Local creators of variable moods and cinematic scores harvest a new record from four years of ideas
Published: November 9, 2011
Inside the Windup Space on North Avenue, Amy Cavanaugh of the local instrumental rock quartet Yeveto steps from behind her cello and hops off the stage. Ben Hoffman, in a black dress shirt and slacks, rests his drumsticks on the snare and joins her. Keyboardist Russell de Ocampo (also the Windup’s proprietor) and guitarist Gregory Rago, each with beards—Rago’s of most impressive length, obscuring his mouth—walk up from the opposite direction and take seats with the others on the edge of the stage. It’s a Sunday afternoon in late October. The band has been getting ready for the release show for Remote Unelectrified Villages, its third record since forming in 2004. Together, they appear in a hazy, placid happiness.
The forthcoming six-song album, however, recorded from late 2010 into 2011 by local producer Chris Freeland at his Beat Babies Studio, still glows at the forefront of Yeveto’s consciousness. With wide eyes, Rago grabs the album jacket—the band has pressed 500 vinyl copies in addition to the record’s scheduled release in various digital formats. Baltimore artist Andrew Liang’s black-and-white illustration lights an environment, suspends any definite mood, and instead builds characters. It’s like a page opened randomly in a travel diary, movie, or adventure novel. It depicts five black, bundled, alien beings pulling along a sleigh by ropes. The creatures smile too much to be tired and advance with purpose, through either a snow or sandstorm, under the stars.
When Rago opens the sleeve to show that together the cover and back make one picture, it’s revealed that the travelers are carting around a big, headless snow beast. This artwork, like Yeveto’s music, tells stories without words, marrying surreal beauty, humor, and naive fun with darker tones of suffering, grief, and mourning.
Cavanaugh and Rago agree that since Yeveto works as an instrumental band, the band’s song titles and ideas are often inspired by what the different members encounter in visual art such as Liang’s or unusual life experiences, like when the band traveled through a snowstorm coming home from recording a part of Remote Unelectrified Villages. “Visuals are really important to us,” Cavanaugh explains.
“Our songs develop,” de Ocampo adds, “from all of us coming from different places, with different ideas, and finding where we can make sense together.” Rago describes this careful curation over time from an abundance of ideas as the band’s “reductive style.” “We throw around 20 or 30 ideas over the course of a year,” he says, “and then whittle them down to one or two songs that make it through with all of us liking them.”
It’s a lot like the tradition of harvesting the very best from fields and gardens to make cornucopias for Thanksgiving. Putting out there only what the group views as the most wholesome songs may be what allows Yeveto to paint such unique and detailed landscapes and portraits with its music.
“Cowboy Song,” for example, the record’s closing hymn, moves along with a slow and steady cadence. Yeveto’s instruments tread cautiously—de Ocampo’s plucked keyboard bass, and Cavanaugh’s cello wailing like a singer in mourning, dragging along the heavy moans of one still chained to the dead. Elsewhere, Rago’s bending, twisting guitars rise and their light sounds leap over the drums that build up a pattering like the clopping of unhurried horses.
“We spend a lot more time writing ideas than songs,” Cavanaugh says. “Ideas are what basically came out of the past four years, and then in the past year and a half, we finally made songs of our cornucopia.”
“We had this huge database of ideas,” de Ocampo continues, “and where our previous records were tight musically or [formally], this record has a lot more open spaces.”
The listener feels this open space in “Five Fives,” a song built on juxtaposition, with subtle African flourishes from the cello, and guitars and drums that are met by noisier, bright outbursts of organ. The effect is that of a split screen with similar but different dance clubs alive at the same time in two different parts of the world. Yeveto’s music can at times be just as funny as it is grave.
“Knitting songs out of ambiguity is a longer process and more vague,” de Ocampo says. “But then at the end we all agree on the emerging picture and are happy with the songs.”
Since the band’s last album in 2007, For Stars and Atoms, Yeveto’s members have experienced some significant life changes, with new babies and weddings. And so the development of ideas rather than songs seems to have been a healthy mode of working. “After the last album, we came back with a different set of roles,” Rago explains.
For example, de Ocampo has figured out his own style of playing bass on keyboards and is now the band’s principal bass player, while Cavanaugh often takes the lead in songs, giving them a melodic voice in lieu of a singer. Rago and Hoffman provide strange time signatures and inventive rhythms. Thus, some songs on the record are like ballroom dances and others sound like they could score a safari excursion or a funeral for a panther.
This is one of those records that create a world in which the listener will have to be active and living, looking around and exploring the corners, hidden spots, and far-flung fields. The band jokes that the listener is the fifth creature pulling a rope on the front cover. That isn’t too far-fetched.
In the future, Rago explains, the band hopes to work outside of the context of album creation, giving listeners songs as they come forth from the band. De Ocampo takes this idea further, saying, “We hope our audience will be able to participate more in our process by listening to different Yeveto songs in the idea stages. We’ll try many different things. And by showing us which ideas they like, they will help to shape Yeveto’s sound.”
> Email Jared T. Fischer