Lazy-i Interview: Pete Yorn on Mogis, Frank Black, Omaha and cornfields; Bright Eyes’ strong first day…
Pete Yorn: Let’s Get Lost
Indie rock’s golden child returns to the Heartland.
by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
It’s late in the day; the sun barely blinks over the horizon. The familiar bleached light bounces off the pavement and through the dirty windshied while white stripes flicker below like a busy signal on the highway. The man behind the wheel is lost.
That man is Pete Yorn, his trademark Prince Valiant mane tossing in the wind blowing through an open window. He wears the same T-shirt and jeans he wore earlier that day in ARC Studios, where he stood behind a microphone, “cans” on head, singing, while producer Mike Mogis listened and twisted the dials atop the massive control board, glancing up occasionally to watch Yorn through the window.
It was 2008 when Yorn found himself in Nebraska only a few weeks after finishing recording sessions with producer and living legend Frank Black of Pixies fame for Yorn’s self-titled rock record, which has become known by some as “the Black album.” Between those Frank Black sessions and the release of the “Black album” in September 2010, Yorn released the Mogis-produced Back and Fourth (in June 2009), along with a collection of duets with Scarlett Johansson called Break Up, recorded two years earlier but released in September 2009.
It is only now that Yorn has had a chance to really perform the songs on the “Black album.”
“Ever since I recorded those songs I’ve been excited about the opportunity to play them live,” he said from his home in Santa Monica, California. “I haven’t been out touring in a bus in a year. I’m ready to play some good rock shows again.”
Yorn recalled the contrast between Frank Black’s recording style and working with Mike Mogis. “They’re both guys who I really respect a lot and enjoy working with,” he said. “Mike is more detailed, more layering and I knew that going in. I also knew with Frank that I’d only have five days (in the studio) to capture something fast and not be too fussy about it. It was the antithesis of what we did in Omaha. That said, it’s all rock and roll, and both have different energies.”
The final products also couldn’t be more different. Yorn’s eponymous album, which will be the center point of Saturday night’s concert at the Whiskey Roadhouse, is barebones and abrasive, a rough ride that, on songs like “Velcro Shoes” and “Badman,” sideswipes garage rock without losing any of Yorn’s songwriting depth. Black’s influence saturates every track, from the chugging guitars to Yorn’s gravelly vocals.
In comparison, Back and Fourth is downright ornate; a soulful, personal album with the subtle touches that Yorn — and Mogis — are known for. Instead of five days, Yorn spent two and a half months in Omaha working on Back and Fourth. Over that time, he became immersed in the Omaha scene, hanging out at a wine bar in Dundee, eating at a Middle Eastern restaurant downtown, becoming involved in the spiritual center of Omaha, and going to rock shows. Maybe you were at one of the clubs on a night when someone leaned over, pointed and whispered: “Pssst… Look. Pete Yorn’s here tonight.”
“I never go out when I’m home; it’s very rare that I go to bars,” Yorn said. “But when I was there, I wanted to take it all in. I went to a number of shows at Slowdown. I remember going to see The Notwist after a group of kids told me about the show. I’d never even heard of them. That night I ran into the guys in Cursive and a bunch of other people I’d met. I started to realize that there was a cool group of really creative people that made up the scene, a tightly knit scene, and from an outsider’s perspective, it was refreshing to see.”
But just as memorable about his months in Nebraska were the times Yorn spent exploring the highways alone. “After we laid down tracks, there was a lot of down time,” Yorn said. “I like to go on drives. I had a car and drove around for hours, exploring the area.
“One time I was driving in the middle of the day and heading south. I was on my cell phone talking to someone in New York and became distracted. I looked around and thought ‘Where the hell am I?’ I was surrounded by cornfields. I love getting lost in cornfields.”
Yorn said for Saturday night’s show, expect to hear not only songs off the “Black album,” but from his full catalogue, including his landmark first album, musicforthemorning after. “When I go see a band and they play 20 songs I’ve never heard before, I think, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I’m not interested in doing that. It’ll be a balanced show. I’m excited to see what the catalyst in every room will be. There are always different people yelling different shit. I love it when people yell at me.”
Pete Yorn plays with Ben Kweller & The Wellspring, Saturday, Feb. 19, at Whiskey Roadhouse at The Horseshoe Casino, 2701 23rd Avenue, Council Bluffs. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. For more information, visit horseshoecouncilbluffs.com.
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Some extra copy that didn’t make it into the Pete Yorn feature:
Just the night before our interview, Yorn stood alone on stage at Carnegie Hall in Manhattan playing a solo acoustic version of “Rockin’ in the Free World” at a Neil Young tribute concert that also featured, among others, J Mascis, Glen Hansard, Jakob Dylan, Shawn Colvin and Patti Smith.
“Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield did ‘Cinnamon Girl,'” Yorn said. “Both played Gibson SG electric guitars, it was really cool.”
What made Yorn’s performance particularly special was the song choice. “(Rockin’ in the Free World) was the first song I ever really sang in front of a band,” he said, adding that prior to that he sat behind a drum kit. “They coaxed me out front to sing. I was 15 years old in a talent show in New Jersey where I grew up. So it was coming full circle.”
Yorn also talked about what he’s been doing since finishing his last record: “I’ve been working on something loose over at a buddy’s house, a covers record,” he said. “It’s a palette cleanser for me to explore other songs and reinterpret them. We got 10 songs worked out. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it, but it’s fun.”
And he talked about his flight from Omaha after the Mogis sessions ended. “I drove cross country back home on Halloween,” Yorn said. “I listened to The Shining book all the way through Colorado. I was driving through the mountains listening to The Shining.” It doesn’t get much spookier than that.
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Everything points to strong opening-week numbers for Bright Eyes’ The People’s Key. Mike Fratt, who runs Homer’s Music, said his stores sold a total of 76 copies of the recording yesterday — 45 CDs and 31 LPs. Fratt also said the The People’s Key was the No. 1 seller at indie retailers yesterday. A glance at the iTunes Store shows The People’s Key charting at No. 7 on its albums list. And yesterday Amazon began offering an mp3 download of the album for just $3.99 — a price point that helped catapult Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts for its first week of sales.
Hurting Bright Eyes’ quest for the top Billboard spot, however, are strong sales by artists who performed on Sunday night’s Grammy broadcast. “The grammy spike is REAL big this year,” Fratt said. In fact five of the six spots above The People’s Key on the iTunes top-sellers list are all Grammy performers (Mumford and Sons currently sits at the top).
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.