Feature Stories

Yells at Eels Overcome Family Trauma on New Album "In Quiet Waters"

If the Dallas music scene had an official family, it would almost certainly be the González family. Together, Dennis and his sons Aaron and Stefan have spent decades playing jazz and experimental music and making tireless contributions to the community through education and youth programs. Sadly, the past year has been a difficult one for the Gonzálezes, one fraught with health troubles and personal turmoil, but they've dealt with it the only way they know how: by channeling it through their music.

In Quiet Waters, the first new album in years from Yells At Eels, was created during a time when every member of the band was affected by considerable personal peril. The album captures some of that tension. But In Quiet Waters ultimately serves as a shining example of the power of art to triumph over personal tragedy — even as the González family faces yet another crisis.

The anxiety leading up to the birth of his daughter and the emotional growth of becoming a father would have been plenty for Aaron González to deal with. But he also suffered severe back issues that made it difficult to carry his newborn, play bass, or even walk. “I had a slipped disc in my back,” he explains. His condition eventually required lower back surgery and he was semi-bedridden for months.

His younger brother Stefan has also had an assortment of issues. In spite of hosting his Outward Bound Mixtape Session at Crown & Harp virtually every Monday that he wasn't on tour, Stefan has dealt with depression, relationship issues and two car accidents. He was even bit on the lip by a wolf-dog and still has a scar to show from it. He harbors no resentment towards the animal, admitting that he accidentally stepped on its tail, but bizarrely described it as “75-percent wolf.”

But it's father Dennis' troubles that have been the most serious. A public school teacher for decades, he suffered “a heart event” in his classroom. At one point cancer was suspected, but thankfully the test results turned up negative. Despite his own health scares, Stefan describes his father as a “ray of light” during the time this album was made. He helped his sons through their struggles and kept the band from falling apart.

And the results of these personal struggles are beautifully manifested with In Quiet Waters. Labeling this music as free jazz is as lazy as the narrow perception many have of the complex genre itself. But nonetheless, the elements of free jazz are certainly at play on this album. Named after Federico Garcia Lorca, the great enigmatic Spanish poet, the opening track starts things off with a moody, cinematic dissonance. The elements start coming together throughout these first seven minutes, like a scattered mind slowly coming into focus through meditation. The opening track also serves as something of a microcosm for what is to be expected from the nine tracks that follow.

“Hymn For Julius Hemphill” may be the highlight of the album. This exotic song has a Latin flavor and is sultry, even sexy. Achieving a sound that is accessible and pretty by experimental means is no small feat and that is what is achieved here. “Document for Walt Dickerson” is another highlight, probably the rawest number on the album and it certainly has the quickest pace. Stefan is fully unleashed and the sounds of Dennis’ trumpet are rapidly fired. This is one of those jazz tracks where you have to wonder how a bass player can keep up with the pace, but this is no issue for Aaron, who also manages to set himself apart with his own style.

With the album now released, the González family has experienced yet another health crisis. Dennis seems to have pushed himself too hard and put concern for others over concern for his own health. “It’s a very tender situation,” says Stefan. “It has been really upsetting.” Busy with Yells At Eels, the La Rondalla afterschool program, and teaching, he ignored a problem with his foot for a couple weeks. After a minor operation, doctors advised him not to go back to school, but he did not take their advice. After a more serious operation, he is now expected to leave the hospital in the next few days.

But the band plays on. Sitting in a chair, Dennis plans to perform at a Yells At Eels house show at the end of the month, which his sons are comfortable with. He remains in high spirits and La Rondalla will certainly continue. The school year is over and González could have retired 10 years ago, so his future as a teacher is currently up in the air.

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Jeremy Hallock