This article originally appeared in Colorado Music Buzz, November 2013. I went out to North Carolina and met up with The Yawpers for a few days on tour, to get a sense of what their national tour experience was like and how they got to that point.
The Waiting Game: A Mid-Road Story with The Yawpers
by Tim Wenger
******************You are probably in a band. Or you were in a band. You probably have a rock and roll haircut. Or you used to have a rock and roll haircut. You dreamed of touring, after-parties and royalty checks coming in the mail just in time for rent, and another month sliding by on the heels of mediocre musical success. Every day you felt it coming a little closer, step by step: the day when you could tell the restaurant manager you quit, as the avocado you just hucked across the kitchen smashes into the wall, because your band just got offered an opening slot on the upcoming national theatre tour that you’d worked your asses off to get on by working up the totem poll of the local promotion company’s ladder, opening up for smaller shows first, bringing a crowd and securing a modest fan base, then the 8:00 slot with a mid-level national, to finally headlining the theatre across the street from the Major League Baseball stadium to a near-packed crowd on a Saturday night.
The only problem was, with each step you took, that dream seemed to take two steps further away- some small self-funded tours and weekend jaunts across the state were the time of your life and gave you a feel for the road, a feel for what it took to be a “professional musician” that doesn’t need to depend on his girlfriend to pay all of the bills- only some. You had seen your band’s bumper sticker on the back of a random car on the highway and almost gotten into a wreck trying to take a picture of it so you could prove to your band mates that the hard work, late nights and no money were finally starting to pay off. But the car whizzed by too quickly for you to get a firm handle on your phone in time and you watched the opportunity fly by your outstretched arm in what seemed too quick of a moment to be physically possible.
Time continued to go by. Some more gigs opening for bands you grew up listening to, even a compliment from their new bass player about your show and the song you closed with. Immediate gratification, however, was helping less and less because each member of the band was slowly beginning to realize the pipe dream of their situation. Was touring full time a realistic thing? ‘I’d love to quit my job, I hate it, but I love consistent paydays and paid bills. I also love my girlfriend and don’t know if either one of us could handle that much time apart.’
After talking to a couple bands that were slightly more progressed than yours on the touring circuit, you came to learn that the perma-smile that appears in their hazardly fun-looking Facebook photos and eye-catching album sleeves is backed by a constant stress of not only barely scraping by financially, but also sacrificing the common comfort of a normal home life for six months a year strapped in a Ford Econoline van heading toward the sunset and another random town that would provide three hours of emotional security and productiveness for 21 hours of weirdness and lonely homesick vibes. It’s not all fun and games, parties and ego.
Not to mention, the task of self-booking and self-promoting even a small tour is a complete pain in the ass.
But the last stretch of hope is provided by the proven fact that hundreds if not thousands of bands have made it by, sanity at least somewhat intact, as musicians- touring, recording, promoting, living their music and keeping the dream alive for the next up-and-coming act. Where, though, does the answer come from? Where is the key to this hidden chest of musical triumph?
More time goes by, still unable to make this now seemingly forever distant dream come to fruition. As the tension grows between your band members, the question arises of how do these guys that have done it repeatedly stand each other after being stuck in a van for weeks on end? Are they still friends, or is the stage presence the only glue keeping them socially together? You’ve heard stories of bands that hate each other and also of bands that are best friends 20 years down the line. Does yours have what it takes to pull that off, or will you stumble, fall, and implode due to unforeseen differences while on the other side of the country?
There are countless stories and countless experiences from all sides of the spectrum when it comes to independent bands being on tour, everything from breaking up on the road to band members that meet “the one” in Kansas City and bail on the band, opting instead to pursue love at first sight, to bands that achieve moderate success and significant emotional gratification. No matter what happens, though, touring, and band life in general, is always an interesting story and a spectacle to behold.
