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Meet James Yuill - Folktronica's Next Great Hope
Photos by Benjamin Hoste/LAist
If you're like me, the very word "folktronica" makes you cringe as if someone had dragged their fingernails down the chalkboard of your heart. Folk and electronica? Could anything be more horrible than putting synth beats on top of Nick Drake? Or adding some banjo and slowing down Justice's tempo? The two genres seemed to be like beef jerky and Pop Rocks, two substances who were delicious apart but shouldn't ever ever be mixed together.
Well...almost never. There are exceptions to every rule. What if the folk is not a sample, but written by the artist in question? What if the synth beats don't overpower the melody, but just add a little bit of crunchy edge to the otherwise smooth veneer of the folk ballad? It would take a subtle hand, and by God, James Yuill has done it. For all of you who thought Postal Service's classic album, Give Up, was a flash in the pan sort of moment, I am delighted to announce that it wasn't.
One young man from Britain has picked up the torch and run with it. His debut album, Turning Down Water for Air, which has been a sweeping success in the UK and Europe will be released in the States in May. However, if you're impatient to hear him tonight, Yuill will be making a suprise appearance at KCRW's RadioActive Dance Party. We had a chance to catch up with James Yuill at Nettwerk Music Groups' offices in Hollywood. He was kind enough to grant us an interview on their staircase. Here is some of what was said.
How was your first night in Hollywood?
It was incredible! You're driving along and there is that great big Hollywood sign. We were coming out of restaurant last night and I looked down saw all of the stars on the pavement and thought "Oh my God! Here they are!" We traipsed around looking for specific people this morning. It took ages.
That must have taken forever!
I know! We finally got near the end of them, looked across the road, and there were stars on the other side! So I had to cross the road and start over again.
How old were you when you started playing the guitar?
Oh I think I was about twelve, and I was given an electric guitar for my birthday. I messed about for a few years and tried to teach myself some chords, but I couldn't really be bothered. It wasn't until I formed a band with a drummer friend of mine when I was fourteen that I really started to practice.
When did you start remixing your own songs?
When we started recording our stuff as a band, we started using four-tracks because computer music wasn't really around when we started recording. It was only really when I just left university, my friend and I bought a mini-studio, and I did a previous album that I didn't really release properly, that I started pissed around with production. I also started listening to loads of dance music, which is really where it started.
Are you satisfied with any of the remixes that you've done?
Yeah, I mean there's an EP with No Surprise on it remixed four different ways. Are you happy with any of them?
Yeah, I'm happy with a few of them because I don't really think my mixing is that great at the moment. They sound a bit messy. The only one that I'm really pleased with is the Au Revoir Simone one.
Although I've listened to that recently and it's not as crisp as it could be. Because I do them so quickly, you know, I just want to get them done. Sometimes it only takes me a day to do the bulk of them, and I think maybe I'm doing them too fast.
Do you get bummed out when someone remixes your songs and does it better?
Oh yeah, yeah yeah. Rod Thomas did a remix of No Surprise and it's a much better song than the original song. It's a bit amazing, so I have no problem with him doing that. He actually made a proper chorus. I kept thinking, "Oh yeah, that makes so much sense. I should have done that." I'm not really bothered.
Is it weird being linked with this folktronica label that they've put on your music?
Not really, no, because I used to listen to a lot of people like Efterklangand Tunng and all these real folktronica people. I don't think that my folk is that good enough or that my electronica is that good enough. It's more like dumbed down versions of those things. It's more like house and singer/songwriter stuff. I don't mind being associated with the genre at all though. It's one I really like. If I could emulate half of what the Postal Service has done, I would be really happy.
Your album is currently being released on three record labels: Moshi Moshi in the UK, Co-Op in Europe, and Nettwerk in the US. Does it ever get confusing?
It is a bit weird. I think the weirdest thing is that they all are doing it at different times. So I released in the UK in October, Europe it came out in January, and it's coming out in May here. There are different singles being released at different times. When I go on tour in Europe this single is being played on the radio, so I have to play that one in the acoustic sessions, but when I'm doing promo stuff here, I have to play other songs. Yeah, it's hard keeping everything straight.
It's really weird because I want to release new stuff, but I can't because I have to wait for America to catch up to the UK. In the UK the album is moderately old now, so I've got to start releasing some new stuff.
Do you write on the guitar or do you write on the keyboards?
On this album it was mainly on the acoustic guitar first because I'd de-tune the strings. I think you get a better song out of it then if you just did it on the computer. If you do it on the computer, you tend to get a bit lazy and just loop things. For any new stuff I do, I try and combine the two. So I get a loop in the computer and then base an idea around that on the acoustic.
This is a silly question, but why aren't pins allowed in No Pins Allowed?
(laughs) The song is about people having thin skin and hiding sharp implements from them in case you pop them. I mean it's a really weird idea for a song. To be honest, my songs don't really mean a huge amount. They're just random ideas.
Wait, so you weren't really in love when you wrote This Sweet Love?
No, no, definitely not. It's just the way I write. I don't think about my lyrics at all. I just come up a first verse and it will kind of mean something to me, and so I'll take the idea in that direction, but I really don't put a lot of effort into my lyrics. (laughs) I'm trying to! I'm trying to put more work into them.
What's the weirdest thing that you've ever seen at a gig?
Actually it was at the Mercury Lounge in New York City just last week. The band that went on after me, USS I think they're called, the lead singer made a smoothie during their last song right on the stage. The other guy in the band did a handstand and scratched with his shoe while doing it. I'm making them out to sound really good. I'm not sure they were, but they had some amazing tricks.
Why did he make the smoothie?
I have no idea! He just got out a blender, put in a banana, juice, and some berries and whizzed it up a bit and proceeded to drink it at the end of the song. It was so weird.
What was the worst show you ever did?
(laughs) There have been so many. I do quite a lot of them. I think the worst show is when the guy from the record label in England, Moshi Moshi, came to see me for the first time. No one was there really and there wasn't very good sound there to start off with, but I used to have this song in my set where I went off on an electronic tangent and I accidentally hit the stop button with my palm. So I had to stop the whole song and start again. It was so mortifying.
But they signed you anyway.
Yeah, on the strength of him seeing me dance to Boys Noize at SXSW in 2008. That was the main reason they signed me.
What? They signed you because of your dance moves?
Yeah, he absolutely hated me after that first gig. I think he saw me one more time and then saw me dancing my ass off to Boys Noize and thought "I like that guy's style." It was an amazing show. It was in someone's backyard in Austin. We had to queue for ages to get in. It was so much fun.
Do you have a favorite local band at the moment?
Yeah, I've got a number of them. Well, Rod Thomas obviously and Post War Years are one of my favorites as well. I've just heard their new album that's coming out in April, and I think it's fantastic. Absolutely amazing. I think it's called the Great and the Happening or something.
I'll have to check them out. One last question: Do aliens exist?
(laughs) What an interesting question. When I was younger I was convinced that they did and I was really obsessed with it. Now I like to think that they do, but they are either not very intelligent and can't reach us or are so advanced that they can't be bothered.
Well thank you for talking to us.
Be sure to catch James Yuill at RadioActive tonight if you are lucky enough to have tickets. It's sold out. I'm as bummed out as you are about that.
Still curious about the inner working of James Yuill's mind? Check out his Blog Of Joy.
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