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Projections by Foveal Media/Photo by Mabel Suen
Yowie. L-R: Chris Trull, Shawn O'Connor, and Jeremiah Wonsewitz.
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Photo by Mabel Suen
L-R: Jeremiah Wonsewitz, Shawn O'Connor, and Chris Trull.
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Since 2000, Yowie has stayed nestled in the tall-grass of a music city known more for its Blues and Rock output. Still, the group has become a beast better known by other bands than the wide show-going populace. To the untrained ear, the band's layered riffing offers a tangled mess lacking melody—yet a playful gnashing of odd-timings and sonic in-jokes await those willing to actively listen.
To say that Yowie exists outside of genre understates the band's utter lack of convention. Yowie naturally, and somehow seamlessly, undermines classic notions of style or song structure. The St. Louis trio splits duties between electric guitar, drum set, and a preposterous custom six-string that falls somewhere between bass and baritone guitar, with each element offering its own brand of polyrhythmic fervor. This well-oiled machine relates an internal shouting match between the left and right sides of an overstimulated (and slightly-damaged) brain.
While Yowie might demand its audience to meet halfway, that singular approach has garnered its own brand of critical praise. The band's performance at Lo-Fi Cherokee in 2015 went viral, grabbing more views than any other video in series' long history—save for Pokey LaFarge.
For all the local fanfare, Yowie stays relatively hidden within the Skin Graft Records catalog where the band keeps company with US Maple, Arab on Radar, and many seminal noise-rock acts of the '90s and early '00s. Yet the trio lives in a vacuum with each member eking out a hermetic lifestyle between album releases, sometimes spending a year or more on a single song.
Through the eight year gap between 2004's Cryptooology and Damning with Faint Praise in 2012, the band's lineup waxed and waned before adding Chris Trull of Grand Ulena. After touring Europe in late 2012, the trio started work on its latest set and has since taken a scalpel to new songs with surgeon-like precision.
Yowie's third studio effort, Synchromysticism, is set to release on vinyl and CD in 2017 through Skin Graft Records. Recorded by Jason McEntire at St. Louis' Sawhorse Studios earlier this fall, the new album will feature visuals by artist Arnulf Rödler. Members Shawn O'Connor, Jeremiah Wonsewitz, and Chris Trull recently took time from mixing and mastering the new record to talk performing, recording and generally operating as the entity known as Yowie.
Given the in-depth nature of the band, the following interview was conducted in a roundtable format and transcribed with minimal cuts to content:
For more than a decade, Yowie was the trio of Shawn O'Connor, Jeremiah Wonsewitz, and a member cryptically referred to as “Lil' Pumpkin.” That lineup wrote 12 songs across two albums over the course of 12 years. In late 2011, Guitarist Chris Trull joined to take “Lil' Pumpkin's” spot. How did Trull's inclusion, if at all, alter the songwriting process?
Shawn O'Connor: It didn't. The songwriting process has been radically different, but that's not because Chris is in the band. When Chris joined, Jeremiah lived in Columbia and basically Chris and I were doing the songwriting. It wasn't really like "Oh, it changed the dynamic." As soon as we recorded [Damning With Faint Praise] Jeremiah moved. So that was more the driving force in the change in the songwriting process.
I have a follow-up. You say that you and Chris mainly wrote the songs, so did you two have changes or suggestions for Jeremiah's parts? Or did he write all of his own parts?
Jeremiah Wonsewitz: The thing is, when Chris joined the band, he had a style that was much more intricate and more accurately notey. And instead of producing a wall-of-sound, aggressive, percussive guitar thing, I had to step back and do a lot more basic, single note stuff. I was having to find a place in the space to keep it rhythmic and melodic but leave enough room for Chris to shine the way he does with what he does.
Were you preparing material or suggestions for Jeremiah, or was it a thing where you two had laid it down and he was just coming up with parts?
Chris Trull: We had a lot of suggestions, mostly because we come up with variations on ideas and often we put those variations on top of each other and figure out ways to weave them together. And so we ended up using things Shawn and I had written as raw material.
SO: So like looper pedals. Playing with all three parts, but with just the two of us.
Do you feel like each of you had input on each others' parts? Would you suggest a particular drum thing to Shawn or vice versa?
CT: We usually only do that if something jumps out at us as something we don't like. Like "Stop doing that dude, try this over here."
JW: And sometimes it's something that's really cool. Like "Oh my god, that was awesome."
CT: Yeah, like "Make sure you do that every time." [Laughs.]
That's interesting. Do you ever feel like it causes tension when one of you says "That's bad" or have there been points where one of you is like "No, I don't want to change."