As for myself, I’ve spent time on tour, I’ve spent even more time watching bands from the outside looking in- interviewing them, watching their shows, trying to figure out what it is that makes them tick, what it takes to “make it” or “break it” in the band world, and how to put dreams into reality and separate the bull from the shit. After a few years of asking the same questions and watching shows at the same venues, the glass ceiling had been reached. I could no longer sit gazingly in venue bars or typing in my apartment trying to find an answer to that question or a new angle in music journalism. It was time to hit the road once again. This time, though, I was not heading out as the overly fanatic lush on guitar and backup vocals. I was going to be the ‘fly on the wall,’ the proverbial ENEMY, the one looking through the glass into the soul of a touring act while they are in the middle of what they do. The time had come, and I was ready to answer the call as the ultimate documentarian, the on-scene correspondent, there with a band as they flashed their genius to unsuspecting audiences far from home, watching them step up to the plate and swing away.
*******************To North Carolina. It was the perfect time to get out of Denver for a jaunt on the road. It was time to push the envelope past the laissez affaire smile-and-handshake piss-stained yellow journalists that make up the so-called “music press” and put to rest the common hipster-douche opinion that ‘You can’t criticize art, bro. It’s art.’
It was this attitude that had, in our May 2013 issue, led Yawpers front man Nate Cook and fellow Denver musical celebrity Josh Lee to compile the most honest and straight forward piece of writing that the magazine had ever seen, calling out venues and musicians alike for their lack of inspiration and constructive criticism- and now my sole mission for this trip was to regain my own journalistic integrity by bounding over the smiling face of forged critique and step into the shoes of the maestro himself.
I was not out to necessarily criticize anyone, but to help myself find this supposed key to long term success and a solidify a reason why so many bands collapse just as they are approaching the breaking point. The goal was to dive into the heart of one of Colorado’s most promising young acts, The Yawpers, as they are in the middle of a three week tour that stretched all the way to the Outerbanks of North Carolina and then again.
The Yawpers are the perfect band to observe and interview if you want a good, honest take on what band life is really like. Their music is upbeat and danceable but dirtily seductive- Cook paints images through his lyrics that transcend emotional barricades and societal boundaries of decency. He talks about oral sex. He talks about Jesus reincarnated as a ’57 Chevy. And he never censors himself from the thoughts raging through his head when he puts pen to paper.
The three players currently writing their story, Cook on vocals and guitar, Jesse Parmet on guitar and harmonies, and James Hale on drums, are about as different from each other as three guys creating the same music together can be. I learned this my first night on tour with them. But the music they create is as honest as your mother on the day you were born and they deliver it with a classic “I don’t give a shit what you think” attitude that emphasizes the true rock and roll approach they take to their band.
Their message is no longer delivered boozily through spat and stutter, either. “If you would have come on tour with us a year ago, we partied a lot harder,” Cook said.
Their song writing structure goes like this: While Cook does the lyric writing, the melodies come from both him and Parmet, with Hale adding his own twist to what they present. “We’re very deliberate about all of our arrangements,” said Cook. “Everything is really put into place and is specifically arranged and orchestrated.”
“What I like about this band is that when we get a new song, we don’t actually play it from beginning to end until the song is done,” says Hale. “We’ll take thirty seconds at a time, and then we’ll stop because the 35th second will suck and then we’ll work on the 35th second until it’s awesome. By the end of the song it’ll be done. In a bunch of other bands you preconceive the form before the song is even done. I think that helps our songs gel really well that we think about it measure by measure.”
“We seem to have a lot of patience when it comes to arranging songs,” says Parmet. “We spend hours just going through it over and over again.”
Their next album of original material will be laid down analogue style on tape, and is being recorded at the legendary Blasting Room in Fort Collins. “(It) has been a dream of ours forever,” says Cook. They hope to press vinyl out of it and will not be releasing it until at least next spring so that they have time to shop it around and get it the promotion, financing and attention they feel it deserves.
*****************I took three flights the day I left Denver to meet up with these guys in Wilmington, North Carolina, and had to follow my air time with a two-hour shuffle south towards the coast, rolling into town at what would by most standards be considered a late arrival, but right on time for the awakening of the bar scene on a Wednesday evening.
