THE UK UNDERGROUND ROCK SCENE HAS BEEN THROWING UP GREAT BANDS LIKE IT’S GOING OUT OF FASHION OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS. AS THIS SUMMER’S VANS WARPED TOUR KICKS INTO GEAR, THE GOSPEL YOUTH PREPARE TO DROP THEIR DEBUT ALBUM ‘ALWAYS LOSE’. SPOILER ALERT, IT’S ABSOLUTELY FUCKING BRILLIANT.
Words: Danny Randon. Photos: Mac Praed.
It’s a balmy 38 degrees in California. The air is dense, the heat stifling, so much so that it makes the UK – even on some of its hottest days in more than 40 years – look more like a scene from The Day After Tomorrow. What better temperatures for The Gospel Youth to endure a 1,379-mile drive in?
“We stood outside of the van earlier, and I think I instantly got sunburnt,” laughs Sam Little, the lead singer for the Brighton pop-rockers, stood at a truck stop in an unknown part of the Golden State. “I’m absolutely boiling!”
“This morning, we woke up and went diving off some waterfalls,” grins drummer Kurtis Maiden, shamelessly confessing to going full tourist during his first ever trip stateside, let alone the band’s first American tour. “That was an awesome start to the day.”
Despite piling into a stuffy van, which they had to sleep in the back of before self-driving for 12 hours a day to stick to their schedule, the band – Sam, Kurtis, and guitarists Julian Bowen and Kev Deverick, plus live bassist James Dixon – wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s because, on the end of that particularly arduous journey from Eugene, Oregon to Albuquerque, New Mexico lay the second leg of the Vans Warped Tour.
For 22 years, landing your first stint on the travelling festival has been a rite of passage for bands like The Gospel Youth, but to fly over from the other side of the Atlantic without so much as releasing a debut album at that point – by the time you read this, their astonishing first full-length ‘Always Lose’ will be in the public domain – seems absurd even to the band themselves.
“I still get shivers whenever anyone mentions it,” Sam admits in the weeks before celebrating ‘Always Lose’’s release with a show in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania. “I thought we’d maybe be playing to a couple of friends who would tell us that our album’s not completely terrible.”
“For as long as I can remember, it’s been the dream to travel around for two months and see stuff that people would never see in their lifetimes,” Kurtis adds. “Most Americans won’t even see this much, you know? I can’t think of anything that would be better than this…”
For those who have followed The Gospel Youth since their genesis in November 2014, ‘Always Lose’ is an album which has been a long time coming. However, there’s nobody who has waited longer for a full body of work to be put out than Sam.
“I’d just finished recording a solo record,” he says, having already made a name for himself performing at local gigs and uploading videos of himself performing covers and original songs to YouTube. “Julian said that, while he hated to say it, he didn’t think the solo thing was working and that I should either give up, or that we could start a band.”
“It wasn’t even tough love,” Sam chuckles. “He was just trying to get me to be in a band with him!”
The first song born from that collaboration, simply titled ‘Kids’, was a golden nugget of shiny power-pop, clearly unearthed on an adolescent diet of Jimmy Eat World’s ‘Bleed American’, ‘Something To Write Home About’ by The Get Up Kids, and ‘Everything In Transit’, the debut album by one of Sam’s biggest influences, Andrew McMahon (AKA Jack’s Mannequin).
Heading up a three-song EP of the same name, ‘Kids’ turned many heads in unison in Brighton’s burgeoning pop-punk scene and beyond. Amongst those with interests piqued was Kurtis – at the time drumming for the band Midday Committee just along the south coast in Portsmouth before jumping behind the kit for The Gospel Youth in 2016 – who claims that he “fell in love with the band that day” he first heard the single.
It looked like following Julian’s advice, sacking off his solo album and forming The Gospel Youth was the start of a fruitful chapter in Sam’s career as a musician – even if he wasn’t so convinced…
“There were 100% points in the early stages of the band where I didn’t think it was going to last. We wanted to just do it because we loved it, but there were points where we thought that it wasn’t working out or sitting right.
“As time’s gone on, we’ve been so fucking lucky. Everything’s just kind of fallen into place; we’re now seeing that this is what we were meant to do.”
At the start of 2015, the doubts that Sam showed towards his own musical project were the last thing on his mind. Admitting his struggles with “various forms of depression” throughout his life, in the new year he found himself under the eye of a particularly gloomy storm which not only threatened to derail The Gospel Youth, but also posed a severe risk to his personal wellbeing.
“Compared to where I was three or four months before, [life] had just done a complete nosedive into what ended up being one of the darkest times I’ve ever been in,” Sam sighs.
“I was going through a really hard patch. I’d essentially lost everything, I hated my job, I hated myself, I hated every situation I was in, and I was pretty much homeless at the time.
