Every now and then an artist comes into your life whose music is so dynamic, powerful and moving that you just have to know the stories behind the songs. When you’re lucky enough to know this artist personally, and he’s someone that you’ve always had a great time hanging out with, you’ve got no choice but to sit down in a noisy bar, buy him a drink (Arbita Turbo Dog), and find out where all this gut punching, heart wrenching, hand wringing music comes from.
Meet Joe Yoga – bass player for Kill The Band but amazing solo artist in his own right who currently has two albums in circulation. You can download (Free! December Only!) his first album The Dreamless Sea which is a compilation of his favorite songs from his earlier days. Life Out East is a full album of new songs that were written over a year and it’s currently available on iTunes.
Over the course of an evening Joe Yoga tells me how he’s able to juggle two different musical personas, how Life Out East will take you on a journey from heartbreak to healing, and even tells me a pretty funny joke. Eventually.
Joe Yoga! So excited to be here with you! You’ve got two albums in circulation right now – The Dreamless Sea which is a collection of your earlier music, and Life Out East. Tell me a little about those albums.
JY: The Dreamless Sea is more or less a “greatest hits” record. I had put out four records under the name Cognition Ignition Decision . . .
Was that just you?
(Laughing) Yeah, it was just me. And it was just stuff I was making on my 4 track. It spanned from 2002 to the end of 2007 and I’d put out 4 records but they were tape only, distributed to my friends, so I culled the best out of them and used that to make The Dreamless Sea. Life Out East is a proper album.
How long has Life Out East been in the works?
Pretty much since I put out the last Cognition Ignition Decision record, I started thinking about Life Out East and started writing the material and laying down preliminary recordings for it. So – late ’08 through the end of this year. But the bulk was written in ’09 and early 2010.
Is there anything floating around out there that isn’t on an album right now?
Oh yeah I have tons and tons of songs that I’ve recorded that I’ve never finished or that were bad recordings. So I never made them into proper recordings. I’ve been writing songs for 10 years now so there’s a lot out there.
(Laughing) So since you were just a little kid.
I think I was bigger then, but you get the idea.
Your solo sound is very different than your Kill The Band sound. Are these just two sides of a very complex musician or do you have two completely different personas when you perform?
Well, yeah, I definitely put on a different persona with Kill The Band, because Kill The Band is Kelly [Dwyer]’s project and Kelly’s music. I have some input into arrangements, and what I’m doing but we’re basically there to fulfill Kelly’s vision. So nothing that I really do creatively enters into it – almost at all. Which is fine with me – because I’ve always been in bands anyway where I was just working on other people’s material and I enjoy it. Right now it’s really my only opportunity to play bass in a band and it’s my only opportunity to work with Kelly. And I love working with Kelly.
How long have you known each other?
We met in ’08.
When I started coming around to Penny’s Open Mic in March or April ’08.
It seems like you’ve know each other forever.
Well, she’s like my BFF, man! Kelly and I are very different people but we do have very similar artistic wavelengths and I really appreciate and love what she does and I’d be happy to work with any project she’s involved in.
So were you a core member of Kill The Band then? Was there a Kill The Band before you?
Kelly was writing her songs on Pro Tools or whatever, and performing them solo with backing tracks. And then she got into Frigid and wanted to do a live band show and got together with the people she was working together with at the open mic- me, [Mike] Milazzo, and Bamboo [Silva]. So she put it together and we all gelled really well. I worked with Mike on a bunch of different musical projects so it just seemed like a natural fit.
To get back to your stuff now – your songs on Life Out East are really mournful.
It’s like the kind of album I’d put on to get over a breakup. Yet every time I hang out with you, you seem really happy. How’s that?
The material for the album was written and conceived and recorded while I went through a pretty protracted break up with this girl. It was brutal – you know how people are awful to each other – so the breakup is all over this album. How I felt about it is all over the songs, a lot of the songs are about the breakup, about the relationship, how I felt coming out of it. That would explain why the album’s really mournful because it was a sad time of my life. But I, at the same time, consider myself to be a happy person. And honestly a lot of that is because I’m no longer in the breakup anymore. (laughs)
I’m happily married but that doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten what it feels like to get my heart stomped on. I had some really bad breakups and gosh, this album took me right back to that. It’s a very evocative album and it’s very soulful.
Relationships and breakups and interpersonal connections are really easy things to write songs about.
For you! Not for everybody . . .
Well, for a song writer. I guess my task is to present it in an interesting way that will make people relate to it.
And you’re both? You’re the lyricist and the composer – you’re everything?
For my stuff? Yeah. I wrote all the music, lyrics, played all the instruments on the album. I’ve recorded albums with bands before but I was definitely going for a certain aesthetic with this album where I wanted it to be solely me and my vision. Not necessarily my “vision” – you can have a vision and have other people execute it, like a playwright, but I really wanted this to be a presentation of mine, musically.
And The Dreamless Sea too?
Yeah, that’s all me. That’s how I’ve been writing and recording for the longest time. The stuff I do at home is always me.
