Every so often a record comes along that, no matter how much you want to hate it, you can't help loving it. This year's best example of that is Is This It, the maddeningly addictive debut album by the ludicrously hyped New York City band the Strokes. A close second, though, is musicforthemorningafter, an extraordinary collection of scrappy, tuneful love songs by New Jersey-via-Los Angeles singer-songwriter Pete Yorn.
Though the work itself is an amiably modest album, the buzz around Yorn--whose brother Rick is a Hollywood player with lots of friends in showbiz's high places--has been all but inescapable since the March release of music. Magazine features, fashion shoots, TV and movie soundtrack slots, fat opening gigs on big-name tours. Still, Yorn's record remains an endlessly appealing hunk of postmodern pop smarts--straightforward songcraft dressed up in twisty-turny sonic surroundings. At home in L.A. a few days before leaving on tour for the second time in several months, Yorn recently explained why.
Dallas Observer: Your album takes its time revealing itself. The more you listen, the more detailing you notice. Did you plan that making the record?
Pete Yorn: I had all these songs I'd written on acoustic guitar, and I'd been experimenting in the studio for years, as far as textures and stuff like that. A lot of the songs kind of just sounded all country if I played them just on acoustic guitar, and I had such a love for so many other kinds of music that I thought that just presenting them in that way wouldn't be... I'd get bored of that quick, and it wouldn't be showing exactly what I'm all about. Like, I love synth strings; I love Joy Division and New Order and the Cure and stuff like that. I love Pulp, and I love those kind of textures, so I wanted to take that and lay them into some of the songs--over, like, rootsy-sounding songs.
Pete Yorn with JJ72
Gypsy Tea Room
DO: Was that kind of stuff in your head all along, or did it emerge in the studio?
PY: That kind of stuff was pretty much in my head. We were working in my friend's garage, and I knew pretty much everything that we had at our fingertips. So I'd be like, "Well, let me run over there and play this part and do that," and just kind of run from instrument to instrument, just throw stuff down.
DO: So there was some improvising during the actual recording?
PY: Yeah. Some songs, you know, I knew all the parts I wanted to have, and I was really focused on that. And other songs, I purposely almost didn't even finish the whole way--like, I finished them 75 percent with the studio in mind, knowing that I would go in and... I get very inspired when I'm in the studio, especially this particular garage studio I'm talking about, the way it's set up and the guy who I work with, Walt [Vincent]. We just really feed off each other and inspire each other.
DO: When Columbia signed you, working in a professional studio obviously became a choice that you didn't have prior to that. Yet you chose to stay in the garage, right?
PY: This is the first record I ever made for a label. I remember before I got the deal, I was recording in the garage with my buddy Walt, doing stuff that was cool. And I got signed and Columbia threw some money at us, and it's like, "Well, we could go to some fancy studio and blow all the money in a couple weeks, or we could just stay in here." I just wanted to keep things simple and keep things the same, so we stayed there. There was no rush. Sometimes we would take two weeks off and just wait; we would just let things simmer.
DO: Do you feel now like you didn't take advantage of an opportunity you could have?
PY: Not really. It opened doors, just being on Columbia Records, early on. Also, it gave a little more clout or whatever. But, I don't know, I wanted to keep it simple, and we knew what we were working with. We didn't even have ProTools; we just had this thing called Digital Performer. But you could go into a big studio and you could make a record, and it could sound like crap. I gotta say, I'm really proud of how this record sounds; I think it sounds amazing. To know that it came out of a G3 computer, with not even good inputs or anything like that, is a testament I think to the way that... Walt Vincent is just a wonderful engineer; he's like the guy that I've been looking for for years. I think it's not so much the car, but it's the driver.
DO: What I especially like about the record is that for all its left-field elements--the keyboards and recording things you guys did--it still coheres really well.
