Twerk to Yowie’s Dancey, Palindromic ‘Ineffable Dolphin Communion’
Over their 17-year, riff-dizzy, mad scientist reign, St. Louis’ Yowie have meticulously and tirelessly crafted an über-brainy progressive rock beast that is unequivocally its own thing. Sure, the trio of drummer Shawn “Defenestrator" O'Connor and the twin-guitar assault team of Jeremiah Wonsewitz and Christopher Trull have operated at a snail’s pace over those subsequent years, but it’s no easy feat when meting out the forward-thinking slew of algebraic complexities, rapid-fire polyrhythmic action and neck-snapping time signatures that is their controlled — yet chaotic — blueprint.
Now five years after 2012’s Damning With Faint Praise, Yowie have triumphantly returned, packing the dense all-instrumental extreme-prog heat of Synchromysticism (due April 21 via Skin Graft), a five-epic-long maelstrom of ecstatic and elastic mayhem that Defenestrator would love for you to dance your ass off and do some twerking to.
CLRVYNT is proud to premiere the booty-shaking, taffy-stretching sprawl, “Ineffable Dolphin Communion." Plus, read on for a deep, lengthy chat with Defenestrator and Trull as they dissect Synchromysticism’s five tracks, their work ethic and more.
First off, we're premiering the leadoff track, "Ineffable Dolphin Communion," from your forthcoming record, Synchromysticism. What can you tell us about this particular track?
Christopher Trull: It was the last song we completed for this album, so it's possibly the most representative of where we are as a band at this moment. Also, the first minute and a half or so is the hardest portion of any of the songs on the album for me to play.
Defenestrator: You'll hear a fair amount of tricky dynamics on this one; all of them played live-in-studio, no effects (like all of our albums and live performances) or overdubs. The overarching compositional theme arose out of a palindromic riff that Chris had written as part of a larger movement. We tortured the hell out of some of the rhythmic interactions to capitalize on different ways of emphasizing the palindrome. This one really forces movement out of the crowd, despite it being comprised of some really esoteric ingredients.
Defenestrator, you’ve said that "Ineffable Dolphin Communion" may be your favorite track on the new record. What makes this one special?
D: Well, it's the danciest discordant palindromic jam you will ever hear. Lots of twerking to this one. And I want to go on record saying that I don't care if twerking in and of itself is seen as passé. Twerking to this piece will always be legit. In 100 years, on Mars, humanoid creatures will be twerking to this track. It will never go out of style. Twerking to this track is like blue jeans.
How do actual dolphins figure into this track?
D: This whole album is about the experience of a sudden realization that elicits very strong emotions. This track is a depiction of what is often called "religious experience" or "mystical union," and what Freud called "the oceanic experience." This is the sense that one has lost some aspect of ego boundary, and is therefore connected to something larger, usually some aspect of nature. This feeling can be blissful in some ways, and terrifying in others.
The mystical aspect usually elicits comfort, and involves themes of unity and inseparability, the sense that your previously observed boundaries were an illusion, one that unnecessarily limited you. So, it can feel like liberation. But the prospect of being absorbed into something larger is a form of annihilation, and this can also be horrifying. It is, in a way, like dying, or being devoured. Very often, people who seek out these kind of experiences feel a connection to certain totemic organisms; frequently, dolphins, wolves or trees. So, this track is about an individual's indescribable experience of mystical union with nature — in this instance, personified by the dolphin — and the accompanying sense of blissful union, coupled with the horror of being absorbed into something enormous and ancient, into ceasing to be as an autonomous, individuated self. It's a very dicey process [that] can be simultaneously ecstatic and terrifying. I hope the music effectively conveys that.
There’s a five-year gap between Synchromysticism and 2012's Damning With Faint Praise. Considering your debut, Cryptooology, came out eight years before that, this new album is actually somewhat of a quick turnaround. What was it about the writing and recording of Synchromysticism that took "only" five years to crank out? Have you finally found yourselves embracing a faster way of doing things?
CT: Ha! It's pretty sad when one song per year can be said to be "faster."