I walked into Orton’s in downtown Wilmington and immediately saw Cook sitting alone at a hi-top table, can of National Bohemian Beer to his right and eyes buried into his phone. He did not notice me until I was breathing down his neck, “Hello Mr. Cook.”
The rest of the band was, at the moment, nowhere to be found, although Hale soon approached and led us all outside for a pre-show smoke. As for Parmet, it had been a while since the other two had seen him. “We don't know where he goes" says Cook. Apparently, he disappears, for whatever reason be it spiritual, sexual or any other type of deviant behavior, before every show for an unspecified amount of time. "We were in Durham. He self-admittedly was in a bookstore for six hours and only read half a chapter" said Cook.
"We got into town about 1, haven't seen him since,” said Hale.
He reappeared in plenty of time to take the stage and the three stepped up and blew away the small crowd that had gathered, their performance not seeming to take notice of the lack of attendance. A couple people who had noticed me hanging out with the band before the show asked if I was with them and if I could sell them a cd, which I obliged.
There is absolutely a feeling of dirty pleasure that boils through your body as you watch a band, that you know without a doubt is going to destroy the room, sound check to a crowd of pool players and spouse avoiders on a Wednesday night in a foreign town. They don't know, and don't yet care, about what they are witnessing. There is peace in this ignorance, like the mellow calm that precedes a great storm, and I tried to keep from yelling my pre-emotive approval after their first song.
The show continues with the band members appearing to completely lose their soul further and further with each song. At one point during the set, and I noticed this happen each night I was with them, Cook's left hand begins to shake like a freshly stricken harp as he breaks from strumming the guitar, closes his eyes, and focuses fully on his vocal. Both arms in the air, with the left shaking fervently as though possessed by some evil demon, he positions his lips in front of the mic and opens his eyes with a gaze fit for a bastard child aimed down at his guitar- it is as if an exorcism is happening onstage at Wilmington's underground pool and music dive as he shanks out lyrics about Jesus being reincarnated as a 57 Chevy.
The show finishes with each person in the audience arising from their bar stool or turning from the pool table to clap and scream in admittance to fan-hood. The band, however, looks somewhere between bashful and discouraged as they break down their gear and load it out the back door of the venue. They were not very happy with the show- small crowd, lousy venue, and they felt their performance could have been better. I agreed, noting nonetheless that the only time I had seen them prior to this was at a packed show at the Hi-Dive back in Denver, and any musician will tell you that it is much easier to put on a top level performance in front of a full venue as opposed to an empty one. The guys remain confident that the next night’s gig will be a step up from all angles.
After the show, I approach Parmet determined to figure out where he disappears to before each gig. “I Went to a coffee shop for a while,” he said. “Then went to a music shop, then went to find a Laundromat.” Reasonable enough, I suppose. But I was dying to know how these three guys came together in the first place, and how they were able to progress their sound to such a professional level in only two years. We head to the house of a member of the opening band and I crash out on the floor in the living room between a drum set and a half stack guitar amp, while Cook sleeps on the couch right next to me.
*******************The band came together out of the ashes of Parmet and Cook’s previous attempt, and originally was going to be a mellow folk-rock duo with no drums present. “We were in a band called Ego Vs Id, Nate and I and one other guy,” said Parmet. “The band broke up, after several months of regrouping, Nate and I started playing together. Just acoustic guitars, keeping it simple, writing together, doing some open mics together. I don’t know what style you’d call it, maybe country-folk.”
After some time as a two-piece guitar project, a drummer forced his way into the fold. The addition of the new instrument helped increase the appeal of Parmet and Cook’s music to a wider audience. “We heard how powerful it could be with two guitars and drums,” said Parmet. “Things went pretty quickly from there. We played out and got a much better response than we ever had with Ego Vs Id.”