PY: I describe the record as elements of all my favorite bands that I've just kind of taken from and put into songs within one another--a Peter Hook bass line, a Lou Reed vocal, Hal Blaine drums. Just random stuff like that, and then just throwing it all together--that's what I kind of picture my music to be. But I remember right when we were done mixing, I was looking over at Walt, like, "Dude, this record's all over the place. They're gonna fucking bag on this." And he just started laughing. And it is--it's all over the place, but that's what I think people like about it, that it has that and at the same time, there is some sort of cohesiveness to it. I think it's my voice, and I think it's my sensibilities. If you know those kinds of music, if you know those genres and bands I'm ripping off, we're just kind of putting it into a big melting pot, and you can see how it is cohesive, you know?
DO: Yeah, I do. But that quality also makes me wonder who this record is connecting with. Because it kind of dips from a bunch of different wells; it doesn't really have a built-in audience.
PY: I didn't know what the audience would be. I'm just for the first time seeing who the fans are, going out and touring. It's all over the place. It's total indie-rocker guys and girls, total frat guys, old guys and old girls, sometimes young, high school kids. Which I think is cool. A lot of bands that I love, I've always thought of them being more from the indie scene or just stuff that was never mainstream. But it's cool to see [my record] embraced by kind of mainstream people as well.
DO: It seemed like the record came out of nowhere.
PY: It did. It came out of nowhere to the label, too. They were like, "Huh?"
DO: What were those first couple of tours like, before anyone had heard you?
PY: This is our second headline tour. After we started getting fans and all that, when we did our first headlining tour, compared to the two opening tours we did before that, it was just like night and day. Like, holy shit. Just having everyone at the club know the record and everything like that, or most of the people anyway, just makes it really fun. The first tour we did was with Sunny Day Real Estate, and that was last October, way before the record came out, and that was really cool. No one knew who the hell we were, but we'd just go out and try and win these people over. I'll see on the message boards or I'll meet people who are like, "Dude, I saw you when you played with Sunny Day!" And we'll have fans from that. The day after the record came out, we went on tour with Semisonic. We won a lot of fans from that, too. Then we went out with Blues Traveler, which was totally a different type of experience, different type of fans, older crowd. But they were also into what we were doing.
DO: There was a total press blitz when the record was released.
PY: I'm thankful for that. That helped me so much. My label, they like my record and they were into it, but they didn't really know what they were gonna do with it. And when they sent the advances out and the press came back so favorable, it made the label like, "Whoa, we better fucking get behind this."
DO: A part of the attention seemed to be connected to this whole idea that the singer-songwriter is making a comeback. Guys like David Gray were being talked about a lot, and you sort of got roped into that scene. Do you feel like you're a part of it at all?
PY: I don't know. It's cool to be a part of that. I don't really feel like I connect with David Gray so much, even though he's cool, he's a good songwriter. It's just good to see that the singer-songwriter can garner some attention right now. I'm just happy to be in the game right now.
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DO: The big question that records like yours and Badly Drawn Boy's--
PY: I like Badly Drawn Boy a lot.
DO: I figured you would, from the sound of your record. What I think the two albums have in common is that they both use elements of recording and the studio to sort of edge away from more standard singer-songwriter fare. But then the question is whether people are attracted to that because it's a refreshing change from the overload of teen-pop and rap-metal, or whether those recording elements are a way to keep up with that, to not get lost in the fray.
PY: I don't know. That's a heavy question. I mean, people our age, we've seen at most two cycles of music, where it goes super pop and then it gets super dark. One theory could be that people... Everything sounds the same over and over again--all these bands, they look the same, they sound the same. And something that's just kind of a little different, sometimes people gravitate towards that. And they almost set themselves up for that, when something is embraced so much by pop culture--it's totally setting itself up for the pendulum to swing back, inevitably. But that's just a theory. I just think that there's a large audience of people out there who appreciate a certain kind of music and a certain kind of sensibility, and they just need to know where to find it. And it's cool that a little bit more you can find in mass media what a few months ago was harder to find.