie Borzestowski. “And I want people to feel seen.”
Founded in Sydney six years ago, Gang of Youths are just getting their own share of attention in America after releasing two hit albums in Australia: 2015’s The Positions and 2017’s Go Farther in Lightness, a four-time winner of that country’s equivalent of the Grammys, including Album of the Year. Dunn recalls a 2014 tour of the U.S. that was “completely worthless.” For one show, “We’d done a staggering 10-hour drive to play to 17 people, if you include the support bands.”
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The Bowery gig, in contrast, was part of an acclaimed spring blitz that ran the gamut from a six-show rush at SXSW to an incandescent national-TV debut, performing Go Farther’s “What Can I Do When the Fire Goes Out” on Late Night With Seth Meyers. And Le’aupepe delivered his magnetism even in the most incongruous settings. At an SXSW afternoon party, the singer introduced “Say Yes to Life” with a poignant homage to his father, a native of Samoa, who is battling cancer.
“What is this thing if you don’t come at it with everything?” Le’aupepe argues. “What is the redemptive, transforming power of big, ambitious music if not in the places you least expect it?” Dunn, 27 and originally from New Zealand, cites another early show in a Melbourne pub – for five people. “We literally played like we were at Wembley Stadium,” the bassist says, noting that one “dude in the back” was another New Zealander, the drummer in Shihad, a popular metal band there. “He was blown away. He was like, ‘Who plays like that to a pub this shit?'”
Gang of Youths formed out of a network of friendships at the Sydney home base of Hillsong Church, a worldwide Pentecostal ministry. Kim, 25, is Korean-American; Malani, 25, is from Fiji, descended from a line of chieftains. Borzestowksi, 26, who replaced a previous drummer in time to play on The Positions, is the son of Polish immigrants to Australia. And Le’aupepe is Samoan-Jewish; his mother’s parents emigrated to Australia from Vienna via Shangai to escape the Holocaust.
“People always expect us to be ashamed of our heritage, growing up in church,” Le’aupepe says. “But I got to play music and I met my best friends. I’m not ashamed at all.” The singer now maintains what he calls “a healthy suspicion of institutions” charged with “a deep desire to learn shit, to find out what is absolute spirit, and how to navigate that through the lens of art.”
Le’aupepe started playing music – drums as well as guitar – in a Polynesian-Baptist church when he was nine. U2 were an inevitable influence. “As soon as U2 were culturally acceptable in the Christian world, every band started sounding like them.” Le’aupepe also lists Bruce Springsteen, Sonic Youth, and Mogwai as inspirations for Gang of Youths’ epic-punk thunder and his unrelenting self-examination as a writer.
His songs are “always autobiographical,” Le’aupepe admits, “for the sake of assisting someone else, in a bigger context.” The singer wrote “Vital Signs” on The Positions about his attempted suicide during a bleak period of alcoholism and the breakdown of an early marriage. “The Deepest Sighs, the Frankest Shadows” on Go Farther came from a New York subway ride when Le’aupepe noticed an exhausted mother and her sleeping child in the car. “The mom let out a deep sigh,” he says, “and the light cast over her and the kid in this shadow. There was a uniting moment in that – all of us have deep sighs and cast shadows in light that isn’t flattering. I thought, ‘I want desperately to be part of a soundtrack that gets this woman out of bed.'”
Gang of Youths start another North American tour in May and play at Lollapalooza in August. And Le’aupepe is thinking about the next album – how to go beyond the double-LP-length dynamite of Go Farther in Lightness. “We have to make things that satisfy us,” the singer says. “But to be selfish with that – that’s not how we work. We believe in that kindred moment” – like, he suggests, “With or Without You” on U2’s The Joshua Tree. “We’re addicted to giving people that feeling of being both understood and blown away.
“I’m a fucking nobody who grew up in a trailer park in Sydney,” Le’aupepe says, laughing, as he gets ready to hit the Bowery Ballroom stage. “I know what it’s like for people not to give a shit. Maybe nobody cares about me two minutes after I die. But what I do now in this moment can matter.”