Saturday, June 15, 2024 
--archival-captured-cinematronic-continuity error-daily report-datastream-depth of field--
--drama-44.1 khz-gramophone-inquisitive-needle drops-picture book-twinklepop--
Neumu = Art + Music + Words
Search Neumu:  


edited by michael goldbergcontact

Stephen Yerkey's Wandering Songs

Conversations with songwriter Stephen Yerkey, like the songs on his latest album, Metaneonatureboy, tend to wander a bit. You might start out casually discussing the weather, then find yourself somehow engaged in a story about Jack Nicholson buying a farm from Saul Bellow in southern Vermont. You might ask him why it's been 12 years since his debut, Confidence, Man, and become entangled in a tale about a woman who lived in the mountains northeast of San Francisco. It's not that he's evading the issue — far from it — but Stephen Yerkey has a circuitous way of connecting the most disparate of ideas, a talent that makes his songs continually surprising and interesting. Consider, for instance, the wonderful "Link Wray's Girlfriend," which ties unexpected ligatures between the lately-deceased guitarist, the artist Man Ray and 1950s pop singer Johnnie Ray.

"I wanted to get Nicholas Ray, who directed Rebel Without a Cause, into that song, too, but the song was going down the lower 40," remarked Yerkey in a recent phone interview, using a term he employs whenever a song starts to take on a wandering life of its own. This might take the form of side-winding, far-roaming, story-telling lyrics, or it might involve mixing blues, jazz, country, rock and folk in the space of a single song. Whatever happens, though, you can be sure of one thing: it won't be ordinary.

Yerkey's songs connect Golden Gate Park's wildlife to teenage hookers to homeless drifters' battered corpses ("Cadillacs of that Color"). They are grounded in traditional forms of music, but wheel wildly away from the moorings. They are good enough that Kurt Wolff, in The Rough Guide to Country Music, called Stephen Yerkey "one of the greatest little-known songwriters and singers west of the Mississippi."

But, to tell the truth, Yerkey wishes his songs were not quite so complicated. "I don't write the kind of songs that I like," he admitted. "The kind of songs that I like are ... about relationships and about the heart, and they're very short and passionate.

"My songs kind of traipse along all over," he continued. "They're not that much about women. I don't know why I write those kinds of songs, because I don't like to write wordy songs. I want to write the other kind," he said.


Yerkey was born in West Virginia and moved throughout the Midwest during his youth, living for a time in Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati and "all the hillbilly capitals." His first guitar, an acoustic, arrived when he was 14, about the same time he discovered the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

"[Dylan's music] was absolutely mind-blowing. It was mind-blowing that somebody could... like in 'It's All Right, Ma.' That you could lash back at your parents in that way," he remembered. "And the other thing, too, that was really shocking, and I guess it still is, but it was the end of 'Masters of War,' 'And I hope that you die and your death will come soon.' Apparently ... somebody told me that he did that on some rock and roll hall of fame on TV three or four years ago, and he dedicated it to Dick Cheney or something, and there was this huge brouhaha."

Yerkey's musical tastes were broad, something that, he says, wasn't unusual at the time. "The thing that I remember as a teenager in the 1960s is that you tried to be into all kinds of music, rock and jazz and blues," he said. "They weren't into country. I remember country was very, very unhip. That was another thing that Dylan did, when he recorded in Nashville, which was just absolutely unspeakable."

Progress came slowly as Yerkey taught himself to play and sing and write songs. "I wasn't any good for a long time," he said. "My mom and I went to see the new Neil Young movie and I was thinking how good he was when he was 18 and 19, and I was no good until I was like 30 or something."

He knocked around San Francisco as a young man, joining a band called Nonfiction, and finally, at the age of 44, releasing his solo debut, Confidence, Man, in 1994. The album, produced by Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu veteran Eric Drew Feldman, drew glowing reviews and seemed to set Yerkey on the path to eccentric success, à la Tom Waits. But life intervened, specifically that lady in the mountains, and it was 12 long years before the follow-up, this year's Metaneonatureboy, came out on Echo Records.

Lyrics From a Parked Car

Yerkey says he'd written many of the melodies on Metaneonatureboy in the late 1990s, but didn't get around to the lyrics until 2004, when, back in San Francisco, he found himself with time to kill in a parked car. At the time, Yerkey was sleeping in a friend's photography studio, but had to vacate the premises during working hours. "So I'd get up and get my guitar and get in the car and go down, since I lived there for so long I knew where you could go and sit around, and I'd just play my guitar," he said, adding that it was an unusually productive period. "If you're playing guitar at home, you'll goof off. You'll get on the computer or something," he said.