And is it words first, music first, or whatever comes first, first?
Pretty much whatever comes first, first. Sometimes I’ll come up with a riff or a chord progression that I really like or I’ll be playing just 2 chords and come up with a melody I really like, or some times a word or a phase and want to build a song around that and then do it.
So it really varies from song to song. But usually it’s just me fucking around on guitar or in my notebook and thinking “Hey, that would make a good song, this is something I really enjoy, this is fun to play, this would sound really good.” So I develop it.
What if you wanted to add a sound and you didn’t play it? Would you ask another musician in? Or actually – is there an instrument you don’t play?
There’s tons of stuff I don’t play. If I had access to a studio and lots of money to pay an engineer to record, and could pay musicians to appear on the album then that’s something I’d do. It’s not something I’m opposed to. It’s just very hard to coordinate when you’re not paying people and when you don’t have the money set aside to reserve space in a studio. If I’m doing it in my apartment it’s a lot easier for me to just knock it out.
But if you met a really great harmonica player . . . or musical saw player . . .
I’m fortunate to know a lot of great musicians . . . and when I had the release party I had a couple of my friends come up – Mike Milazzo and BZ Douglas, and Michelle Leona, and Christen Napier from Cutleri and Mouth from Kill The Band, among others, and I had them come up and play on individual songs and they learn the parts and that was great fun. So it’s something I want to pursue. But it’s really hard to organize – everyone’s really busy including me, and resources are scarce. But in the future, definitely.
Let’s make a little footnote – hey everybody: if you’re interested in playing with Joe Yoga . . . get in touch!
Definitely! I would love to put a band together.
So who are your musical influences? I know it’s a cliche – but I want to know who helped you find your sound.
It really runs the gamut. I’m influenced by everything from Delta Blues to classical music. I started really writing songs when I got heavily into Velvet Underground. I really like Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, The Pixies, Neil Young and The Band and Mission of Burma and Steely Dan.
There’s a band out of Boston called Hallelujah The Hills that I really love. They’re kinda new, they’re trying to break out. I’m big fans of theirs and just hearing a few of their albums, they really influenced my songwriting.
Really? Wow – that’s nice to hear . . .
Yeah . . .
It’s nice when new artists are influencing other artists.
I saw them randomly at some free show on Sound Fix. They put on, to this day, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen and I bought the album at their show and absolutely fell in love.
(Laughing) That’s terrific!
They’ve given me some advice. It’s nice to see a band that’s doing it – touring, has the record deal and is making it happen.
Well, you’re making it happen too! So, as far as your album, I have some favorites. Is it okay to have favorites?
I think it’s natural. . .
These are the ones I liked the best so these are the ones I wanted to know about on Life Out East which I’ve listened to a bunch now. I love “Bad Hero” and “Gone” and “Queen Bee” . . . “Small Hands” is just aching and “Tell The Wind” sounds like it has this amazing story behind it. Tell me about those songs – what are their stories?
“Bad Hero” was inspired by a book I was reading about an archetype – the old aging hero passing the torch on to the next generation of heroes, and the one young woman who’s conflicted about whether or not she wants to be the hero . . . whether or not she thought she’d make a good hero . . . this whole idea of: how do we become who we are, and how do we fit into other’s idea of ourselves? With the breakup coloring the whole album, it was very “well this person wants me to be a certain way and I can’t do that”.
“Gone” is another fairly standard breakup song about the distances between two people and how, after the breakup scene you see them and, where you would have left together before, you now go your separate ways. It talks about the distances between two people and how that’s kinda sad.
“Queen Bee” is a straight up love song, and I don’t think I write a lot of straight up love songs – but that was one where I was just inspired to.
“Small Hands” is a devastatingly personal song and deliberately cryptic about a friend of mine. I think the song speaks for itself.
Don’t tell me any more about it then, I understand.
And “Tell the Wind” is (I don’t know if it comes across) is very sarcastic. Someone who puffs out their chest and claims that they’ll do this and you kinda respond by saying “Tell the wind. Don’t tell me, just do it”. And that was inspired by a specific conversation I had with my girlfriend at the time. We had had this fight and I came home drunk at 2 in the morning and I picked up the guitar and wrote the song right there — and that doesn’t happen a lot for me. But I was really feeling it that night and it all came out in pretty much one shot.
You can really feel that – there’s only one word – Epic. It’s like this big epic story. There’s this huge emotion behind it.
Yeah – it’s something that doesn’t really happen for me. I was going over it “you say you might / you say it’s fine” . . . and I laid it down with the vocal that night. The next morning I re-recorded it.
I can’t wait to go back and listen to the song again! I love knowing this now!
There’s a line “so tell the wind” and that’s kinda my superficial and petty emotion but it totally worked for what I was going for.
And who is Cody in the final song? It sounds very personal. (My husband, Stephen, thinks Cody is a dog – like old Yeller. I do not think this).