D: Sadly, no. It would be highly inaccurate to say that the amount of hours put into either of the previous albums even began to approach the amount for this one. The number of years between Cryptooology and Damning With Faint Praise was greater, but that was in part due to a band member departure and the ensuing ocean of time trying to find / train a replacement, and one of us moving out of state for a good chunk of the writing. We have become, if anything, less efficient if measured by the formula:
# of hours spent writing and rehearsing / minutes of recorded music = ?
This album involved [about] five years of two-to-three-times-per-week band practice, with at least one of us doing a lot of work in between each. So, it's not at all really "faster." It is just more concentrated and intense, with fewer extracurricular activities, like eating dinner or seeing our wives or sleeping.
It’s been well-documented how much time you spend on one song. On the new record, there are five songs. Can you hit on the time you spent on each of them and the challenges they posed as you rehearsed them and put them to tape? Let’s start with "Ineffable Dolphin Communion."
CT: This song caused us the most problems in the studio. It was the first song we tried to record, and it just got the better of us for a while — my hands wouldn't cooperate, and Shawn's foot seemed to get a mind of its own. We were just overwhelmed, I think, from the pressure we were putting on ourselves after the crazy amount of intense preparation, combined with the short amount of time (two days!) in which we were trying to track these songs. Eventually, we settled down and got a good take. When I listen now, it doesn't sound like we're stressed out in the studio — it sounds like a really energetic performance. I'm still not quite sure how we pulled it off. I should credit Jason McEntire, the engineer on the tracking session, with maintaining a really relaxed, but productive atmosphere in the studio. With a lesser engineer at the helm, I don't think we would have gotten it done.
D: No doubt on that studio thing. There was a fuck-ton of pressure going in there. It really was absurd to record this in two days, but hey, we are not made of money, and we believed that we could just prep for a year or so and then pull it off without too much stress — joke was on us.
That’s followed by “Mysterium Tremendum."
CT: Our most metal song! This is the first song we finished after I joined the band. Actually, we had a very primitive song that contained portions of this one and parts that ended up in "Microfiche," [which] we played on tour quite a bit back in 2012; but when we got back home, we dismantled it and gutted it. It had a lot of ideas we really liked, but it just wasn't arranged effectively. This final version is light years ahead of those initial attempts.
D: Yeah, several of these were written multiple times until we got that flow thing down. There is a polyrhythmic metric modulation part in the middle of this one that lasts just four or five seconds, but took several weeks of continuous drilling to nail. It is crazily difficult to pull off effectively, and chances are you won't even notice it, because it sounds pretty seamless now. But holy fuck, it is an evil bitch. I guess if we are doing our job well, you won't feel all of the shit that went into it. I think there were 38 arrangements of this piece before we had completed it. This one involved a lot of fighting about one of us using a cheat sheet (what classical types call "sheet music") on the super heavy part. I won't mention names, but the guy who is without a doubt the fucking coolest member of the band thought that using said cheat sheet was relying excessively on cognitive processing, thereby preventing a real groove from forming out of all those numbers. Ultimately, as you hopefully can tell, the groove was wrested from the cheat sheet, kicking and screaming. Now we have pits to that part when we play it live. BRUTAL PITS.
"Absurdly Ineffective Barricade"?
CT: There is one particular transition in this song that we just couldn't get to work, no matter what we tried. We probably have a hundred different recordings of us attempting different ways of getting into this one particular part. In the end, we were able to make it work. Then the rest of the song actually came together relatively quickly (by Yowie standards). Sometimes, those are the most frustrating compositional dilemmas — we know a part should work, but for some reason we just can't figure out the right way to fit the puzzle pieces together. On this record, we refused to do jump cut-style transitions, so we had to try everything we could come up with until we found the right solution.
D: Yeah, no doubt. This whole album would have been much easier / faster if we did not absolutely insist on that whole "natural flow" feel thing, which is a total illusion. If we could just do "hard stops" or jump cut-type transitions — which we aren't opposed to in theory, but just decided not to really use on this album — well, this shit would've been less infuriating. There is a middle section that is really kind of prog-sounding that was also subsumed into the "no cheat sheet" debate. Eventually, groove won the day. And the crowds twerked in celebration. Proggishly. I'm sure you've seen videos of it. Twerky prog pits is how we roll.
Next up, we have "The Fourth Wall Will Not Protect You."
CT: This song is unique in the Yowie canon. Rather than being an assemblage of smaller parts and variations, it is basically just one polyrhythmic concept of Defenestrator's that the guitars interact with in different ways. With something like that, it was sometimes a challenge to keep it from sounding like an intellectual exercise of some sort, but I think we succeeded in making it a really cool song.
