- Photo by Mabel Suen
To describe the sound of the local instrumental trio Yowie is to risk mixed metaphors and strained adjectives. Genre tags are a trickier proposition, though some record store somewhere probably has a post-mathcore section that Yowie could occupy. The music made by guitarists Chris Trull and Jeremiah Wonsewitz and drummer Shawn O'Connor is not resistant to the groove; it's just that Yowie's definition of a groove involves a constant torrent of shifting time signatures and aberrant tones.
On a track like "Mysterium Tremedum" from the brand-new LP Synchromysticism, a meek, spindly guitar pattern grows claws as it butts up against an aggressive, quick-fire drum kit. Another guitar, its tone both assured and questioning, peeks over the fence. Questions and decibels arise: Are these instruments in communion or discord? Is that tympani-like throb coming from a drum head or a low guitar string? Can you dance, or even bang your head, in time with this music?
In conversation with O'Connor and Trull, it becomes clear that an exegesis of Yowie's catalog, now three albums deep, won't run along conventional lines of composition or storytelling. And yet, for a band that seems to delight in rupture and fractiousness, its members return to a desire for cohesion — a unity of thought amid steel wool and crooked nails.
"Our first album was by design abrasively angular and very difficult," says O'Connor, who is a founding member of the group and, as its superhuman drummer, the air-traffic controller and stentorian taskmaster. "This one, we wanted to take a lot of the stuff that we construct songs out of, which defies most of the conventional songwriting processes, we wanted to take those and make those flow — that's the best word I have for it — to make them flow in a way that sounds natural and intuitive even though there is nothing natural or intuitive happening."
If that seems like an oxymoron — forcing disparate elements into a steady stream — welcome to the world of Yowie. The band's own interior logic provided a pretty steep learning curve for Trull, who joined five years ago. Since Yowie's material can't be neatly transcribed on staff paper, Trull had to learn the intricacies of the songs by ear and through dogged practice. He says it took about one month to master each song from the band's back catalog.
"They sent recordings and notes and things, and I realized it was gonna be a much bigger undertaking than I originally thought," recalls Trull. "That actually made it more interesting, the challenge of it."
While O'Connor takes no small satisfaction in his music's level of intensity ("Chris was the rare individual who saw that and did not run away screaming," he says with a laugh), he's precise in outlining the band's approach to its seemingly haphazard collection of riffs and stop/start dynamics. When asked about certain elements in the band — music theory, or chops, or inter-band intuition — he doesn't tarry.
"Zero percent intuition," O'Connor claims. "There's negative numbers for intuition."
"I think theory is very low on the list too because we do very little conventional diatonic harmony," continues Trull. "Everything is rhythmic first — it's all about hitting certain accents, or figuring out what notes sound cool."
Instead, a kind of storytelling guided Yowie's process for Synchromysticism — an odd proposition not just for an instrumental trio, but one that approaches its songs from every direction but straight ahead.
"I think a lot of our music in the past was 'intellectually interesting' whereas we really went for emotionally evocative," says O'Connor. "We wouldn't allow the seams to be conspicuous; we wanted to sand them down and make it look like one continuous process."
"We don't want it to feel like a bunch of stuff stuck together — it should feel like the beautifully stuck landing," continues Trull.
To do that, the band worked with Jason McEntire at Sawhorse Studio, an engineer who served as "a miracle worker," according to O'Connor.
"We did about a year of prep after the composition phase was done, and still tripped all over ourselves for the first few hours," says O'Connor. "But he did a great job of helping us stay focused."
To give McEntire some indication of the band's direction, the trio used a seemingly oddball referent — a certain celebrated New Orleans funk quartet.
"I think we used the Meters as a reference point — very dry so we can get all of that syncopation without any of that airy room sound," says Trull. "In the way that the drums are almost the lead instrument but everything has its own sonic pocket; that's what we were going for."
O'Connor admits that his curmudgeonly streak generally keeps him from being completely happy with his band's output. But he takes the long view in evaluating not only Yowie's new record, but the band's entire seventeen-year history.
"I think this is where we were going all along, without knowing it until we arrived," says O'Connor.