Whenyoung aren't trying to fit in. They've never fitted in. With each other, however, their individual lifelong quests for acceptance are met. They found each other in a pub in their teens; the only pub where they belonged. They've flocked together since. More of that in a bit. As Whenyoung gather themselves after a fruitful first visit to SXSW ahead of the release of their formidable debut album – 'Reasons To Dream' – there's a quiet assuredness to them. In LA they present themselves as a motley crew, like all great indie bands. The trio are a scramble of striking haircuts, statement shirts, dirty leather, earrings and regrettable tattoos. Singer/bassist Aoife Power, guitarist Niall Burns and drummer Andrew “Drew” Flood have their own idiosyncrasies, but together they become an unshakeable force, completing each other's thoughts, and protecting the magic at the heart of their bond like three walls of a securely stacked triangle.
If the moreish nature of their recent single 'Never Let Go' has been refusing to leave your brain, rest assured that within their debut lies plenty more from where that came from. The confidence possessed by these songs sounds easy, but it's a result of a lifetime of toil and dedication. The threesome are not new to this and don't shy away from the time they've spent studying their craft, harnessing their dynamic and navigating the business. Whenyoung is a band born from the ashes of a previous iteration – Sisters. In the fresh start of this name and this time, however, the stars are aligning far more than they have previously.
Wind back to the mid 2000s and Limerick, Ireland. There were three displaced teenagers yet to find their tribe. Costello's Tavern was their oasis, their gateway; a pub with a jukebox that brought them together when they were too young to drink legally. “Me and my friend Sinead had gone with my sister and got in with their group of friends who were over-age,” recalls Power. “They had blue WKD and we'd never had it before – what the hell is that blue drink?” Crucially the music they were playing was what Power was listening to: The Strokes, The Pixies, bands. She met Burns shortly after. “I said, 'There's this place that plays all these cool bands…'” Burns was equally transformed. “It blew my mind there was a place we could go,” he recalls. “They played The Smiths! That was a dream for me. We started going religiously to talk ideas and art.” Flood smiles, “We quickly took over the place.” One time they painted the walls black. “For us that felt like our version of what punks in New York were doing in the 1970s,” says Power laughing.
Particularly for Burns, he found kindred souls after a youth marked by outsiderdom. Even the fact he wore skinny jeans and had subversive hair was cause for others' aggression towards him. “When you're so young you feel alone, like nobody in school understands you. I found people that understood me.” For Power she found young lads she could trust. “You were the first boys I wasn't scared of,” she says. “Softer boys!”Power grew up playing music. Her father performed traditional Irish songs, she learned classical violin, moved onto guitar, and soon stopped aping Joni Mitchell. Burns was the black sheep, crushing his parents' dreams of being a sporting hero. “I discovered The Strokes. It changed everything,” he says. Flood was plodded in front of a piano as a kid but didn't take to it. At 14, he got into drums after saving up for a kit. With everyone around him being fanatical about rap, he whiled away hours rummaging in HMV, and pouring over the NME. Of the three of them, it's Burns' musical religion that has driven them through their darkest, most uncertain times. He lives, breathes and dies punk. “It wasn't even a dream to play music,” he says. “It was just something I had to do. It was always music music music. Still is.”
Power and Flood followed Burns' lead. They all agreed they had to move somewhere bigger than Limerick. Burns fled to Dublin to study, then to London soon after. He wanted to get lost in the anonymity of it all. There was a safety in being able to be a nobody, felt freer just to be and challenging the stereotype without any restrictions. Burns was the first to drop out of his course.“I worked jobs and watched Jeremy Kyle on the dole,” he says. “I wasn’t initially as brave as Niall,” says Flood. He eventually also quit once Burns and Power, having completed her course, were in London. The three of them spent a summer in the big smoke between college years, and started playing together. There was no going back.
Their early gigs were a necessary learning curve. “Oh god,” says Flood. “We had…” says Power, struggling. “Charm!” completes Burns. They were scruffy, grunge-y, lo-fi, distorted. But the core of the songs were there. They combed through their early demos while putting the album together to make sure they weren't leaving any gems. “We realised that they sound like shit but the songs are decent,” says Flood. “And nothing's changed!” jokes Burns. During a period of “renaissance” for the band they renamed themselves Whenyoung. Their naivety in the industry during Sisters had gotten the best of them. “We needed to refresh not for anyone else but ourselves.” It taught them the power of saying no, and has made them more prepared for their big break now. “We have a vision and it's the three of us,” explains Burns. “We really believe.”
Over the past year, the band settled in an East London studiowith producer Alan O'Connell [The Big Pink, Klaxons]. Following their 2018 EP, they mined the ideas they've written over three years. It wasn't easy, but none of the great debuts are. The songs each have specific narratives. Take 'Future', which was written in the aftermath of their friend's suicide a few years ago. “We wrote it to make sense of it,” says Power. Similarly, 'The Others' was a reactive song trying to piece together an impossible tragedy. Power wrote it after seeing Grenfell Tower fall with her own eyes. “That's how the others died,” she noted in her iPhone. The song is about the victims, who will be forgotten by society – and for what? “I could see the smoke and the fire engines. I was stuck in that area just looking at it, crying. It's a song with no answers because something like this will probably happen again.”
Another standout is 'Blow Up The World' – an anti-war song, inspired by a passage in a Simone De Beauvoir text. “It's about how futile war is. Even if we blow up everything the world will still keep turning,” says Power “it’s an anti war song and a love song narrative.” The band don't ignore the fact that there are flashes of Irish bands in their sound. Especially in the way Power sings, like she's got something stuck in her teeth. There's a lineage from Dolores O'Riordan of The Cranberries or Kirsty MacColl of the Pogues to her. “It could be from jigs, reels and hornpipes. But it's not conscious,” she says of her inspirations. Burns rebelled against the Pogues until he discovered it sounded like The Clash. “It's the storytelling that's made me get into it,” he says. Flood notes that the most vital thing is their desire to buck current trend, or simply ignore it. They don't feel part of a band scene, despite admiring the work of Shame and Goat Girl, etc. “We're not trying to sound like a modern vocal or pop sound,” he says. Lyrically there's an Irish sensibility they can't hide from. “There's always a sadness in the Irish,” says Power. “But pushing through with positivity, saying 'you're grand'… the struggle is in our songs.”
On being in New York recently, Burns exclaims: “We're obsessed with New York, its history, and we walked into this pub and went: Oh my god! This is where Dylan Thomas used to hang out!” While visiting LA their plan was to scope out all the spots where their forebears lived, and meet their respective demise. The band are respectful of their history, obsessionally respectful. “When we were flying into LA I felt emotional,” says Power. They even made a Spotify playlist of LA songs to soundtrack their first moment here as a band: all Van Halen and 'California' by Phantom Planet. They laugh.
With their debut, Whenyoung have plenty dreams, but they're not the ones you might expect. “The title is more about finding reasons to keep going in your life, for acceptance and happiness,” says Power. Indeed in 'Something Sweet' the album ends on a note of warmth and love. It's what they've found in each other, and in that connection they hope others will multiply. If Whenyoung can create a space for other misfits to find their soulmates, that's more than they can dream for.
by Eve Barlow