Pete Yorn

Mixing It Up

Music Features Pete Yorn
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Pete Yorn speaks with a laconic deliberation that makes Steven Wright sound like Robin Williams, but his languor masks a number of definite passions, the most immediate being the still-fresh victory of his alma mater over the Kansas Jayhawks for the NCAA Basketball National Championship. The Syracuse grad lights up at the mention of his beloved Orangemen.

“I’m so psyched,” says Yorn with an animation restrained by most standards but positively needle-pushing given his generally quiet demeanor. “I’m trying to get a Carmello Anthony jersey, especially since this is the only year he played. That’ll be a collector’s item. One of my buddies that I went to college with, we watched it at his apartment and we were all going nuts. Early on, they were ranked like 40th preseason and Kansas was ranked #1, but I guess they couldn’t have realized how well the freshmen would play. I just fell in love with the team over the season. In my senior year at school, we made the Final Four and lost to Kentucky. I was heartbroken over that, so it’s cool to get it back now.”

Although Yorn’s current exhaustion could be passed off as post-championship party burn, his weary air has its roots in other current events. He’s been on the fast track doing press for Day I Forgot, his sophomore album and the highly anticipated follow-up to his 2001 gold-selling debut, musicforthemorningafter. And clearly he’s distracted by his most immediate concerns—catching the redeye to Philadelphia for a radio show, swinging up to New York for an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman and a Tower Records in-store, plus a slate of week-of-release promo gigs—all to be accomplished before the official launch of the Day I Forgot tour.

In some ways, this is all an extension of the tour for musicforthemorningafter, which stretched on for nearly two years and had Yorn circling the globe several times trying to catch up with the album’s exponential popularity. Even his downtime was marked by one-off shows, benefits and radio appearances, and by the time the album’s promotional cycle ran its course, Yorn was ready for a break.

Of course, that break was just like every other proposed period of inactivity in the wake of musicforthemorningafter. “Three or four days into the vacation and I wanna get back to music,” says Yorn with a characteristically fatigued laugh. “I had the songs and I was just ready to tackle them.” With the songs written, there seemed to be little recourse but to return to the garage of co-producer R. Walt Vincent and attempt to recreate the debut album’s bottled lightning.

For someone who sometimes seems to operate at a metabolic rate low enough to qualify as suspended animation, Pete Yorn has worked at a relatively furious pace for most of his life. Demonstrating his musical inclination early on, the New Jersey native taught himself to play drums before he’d turned 10, then switched over to guitar and writing songs as a teenager.

The ease with which Yorn mastered his musical skills made him skeptical of their value in the real world. With thoughts of a career in law or accounting, he entered Syracuse University, but by the time he graduated, Yorn had written close to 400 songs and decided to forego law school until he had fully explored his musical options. After a move to Los Angeles, Yorn found a steady gig at Cafe Largo, where he made a number of fans and friends, one of whom was film producer Bradley Thomas, whose lot had recently been cast with the Farrelly brothers on Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary.

Yorn was nearing the end of recording musicforthemorningafter when he decided to send some of the demos to Thomas, not with the purpose of soliciting work, but because he thought he’d appreciate the music. Unaware that Thomas and the Farrellys were in the midst of making Me, Myself & Irene with Jim Carrey, Yorn was astonished when Peter Farrelly called him to ask about using two of his songs (“Just Another” and “Strange Condition”) in the movie. In addition, Farrelly asked Yorn if he could compose a score for the film, which he did with Vincent.

“I was so focused on the record, and I was just going in to mix it,” says Yorn. “I didn’t know if I’d have time to do everything, and I didn’t want anything to distract me from the record. But of course I came to my senses. I had to do it, it was a great thing for me to do. That movie came out like nine months before my record, so I think it got some of those songs in people’s subconscious.”

Me, Myself & Irene also put Yorn on Hollywood’s soundtrack radar, with his songs being used in films (Bandits, John Q) and television shows (Felicity and Dawson’s Creek). All of this corollary work merely beat the drum more loudly for musicforthemorningafter, which became one of the true surprise hits of 2001, earning Yorn a gold record and setting the stage for a year and a half of relentless touring.

After long months of exhausting frequent flyer abuse, Yorn determined that it was time to put the luggage in the closet and take an extended break from the road. The only problem with that plan was that Yorn’s songwriting mechanism began to hum even before he’d logged two weeks of vacation time.

“I’d finished musicforthemorningafter over three years ago … so it had been a long time since I was in the studio, and I was itching to get back in,” says Yorn. “But I was also so burnt from the tour that I was going to take a nice month or two off to clear my head before starting the record. I went to the East Coast and I was there for a week and a half, and I was just feeling really inspired really quick. I went back to California the next week and started rounding people up.”

Rather than prolong the inevitable, Yorn hit speed dial and made arrangements with Vincent to start working on the songs that would comprise Day I Forgot. Although the sessions for the new album proceeded along an arc similar to musicforthemorningafter—with Yorn playing nearly every instrument save for a few well-chosen guests—the sound of the new album began to take on a very different flavor from the sample-based contemporary folk of musicforthemorningafter. Yorn recognized a shift in the songs he was writing for Day I Forgot, but he insists that there was little or no premeditation in the evolution of its sound.

“I don’t really think about that kind of thing too much, what I want to do,” says Yorn. “Most of the songs were written before I went in, and I knew what the songs were. I knew that I wanted to represent them in the most honest way that I could at the time. I was just thinking about getting in and trying to let it come naturally and fall out of me, as opposed to going after something specific. I just wanted it to be natural. The only thing I can remember really thinking about was, because I was on the road for so long … I felt like rocking out a bit more on this record.”

