Brandon Mason and Chan Maurice Evans had existed in the same circles for years but had never formally met. Both played in experimental rock bands that dabbled in shoegaze and psychedelia; Mason, a bassist and keyboardist, played in Helium Tapes, and Evans played drums for Ghost in Light, among others. They occasionally had friends and even bandmates in common. Despite this, they never really crossed paths.
Upon reflection, they note how odd that was. For aside from a shared musical affiliation, Mason and Evans were often the only black men in their rock bands. Some nights they would each be the only person of color in the club.
The group that the pair created is called YOUPEOPL — one word, all caps, declarative in name and appearance but subtle in its deployment of electro-beats, stacked harmonies and guitar crunch. On its debut EP ...are we, the music is produced solely by Mason and Evans; in concert, the band is rounded out by Syrhea Conaway on bass, Brandon Patton on guitar and Philip Zahnd on drums. Of the five, Zahnd is the only white person, a rare ratio for a rock-centric band in St. Louis or any other city.
"That was definitely a conscious decision to look for more musicians of color, and I'm glad I did it," says Mason. "It's a weird space to navigate, being a black musician in a mostly white scene. We deal with it daily in the corporate world and being a minority by definition. I wanted to sit down with other black musicians and get their take on it."
Evans notes that he was late to learn of black musicians' imprint on what became known as rock & roll — he name-checks Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and the Isley Brothers, and both he and Mason refer to the arrival of the all-black rock group Living Colour in near-messianic terms.
"People would always ask, 'Why are you playing rock & roll? Why are you playing that white-boy stuff?'" Evans recalls. "I don't know, man, I just like it. I love the way it sounds and the way it feels. Just because it's not hip-hop doesn't mean that a person of color can't do it."
When Mason was looking to start a new project, right around the time of the 2016 elections, Evans was at the top of his list for possible collaborators. "I just messaged him and told him that I was into doing something maybe a little political — the social climate was pushing me to put something out there," says Mason. "I'm not a lyricist but I wanted music with some content that might push people to think a little bit."
The timing was fortuitous; not 24 hours before receiving the message, Evans had parted ways with the entrancing synth-wave group CaveofswordS, and he was looking for a new project. The idea of making politically energized music appealed to him, and as a multi-instrumentalist and singer, Mason's offer gave him a chance to play more than a supporting role.
"You're angry? I'm angry too," Evans recalls thinking. "Let's do something."
Evans describes a flurry of political activism and art that inspired "You People," the album's last track — marches, riots, protests that sprung up locally after Ferguson and that have not abated in the age of Trump. "I had to dive into it, and it was just bursting," he says. "I think a lot of that was just stream of consciousness; it was written in a very frantic state."
Evans credits Jeff Buckley for inspiring the song's orchestral flourishes and slow-burn crescendoes. Evans is an elliptical writer, circling around his statements and never landing like slogans or bumper-sticker rhetoric. "Most people can only listen to so much of a sermon," he says. Instead, the track floats in ethereally and builds off of Evans' strong, vibrato-heavy vocals, which speak in sometimes-cryptic quatrains but center on how we treat "the other" in society.
"I was blown away," Mason says of the initial demos of the track. "I don't think we're trying to be a 100 percent political band in the 1980s, Reagan-reactionary sense, but it's interwoven with being alive in America right now. Everything is fraught with fear. A lot of the songs deal with relationships — it's kind of brave, to me, to love in this era. I think there's a balance we're trying to strike on subject matter."
That balance is key to YOUPEOPL's approach in its debut EP; the band was sprung from a sense of anger and political unrest, but you'll find nothing polemical in the gossamer grooves Mason and Evans created.
For Evans, the band's circuitous approach to songwriting and its atypical mix of genres is in keeping with how the members came together — to use shared experience to create something new. "Yes, we have elements of rock," he says, "but it's just kind of a thumb in the nose to what everyone was expecting."