Things between the three ended in a non-pleasant manner, however, and the group’s original drummer departed and opened a wide hole in the band that needed to be filled. “I wasn’t going to stick around with this band if we kept at the same volume,” said Hale. He brought a more raw, uncut rock sound to The Yawpers that in turn brought to the table a whole new way of presenting themselves. “We got way, way louder and more distorted.”
Things between the three ended in a non-pleasant manner, however, and the group’s original drummer departed and opened a wide hole in the band that needed to be filled. They found Hale through mutual acquaintances and he began practicing with the group, bringing the effect of their sound to a new level. “I wasn’t going to stick around with this band if we kept at the same volume,” said Hale. He brought a more raw, uncut rock edge to The Yawpers that in turn brought to the table a whole new way of presenting themselves. “We got way, way louder and more distorted.”
“That was something we were starting to do anyway,” said Cook. “But it definitely picked up.”
“We started out wanting the drums to be overly simple,” said Parmet. “No high hat or anything. When James jumped in, he gradually made us realize that there is room for some more interesting drum parts.”
**************What really struck home with me the more time I spent with these guys were the similarity in the daily struggles that seem to plague so many young musicians, as I had experienced myself. It doesn't matter the genre, the ultimate goal is the same. Bands break up and reform as new acts in an extremely incestuous music community. Each artist is frantically scampering in what they can only hope is the right direction with nothing but past experiences and forward intuition to light the path. The vision is there, and so is the motivation- the only problem is sifting through the bad offers, pay to play schemes, and shady promoters to establish a solid base of who you want to continue working with. It takes trial and error in addition to an unwavering ability to stick up for yourself and your band. A bit of luck never hurts either.
“We signed with this place called Adventure Records early on and they gave us some money,” said Cook. “We’ve had a couple lucky breaks really early on that put us ahead of a lot of other bands that were just starting. I feel pretty lucky about that.”
The Yawpers have been a traveling band since just after their inception, always knowing that they wanted to pursue that angle of spreading their music and see how far they could push themselves in as many directions as possible. Their first tour was in the fall of 2011. They signed with Dain at Vinefield Agency quickly after establishing themselves locally and returning from their first self-booked tour. “He just showed up to a show that we were playing,” said Cook. “He just happened to be there and they liked what they saw and signed us. We got really lucky.”
Being on the Vinefield team immediately opened new doors for the band, increasing their ability to hit new markets and have the professional booking and promotion necessary to execute successful band travel on a small budget. The Yawpers started spending more time on the road, finding their appeal expanding into other states and having moderate success on multiple southern tours, including their most recent, and frequent regional trips to Kansas, Texas and other states near to Colorado.
***********While Vinefield has helped with booking, when they actually hit the road, it is just the three of them in a small minivan with all of their gear taking on the world, with no room for personal space, problems, or girlfriends. Or a good restroom, for that matter.
Pooping in unfortunate circumstances is just one of the problems facing touring musicians. I can’t tell you how many venues I have pooped in that lacked a door on the bathroom stall. Truck stop and gas station restrooms are hit or miss, and after a string of degrading events of defecation, keeping a roll of toilet paper in the van for a quick pull off at a park or other grassy knoll begins to sound like a good idea.
Every person of the adult persuasion deals with intimate relationships, both their own and their friends, everyone deals with paying bills, doing laundry, and maintaining an equilibrium in their social circles- but only musicians deal with all of these issues while simultaneously attempting to maintain sanity while on the road for weeks on end, hanging out in bars every night in front of a rotating cast of players on the stage of life, maneuvering through it all like a free wheeled game of chess with no ultimate victory or end in sight, just a new town and a new crowd of pawns to mold into your army of adoring fans.
As far as dealing with spouses and girlfriends, that can often be the toughest part of being gone so frequently. Cook is married and Parmet is also in a long-term relationship. Hale on the other hand is, at the moment, a free man. “That’s a really hard one, I don’t know if there’s a good answer for that,” said Cook. “I get a lot of emotional calls from my wife, she’s lonely and scared and pissed off that I’m on the road so much. It’s not easy.”
