It’s always surprising and refreshing to see musicians evolve over the years, taking on different guises and experimenting with a broad pallet of musical styles. Such is the case with Sam Lawson, guitarist/vocalist for The Yu-Yi Band (formerly known as For The Oracle). He and his (temporary) band mates have taken this creative effort into a unique new direction, merging post-rock with elements adopted from various genres, so we saw it fit to talk to the man to find out what has been going on behind the scenes, what influenced this new project, and where he wants to take it next. Find his somewhat lengthy, but enlightening answers to our questions below!
Everything Is Noise: In the past, you guys have been known as progressive/alternative metal band For The Oracle. Your début record Kind Child was quite promising, so it came as somewhat of a surprise when you announced that you’ll be abandoning your old name and musical direction to pursue a new path as The Yu-Yi Band. What were your motives behind that decision?
Sam Lawson: Well, we had some complication with our label at the time. For one reason or another, they weren’t in the same position financially that they were when we ‘signed’ with them, so they had to sacrifice some of the bands on the roster. We didn’t think we were gonna last long as a prog rock band on a punk rock label. With that business relationship coming to an end, they wanted us to buy the remaining vinyl and CD stock of our debut record, follow up single and live album. We didn’t have that kind of money at the time, so it was left with the label. We agreed that they could make the money they had invested back from whatever stock was there. This meant that they had the access to our digital distribution channels as well, excluding our social media accounts. Therefore, making any more music branded as FTO, as getting it on our Spotify page as an example, wouldn’t work.
That, alongside the fact that our founding member, guitarist and most significant creative force (for the genre), Lewis ,left the band to travel the world. We had a lot of member circulations for a long time. We did what all our idols, like The Mars Volta and Snarky Puppy had done, and justified the revolving door of musicians and people leaving us by referring to ourselves as a collective, and that we were passionate about collaboration and keeping things fresh, which to some degree, is totally true. And that’s what we went onto do in TYYB. However, really, I think there were pressures of adolescence into adulthood, alongside the fact that a couple of us just didn’t really like each other. That’s something that I readily take the blame for, as I am most certainly a bit of a dictator where necessary, regarding my musical projects.
Ultimately, For The Oracle was, and in my mind will, continue to be myself, Karum Cooper, Lewis Dunn and Tyler Hawksmoor. That isn’t to, in any way, undermine to contributions or talents of the other guys that were involved, but I think that we were there from the start, right up until the end, and it began losing its spark when Tyler left, and the nail in the coffin was Lewis’ departure. TYYB have a track ‘An Ode To Going Travelling With Your Girlfriend’ from our first LP, a passive aggressive dig at the two of them, and all the musicians everywhere, who break up their bands for their romantic interests. I think the change from FTO to TYYB was more satisfying for Emile (Keys/Sax). The guy isn’t into heavy metal or rock music at all, you’ll never catch him listening to it. He joined FTO as a challenge to himself initially. TYYB make music that he actually likes and would listen to himself. After years of having him play metal tunes, it seemed fair to go in a direction that he actually felt passionately about.
TL;DR, our label abandoned us, our guitarists left, the name felt soiled and we wanted to play something more fun.
EIN: What significance does the new name hold for you?
SL: The follow up to Kind Child was meant to be called Yu Yi: Tales From The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. The aforementioned dictionary being a digital fictional collection of ‘new words’ to describe emotions we feel that aren’t yet named. It uses proper etymology and linguistic study, so they’re words that really could exist, and that’s what’s so compelling. I just became really inspired by it in every way. At first, we were The Yu-Yi Travelling Band, but then Emile’s mother suggested that the word ‘band’ implied we travelled, which made sense. ‘Yu Yi’ is the desire to feel passionately about everything once more, just like you did as a child. That resonated with all of us, both regarding the band itself and just our personal lives.
EIN: How long did it take for you to settle on this new identity?
