More and more, Young the Giant wants to feel at home. As an Orange County band, that shouldn’t be difficult, but as a band with roots sprawling across the globe, they’ve felt that dichotomy so acutely that they’ve tackled it head on in their recently released third album, Home of the Strange.
Young the Giant is a band so ethnically diverse that their group photos could double as marketing shots for college brochures. A quintet whose members are all immigrants or first-generation Americans — vocalist Sameer Gadhia is Indian-American, guitarist Eric Cannata is New Jersey-born Italian-Jewish, guitarist Jacob Tilley is British, bassist Payam Doostzadeh is Persian-American and drummer Francois Comtois is French-Canadian — they’ve spent more time than most figuring out their narrative.
These days, they’re free from a band’s earliest pressure to carve out their own musical space. Fans know what to expect from Young the Giant’s brand of polished indie-rock full of pleasant Californian haze, solid pop hooks and, perhaps their greatest strength, Gadhia’s killer vocals (even Morrissey has praised his voice, and they don’t call him the Pope of Mope for nothing). Their latest album finds them pushing the boundaries of their musical identity, experimenting with guitar tones and sonic motifs that recur throughout the album, but also exploring their personal identities with new boldness.
“We were a little tired of whitewashing ourselves,” Gadhia says. “I don’t think it was something we consciously thought of. We were focusing on the music, and now that we’ve been able to establish a conversation with our fans, it became natural that we wanted to talk about where we came from, our origins. [Our backgrounds] definitely change the rhetoric and our perspective on how we see America.”
“Land of the free, home of the strange,” he sings on the title track. “I crave your wonder, I shout your name / Feel the fist of thunder, electric rage.” It’s an immigrant story, he says, and it’s not just the band’s own. While touring their last album, Mind Over Matter, the band witnessed the Syrian refugee crisis in Berlin and took the stage amid rumors of potential gun violence at their show during a time of race riots in Columbia.
“We’re young people, we’re in a band, there are white people in the band — it almost angered me more when, on tour, people would ask questions about the ‘other.’ Like, ‘Oh, what do you think about these immigrants here?’ as if I’m one of them white people because I have white people in the band or I’m in an indie-rock band,” he says.
The world over, he says, there’s a growing tension toward people who don’t “belong” — current events have made it undeniable — and it is reaching our American bubble in earnest. He is clear, though, when he says that Home of the Strange isn’t meant to be a political album, despite its title and Kafkaesque opening track, 'Amerika'.
“It’s about a world of immigrants. It’s about the fact that we’re all in this strange space,” Gadhia says. “We wanted to say no one really belongs, especially now, the way the world is. Everyone is kind of caught in between the culture or time of their forefathers, what used to be acceptable or how things were done. Now, things have changed so much in every part of life.”
By taking on the theme of belonging among modern immigrants, Young the Giant hasn’t written a political album; in a way, they’ve written a love story about the American Dream.
“As a lyricist, I’ve always grappled with the idea of writing a love song. Love songs are so universal and they can mean so much more than boy meets girl, or girl meets boy, or boy meets boy or whatever — there’s something beneath that,” Gadhia says. “America and the idea of freedom have become symbolized as this unattainable beauty, and that’s how we went about [this album]. We’re trying not to bang people over the head with this idea, but there’s this level of perfect unattainability, this ideal that people always strive toward in the American Dream, and [we’re] always falling short. I think it’s the perfect love story.”
Five young immigrants and first-generation Americans working their way from obscurity to success seems like the opposite of falling short; it’s sort of the embodiment of the American Dream, isn’t it?
But Gadhia places an asterisk next to the term American Dream; not because it’s false or futile, but because its essence is as different for every American as every American is from one another. The collective understanding — one that revolves around the pursuit of material happiness — needs to be reevaluated, he says.
“It’s not good or bad; it’s free from judgment,” Gadhia says. “There’s something beautiful and grotesque and bizarre and amazing about something that’s American. It doesn’t have to be a trapping. It just is what it is, and there’s something so beautiful about that.”
Rather than assert an opinion outright, Gadhia trusts listeners with the album’s meaning. He hopes that by simply being sincere about what affects them, they can foster belonging. It’s a laudable goal that feels reminiscent of listening to, say, a David Bowie album for the first time as a teenager and discovering someone who made it feel OK to be “other,” not just for strangers in a strange land, but for the neglected, the marginalized, the just-different-enough.
“We want this album to be a piece people can consider a statement of where we are right now in America, but even more than that, a statement of where [each listener] might be,” he says. “We’re not the same, but we’re together. I see that with a lot of brown kids. They don’t want to talk about it. Or even if they do, they’re kind of in denial or they’re not quite sure; they feel a little awkward about it. I hope that there’s a narrative now for Asian-Americans — not just for a binary of white and black race in America, but for everything beyond that. We have a story, too, and we have a voice.”