“It’s hard to be in a relationship and find someone that is understanding of that lifestyle,” said Parmet. “It’s only going to get more intense as far as the amount of time that we have to spend away from home.”
They are, however, in the process of finding, financing, and acquiring a larger tour vehicle. “The nice thing about that, hopefully they can come with us,” said Cook. “We’re in an awkward stage where we’re not making enough money to really justify it to our women, but we still have to do it if we’re going to get to that point. It’s fucked up and hard.”
“It’s more like, worrying about the future,” said Parmet. “’Is this what you’re planning to do with your life, you’re going to be on the road half the year?’ You have to stop and reflect on that if it does seem ridiculous.”
Both Cook and Parmet met their significant others at a show, which gives them that edge. “That’s the only reason that they can probably cope with it at all, part of what attracted them to us is that we’re musicians.”
“In the long run, though that won’t make much of a difference at all,” says Cook.
The members of The Yawpers have also undergone problems on the job front, as virtually no employers (understandably, I suppose) are okay with their employees taking off for three to six weeks at a time, multiple times a year, while also working around the band’s home life when they are not on the road. As can be imagined, that can add more stress to relationships. “The job front is probably the biggest pain in the ass, also in my relationship another big stress.”
“It’s really impossible to find a job,” said Hale, who is currently the only semi-employed member of the band. “I always tell people it’s like that John C. Radley scene out of Step Brothers where they’re interviewing in the tuxedos and they figure out that they have vacation time for three weeks and they’re like ‘Allright can we start in three weeks then?’”
********************Another night, another rock club. The Yawpers rip through the roar of honky tonk rock and roll filled with punk fury but maintaining the raw talent of a manicured, school trained rock outfit, trimming the excessiveness for Cook to let out a heart wrenching squeal that then lends itself to a verse of lyrics that remain spiritual through pure honesty, touching at the listener's emotions as his voice penetrates their ears.
This was a notable evening, taking place at The Calico Room on Wilmington’s Front Street, a huge step up from the underground digs of the previous night. A larger and much more lively crowd followed suit with the better room and a booze-fueled dance party ensued during The Yawpers set with four or five key players rotating the role of lead hoodwink, doing their thing and then shuffling off to the side as the next dancer stepped into the light.
I had my own sort of rotation going- split lopsidedly between the floor in front of the stage and right near the bar, where I drank like a true Coloradoan- guzzling beer native to the region one after another while simultaneously telling anyone who would listen that the Centennial State produces more, and therefore better, beer than North Carolina, and that the Amber Ale I was had in my hand paled in comparison to the taste of a cold Fat Tire.
This night turned out to be much more of a party than the previous. After the show, The Yawpers and I headed to their friend Shaun’s house, who was the keyboard player in one of the opening bands and someone they had met a couple times prior, but instead of crashing out right away we stayed up talking shop, passing a pipe around and slamming shots of Disarrono.
I think a lot of musicians (and vagrant journalists by chance), The Yawpers included, subconsciously find a sense of peace in their routine of missing the “routine”- the odd hours, the late nights and the awkward conversations with fans and local barflies all start to blend into one great big beautiful mess of a lifestyle. That being said there are times when, upon waking up at noonafter another near-all-nighter started off in a faceless rock club, you feel as though the train of mainstream life has left the station without you and you wander outside of the random living room you caught a few sloppy hours of sleep in and gaze out into the abyss wondering what the fuck you doing here in this unknown town. It can be hectic.
Being in a van with the same people for weeks on end is never an easy task for anyone, but The Yawpers are constantly working on finding that balance between home and road life, dealing with each other, and maintaining their personal intimate relationships. “Everyone has their own way of doing it,” says Parmet.