"I don't like writing lyrics," Yerkey admitted. "So what I'll do is I'll sit there with a guitar and I'll have chords and I'll hum something or other. That's the part that really lags behind," he said. "That's the part that I wish I did better."

Yerkey said he envies writers like Neil Young who seem to conceive of the melody and the lyrics together, banging out a cohesive song in a single sitting. "Like in the Neil Young movie, for instance, he does 'I Am a Child' and 'The Needle and the Damage Done'," he said. "You can hear these little short songs and you can tell that he probably wrote them in 10 or 15 minutes, and I thought, man, that must be where it's at."

Yerkey's best songs are far from simple, though, either in conception or execution. "My Baby Loves the Western Violence," for instance, is a litany of violent images in jaunty couplets like "My baby love the Unabomber/ Greatest dude since Jeffrey Dahmer/ My baby love the vivisection/ Of the Valley housewives and the death injection." It is also a sly tribute to an obscure Coasters wannabe band called The Robins, who wrote a little-known song called "My Baby Loves the Western Movies," complete with cheesy gunshot sound effects. "It was just like a Coasters song," Yerkey said. "It was old record-making business in action. They literally wanted to make you think they were somebody else, which was the Coasters." And, to add yet another layer, it's a commentary on the current governor of California, the "governator" so beloved of the title character.

Musically the songs are complicated, too, with contrasting genres placed in very close proximity. For instance, on the lovely "Translated From Love," a country pedal-steel guitar intertwines with a jazz clarinet solo as if there were no boundaries between the two musical styles — and for the space of this single song at least, there aren't. Ben Goldberg, the clarinetist who also arranged the big-band opening at the beginning of "Mood Swing Era," gets an old-fashioned sound on the solo that Yerkey particularly likes. "If you listen, he's playing with a little bit of vibrato, but the original people who did the big vibrato were Sidney Bechet," he said. "I love how woody it is and how much grain it has, this vibrato. It's kind of soulful and at the same time, it's kind of outrageous. But that style went out of style."

As on his debut record, Yerkey worked with Eric Drew Feldman. "He's gotten really, really good at getting performances," Yerkey said of his producer. "You know, he was in Beefheart's band and he was in Polly Harvey's band, I think he was in the Pixies for a tiny little while. He was in one of my favorite bands, called Pere Ubu... these really pretty far-out, pretty hard-edged rock 'n' roll bands. Pretty uncompromising. And of course the way life is, you'd think he'd be some sort of hard-assed punk guy and he's not that way at all. He's very low-key and easy to work with.

"The other thing with working with somebody who is that hip is that you don't worry about being unhip," he added. "Like with 'Cadillacs of That Color,' I said, 'Hey, can we make it like Huey Lewis at the end?' And he says, 'Sure.' He doesn't worry that his name's on it."

Yerkey's band includes long-time collaborators like jazz drummer Scott Amendola and electric-turned-stand-up bass player Chris Key, who is also a public defender for the city of Oakland, California. Will Bernard, one of Yerkey's many former band members, plays guitar and banjo and David Phillips plays pedal Steel. Goldberg kicks in clarinet on a couple of tracks, and also did the jazz arrangements.

That's the core band, though for several tracks, especially the 10-minute-plus "Stinson Beach Road" the cast of characters expanded considerably. This closing track was intended as the final 1960s freak-out, the long Quicksilver Messenger Service-referencing cut that existed solely to "blow people's minds."

"That was really terrifying to record," Yerkey recalled. "It was so complicated and there were so many changes, and you had all these people walking around with sheet music, which intimidates me because I don't read and write music. There were all these people walking around with sheet music saying, 'Have you got the 48 through the 52nd bar?' And I thought, 'Oh boy, this sounds like the Ford Motor Company.'" Yet the piece hangs together psychedelically throughout its lengthy duration, showing none of the strain and all of the wandering brilliance that went into its making.