CT [sarcastically]: THAT HAS NEVER HAPPENED!
JW: I think it's safe to say that everyone in the band reserves veto power. What good would it be if we wrote a song and there's a part that Shawn completely f****** hates and never wants to play? We just rethink it, work around it and choose something else. That's the veto power and everyone's allowed veto power.
SO: I would say that the difficultly with getting everything to jive correctly is a good chunk of the reason why it takes us so long. Like, "Yep, that part still sucks, so we're not playing that song until that part is not terrible."
CT: Or we figure out a way to get into it that makes it not terrible.
JW: Or cut it in half with an ax.
Do you find that writing really strong sections is easier and the bulk of the work is done in the transitions between those parts, or do you write in a more linear fashion? Or are there central sections that you're sort of just trying to connect at some point?
SO: I don't feel those are exclusive.
CT: Yeah, we do a little bit of all of those things. It usually starts out as just an individual riff and then if it's something that has a lot of potential, we come up with as many variations as we can think of and then start building on that. It just takes a really long time.
SO: So we had something that was basically done except for getting these sections to play nicely together and that would take months. And we recorded every iteration of this, so one of our songs probably has 65 or 70 different versions. I can think of three or four fills that I wrote that took a crazy amount of time to have happen just right with dynamics. A lot of drummers think about a fill as a standard thing that they do to get from one part to another, but with the sorts of things that we are trying to make coherent, it adds a very different level of nuance and complexity to try and make some of these things jive right, if that makes sense.
For a lot of people, you are a very, very technical band. As opposed to the first and second album, this most recent material sounds a lot more danceable. Chris and Jeremiah, you two even dance to your own music on stage when you can. Do you feel like Yowie is necessarily a technical, progressive, or to use the genre-name a “math rock band” from your perspective? Discounting what other people are saying to you on a regular basis, of course.
CT: I don't really think about it that way. I just try to write stuff that's interesting for me to hear. I think we all have our own little spheres of interest. And we're basically in the basement making music for ourselves and the sort of "what genre is it" thing doesn't really enter into it until much later. We've been living with these songs for years before we play them in front of people. So really the sort of concept of how other people are going to react to it is very vague and distant.
JW: I completely agree with that. Some of it is, kind of in general, being a little bored with music and trying to write stuff that is going to keep me interested and keep everyone else interested.
CT: It is funny how after you get used to playing this type of music that playing something for five measures just seems like a horribly long amount of time. [Laughs.] EXCRUCIATING. Then you listen back to the recording and it's like, seven seconds or something.
SO: I mean, I can say that I'm not trying to make it fit any genre conventions, but I'm not even sure I know what they are. When people ask "What kind of music do you play?" it gets annoying, because I think there are other people who say this, and they're trying to be pretentious or something, but I'm honestly not sure what to say to people. Prog-rock sounds good, but then they think "Oh, you mean Rush or YES or something." If that's what is conjured by that term then it's misleading to say. I honestly don't know what the answer is. There was a while where I was like, it's rock music, but then people have their own idea of what that means and that's probably the most misleading of all the answers. I honestly don't know what the correct answer would be. I assume that we would be hyphenated or something.
CT: I don't think that it fits into any one category. I can't think of any other band that sounds like this. I can think of elements, precursors, in other things, but nothing that puts it together like this band does.
There was a minute where I thought I saw one of you describing Yowie as neo-classical something or other, but I didn't if it was in jest or sarcastic.
CT: That's not possible. [Everyone laughs.] Even though none of us are properly musically trained, we steal stuff from all over the place. I personally love a lot of modern composition stuff. None of this is written out properly, so I don't think we can try to call ourselves classical.
SO: I guess I would say that almost any other time that I've heard someone say, "I don't know, I guess my music is hard to describe," I hear five seconds of it and say "Oh no, it sounds like 311 took a shit and listened to Bongzilla." Usually when I hear people say that, I think no, that's extremely easy for me to describe, let me describe it to you. Maybe I'm just self-absorbed with this, but I feel like this doesn't easily lend itself a quick categorization. I like being able to play in front of a metal crowd or a harsh noise crowd or even a jazz crowd and have it potentially be somewhat appealing to roughly the same percentage to each one of those crowds.
When musicians tell people that they don't belong to a genre, it is usually because they don't want the critiques or expectations of said genre. And that is just typical of a musician still really figuring out what they want to do, but I think in your case maybe it's a lack of genre consideration altogether.
CT: I think this band is sort of a product of isolation. Everything sort of just exists in our own world long before we present it to people and try to explain what it is.