“For the most part, we keep it pretty simple,” says Cook. “We give each other space when we need it, hang out when we need it.” Parmet, as explained earlier, is known to become un-locatable for a while before show time, while Cook and Hale hang around the bar or interact with fans. All three of the guys, despite Parmet’s tendency to wane, like to maintain a friendly demeanor and be accessible to people watching their show after they get off stage, in my time on the road with them I frequently saw them sharing drinks and stories with random people in the club.
Cook, Parmet and Hale seem to have developed an ability to hold their personal feelings in check when a confrontational situation among members arises. This was not always the case, they admitted to having had large arguments in the past but while I was with them on the road they maintained that unspoken feeling of brotherhood that slowly grows between band members of successful bands the more they go through together.
They way the three interact with each other, make decisions about where to eat or sleep, or what to do during the downtime that encompasses so much of tour life showed me a deep level of connection between them,. They seem to view The Yawpers as one unit, everything as another unit, like they are somehow different and must figure out how to proceed through the world while at the same time being able to sit back and laugh at it. It is an interesting thing to observe because they are all very different people, but I think that is what keeps them so close together- they each rub off each other without hard feelings or pent up aggression.
“I think a lot of other bands have it worse than we do in some ways,” says Parmet. “We definitely have our blowouts from time to time, but our personalities are different enough that we just escape.”
Making a band work is hard, if these guys can keep it going they are destined for great things. They have the talent and ambition to succeed and the personalities to dodge both internal and external bullets. They view music as their career path and are content to take on the low points to reach the high ones, something that tears apart many bands.
My last night with The Yawpers started with myself and James Hale sitting on the beach a few minute walk from the venue in Wrightsville Beach, NC. The conversation fluctuated from general band life topics to travel, back to band life, and on eventually to the happenings back on the home front. Hale is the only member of the band currently employed outside of music, having found a kitchen that does not seem to mind his frequent touring. “Lucky,” I said.
We carry on talking for an hour or so, the conversation doing nothing short of solidifying my outlook on the commonalities of a musician’s challenges. So many things he says hit so close to home with not only my personal experiences but with what so many people I have talked to over the last several years have expressed. The experience of putting your band first in your life, of doing whatever is necessary to make it work despite knowing that the odds are stacked against you, is a huge part of the reason that there is such a large feeling of community among bands.
Heading out on the road with no set in stone places to sleep, guaranteed income, or assurance that the van won’t break down at the most inopportune time sounds at first so nerve-racking that it might turn off the casual hobbyist, but a serious touring band knows at least that there are people like them in so many towns around America that know the struggle first hand and are willing to open their living room and possibly even their refrigerator not just to help out but to make new friends and connections. The music world really is all about who you know, and underneath the tattooed arms and traveling circus-like madhouses are some of the most honest people in the world, willing to do anything to help keep the dream alive not just for themselves but for the entire world of independent music. ‘We’re all in this together’ is not just a saying in this nation-wide community, it’s a way of life. Cook, Parmet and Hale are eager to return the favor and open their homes to the people who have thrown them a bone during their time on the road, and anything less would be unacceptable.
The Yawpers take the stage in front of a packed house at The Palm Room, about a football field’s length away from the beach and right next door to an oyster house that doesn’t sell oysters. They immediately catch the attention of their audience, many of whom were not roped in by the previous band. Watching these guys for another night in a row, knowing it was my last for the trip, I reflected back on what I’d seen and learned about The Yawpers. For a band to have longevity in this tumultuous way of life, they have to look at ups and downs as a unifying experience and let those experiences bring them closer together. These guys have that down. They have more raw talent than almost any band I’ve ever seen, and the confidence in that talent that is necessary to take it to the next level. They have overcome many of the humps that strike at young bands and seem poised for the bigger ones ahead. Three personalities that probably would not have gelled together without music have formed one hell of unit that presents itself as professional and ready, eager for more. As Cook gazes out into the crowd just before concluding their final song of the set, I catch his smile for a moment and it seems to say, full of self-belief, ‘Bring it on, we got this.’
Back on the road in the middle of the night, following the countless white lines of I-40 north to Raleigh, the train rolls on.