Yerkey has a few shows coming up in the Midwest this spring. For an updated list of performances, check his Web site. — Jennifer Kelly [Thursday, April 13, 2006]

Alejandro Escovedo's Joyous Rebirth

John Vanderslice Kicks Genre

Paul Duncan's Elusive Pop

Stephen Yerkey's Wandering Songs

French Kicks Complete 'Two Thousand'

Spazzy Romanticism: Love Story In Blood Red

Brain Surgeons NYC Rock The Big Questions

Jarboe's 'Men' Charts Turbulent Emotions

Delta 5's Edgy Post-Punk Resurrected

Blitzen Trapper Spiff Things Up

Minus Five: Booze, Betrayal, Bibles and Guns

New Compilation Spotlights Forgotten Folk Guitar Heroes

Chris Brokaw's Experiment In Pop

Old And New With Death Vessel

Silver Jews: Salvation And Redemption

Jana Hunter's Beautiful Doom

Vashti Bunyan Finds Her Voice Again

Nick Castro's Turkish Folk Delight

Katrina Hits New Orleans Musicians Hard

Paula Frazer's Eerie Beauty

The National Find Emotional Balance

Death Cab For Cutie's New Album, Tour

Heavy Trash's Rockabilly Rampage

Help The Wrens Get Their Albums Released!

Devendra Banhart, Andy Cabic Launch Label

Lydia Lunch's Noir Seductions

Bosque Brown's The Real Deal

PDX Pop Now! Fest Announces Lineup

Sarah Dougher Starts Women-Focused Label

Jennifer Gentle's Joyful Psyche

Mountain Goat Darnielle Gets Autobiographical With 'Sunset Tree'

Mia Doi Todd's Beautiful Collaboration

Return of the Gang of Four

Martha Wainwright Finds Her Voice

Brian Jonestown Massacre's Acid Joyride

Solo Disc Due From Pixies' Frank Black

Heartless Bastards' Big-Hearted Rock

Mike Watt's Midlife Journey

The Black Swans Balance Old And New

Nicolai Dunger's Swedish Blues

The Insomniacs' Hard-Edged Pop

Yo La Tengo Collection Due

Juana Molina's 'Homemade' Sound

Beans Evolves

Earlimart's Songs Of Loss

Devendra Banhart's 'Mosquito Drawings'

Negativland Rerelease 'Helter Stupid'

Alina Simone Transforms The Ordinary

Sounds From Nature: Laura Veirs

Octet's Fractured Electric Pop

Sleater-Kinney Working With Lips Producer

The Cult Of Silkworm

The Evolution Of The Concretes

Devendra Banhart's Exuberant New Songs

Catching Up With The Incredible String Band

Gram Rabbit's Desert Visions

Three Indie-Rock Stars Unite As Maritime

Remembering Johnny Ramone

Jarboe's Many Voices

Phil Elvrum's Long Hard Winter

First U.S. Release For Vashti Bunyan Album

Incredible String Band To Tour U.S.

New Music From Lydia Lunch

Le Tigre Protest The Bush War Presidency

Joel RL Phelps: Bleak Songs Rock Hard

Time Tripping With Galaxie 500

Patti Smith Wants Bush Out!

Sharron Kraus: A New Kind Of Folk Music

The Fiery Furnaces' Psychedelic Theater

Harder, Heavier Burning Brides

Sonic Youth's Ongoing Experiment

The Dt's Do It Their Way

Poster Children Cover Political Rock

Rare Thelonious Monk Recordings Due

Uneasy Pop From dios

Beck, Lips, Waits Cover Daniel Johnston

Understanding Franz Ferdinand

The Truly Amazing Joanna Newsom

Mylab's Boundary-Crossing Experiments In Sound

Have You Heard Jolie Holland Whistle?

The 'Magical Realism' Of Vetiver

The Restless, Rootsy Songs Of Eszter Balint

The Sun Sets On The Blasters

Devendra Banhart To Tour U.S.

The East/West Fusion Sounds Of Macha

Destroyer Gets Mellow For Your Blues

TV On The Radio Get Political

Sonic Youth, Modest Mouse To Play Lollapalooza 2004

New Music From The Fall

Apocalyptic Sound From The Intelligence

Fast And Rude With The Casual Dots

'Rejoicing' With Devendra Banhart

New Album, Tour From The Polyphonic Spree

Shearwater Take Wing

Sleater-Kinney To Tour East/West Coasts

Resurrecting Rocket From The Tombs

Visqueen Want To Get A Riot Goin' On

Lloyd Cole Makes A Commotion

Funkstörung's 'Cut-Up' Theory

Waiting For Mirah's C'mon Miracle

Electrelane Find Their Voice

The Television Is Still On!