“I would wake up every morning and go, ‘What’s the point?’ I felt like I was a bother to everyone, and everything I was doing was just pointless. I was defeated completely.”
Despite his continued attempts to overcome these debilitating thoughts, Sam remembers walking into work one morning, and once he “received a bit of bad news”, felt like he was past the point of no return. Walking out of his workplace, Sam stopped only once on the way back to his current lodgings to buy a litre of vodka. The next thing he knew, he was waking up in a hospital bed.
“I ended up basically doing something really stupid,” Sam explains. “It’s a really strange thing [to talk about now] because at the time I was so blinded by that being it – the demise of me. It was me saying goodbye to everything, calling it a day and, in my opinion, making everyone’s lives a better place and escaping everything that was bringing me down and constantly getting to me.
“When I woke up in the hospital a day or so later, so many things went through my head. I hated that I couldn’t even [commit suicide] right, and I hated that I had done it to myself. There were just so many emotions.”
This fresh bout of emotions gave Sam, barely into his mid-20s at this point, a relentless kicking while he was still down. However, it was when he was paid a visit by a friend and fellow musician – Jimmy Broomfield, who performs under the name Heart of Oak – that Sam realised there was still one thing left in his life that gave him a sense of worth.
“Jimmy was one of the few people who came to see me in hospital, and when I was chatting with him I just realised that, as bad as everything had got, I could have literally died, but I got this second chance to make the changes that I needed to make so that something like that didn’t happen again.”
Once Sam recovered, he reunited with Julian and revived The Gospel Youth. Building the band up from playing acoustic gigs to full band shows – with a few lineup changes along the way – they followed the course set by ‘Kids’ in writing chorus-laden summer anthems on two more stellar EPs, ‘Empires’ and ‘The True Lost Boys’, in less than a year. But for the heavily tattooed frontman, that’s where the similarities to The Gospel Youth v1.0 came to a halt.
“As opposed to earlier in my musical career where I was singing about girls and things that just didn’t hold as much value, I decided to sing about things that actually mattered to me. I wanted to do this for me instead of writing a pop song just because it’s got a catchy chorus, as I know some people do.
“We got such a response from the songs that were, to me, essentially like cries for help and just me telling my story. It was at that moment that it hit me how powerful music is and can be, and the good that we can do through it.”
As that turbulent year drew to a close, The Gospel Youth decided to dive into even choppier waters with a crowdfunded endeavour that, while admirable, was creatively comparable to hopping out of a frying pan and into a fire. In what Kurtis coins as “the best and worst idea ever”, the band tasked themselves with writing, recording and releasing one single per month for the entirety of 2016.
“[The singles series] was great but it was also awful because it was a lot of hard work,” Sam says with a tone that suggests still being shell-shocked from the experience. “I don’t think we realised how much would go into it.”
Nevertheless, they made it out the other side with not an ounce of fat on any of the 12 singles that resulted, and that’s exactly what they were: singles. Fleeting moments that define a band in that period of their career and, when played in sequence, they made a stunning case for The Gospel Youth to record a debut album.
It seemed that this case didn’t fall on deaf ears, either, as the band announced with the release of the concluding single, ‘The Miles We Are Apart’, that they had joined the likes of PVRIS, The Movielife and Issues on Rise Records’ roster.
“When the whole thing with Rise happened, they asked us to give them an album, and there was definitely a part of me that went, ‘Oh, crap…’,” says Sam in his consistently self-deprecating manner. “I think the signing has made us realise that we’re not as terrible as we maybe think we are, but it just made us sit up and think: maybe we’re doing something right, maybe this is it.”
When The Gospel Youth started putting pen to paper for ‘Always Lose’, Sam explains how he faced a sharp emotional incline finding the right words to preach alongside the band’s searing melodies.
“It was difficult because I’ve been through a lot of things in my life that I want to write about, and I had to sort of confine that within 10 tracks.
“There were songs on the record that I knew I wanted to write, but I couldn’t physically get the lyrics out until literally the day before we went to record it, and then it just clicked.”
Such cathartic art demands impulsiveness in its creation, and so Sam’s writer’s block eventually inspired a sense of urgency which only bolsters the record.
“I think Sam nails it lyrically,” Kurtis reassures. “You can listen to him and really relate to it, so on the musical side of things we’ve also got to match what he’s singing about. If you listen to an instrumental track, it’s almost like a journey as well, and I definitely got that vibe from a couple of the songs that we wrote for the album.”
Despite producing all of the records preceding ‘Always Lose’, Julian handed desk duties over to Romesh Dodangoda – a man who’s not only been credited with capturing the post-hardcore crunch of Funeral For A Friend and Trash Boat, but also with buffing up the super poppy sheen of Emma Blackery, Don Broco and Kids In Glass Houses. With Romesh on board, the band have been able to balance on the border between those sonic territories more stably than ever before.