Back to the songwriting—is complexity necessarily a prerequisite for a Yowie song?
JW: It's not like we sit down and go, what's the most complex thing we can do? A lot of stuff is kind of blasé. We just write around all of the other rules that are in music and do stuff that keeps us entertained and try to have fun with it.
SO: Honestly, I don't think it's part of our mission statement that it has to be complex but I think that it generally has been.
CT: The stuff that's written involves three-way rhythmic interplay and pretty much anytime that's your starting point, you're going to end up with something that seems complicated, maybe too much so. I don't know, that's kind of the starting point. So once you stitch all that together, it gets complex quickly.
SO: That's generally what we've done, but I feel like this new album's material is different than what we've done before.
JW: It has some interesting complexity to it, and we have a section that's like two minutes of us in the same meter but we're doing different ways of playing the same meter and expressing rhythms there. The interplay just kind of shifts and morphs. If you were to take any one little piece or section of a part, it's not really that complicated. It's really just the interplay and how it all works together.
If there's one major difference between this new album and the older material, what would you say that it is?
CT: Emphasis on flow in the compositions. That's something that we worked on really hard. And it actually makes material that maybe sounds less complex because it's less jump-cut sounding but in reality a lot harder to pull off seamlessly.
SO: I couldn't agree more. The non-negotiable flow for this album was actually a source of major consternation. Because basically, in the past the complete lack of flow was non-negotiable in a lot of ways and now it's like, "Nope, that change is a little too harsh, it needs to be more gradual and nuanced." Being able to do that without being redundant or starting to become stagnant was a major challenge. We basically took a lot of the same obtuse and difficult processes that we had before and tried to weave them together in such a way that felt like they intuitively flow but they in no way actually intuitively flow if you're playing the instruments.
When playing songs that, as you describe, "intuitively flow" but counteract that feel on a physical and mental level, do you have trouble taking yourself out of listening and just playing? Or do you ever get locked into the performance and get thrown off by it?
CT: It does happen. There's a weird head space where you have to be paying hyper-focused attention and also be on autopilot. Just at the show last night, I messed up a part because I started listening to it without thinking about what I was playing and it sounded like something I never heard before. I started having this weird existential crisis like, "is this the part?"
JW: After we recorded this stuff and listened back to it, that was an entirely different head space too. It's almost distracting to listen to it for a couple weeks and then try to play it. It's just entirely different parts of the brain. It can be hard to listen and perform at the same time.
Chris, after you joined, how did being in Yowie differ from being in bands in the past? Did it feel different for you?
CT: Well, it was a little weird at first, because I had never joined a band that already existed and learned the back catalog. That was a little strange and...
SO: You picked a hell of a place to start. [Laughs.]
CT: I figured that if you're going to do it, you might as well make it extremely difficult on yourself. Once I had been in it awhile, and we started writing together and I started to feel a sense of ownership in it, it was just like any other band I've been in. The writing process is different, as we already talked about. This band never ever improvises, which is different from previous bands I've been in. But, outside of that, it's just like being in any other band. Other than it being completely different, it's totally like that. [Laughs.]
This one's for you, Shawn. Your drum set is pretty big… [Everyone laughs.]
CT: You're just going to punk shows.
SO: I take umbrage, but go ahead. [Laughter.]
Can you talk about your choices in your drum kit and how the range helps your approach to making beats for Yowie?
SO: What's a standard drum set size? [Everyone laughs.] Isn't it a five piece? Two mounted toms, floor tom, bass drum, snare, high-hat, cymbals? I thought that was the standard. I might be wrong. Maybe it has now gotten to a four-piece, because I have seen a lot of people with just one mounted tom. Maybe I'm just out of the loop. I feel like I've got one more drum than the standard rock set.
So you use a six-piece?
And quite a few cymbals.
SO: I've got three crashes. Well, two crashes, a china, a ride and high-hats.
And you also use cowbell as well.
SO: When it's not falling over, yes. I'm having cowbell stand problems lately.
And a double kick pedal.
SO: Definitely double kick pedal. There's no shame in a double kick pedal. No shame. Own it.
So you have a lot to set up at shows?
SO: Yeah. Yep.
Don't think of this question as an insult that you use too many drum pieces.
SO: I am angry. [Laughs.]
It's a genuine question, though. It's a conscious choice to use such a drum set—can you talk on that?
