Speaking in Tongues: An Interview with Gustav Wood of Young Guns
It’s been six years since their debut EP, Mirrors, and the British rockers are still going strong. Having taken the alternative music scene by storm, Young Guns are currently touring the UK and US in the lead-up to the release of their much-anticipated third album, Ones and Zeros. Amid all the hype, Ellipsis caught up with frontman Gustav Wood to talk records (new and old), inspiration, and the joys (and woes) of life on the road.
Ellipsis: What’s the best thing about being on tour?
Gustav: There are a lot of positives. In general, travelling is something not many people get to do frequently, and I happen to have a job that largely revolves around the idea of travelling and meeting people. I was born and raised in North London, and before I started touring I didn’t get much chance to travel. So, I think it’s a real privilege that I get to see new places and meet new people every single day when I’m on tour. It doesn’t have to be places as far away as Japan or Australia, sometimes it’s pretty great just going to a different city. That, and getting to play songs to people; I put a lot of energy into the shows, and each night I get to be on top of the world.
Ellipsis: And the worst…?
Gustav: Lack of sleep is probably the worst; it especially comes with being a singer. Sleep has a physical effect on your ability to sing and perform – it’s crucial. There are no creature comforts on tour: clean clothes, showering, being relaxed. If you go away for three or four months at a time, it’s kind of like being an astronaut. You’re away with the same people for months, and you have to get on with each other.
Ellipsis: Who would you say are your greatest influences?
Gustav: Personally, I find I was very influenced by the music I listened to when I was really young, mainly the music that my mum would play. She was always really into music. I come from quite a musical family, so I’ve always had a passion for it. My mum played the piano and she taught me to play when I was a kid. My brother taught me to play the guitar when I was thirteen. So, I was mainly into music that I heard through my family. From my mum’s side, it was stuff like Brian Ferry, Michael Jackson, Prince – the classics. When I was young I also had my brother’s Nirvana CDs and things like that, and that got me into rock music. We try not to be too influenced by stuff that’s around us – contemporary stuff I suppose. We certainly never have discussions when we’re writing a song where we say we want to sound like X band or Y band. That’s something we try to stay away from. I suppose influences come from everywhere: from books I read, or the movies I watch, or songs I hear on the radio, but nothing too specific. Just the stuff I loved growing up.
Ellipsis: Who would you like to work with in the future?
Gustav: That’s a good question. Lots of people, half of which probably wouldn’t be interested in working with me. I’m really interested in production. It’s one of my favourite parts of making music, and there are lots of producers I’d love to work with. There’s a pop producer called Ariel Rechtshaid, and he’s just unbelievable. He’s really creatively interesting with pop music, and would be amazing to work with. We very tentatively enquired about working with him on our last record, but he’s got a two year backlog. We’re in a rock band as well, which doesn’t necessarily translate across the board. I was really excited about the idea of working with Dan the Automator who was going to produce our record, but it didn’t work, which was a real shame. We were just coming at it from two completely different perspectives. We couldn’t agree on where we thought the songs should be. It’s interesting to try and challenge yourself, and put yourself and put yourself in different scenarios. The things that come out can be great, things that you never would have been able to do on your own. I really like the idea of rock bands working with non-rock people.
Ellipsis: I read that you recorded your first album, All Our Kings Are Dead, under your own label. How difficult was that?
Gustav: It wasn’t too difficult really. We basically had a distribution deal with an independent label, PS. It was relatively problem-free; it’s not really like we had to run this day-to-day label. If you’re sensible with the people that you have around you – booking agents etc – they can help you to make the right decisions with the business side of it. It was fine; we’re control-freaks, we like to be able to make decisions for every aspect of our band. That’s still just as true now as it was then; absolutely nothing has changed. But I’m kind of glad we don’t have to do it that way anymore, because my dream isn’t to run a label. That’s not really what I think I should be doing; I’m not a terribly organised person. I’m glad we did it, but I don’t think we’ll do it again.
Ellipsis: I’ve heard that you consider your upcoming album Ones and Zeros to be your album yet. What makes it your strongest?
