Some bands are dictatorships, ruled with an iron fist by a charismatic control freak, every note etched in stone. Musicians who can't toe the party line are quickly booted and replaced with players capable of marching in lockstep behind the ayatollah out front. And then there's Yamagata. A freewheeling jazz-rock quartet from Memphis, the four members of Yamagata would make the founding fathers proud with their democratic approach.
"It's kind of like how a bill becomes a law," says guitarist Joe Austin of Yamagata's songwriting process. "Our friend and former manager Clay Maddox would write a batch of poems, and I always have some unfinished music running around, so when I see a poem that really hits home, I'll give it a rough arrangement, a chorus, a verse and a theme, or a 'head,' like in jazz composition. Then, like a bill that goes to Congress, the band just whittles away at it, adding pork to cover their own special interests. From there we play it out live, and if it passes the live test, I guess it kind of gets signed into law. From that point, it simply gets interpreted as it would in the judicial branch!"
And the jury's in. Jam fans have been digging Yamagata's continually changing live shows ever since the band's all-improv debut several years ago. "We just made everything up from beginning to end, and the place went crazy!" Austin recalls with a laugh. "They were dancing on tables and stuff. We were, like, 'Wow, maybe we could do this!'"