by Rich Hobson
photo: Matt Cawrey
This interview was conducted back in December 2018. The band have since gone on hiatus but the sentiments expressed come without time constraints and still hold up.
Everything about Youth Man is independent. From their iconoclastic take on punk (a howling mixture of noise, hardcore and post-rock; think Dillinger Escape Plan, Shellac and I Against I-era Bad Brains brawling their way out of a steel cage) to the way they conduct business, the festivals they play and even the venue for tonight’s chat (Birmingham’s Sunflower Lounge – choice spot for many a sweaty punk rock encounter), Youth Man exude the ideal of a band doing it for themselves. Except, that’s all a bit of an oversimplification. For one, our chat isn’t in the Sunflower Lounge (already flush with patrons at 6pm) but in the Subway next door and secondly, Youth Man aren’t in this alone.
“DIY doesn’t literally mean doing everything yourself,” admits vocalist/bassist Kaila Whyte. “It’s cool to have people around who help you. You can still be DIY and have a helping hand, because you won’t get very far without any friends. It’s just about being able to build those relationships yourself.”
“Are we a DIY band?” asks drummer Marcus Perks. “I don’t think so. We are in the sense that we control what happens with our music and nobody tells us when to do stuff. But we also have a press agent and a label.”
“But they’re just advisors,” Whyte refutes. “ It’s endless graft if you wanted to do everything for yourself and frankly, we still need jobs.”
The idea of your favourite bands working side-jobs is by no means a new thing, but the way the modern music industry operates has certainly seen a rise in the number of bands who only play music part-time. In short: if you got into music to get rich quick and never work another day in your life, you’re shit out of luck. While this reality can suck (especially when yet another of your favourite up-and-coming acts jack it all in to hold down stable lives), it also breeds a sense of pragmatism that creates staunchly individualist mindsets. This also means more acts are pushing to take full control of their output. As Whyte puts it, it’s a lot of graft, but musicians can now have more autonomy than ever before – because it turns out the death of the traditional music industry did wonders for toppling the old power structures.
“Nobody can teach you how to do everything for yourself,” says Perks. “It’s difficult and you can overthink it but if you look at logically, this is your art and you create everything within it so you can decide what is done with it and when. You never sell that shit to anybody else, then that is DIY. It’s important to me that an artist owns and is in control of their output. You don’t need to swindle yourself or lose ownership of what you have created – DIY is having that ownership but also knowing who can do what and when.”
Formed in 2012, Youth Man have done things on their own terms right from the start. Arriving to a burgeoning local scene that was picking up popularity and mainstream interest, Youth Man’s brand of furious punk was ill-suited to the ‘B-Town’ movement and its largely sanitised take on dream pop and shoegaze. Similarly, the band also did not fit in with the largely oi-influenced local punk scene nor its metalcore adherent counterpart. Sonic misfits, the band found kindred spirits in the likes of God Damn, Table Scraps and Black Mekkon; each an ill-fit for the scenes they ostensibly inhabited, finding shared kinship with each other.
“We were still in college when the band formed,” says Whyte. “We already knew the scene well and there were a bunch of local bands we liked like God Damn, SHVPES and Blackfish; all those bands we felt we could fit in with… so we decided to infiltrate.”
“But then we did it and didn’t sound like any of those bands,” admits Perks. “We were very lucky because when I think about 2012/2013 – when the B-town scene was happening – you’d have a four-band bill where every band would be a completely different thing, so you could get onto a bill where you didn’t match. We’re not outright heavy and punky enough for the punk scene, but nor are we poppy enough for the indie scene. But, people still want to watch us and want to host us, so we still get shows.”
“To be part of a community is important – to play for and with your mates is sustainable,” adds Whyte. “If you just stay as a little island, only playing what shows you personally put on nobody is ever going to care. You create the community you want to be a part of. DIO – do it ourselves.”
“Oh my god… DIO!” exclaims Perks. “Like Ronnie James Dio!”
Four years of endless touring, writing and recording their own material has worn on the band, though to see them laughing and joking you wouldn’t be able to immediately tell. 2018 was a fairly slow year for the band comparatively (though it still saw them release an EP – the brilliant Five Songs – and play shows up and down the country), they also recognised the need to take time out to start focusing on themselves as individuals.
“We don’t get to find a balance between our work and our lives really,” sighs Whyte. “We’re both students so we fit in band stuff wherever we can. Some aspects of everything loses out – our lives are very much quantity over quality at the moment, so it’s just about making sure our girlfriends stick around isn’t it?”
“That and making sure my boss knows I’m going to come into work on time,” adds Perks. “We’ve been going for six years with no chill, just accepting every show for the sake of it. We had a bit of a reshuffle before the end of last year and that was the point we had to ask ‘what’re we doing – how does it work now? What’re we doing this for?’”
“It was high pressure, and we don’t deal with that well,” admits Whyte. “We’ve given ourselves a bit of a breather and to be fair if we hadn’t we probably wouldn’t be going still – we would have imploded. After touring for four years non-stop; never having money, never seeing family and friends… it took its toll. We took time off to be creative – it probably doesn’t look like much, but we’re getting back in touch with what we want to do.”
“I think you can be in danger of turning into an asshole as well if you’re not careful,” warns Perks. “If you’re doing that stuff all the time then you start to buy into your own cult of personality a little bit – or maybe that’s just me. I think sometimes it’s important to have a bit of self-care; remember who you are.”