In tandem with Yorn’s relative lack of deliberation concerning the sound of Day I Forgot is the intuitive and instinctual manner in which he wrote its songs. “It’s really mysterious to me, the whole process of it, to be honest,” he says. “I never make time to write. I never set aside some hours in the day and say, ‘I’m gonna go sit in this beautiful place by the beach and try to write songs.’ I never try to make it happen. And I never sit down with an intention of what I want to write about either. Musically I have an intention, but lyrically I let it flow and try to figure out where it’s coming from afterwards.”

While Yorn was allowing his muse to free associate his material, he was also in a period of fairly prolific songwriting. Drawing on freshly written songs as well as work done prior to musicforthemorningafter, Yorn and Vincent considered and recorded over two dozen tracks for Day I Forgot, ultimately settling on 12 after contemplating and then rejecting the idea of releasing everything they’d recorded.

“Once a week, I'd come home and be like, ‘Double record!,’” says Yorn with a laugh. “Part of me thought that it would be fun to do a double record and be ballsy and all that shit … more songs to play live. Another side of me was like, ‘Maybe you should make a tight record.’ I think the production style on this record is a lot more classic than the first record. I didn’t use too many loops and studio tricks like I did on the first one. That’s what I was into at the time. But this one, I was into making something that was even more timeless in its sound. Only time will tell if it is.”

After musicforthemorningafter’s acoustic-folk-with-a-side-of-electronica atmosphere, Yorn wanted to keep things real in the studio and not rely on audio frippery to get his point across. “I wanted to make the vocals sound really full,” he remembers. “I wanted to get really good guitar tones, and I wanted to keep an organic sound with the drums. Not too polished and more live performance. The first one was very cut up in Pro-Tools and grid-oriented. This one, I wanted it to have a fluidity and feel more like a band and like records I grew up with and loved in the ’70s, before the ’80s new wave influences got in my head.”

Even with all the ’70s aspirations Yorn had for Day I Forgot, he felt an even greater sense of purpose throughout the process. “The first one, I was so in touch with all my influences, and I was going to take elements of all the Brit pop music that I love and all the American songwriters that I love and put it together,” says Yorn. “This one was just more about songs. I had these songs and I just wanted to get them up there with no extra crap on them. I wasn’t even thinking so much about outside influences this time.”

The songs on Day I Forgot were written over a fairly broad span of time, some of them predating musicforthemorningafter, others written during the subsequent tour, and many conceived during last year’s recording sessions. Even with significant gaps in the album’s writing timeline, Yorn was confident that his presence would be enough to unify the material once it started to take shape in the studio.

“I just did song after song, and I figured after I had recorded enough material a consistent record would kind of rear its head,” says Yorn. “I wasn’t concerned if the songs all made sense together, because I knew that because of who I am and the way I work that they’d make sense.”

The way Yorn works in the studio is to handle the vast majority of instrumentation himself, a process that can be disastrously one-dimensional in the wrong creative hands. Clearly Yorn is one of the gifted few who can turn that perspective into a sonic kaleidoscope without a trace of monotony. Day I Forgot sounds like a true band album, its bottom end organic and performance-based, its melodies varied and engaging.

“Ah, the tricks that we use,” Yorn says with a laugh. “When I first started playing everything myself—I was probably 18 or 19—I was working with an engineer, a friend of mine from Alabama. I was doing everything very linear; the bass would be just like the rhythm guitar and it would go right with the drums and I didn’t know from overdubbing and harmonies. And he said to me, ‘If you’re gonna play everything yourself, you gotta learn to become other people in your head when you're laying the parts down. When you’re laying one guitar part down, you can be that Keith Richards-type guy, then you gotta figure out how to be Ronnie Wood when you’re laying the next part down.’ I’m still learning but I try to figure out how to weave parts in between each other and when to lay out and have a different feel. It’s pretty subtle stuff, but I try to see it that way.”

For Yorn, one of the greatest by-products of the second album is the additional material he can flesh out in his live sets with his touring band Dirty Bird (guitarist Jason Johnson, guitarist/keyboardist Joe Kennedy, bassist Terry Borden and drummer Luke Adams). His excitement over the new material is heightened by the range between the two albums, which adds an additional level of satisfying complexity for Yorn.

“I’m so happy to have two albums to pull from now, instead of just one,” he says. “It’s pretty seamless. It just flows nicely. I’ve recorded a lot of the rehearsals and listened and it’s nice. When I put a set together, I think of tempos and keys and the feeling that the song gives you, and it’s nice to have these kind of songs to mix in with the old ones.”

Mixing it up is a concept that Yorn has artfully mastered since his debut two years ago. In addition to his excruciating touring schedule and making time to write and record Day I Forgot, Yorn has made some fascinating and disparate connections since musicforthemorningafter. He was invited by neighbor and friend Johnny Ramone to contribute to the We’re A Happy Family Ramones tribute; his version of “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” is among the album’s highlights. And it was through Ramone that Yorn met Lisa Marie Presley, who delivered vocal legends the Sweet Inspirations to Yorn when he was recording his own version of Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds.” Yorn also shows up behind the drum kit on a couple of tracks on the new Liz Phair album, which occurred when Phair decided to produce a handful of songs with R. Walt Vincent.

All of these recent experiences, along with the incredible acclaim for musicforthemorningafter have been potent life lessons for Yorn. “It all just reminded me that I’m very lucky, and not to take anything for granted,” he says. “And to remember why I love music in the first place, what it is that made me start playing music and inspires me to write songs and to have fun with it. The first record far exceeded anything in my wildest dreams that I thought could have happened with it. With everything that happened in the past, I just try to remember who I am and keep my feet on the ground and remember that I’m lucky to be able to make another record. I’m proud of it, and I’m so happy that I’ve got the chance to tour it and find inspiration in the shows and the fans and the music and to see where it takes me."

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