Gustav: It’s difficult because with press around I couldn’t come out and say it’s not our strongest album yet. But it is our strongest yet, that’s the truth of the matter. I think what makes it our strongest record is just the fact that the songs are of better quality. I think perhaps it’s a little more interesting than some of the music we’ve done in the past, and I think it’s a more unique-sounding record. We always want to push ourselves to become better songwriters, and challenge ourselves to write in new ways. I think that’s important. Rock music can be quite conservative as a genre, especially when it considers itself to be left of the mainstream. People seem to have a lot of arbitrary rules about whether you’re to be considered a rock band or not, which I think is stupid. I think this is the most interesting, fun record that we’ve written, and I’m really pleased with it. We’ve spent a lot of time on it; we’ve thought about things a lot more carefully than in the past (purely because we didn’t have time). For example, we spent an awfully long time focussing on just the rhythm of every song in the album. We made sure it played a purpose, as opposed to just being a violent kit smashing away, as it sometimes is in rock music. We just wanted to pay attention to every instrument, and make sure that everything that was happening was good, and was happening for a reason. Therefore, I think it’s our most considered and most mature record.
Ellipsis: What made you want to go into music?
Gustav: Well, I kind of ended up working in music by accident. I didn’t grow up with this burning desire to be a musician. I mean, I’ve always loved it, and I’ve always wanted to do it. It’s always been the thing that excites me the most, but I never even considered it as a possibility for a job. I grew up in London, and none of my friends played instruments, and none of them were in bands. I didn’t come from that world. I was very into rock music, and I spent my childhood and teenage years going to gigs. I was very much a part of that, but it was me and my brother, not me and my social circle. I went to university and I met a guy; we became friends and played in a little metal band, which was my first one. Then, when we were on our summer break, he asked me to come and see him play with his hometown band in a ‘battle of the bands’ show. He turned out to be in a band with John Taylor, who is now Young Guns’ guitarist. We became friends, and I just fell into playing bass and singing. It was a complete accident. I wanted to be an astronaut or an archaeologist; I never wanted to be a musician. But I love it. I’m so grateful; it’s the only thing that I’m interested in, and it’s the only thing I know how to talk about. Without music, I’d be a bit screwed.
Ellipsis: This one’s a bit specific. The song You Are Not includes the lyric, you are not a diamond/ you are not a shining star/ doesn’t mean that you’re not perfect/ exactly as you are. Was this a self-realisation, or aimed at someone in particular?
Gustav: The lyrics I write are only ever about me. I hope that that doesn’t disappoint people, but I don’t think it’s a terribly sincere thing to pretend that you’re some kind of emotional seer who knows the answer to everyone’s problems. That’s a bit disingenuous. The only thing I know is the life experiences that I’ve had, positive and negative. So I write about those, and if other people take comfort in that, then that’s an amazing thing. But who am I to tell someone, ‘it’s going to be fine’, or ‘it’s not going to be fine’? I don’t have any of the answers, let alone some of them. That song is actually about something completely different. I wanted to give a more positive message; it’s about how easy it is to feel unimportant and the same as everyone else. The irony is, of course, that we basically are all the same, but that isn’t a bad thing. That’s a lovely thing, because it’s inclusive; everyone has the same problems and the same pain, and that should be celebrated. It means that no one’s ever really alone.
Ellipsis: What do you think your most personal song is?
Gustav: Ninety-five per cent of them are really personal. In terms of my most personal, it would probably be a song called Broadfields on the last record, which was about the house I grew up in, and named after the street it was on. It’s about specific memories of mine from that house: sitting on my window sill when I was a little kid, watching people coming home from work when it was raining (often looking a bit miserable). I loved that house; my whole childhood is wrapped up there.
Ellipsis: What would you do if you weren’t in a band?
Gustav: There are lots of things I’d want to do. I’d want to write. Journalism of some kind, perhaps. I don’t think I’d have the discipline to write a full-length book, though I’d like to try.
Ellipsis: Finally, are you aware that you share your band name with American rap duo, ‘Young Gunz’, (with a ‘zee’)?
Gustav: Ah yes, with a ‘zee.’ We weren’t aware at the time of naming. The band’s name was really an accident. We weren’t a band of any merit; we weren’t playing shows or touring. We just needed something to put on our Myspace profile. We were just putting up demos; no one knew us and no one cared. We recorded the first EP in 2008; we hadn’t changed the name, and we hadn’t thought about it. We just kept it.
Hear more from Young Guns: the band’s third album, Ones and Zeros, will be released on the 8th June. Their new single, Speaking in Tongues, is available now.