D: Yep, unique for us. The entire thing is built upon a really long beat that I have to play that is in three meters simultaneously, without any curtailment. So, it is a very long phrase — the beat goes until the meters all meet back on their one simultaneously; until the "lowest common denominator" arrives. So, everything you hear is some variation or portion of that initial enormous beat, which I first wrote out on several sheets of graph paper, and screwed around with for a crazy amount of time until I could phrase it correctly.
Lastly, "The Reason Your House Is Haunted Can Be Found on This Microfiche."
CT: This was one where we had a big chunk that we just kept rearranging and trimming and figuring out where we needed additional material for a seemingly endless amount of time. It's strange, though — once we hit on the right arrangement of that section, we knew it right away and we never changed it again. Sometimes it feels like the songs write themselves, but it just takes us a really long time to figure out what they're trying to tell us!
D: It seems to be the hit single, based on crowd response so far. I think this one came together much more quickly than the others; there are several unifying themes, usually involving a couple of different very jerky grooves that we keep modifying and forcing into the flow tube. But holy shit, this thing is counterintuitive. We played it as a new song for a local video series called Lo-Fi Cherokee a few years ago. People still email me to tell me they keep watching that over and over, waiting for the studio version. Man, the studio version is waaaaay better than the recording from when the song was new and jittery. Might've been the years of practice. No way to tell, I guess.
Moving on. How do you know when a song is complete and ready to record? Are you making changes up to the bitter end?
CT: It's hard to put into words, but when we start to run out of things that are bugging us in the song, then it's nearing completion. When we get close to recording, there's a period of focusing on the very minute details of the performance that will be necessary to nail the song in the studio.
D: For me, "complete" and "ready to record" are entirely different things. I know it's complete when there aren't any structural issues that bother me when I listen to it; when it coheres as a piece that has its own character and nothing is redundant, which is something very important for this music. That seems facile, perhaps, but when you consider that each one of our tracks has dozens upon dozens of transitions, that is a huge deal. Most bands just play some product of four measures for a few parts and repeat them. We listen to all the constituent parts, and then their transitions, in between each practice, and then email each other feedback and impressions. Each part goes for as long as it needs to in order to develop and serve its function.
One thing that stands out listening to Synchromysticism is that one guitar comes out the right speaker and the other the left. What is the method to your madness when it comes to the recording process?
CT: The main reason for this is clarity. There's so much going on that to be able to discern what the separate instruments are doing is really helped by panning the two guitars pretty hard to the left and right. As an added aesthetic bonus, if you listen in front of speakers, you're getting a sonic representation of how we set up on stage (with Jeremiah on stage left, the drums in the middle and me on the right). Panning like this is not that unusual, though; listen to early Van Halen or the first Ramones album for evidence!
D: True, and we have a whole hell of a lot of parts that involve the guitars splitting up different melodic / rhythmic aspects of a phrase, stabbing their contributions into the overall measure or set of measures. Live, this comes across very well, but we noticed that on our recordings, sometimes the guitars sort of blended together and that whole "gestalt" pattern perception was lost. And in general, there's a fuck-ton of notes happening here. So, we panned extremely on this album. Overall, you could probably listen to each track panned hard left or hard right and hear compositions that have their own logic (that is, one guitar and drums vs. the other guitar and drums). But it's way better with both simultaneously.
Speaking of bass, Yowie have been known as a two-guitar band, but I swear I hear the bass. How do you achieve that bassy sound? Or is there actual bass on Synchromysticism?
CT: There is no actual bass guitar on it. Jeremiah is actually using the same tuning that he used on Damning, but his guitar, which is tuned very low, has a built in bass preamp, which he runs into a bass amp and plays a lot of "bassline"-type parts. So, there's bass on this record in every manner of speaking except for the instrument used to create those sounds!
D: Yeah, it's a guitar, but an absurdly strung / tuned guitar played through a bass amp. A lot of people think it sounds like a bass. And on this album in particular, he is playing parts more like a bass player would than on previous albums. So, it's very understandable that people think it's a bass.
Defenestrator, your day job is being a clinical psychologist. How does that inform your drumming and vision of the band?