SO: Back in the olden days I played the metals, I believe the kids call it these days. But after that I always played a five-piece set until I got this one that I'm playing on now. The reason why I got it is because I have hated the previous two recordings. They just didn't really sound… "good" is the word I think I'm looking for? So I looked around after I was disappointed with how Damning With Faint Praise sounded, and I wanted to figure out what are some of the better drums for mic-ing in a studio, so that you can hear each individual note on the toms. And I kept hearing "Fibes, Fibes, Fibes"—drums that Captain Beefheart and the Mahavishnu Orchestra recorded on, but of course they don't make drums anymore. But I found, on Craigslist, an awesome middle-of-nowhere dude selling his Fibes set, and it just happened to be a six-piece. If he had been selling a five-piece, I would have bought that. Most rock drummers play on the bass and snare and then they do a fill with the toms sometimes, whereas I write a whole lot of parts that incorporate rhythmic patterns that involve different toms. Obviously a lot of drummers will use the toms in the beat here and there, but I do it a whole lot. Like a whole, whole lot in comparison to most people. I think having drums that can be heard when a mic is pointed toward them and also gives me a little more range is of some advantage. Honestly, the extra tom? I don't use it very much at all. There are two parts that are written specifically for four toms that I have on this new album. Maybe three.
Do you tune your toms to pitch?
SO: I have started to. I went rather deep into the weeds for this album. I had two different people, one audio engineer and another drummer, come over and they helped me tune them in different ways. I bought a fancy tuner that tunes to pitch like you would a guitar tuner. I did all kinds of different stuff experimenting around with finding the right range for how these drums sounded on this recording. The preliminary mix should be coming back shortly, but even unmixed, this album already sounds better than the previous two combined I think. That's partly due to the awesome studio that we were in—Sawhorse Studios. But I think also partly due to me going super crazy hyper focused on getting the right drums and tuning them just so.
Jeremiah, you fill in the sound texturally with thick, booming low-end almost like a bass player would in a power-trio. Can you talk more about the custom guitar that you use and how you use it to achieve that particular Yowie sound?
JW: I guess kind of in a nutshell, that whole sound and tone came from poverty. Me and Shawn originally had a project that started with me on keys. We kind of had a revolving door of other musicians we played with until we came across Lil' Pumpkin and keys didn't work with it, so I borrowed a guitar and never could really afford a guitar pedal or anything like that. I just kept twisting knobs until I kind of filled those gaps and the boom is important to me. I had a long history of electronic music, industrial, hip-hop and stuff like that. I like it when it goes "boom." I needed to fill the void of bass.
You didn't have access to a bass guitar? Or was guitar a conscious decision?
JW: It was an option, but it just felt more natural in the scheme of things at the time to be able to do both ends of the spectrum.
Did you use a bass amp?
JW: Yeah, it was part of the sound and part of the knob-twisting. Then I started using different gauge strings and tuning them strangely to achieve dissonance to create a distortion instead of just clicking a pedal.
And you did some modifications to the guitar. You and the former guitarist had your instruments prepared for certain songs. Can you talk about the kinds of modifications you did?
JW: Kind of proprietary.
JW: My new instrument was built by a guy in New York, and he was really interested in the sort of in-between bass and guitar sound. We worked together and put together some specs and he fashioned me an instrument that's pretty remarkable.
Is there a name for it?
JW: The guy who built it, his name is Benny Witchfinder. I just call it my Witchfinder. It's unique. If you're going to do an entirely different kind of music with an entirely different kind of approach, why not go at it with an entirely different kind of instrument?
How many strings does it have?
JW: It's six-string. It's a guitar-meets-bass, but it's not a baritone. It's a ba-tar. Which, to me, stands for "bastard guitar." Gotta have some thickness, gotta have some boom-boom.
How did each of you prepare to record the new album? I'm talking personal preparation. Obviously you rehearsed, but did any of you do anything individually to help you prepare?
CT: Yeah, in addition to band practice, practicing…
SO: Which, by the way, was at least three times a week for the last five years.
CT: Similar to what Shawn was doing with his drum set, I've changed out the pick-up in my guitar like nine times trying to dial in exactly the way I want it to sound. Just practiced every free moment I had.
Shawn, you already mentioned tuning your drums and having people over—was there anything else that you wanted to add to that?
SO: Well, I took drum lessons and sat and focused on technique for the first time in 28 or 26 years probably. Before this album, I basically didn't care about the drums very much. That was just what I did in a band, but I didn't focus on the actual craft of playing the drums at all. For this album, I really needed to get my technique solid for quite a few different things that I had written that were still certainly not second nature for me to pull off.
What about you, Jeremiah? Do you feel like you did anything in particular outside of the band rehearsal to prepare for the album?