SL: A little while. The others aren’t really all that interested in song titles, album names and so on. I wouldn’t say it’s their strong suit. At the time, it was mostly up to me, Karum and Emile, and even then, I was going to have the final say, because regarding TYYB, I do everything except play their instruments for them, and they aren’t asked to contribute financially either. So whilst they aren’t paid, they aren’t spending any money to be involved, and they still get the backstage high-fives for their performances. I wanted a name that quite specifically made it abundantly clear that we were a band of musicians, and that it wasn’t some cult of personality, mystical, gimmicky thing, with some name stolen from a road sign (that’s a joke for the real FTO nerds, love you…)
EIN: Did your fan base take to the new image in a way you hoped for or even anticipated?
SL: It was odd, yes and no. Quite a lot of people really didn’t get it and obviously, we had a lot of fans who liked distorted guitars, hard hitting drumming and riffs, but we didn’t have that any more. At our live shows, we were well received by anyone who didn’t know who we were previously. Our first set of shows back was touring with Thank You Scientist, which was sending the wrong message I think. As we started playing gigs with bands slightly more on the fringe of what we were doing, and outside of the rock/metal scene, it made sense to people, and it clicked at last. We attract a casual audience of people that wanna dance, drink, take drugs and not think so hard about the music that’s being played. We didn’t anticipate that, we didn’t really want that. Our new album is half and half, making a conscious effort to alienate those casual listeners and preferably weed them out, so we can back to have our nerdy fans back (fans just like us). But also, there’s a lot of danceable and upbeat stuff on there. I guess we contradict ourselves in that sense.
EIN: Your musical direction changed rather drastically as well. Instead of the muscular, yet sensible and progressive alt-metal of your FTO days, you now play an experimental mixture of post-rock, neo-soul, jazz fusion, and hip hop. Was that something you always wanted to explore, or did it just come up naturally during writing sessions?
SL: It sounds like a cliché response, and I do apologise, but all that stuff was already in there. You listen to “Vulture Pt. II” from Kind Child and it’s Floydian post rock. We were doing salsa breakbeats on “Broadway Morphine”. “All The Way Alive” had the hip hop break in it before the piano solo. “Opia” featured a Kendrick Lamar sample and a big Bon Iver-style outro. And of course, we were known, if only in fact, for our use of instrumentation, more typically associated with jazz. The saxophones, the keyboards, lead synthesisers and so on.
Speaking strictly from me, on behalf of none of the others or any of my contemporaries or colleagues, I fucking hate the heavy metal scene for the most part. I was totally indoctrinated to believe, growing up where I did, that the kids in the cargo shorts and the Machine Head shirts were gonna pick on me just as much as the kids in the Adidas tracksuits. Everyone was the enemy, and I can’t deal with anything that’s cliquey and exclusive like that. That’s why we never fit on bills really, and every time we’d show up to all these shows, supporting djent bands or deathcore bands or whatever, with our saxophones and our granddad-esque knitted jumpers, people just thought we were a novelty booking. I’ve never found a metal scene I liked, excluding the UKTM group – those are genuinely good people. I wouldn’t attend another metal festival in the whole country though. Rock festivals are okay, but Tech Fest is the only place where the bridge between rampant elitism, and the apathy and vapidness of casual music fans, is bridged, and everyone gets along.
EIN: What are some of the influences you pull from for your new sound?
SL: We thought initially that it was super clear to us, and we were stoked on bands like Hiatus Kaiyote, Snarky Puppy, and artists like Kendrick Lamar, Taylor McFerrin and more, and that stuff is definitely in there. We couldn’t neglect some of our roots though: the Pink Floyd sounds are all in there, The Mars Volta sounds are all in there, and so on. There’s just so much good music and we completely gave up trying to find one sub genre that we wanted to be doing, so we just did all of it, when it felt necessary. Mostly, we’re inspired by people and places, rather than bands, regarding TYYB anyway. If we’re playing a show, and the audience are acting one way, then we act the other, and vice versa. It’s mostly improvised music, and it’s relative to where we’re at and who we brought along to jam with us. Not every show is the same five guys, it depends who’s in the venue and wants to play some tunes. We’re lucky to collaborate with talented people like Ross Dan Galt, one of the finest singers and guitarists I know, as well as other great places like Tyler Hawksmoor, formerly of FTO and currently in my other band Knave.