Experimental Sounds From Hannah Marcus

The Ponys Play With Rayguns

Ex-Mono Men Leader Returns With The Dt's

Mountain Goats' Darnielle Adopts A More Hi-Fi Sound

Sun Kil Moon To Tour U.S., Europe

Nothin' But The Truth From The Von Bondies

Sultans Survive 'Shipwreck'

Sebadoh Reunite For Spring Tour

Xiu Xiu's 'Reality' Rock

Meet The Patients

Beth Orton, M. Ward Make Sadness Taste Sweet

Oneida's Pathway To Ecstasy

Radiohead, Pixies, Dizzee Rascal To Play Coachella

Young People Tour Behind War Prayers

Pixies Tour Dates Announced

Ani DiFranco Tells It Like It Is

Deerhoof Back For 2004 With Milkman

McLusky Set To 'Bring On The Big Guitars' Again

Pixies Reunite For U.S., European Tours

American Music Club, Decemberists To Play NoisePop 2004

Damien Rice Set To Tour U.S.

The Frames Accept Your Love

Punk Rock's A-Frames To Re-Record Third Album

Finally! Mission Of Burma Record New Album

A Solo Detour For Ladybug Transistor's Sasha Bell

Return Of The Old 97's

Spending The Night With Damien Rice

Tindersticks Reissues Due This Spring

The Evolution Of 'A Silver Mt. Zion'

Neil Young Rocks Australia With 'Greendale'

Poster Children Back In Action

'The Great Cat Power Disaster Of 2003'

Chicks On Speed's Subversive Strategies

Oranger At A Crossroad

Peaches On Tour And In Control

Jawbreaker's Complete Dear You Sessions To Be Released

Belle & Sebastian + Trevor Horn = Sunny Pop Nirvana

Von Bondies' Pawn Shoppe Heart

Descendents Are Back!

Modest Mouse Touring; Album Due in 2004

London Suede Take A (Permanent?) Break

Saul Williams Wants You To Think For Yourself

The 'Zen' Sound Of Calexico

Elliott Smith Dead AT 34

Debut Due From Mark Kozelek's Sun Kil Moon

The Hunches: Music That'll 'Fucking Live Forever'

Vic Chesnutt Speaks His Mind

90 Day Men Cancel Tour

Keith Jarrett, Cecil Taylor Highlight SF Jazz Festival

For My Morning Jacket, It's The Music That Matters

EP Due From The Polyphonic Spree

Bright Eyes, Neva Dinova Collaborate On EP

The Rise & Fall & Rise Of Ben Lee

Catching Up With Cheerfully Defiant Tricky

Hanging Around With The Polyphonic Spree

Sophomore Album Due From The Shins

Noise Rock From Iceland's Singapore Sling

Death Cab To Tour U.S.

Rufus Wainwright's Want One Is 'Family Affair'

Death Cab's Transatlanticism On The Way

Heartfelt Rock From Sweden's Last Days Of April

The Minus 5 Get Down With Wilco

Tywanna Jo Baskette's Southern-Gothic Rock

Xiu Xiu's Stewart Takes On 'Gay-bashing'

Portishead Producer Resurfaces Behind New Diva

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Wire, Primal Scream On Buddyhead Comp

Yeah Yeah Yeahs To Tour West Coast

Sonic Youth, Erase Errata Kick Off 'Buddy Series'

The Locust Are One Scary Band

Damien Rice In The 'Here And Now'

Remembering Karp's Scott Jernigan

ATP-NY Postponed 'Til At Least 2004

The Soul Of Chris Lee

Gits' Frenching The Bully To See Re-Release

Stephen Malkmus Is In Control

Superchunk To Release Rarities Set; Teenage Girls To Swoon As A Result

Summer Touring For The Gossip

Babbling On About Deerhoof

Irish Song Poet Damien Rice's O Released In U.S.

Chatting With ATP's Barry Hogan

Former Digable Planets Frontman Surfaces With Cherrywine

ATP L.A. Festival Rescheduled For Fall

Freakwater's Janet Bean Takes A Solo Turn

Lee's 'Cool Rock'

Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs Highlight YES NEW YORK

Mark Romanek's 'Hurt' Revives Johnny Cash's Career

The Rapture's Post-Punk, Post-Dance Sound

R.E.M., Wilco, Modest Mouse Highlight Bumbershoot Fest

Set Fires To Flames' Sleep-Deprivation Sound

Southern Gothic Past Shadows Verbena's La Musica Negra

The Subtle Evolution Of Yo La Tengo

Spring Tour For Jolie Holland (Plus A Live Album)

Liz Phair Still Pushing The Limits

Gold Chains Wants You To Dance And Think

Young People's War Prayers On The Way

peruse archival

-snippetcontactsnippetcontributorssnippetvisionsnippethelpsnippetcopyrightsnippetlegalsnippetterms of usesnippetThis site is Copyright © 2003 Insider One LLC