Interview: Pete Yorn

Back in the UK after a seven year gap, the American singer-songwriter-guitarist shows that the raw sound created on his recent Frank Black-produced album works just as well live. David Brown had a chat with him backstage in London…

Posted on May 26th, 2011 in Features and Interviews, Pete Yorn, Vagrant / By David Brown
Pete Yorn Pete Yorn has been releasing albums featuring his own outlook on life and music for a decade now and was recently in the UK for just three live dates, his first appearances over here for seven, long years. He is an American singer-songwriter and, because he originally hails from New Jersey, certain things are expected of him - things which, to a great extent, he has been only too happy to go along with and readily supply. He openly admits to his influences and obviously enjoys singing other artist's songs nearly as much as his own.

His debut album, musicforthemorningafter, released in 2001, certainly turned a lot of appreciative ears in his direction as it delivered several strong songs which continue to form an integral role in his live set to this day. He's had welcome exposure with songs used in movie soundtracks and on TV programmes. The 2009 Break Up album recorded with Scarlett Johansson gave him a Top 20 success in France with the single ‘Relator’ making it into the Top 100 in Germany. Meanwhile, his studio albums – Day I Forgot (2003), Nightcrawler (2006) and Back and Fourth (2009), together with a double Live From New Jersey, has shown Pete to be creatively busy as a songwriter and performer.

During a particularly busy spell, when both the Back and Fourth album and collaboration with Scarlett Johansson were coming together, he was made an offer he could not refuse – the chance to work with Frank Black! He did not have to stop and think about this prospect, just jumped on a plane and headed for the studio with Frank in the producer's chair coming up with a stripped-back album which was recorded in a total of just five days. This most recent album, called simply Pete Yorn (yes, after all those albums, he has finally got round to a self-titled one!), has had him touring to promote all this output. After a long string of dates in the US, he and his three-piece band touched down in the UK on Monday 16 May. The following night they were playing King Tuts in Glasgow, enjoyed a night off before playing KCLSU, London on the 19th, then Birmingham Library on the 20th before flying off for more dates across Europe.

It's backstage at the KCLSU, down stairs and up corridors, and someone, somewhere is practising the flute, providing a melodious background to our chat. Pete strolls in wearing a baseball cap, checked shirt and jeans, looking relaxed just a couple of hours before show time.

“It certainly is a whirlwind visit,' he confirms, adding with a grin: 'But when the whole world is your target...”

Pete admits to a life-long obsession with British music. “Growing up in New Jersey and while I was at college I was listening to some exotic stuff – I wasn't interested in Springsteen at the time, he was from just down the road! That attitude was to change, but later.

“At first I wanted to play guitar like Johnny Marr – a sound that no one does other than Johnny himself. I really got into The Smiths big-time. That led me into popular bands like The Clash and U2, then there was the Stone Roses and a lot of interesting stuff that was coming out of Manchester, including Oasis. I also liked some of the more obsure bands like Chapterhouse.

“A band that I really got into was Ride and the track Vapour Trail off their Nowhere album changed my life. I played that over and over again. Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys may have sat there endlessly playing Be My Baby by The Ronettes, but my obsession was definitely Vapour Trail by Ride.”

More music was discovered through friends and inevitably Pete, originally a drummer, began to perform not just music he heard from other bands but increasingly started to write his own songs and switched, mostly to playing to the guitar. That said, he still enjoys playing drums when the need arises and once did some Canadian dates from the drum seat when the band's drummer at the time was unable to get in from the States.

He has had some long term musical supporters over the years including the British band Minibar.

“It is great if you have a band who are really good friends,” he says. “Some good playing comes out of it if you're that close.”

The recording session with Frank Black fortunately came when Pete was enjoying what he describes as a “crazy writing spurt”, just as well with three albums appearing within a relatively short time of each other.

“It was difficult with the radio stations as they'd say you want us to play this, but we've just been playing the other album?!”

Pete had been introduced to Frank via a mutual friend and says the request to “do something together'”came as a welcome bolt from the blue.

“We really hit it off and I totally got into the spirit of it. It was an amazing opportunity and a great experience.”

Release of the PY album was followed by 45 live dates in the US before Pete and band headed for Europe. He has developed a loyal following in the UK and admits he was overdue to play here again. He previously toured here backed by Minibar and has appeared at a couple of Glastonbury festivals.

While a prolific songwriter, Pete says he tends not to write much while on the road, but is happier working on songs at home (currently Santa Monica), or when staying at a friend's farm.

He's started a collection of cover songs with a friend which he says is just for fun at present. “Singing other people's songs gives me a better persepctive about my own material,'”he says.

Pete is a big vinyl fan and the first album has just been released as a double 180 gram release, which he is very proud of. He once released a whole string of EPs comprising live acoustic performances recorded at and in support of various US record stores, many of which are no longer trading.

The flautist is still busily playing away when we're told that a photographer has arrived to take some pictures, so I re-trace my steps up the stairs and corridors before joining the crowd assembled for the night's gig.

The Gig: Pete Yorn @ KCLSU, London 19.05.11

It's dead on 9pm when Pete, now minus baseball cap, strolls on stage at KCLSU with his band and starts to sing: “Panic on the streets of London...” yes, that Smiths' influence is still strong and 'Hang the DJ' provides an unusual way to begin the set, but both audience and band are fine with it and join in the fun.

Over the next 90 minutes there will be material from across his recorded output to date and, while it may have been seven years since Pete played in this country, his fans have not forgotten a single word from his songs and need no encouragement to sing along. The pace changes from sway-along ballads to out and out rockers, but the band, comprising Zak Shaffer on drums, Scott Keiver on bass and piano, the ultra creative Mark Noseworthy on guitar, with Pete switching from acoustic to electric guitar, show that his remarks about musical friends is indeed true.

From the earlier days songs including ‘Life On A Chain’, ‘Closet’, ‘Murray’ and ‘Strange Condition’ continue to sound fine, while material from the recent self-titled album, like ‘Sans Fear’, ‘Precious Stone’ and ‘Velcro Shoes’, rock out in the same urgent, stripped-bare manner of the recording. There is even the rare inclusion of a solo Relator from the Break Up collaboration. We're told the story that ‘For Nancy ('Cos It Already Is)’ was named after he found the name 'Nancy' scratched into the back of a guitar, while the intro to ‘Murray’ reminds me of his confession on the Live At New Jersey set where he defends himself from those who says he 'ripped off Cat Stevens' by declaring that, no, he actually ripped off Wilco!

With the promise that he will be back to play in the UK again soon and not leave it a further seven years this time round, both audience and band are definitely happy at that prospect.