D: About that with this album, specifically, my area of research for both my Master's and Doctorate concerned the interface of delusion and religiosity, which involves trying to understand the extremes of thought and emotion, the boundaries of logical thought, and what may or may not exist on the other side. This album portrays some of these esoteric aspects of human experience. So, I am not sure if my training as a psychologist or my work as a trauma therapist makes my understanding of these topics profound or unique in a way that gets conveyed in the music. I hope so, but I am on the inside, and I just can't tell.
Yowie have been lumped into such stylistic niches as math-rock, technical metal, prog-rock, et al., but you seem to have a thing for wanting people to dance at your shows.
CT: That was initially inspired by the enthusiastic audiences we encountered when we toured Europe in 2012. It had never even occurred to me that someone would (or even could) dance to Yowie's music. We really tried to maximize the grooves on this album, while still maintaining the band's essential Yowie-ness.
D: Well, to disagree with Chris, it always occurred to me that people could and should be moving to our music, and it always frustrated me that they weren't doing it. But to be clear, I don't necessarily want the listener to dance in any traditional sense. I have always felt our music is and should be emotionally compelling. I always wanted it to be orgiastically complex. I firmly believe those are not contradictory; you don't need to choose between intellectually interesting OR emotionally compelling. It always felt horribly incongruous, playing these intense, frenetic pieces to a bunch of dudes standing there with their arms folded. The whole 17 years I have played this music, it seemed to me that it should command some type of visceral enthusiasm, but for a long time we played to mostly guys who looked like they were trying to come up with the perfect comeback to an insult from earlier in the day. They were thinking, trying to understand, rather than being absorbed or deeply moved. And that was missing the entire point. It always felt like we were doing something much more feral, primal, than the crowd was able to feel. At least for a while, we were just confusing people. Part of that probably involves the "you should listen more than once" rule with our music. And part of that seems to be that most of the people who like our music are, themselves, musicians, who are more inclined to think about process. But this isn't supposed to be an exhibition of cool technique or an impressive memorization of strings of numbers. It's music, goddammit. Powerful music. And you should feel something when you hear it. So, for us, dancing — or at least moving — in the audience was a measure of whether we had succeeded in our quest. If they all stood there thinking and intellectually appreciating, we had failed. So, I am not necessarily expecting dancing like we are playing dubstep or something, but I believe strongly that there is something Dionysian about what we are doing, and goddammit, it should look that way when I look out into the audience, while I am rocking my fucking balls off with this impossible shit. I'm not trying to impress you and have you write to your friend something about how many polyrhythms we had on top of one another or what have you. I am trying to blow your fucking mind. Stop thinking and start screaming, or moving your ass, or set something on fire. That is the appropriate response.
Finally, will you be touring in support of Synchromysticism, and what goes into the preparation of performing live? How intense are the rehearsals?
CT: There will definitely be touring. We're in talks right now to go back to Europe later this year, and we have some regional shows starting to pop up after the record is released. Rehearsals don't seem all that intense or grueling to me, but maybe I'm just used to it. We play the songs, then isolate any sections that aren't sounding right, and drill those parts. It's not like we're screaming at each other if one of us makes a mistake, though.
D: I really hope so. Our thing is that, for various reasons, different for each of us, life circumstances make it pretty hard to just leave your job for a few weeks and lose a couple hundred (or thousand) dollars driving a van around to play weird rock music. It is something we would love to do, but we have to have the right circumstances; it has to be financially feasible, but it also has to be worked out with jobs and other such "real life" stuff. Believe it or not, the demand for this kind of music is not enormous. I think, though, once people start to hear this album, they will really want to experience it performed live. This is the album we have been working toward making for 17 years. It is the culmination of what this band has been about. I think if people hear it, and really pay attention to it, it will jump out at them. They should really sit and listen, though. Probably more than once. Probably not the whole album in one sitting. It's not "for while you are washing the dishes" music. It should take up all of your attention. And then some. I would recommend listening to one track at a time. A few times in a row. Unless you are the very atypical listener. The rehearsals? Well, they aren't nearly as ridiculous as the ones for recording. At this point, it's time to have fun and celebrate this accomplishment. If people don't get this album this year and demand a tour, I imagine they will at some point in the future. But they should hurry the fuck up — the ability to pull this shit off decays quickly if we don't keep at it.