“Romesh is just a genius,” Sam gushes. “He helped a lot with saying how he didn’t think certain ideas worked and that we should try something else.”
From the magnificent opening of ‘I Will Deliver You To The Fireflies’ to the poignant final serenade of ‘Bloodlines // Love Stopped Me Coming Home’, ‘Always Lose’ gives you a feeling of giddiness not far off the way you felt when you first fell in love with music. For all the bitterness, regret and longing that it details, there’s one overarching theme to the record which dominates any negative energies.
“I’d like to think that [the record] brings a lot of hope,” believes Kurtis. “The collection of songs on it is definitely happier than a lot of the stuff that we previously released.
“It’s great that we can all listen to this album, feel the same things and then talk about them. We just try to be as honest with each other as we can, and I think that kind of shows in the music.”
Sam agrees. “There are a lot of people who listen to what we do who I know deal with things, and sometimes they don’t feel like they’re brave enough to talk about it or to do anything about it. They feel weak, and I feel like the record, when people hear it, they’re going to realise that they’re not alone and that they can get through it.’
Sam and Kurtis explain how they had read two letters from fans, explaining how The Gospel Youth’s music had helped them through periods of ill mental health.
“There seems to just be a real community vibe around us and the people that listen to what we do,” Sam says in the cheeriest of tones. “With the people that follow us around and pay attention to what we do, it’s more like a family.”
But are The Gospel Youth emotionally prepared to take on the mammoth responsibility that is offering counsel to fans through their music? Even some of the biggest bands in the world have buckled under such pressure before…
“We all go through the same things whether it’s dealing with the loss of a loved one or having sadness consuming us or being incredibly ecstatic about something,” says Sam. “With all these new things like celebrities and social media and make-up and clothing, we’ve kind of created this universe for ourselves that is our own worst nightmare.
“I think it’s sometimes just so easy to get overwhelmed by everything, and to think that you’re not good enough or not pretty enough or you’re not doing a good enough job because you’re 29 with no real job and no real direction, but everyone’s different, and to be different is to be human. We’re all human, we all have bad days and good days, and we want everyone that listens and exists within this band to be a part of this.’
Fast forward to the eighth track on ‘Always Lose’, and you’ll hear a line from Sam that will be only too familiar amongst fans: “I know that we’re just kids, we made some bad mistakes.” It is, of course, the opening line to ‘Kids’, the first song that Sam and Julian wrote under the Gospel Youth moniker no less than three years ago, but on this record, the song serves a very different purpose.
In the context of ‘Always Lose’, not only is ‘Kids’ a reflection of three years mired in growing pains, anxiety and depression, as well as Sam’s dalliance with death and his inspiring recovery, but it’s also a doff of the cap to the growth of The Gospel Youth, and a look ahead at the glorious path which has been lit for them.
“When we first started the band we had no expectations,” the frontman reflects. “We had no idea what was going to happen, Julian and I just wanted to do it because we wanted to make music.
“From then until now, there’s been so many ups and downs, and having ‘Kids’ on the record is just a nice little nod to all of the things that we’ve been through, and a reminder that we do still make music because it’s what we love and it’s what we want to do.
“I’ve got a reason to exist,” he insists. “Even though things can be a bit overwhelming at times and life can get in the way, [the album] is basically like a massive ‘fuck you’ to it.”
Two and a half years have passed since that fateful day pushed him to the brink of suicide, and Sam looks happy, healthy, optimistic even. Instead of wallowing in his past, the 27-year-old is beaming ear-to-ear about being on the tour of a lifetime with his best friends, and trying not to fanboy over his hero Andrew McMahon when they share a festival bill.
“I think life is very confusing,” he pauses. “Looking back at where I was and comparing it to where I am now, I’m incredibly blessed and thankful to be where I am, but I still don’t take anything for granted because tomorrow is a completely new day. Life keeps you on your toes all the time, so I never get too comfortable.”
Although Sam says that there are some days where – like a lot of other people crippled by anxiety and depression – he doesn’t “want to leave the bed or do anything”, his acknowledgement of the fact that making mistakes is just part of the human experience has made him a stronger person, and a stronger leader of The Gospel Youth.
“I still deal with a lot of mental health issues and a lot of thoughts that maybe I shouldn’t have, but now I know that doing something like [committing suicide] is not my decision to make. My decision should be either letting it get to me or fixing it, and I decided that the way I should look at things is to fix them.
“I know I’m not the strongest person in the world.” There’s far less of an intentionally self-critical tone to his voice this time. “But if I can get through some of the stuff I’ve been through then hopefully other people can too. If they find that solidarity through our music, then that’s even better.”
The Gospel Youth’s debut album ‘Always Lose’ is out now. Taken from the August issue of Upset. Order a copy now below.