The way creative industries work now – particularly for those not locked into a 9-5 structure – the stresses of working and freelancing make it exceptionally easy to burn out. This is as true for bands as it is for publicists, writers and artists, especially when the demands of breaking into such industries are so high and require almost constant work to pay off. In March of 2019, Youth Man announced they would be taking ‘a little break’, looking for a well-earned rest after years of hard graft. Whilst for other bands this could be a death-knell, for Youth Man it feels like the perfect decision to recharge the batteries and make sure they don’t get devoured by the art they create, nor the machine that it feeds.
“When you’re starting out it’s important to write songs and play loads of shows,” Whyte says. “But after a while you’re knackered and have been playing the same venues for years. You have to think about what else you can contribute – you still put in graft, but you find out where else you can put that graft in. Song-writing, marketing even – we’ve still not got the hang of that – you can’t just play to the same people all the time. With music it sometimes becomes too easy to look at it as ‘I am a career musician, I live my life making music’, but more often it’s just some 20-somethings and teenagers playing rocking gigs all over the place until you don’t.”
“We had a bass player who left because he likes fixing photocopiers,” Perks reveals. “And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.”
“I don’t have the energy for gigging constantly any more,” admits Whyte. “I’d rather just do things at a pace that makes sense for us.”
“Absolutely – I can’t go out on a Friday and come back on Sunday any more, I just physically couldn’t do it,” adds Perks. “Plus, my girlfriend would be mad at me or my Nan will be like ‘you said you’d do the lawns!’”
For Youth Man, making music is a passion that is part of the lives they lead, rather than the sum of it. As such, they have a grounded view on reality that many might attribute to their hardcore inclinations; 80s American, mind – they don’t hold much truck with the British counterpart.
“I don’t get a lot of British hardcore,” admits Perks. “It’s too patriarchal and a bit too immature for me. No matter what the lyrics are, the second the vocals kick in all I hear is ‘I HATE YOU MOM, I HATE YOU DAD, YOU ALWAYS DO THIS, I’M RUNNING AWAY’”.
All that said, it wasn’t the empowering ideals of hardcore that first attracted them to music, nor for that matter the idea of grounded, down-to-earth musicians. No, for the musicians of youth man it was an idea of superstardom that was sold to them on the big screen, no less.
“The single most formative experience for me – and I’m sure Kaila will say the same – was going to the cinema to see School of Rock,” laughs Perks.
“He’s not wrong!” exclaims Whyte. “Specifically for our age group – if you’re 25 or 26 – School of Rock played a bigger role in our lives than it needed to.”
“All I know is it was a great film,” Perks says. “The next time my mom went to the library, I went up to the CD section and picked up The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Temptations’ Gold and The Clash Greatest Hits. Those were the first CDs I ever wilfully went out of my way to get, and that sums up everything I do musically – it fits into one of those three pockets. I got my mom to buy me a Stratocaster and make a headband, so I could stand in my bedroom strumming the strings and pretending I was Jimi Hendrix. I couldn’t even play guitar!”
“I did that, but I was playing to Justin Timberlake’s ‘Rock Your Body’,” cackles Whyte. “I have a DVD of School of Rock that has no case because we got it from Blockbuster and I didn’t want to give it back so I told my mom I’d lost it; we had to pay a fine! That movie proved that even if you were a kid you could create good music. As we got older we got into heavier music which was mostly dominated by old dudes, but that was fine because… well, School of Rock exists, doesn’t it?”
Youth Man have struck out to emulate the sheer joy of the musicians they see on-screen whilst not explicitly chasing mainstream success. Everything has been done on their terms and in a voice that is inherently and distinctly theirs, taking them to festivals (and venues) up and down the UK. And it’s not like their gateway movie didn’t forewarn them about the pitfalls of being an aspiring musician fighting to make the rent…
“I think it shocks people that we’re totally broke,” admits Whyte. “People see you doing loads of shit and assume you’re making a lot, but really it’s taking a hit financially so that we can just play some shows. The sacrifice is ‘if I play this show, I’ll have fun, but if I go to work I can afford some jeans’. But I’ve already got jeans.”
“Not having any money, that’s always hard,” agrees Perks. “But there’s always one moment per show where I sit there and just look around, thinking ‘we’re fucking good, we are’”.
“It’s hard not to have fun,” agrees Whyte.
Having fun and enjoying themselves seems to be a core concept behind what Youth Man do and have always done. Their distinctive imagery (often made by the members themselves – Perks admits he still has the model from the Wax EP cover at home, which terrifies his grandmother) and unique performance style might mark them out as a band who are overly invested in the idea of music as high art, but the total lack of pretence always wins over ultimately. They are the idealist’s DIY band – somebody willing to accept help and offer it out in turn, but also resolutely doing things entirely how they want to. Whether this break lasts months or even years, it ultimately ensures Youth Man never become another churned out product of the machine; never losing sight of what they mean to each other and to the wider music community. It’s no wonder they get hit up for gigs and support slots – or to be ambassadors for DIY events that showcase the power of community. But they never let it get to their heads.
“There’s no message behind Youth Man,” Whyte says. “It’s just a snapshot in time. You can make art out of anything; it doesn’t have to be profound, it can just be good and you can just make it if you want to.”
“Do what you think sounds good,” says Perks.
As with all great art, Youth Man’s message has a universal appeal that extends to all walks of life. Their vision isn’t one that speaks of burning passions, or the need to express complex emotions or any of the usual clichés you might hear about when talking art; what they suggest doesn’t demand any more than what can be offered by the artist. It is a sense of balance that is impossible to find almost anywhere else, a wisdom born simply from the willingness to ask ‘why not?’ and change the world in small ways. But then, that’s Youth Man in a nutshell.