EIN: Whose idea was it to incorporate the spoken word element into your music?
SL: That would be me. I don’t think it was necessarily an idea that everyone got down with at first, but it ended up becoming a bit of a trademark, I suppose. I can’t really remember what my motivation was either. I think it was probably groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, as well as artists like M83. Their use of sampling was really inspiring to me. Taking seemingly mundane, or otherwise out-of-context speeches or conversations, and making them pertinent, seemed like something I wanted to try.
Our first show was completely improvised with absolutely no preparation whatsoever, and Marius, as well as Ryan, had never even jammed with us before. We had a couple of prepared samples of poems I had written by other people, including Chris Taylor from Cpt. Prang amongst others. We just jammed ambient noise and drum machine loops underneath these poems. Once we realised the samples weren’t loud enough the crowd were losing interest, we just played some neo soul/funk jams and I started reading my poems over the top, with more of a rap/hip hop delivery, I guess. People were asking me how long I had been rapping for and if I could take part in rap battles and hip hop events. I eventually did – I met some great people through that first show, including The Exist Project, a grassroots company with a focus on 90s american hip hop and re-integrating some of that great stuff like Nas, Big L and Biggie back into the consciousness of the local university scene. I really dig it man. I love poets, I love cool one lines, I just love words in general. I think my song titles are equally as important as my music often, even if they aren’t relevant to the track, which they often aren’t. I hope that before I die I say something meaningful, but knowing me, my last words will be something painfully mundane.
EIN: In May you made a post on Facebook about your new record being in its final stages. What’s it called, and when can we expect to hear some more new material from you guys?
SL: The record’s named after my one of my university lecturer’s PhD thesis: ‘All Of Your Recorded Songs Are Stuffed Dead Animals’. We’ve released a couple of singles from Act II of the album in recent months. The album comes out on October 1.
EIN: Will there be any new elements introduced to the Yu-Yi universe in the new songs or are you, musically speaking, sticking to your guns for now?
SL: It’s totally different from the first record, it’s not even recognisable as being the same band I don’t think. In fact, I don’t think it’s recognisable as being the same band just as you go from one track to the next on the record itself. Act I was recorded all together in a room, playing pre-written songs we had worked on and really rehearsed, but also features some live improvisations recorded on a rooftop, as well as plenty of samples from films and television, as well as a Frank Ocean cover. Act II is made entirely by a team of producers. We hand-picked all our favourite producers from the worlds of electronica, hip hop and ambient music, and asked for a song each, and put vocals on most of them. Hence, the first single from the album, being a liquid d’n’b track, courtesy of our producer RefraQ. Act III are songs written entirely by other people, I believe. It features Gareth Mason from Slice The Cake, reading one of my poems, as well as a TTNG cover, weirdly. The last act is just Explosions In The Sky-esque post rock, with a Morrissey sample, obviously.
The whole album is really strange. I don’t think anyone is going to like it or have a favourite track, and it’s pretty long. I don’t know if it will hold anyone’s attention, but we’re not really all that fussed to be honest. We just wanted to make something weird. Frankly, it’s more just a collaboration between myself and Joe Mawson (RefraQ). The guy is a constant collaborator of mine and a great music producer, world renowned for his electronic music that he makes. We made so much of this record on mobile phones and singular mics. We sampled all my favourite movies and stuff. It tells a story, but similarly just seems like a mismatch of songs that I like.
EIN: The Facebook post I mentioned before also contains a few words about some sort of ‘film production’. What’s that about?
SL: It’s a bit of a distant dream, but not one I’ll ever, ever let go of. My friend died in February, and the album, and subsequent film that the music was written in mind with, are for and about him. So I’m gonna make it happen, even if it takes me years, which it likely will.
EIN: Back in April, you played a show supporting Ttng. You seemed to be quite excited about that one, so what was it like?