It’s funny, I did another interview and they were like “I think Cody is a person” . But Cody is the city is Cody, Wyoming.
Oh, how funny! Well there you go.
I went out West, summer of ‘09. I’d been out to Oregon and Washington, but this was my first real trip to the high desert – the plains, Utah, Mormon country. The person I was with, she wanted to go to Cody because that was where she was born and spent the first 10 years of her life and she’d wanted to see how it had changed and so I’d gone along for the ride.
Here was this city of Cody which had found it’s niche as a tourist town, living off its history and it had stayed that way, contrasting with New York City which is just never the same city twice. There’s a famous quote – “New York City will be a great city if they ever finish it”. I hope they never stop building New York City. New York is not the kind of place that will find a thing and stick with it. It will always be changing and evolving and that’s the kind of place I want to live. It was also built out of this idea – to tie in to the break up, but also thematically to the album – this is about coming back to New York City and the idea that you don’t really see something fully without time and distance.
(Laughs) Yeah. Oh, yeah.
You have to be removed from it physically to see it from the out side. Because when you’re inside all you see is buildings. But when you’re out side you can see a skyline and you get perspective on it. With time, it gives you the sense to see it emotionally. You’re going to get a different view of a breakup emotionally. A year later you will see it completely differently.
You’re outside of it just the way you’re outside of a city coming home to it. And when you’re outside of a relationship, good or bad, you definitely have a different perspective on it. And it can make you re-think things you felt, you can learn about yourself and why you were feeling those things.
“I was so angry!” But a year later, now that I was thinking about if for so long, and being removed from it – now I know why I was so angry. Why I couldn’t articulate it at the time . . . that’s the theme that runs through the whole album: To see something unique you need time and distance to heal.
That’s really profound!
That’s why I put it last, because I feel like that sums up everything I’m agonizing about over the course of the album – I start off sorta sarcastic, then it’s fast songs, then I’m in it, then the second half it’s me stepping back and I’m sorting it out, then everything blew up and now I’m seeing where things land and by the end of the album I’m kinda out of it and I can see the tea leaves so to speak – I can read it much better.
I can’t wait to go back and listen to it again with all this new perspective! So then what’s the one song you love to perform – that makes you feel amazing every time you play it?
Definitely there’s a few – I love to perform Panic Attack especially if I’m in the mood for it. And when I nail that song I feel like I’ve done something right. Cheater is a great song because it’s a strong combo of something that’s really good for my voice and good for my playing style so I almost always nail that song when I play it.
Small Hands – I can always really get into – it seems like whenever I play that it always shuts the crowd up. And I always feel like that allows me to get really deep into it. The deeper I can get into a song, the more I can give the audience to listen to. And also No Wings. I love that chorus and I love the way I’ve arranged it when I play it live.
Speaking of you playing live – where can people come see you perform next?
I have 2 big shows, the first is A Very Yoga Christmas – at Under St. Marks which is my annual Christmas show (this is the 3rd annual). I’ll be playing with my band COACH . . . it’s me and my friend Andrea Tarka on drums, me playing bass. We call ourselves the greatest drum and bass band in the world. And the greatest rock and roll band of all time!
We play once a year because the world can’t handle it more than once a year. We play every year at Yoga Christmas. We’ve settled into a nice groove with that. That’s gonna be great – everyone’s gonna be there . . . Michelle Leona, Eric Clark, Ceili Clemens, The Odortones, John Murdock, Tim Warner, Jon Savoy, Jen Perney, Mr. Marbar, Mike Ogletree, The Sisters Rock, Penny Pollak, Natalie Underwood, and Umberto MacDougal.
It’s fun music and the 2nd half is the cream of the crop of solo performers of the downtown scene. That’s gonna be something really special.
Then I have a solo show which is Jan 11th at Sidewalk Cafe which is me for an hour, hopefully some special guests if I can wrangle them up. That’s at 9:00 pm.
Terrific! Okay, now my favorite part of the interview. Bonus question – you can tell me absolutely anything you want. Tell me a joke – give me your latest cause, recite some poetry . . . tell me what you want for your birthday. Or give me more information in case my questions weren’t thorough enough. The mic is yours!
I have a joke!
OH! Good good!
Why did the suicidal chicken stop in the middle of the road?
I don’t know . . .?
To get to the other side.
(dead silence) Um . . . (then uproarious laughter at the badness of the joke)
Get it? The other side?
Yes. I get it, I get it.
Get it? He’s suicidal? So he stops? So he gets hit by a car? To get to the other side?
(laughs) Oh . . . that’s ah . . . yeah yeah – wanna tell me another joke?
Wow . . . (recovers) A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says “Why the long face”?
And the horse says “Because my alcoholism is destroying my family!”
(both dissolve in laughter)
BETTER! Much better! Well thank you Joe Yoga!
Thank you Karen!
So, if you’d like to catch Joe Yoga at his next Kill The Band gig, he’ll be at Alter Ego this Sunday the 19th, and then you can check out his solo shows mentioned above. I’ll see you there!