JW: I mostly just drank a lot and hid sharp objects from myself. [Laughs.]
Can you talk about the approach to the recording itself once you were in the studio?
CT: We recorded live, and each one of us individually had to go in and do some punch-ins just to fix flubs here and there. We actually ran out of time and didn't have any time to do any overdubs, so the record is just the three of us playing at all times, no extra funny stuff.
Are you happy with that, at this point?
CT: Well, it's not mixed yet so we're going to see how…
SO: Don't get me wrong, we didn't at any point say "Holy shit, this song desperately needs an overdub." I wasn't going to overdub anything myself, and I actually don't know what, if anything, these guys were specifically going to overdub. When you say, "Are you happy with that?" I would never be happy with running out of time in the studio, but on the other hand I don't even know what it was that we were going to hear, and I'm sure we would have decided later whether it was great or not really necessary or what. That fair to say?
CT: Yeah, and I think we're going to take a little heavier hand in the mixing stage than on the previous records to give it a little more variety throughout the record. Also from a listener's perspective, the same three instruments for 35 minutes or whatever can get a little tedious, so we'll try to mix it up a little bit.
I see. Walk me through your weekend at Sawhorse. What was it like recording there?
SO: Sawhorse is amazing, and our engineer, Jason McEntire, was absolutely phenomenal.
CT: He was the MVP of the weekend. He wins that award.
SO: I couldn't come up with one constructive criticism for him. And I didn't know a studio could be that way. I still have fantasies about beating our first engineer to death with hammer, and our second set of engineers did an OK job, but [Jason] was really above and beyond. It was just really insane of us to try and record these compositions in two days, in retrospect. The songs are just freaking bears and it's very, very hard to nail them over the course of a two-day period.
CT: Plus, with the added stress of being in the recording studio, suddenly things that were easy are like, impossible. It's really easy to psyche yourself out, and we actually had a bit of a rough start, but once we got in a groove we were able to make it happen.
Does that reflect your experience as well, Jeremiah?
JW: Oh yeah. I've been in a lot of studios and seen a lot of people work and what he did was "on the level." Even at the point where we were getting stressed out, he would take us down a notch. "Who wants a foot rub?" Not like that, but close.
What kind of roadblocks did you hit when trying to commit these, what you call "bears," to record?
CT: Well [Shawn's] foot stopped working at one point. My hand stopped working. I just couldn't pull off a part and we kept trying, trying, and trying.
JW: Every time he hit the red button I would just kind of crack. Red button blues.
SO: Yeah, I guess one of the downsides of maniacally practicing to prepare for something is that you don't realize that you're getting conditioned to hear them in a particular room with a particular configuration and you get somewhat dependent on that. And all of a sudden all of that is different and it is unnerving.
CT: Plus the added stress of '"This is the record, this is the time you have to pay it perfectly."
JW: This is costing money, so much money.
SO: The very nature of the compositions makes this shit incredibly difficult to pull off. When you write a rhythm wherein the space of just a quarter-note beat there are three or more—if you count the drums as different instruments—sounds all occupying a different little fraction of that beat, the experience of it is that they all fall in a particular pattern. If they are just the slightest bit off, it's not just, "Well, it's basically the same idea but a little bit off," it just collapses and it's garbage. If the entire process is predicated upon slicing fractions of small spaces up and laying exactly in the pocket in them and that creates that particular experience, there is zero tolerance for error. In a way, it's more intense than it is with traditional rock music.
JW: I've made the analogy before, but it's like being on a treadmill just running full force while playing a game of chess as somebody punches you in the face. Trying to concentrate on all of those things at once, man, there's very little tolerance.
SO: Yeah, so the next one is going to be a punk rock album, I'm pretty sure. [Laughs.]
Speaking of that, what lies in the future after this album is fully mixed and released?
JW: Definitely some touring. Maybe some stateside.
CT: I would like to go back to Europe.
SO: I can't wait to start writing again. We've been playing these compositions and trying to nail their execution for years. We had our final exam, and we passed, so that's nice, but recording is for me the worst part of being in a band by one-hundred fold. I hate every aspect of it with a deep burning animosity that is hard to put into words. Although I have been neck deep in it for a long time, the actual pleasure that I derive from music has to do with writing the music, so I have not been doing that for a long time and I desperately want to get back to it.
JW: I like the writing part of it, and the performing side of it is awesome, too. I have moments on stage when I look over and see these two guys with giant grins on their faces and it's an honor and a privilege to get to play with people who are at the top of their craft, do it well and drag me along with them.