SL: It was really sentimental to me specifically. TTNG are one of my favourite bands and their music means a lot to me. We pay tribute to them on the new record with a weird, Bon Iver-style cover of ‘If I Sit Still, Maybe I’ll Get Out of Here’. They’re the nicest people in a band that popular that I’ve ever met, easily. So sweet and accommodating, and they’ve been around for well over a decade now, playing to full rooms of people and talking to every last one of them, and being really friendly and genuinely interested in what their fans have to say to them. So, I respect them greatly, and if I’m ever in a band as popular as they are, I intend to try and follow in their footsteps.
EIN: Generally speaking, what are some things you’d like to accomplish with The Yu-Yi Band in the future?
SL: It’s time for change, as it’s the only constant and so on. Karum’s out, Marius is out, Emile is out, Ryan may be sticking around for a few things. I did what I deterministically planned to do from day one of FTO, forming and pushed everyone away, until I was just on an island on my own, l’appel du vide. I want to rebuild it again, do something different again. Now it’s me and original FTO guitarist Lewis Dunn. We’ll have some session people around, like Rob Lennox from my other group Middle Class Whiteboys that I recently disbanded, maybe Ross Dan Galt will be involved too ’cause I love playing music with him. The point of TYYB is that it’s artistic freedom, regardless of whether anyone is around to hear the tree fall. It’s my pretentious, spoken word-jazz fusion-post rock-sample based-ambient wet dream, and I won’t be giving up on it anytime soon.
I hate playing the shows the way we had been playing them this past year. The audience thought we were a party band, like they were at a wedding, using us as an excuse to drink and dance. The dancing I don’t mind so much. We’re not like that, it’s music we want people to think about. I’d have to offset the audiences by throwing in poems like ‘The Mouthy Git..’ from the first Knave record, just to really grab attention and remind people that it wasn’t just a good time. I don’t believe every single live performance of music should be enjoyable. We watch horror movies to have a bad experience. I think we can do the same with music. I saw GSY!BE last October and it was frightening, I didn’t enjoy myself at all and it muted me for nearly two days. That’s real power, that’s something I want to be able to do. I saw Roger Waters recently too. Whilst it was sincerely the single greatest thing I’ve ever done, he was simulating gunfire in a busy public place, and brought kids in jumpsuits, bag over their heads on stage, and all this really intense stuff that forced even the idiots there just to take their terrible drugs and dance to ‘the one with the cash register noises’ to pay fucking attention. Me and Lewis are going to do some ambient/acoustic shows together, play arrangements of all of our favourite sad songs from artists like Ben Howard, Sun Kil Moon, Radiohead, Jason Isbell and so on.
We wanna incorporate Henry Rollins-style storytelling as well, rather than just poetry. Then, start doing more post rock stuff. That last song on the new TYYB record is my favourite thing I’ve ever recorded. It’s just one chord progression for ten minutes, but I adore it. I’m so happy with it, and I want to do a whole album of that kind of music. Ultimately, I have plans to create a seriously elaborate stage show for TYYB, one that involves crowd participation (sort of), as well as live sampling, live improv and all the things I’ve been experimenting with these last couple years in all my projects. Ranging from film, to choreography and so on.
EIN: Finally, is there anything you’d like to say to our readers at Everything Is Noise?
SL: If you got this far, maybe you’re willing to go a little further.. to (mis)quote a brilliant book and movie. If you’re interested at all in TYYB, October 1 is the day when the new album comes out in its entirety. If you’re mad enough to be a fan of my music and my singing or songwriting, go check out my main project Knave, that’s where the slightly more streamlined and sensible stuff is at. Thanks to everyone that reads these things and listens to our stupid records. It’s very sweet of you to stick around. Asta la pasta x
And there you have it! Many thanks to Sam for taking the time to indulge our nosiness. You can follow The Yu-Yi Band on Facebook to stay up to date with their exploits. Also, keep an ear out for their upcoming record All Of Your Recorded Songs Are Stuffed Dead Animals, due out on October 1.