Rock Mandala: Yowie works through the pain

Yowie spent six years on its sophomore LP.
Yowie spent six years on its sophomore LP. Mabel Suen


Yowie has written twelve songs in twelve years. The trio puts more notes, revisions and ideas into single songs than most bands put into entire albums. Damning with Faint Praise, recently released through SKiN GRAFT Records, came after six years of writing, a near split and lineup shifts. But the group recently blasted through Europe offering its brand of math rock and spastic jazz, and now it shows no signs of stopping.

Early sightings of the elusive Yowie occurred sometime in the year 2000, with its initial lineup: current guitarist Jeremiah Wonsewitz on keys and drummer Shawn O'Connor with his scattered pitter-patter. Guitar replaced keyboard before too long, providing a more suitable range of sound for the duo.

The third member, referred to as "Lil' Pumpkin," built a reputation by recording himself playing guitar and drums simultaneously at a now-defunct music studio — in the bathroom.

"When I heard that was why the studio people suggested he'd be a good match for us, it sounded insulting," says O'Connor. "Turns out they were exactly correct."

Intrigued by Lil' Pumpkin's methods, Wonsewitz approached him about working as a trio.

The first four years involved a strict practice schedule, often delving into obsessions over ten-second bits of song. The trio held nearly two years of rehearsals before its first performance. Yowie forms music of audible discipline, living somewhere in the realms of prog-rock and avant-jazz. The three built, broke, chopped and glued seven pieces together until 2004, when they tracked Cryptooology in St. Louis' Penny Studios.

"We proceeded, out of poverty, to mix and master it ourselves. It took a really long time," Wonsewitz says.

Yowie's name has become synonymous with SKiN GRAFT Records, a label known for popularizing several math-rock bands in the '90s. The label's Mark Fischer approached the trio in 2004, offering a collaborative deal for Cryptooology.

"We opened up for Cheer-Accident at the Creepy Crawl and talked to Mark afterward, and he thought we'd be a good addition to the label," says O'Connor.

Cryptooology sounds like two guitars given raspy, raunchy human voices, and their argument comes moderated by pointed percussion that's harsh but considerate. The songs have a certain air of comical whimsy, as demonstrated by their names: "Trina," "Tamika," "Tara," "Tenesha," "Toni," "Towanda" and "Talisha."

Following a single U.S. tour and Cryptooology's release, Yowie went on a lengthy hiatus. The original trio disbanded, leaving O'Connor and Lil' Pumpkin to work through early blocks of new music.

"That lasted one-and-a-half to two years. We wrote a good chunk — maybe the foundation of 30 to 40 percent of the new album — during that time," says O'Connor. Wonsewitz returned to Yowie in 2008, reprising his role on the fretboard.

Yowie brushed its songs with an even finer comb, using all of six years to compose five pieces. The band effectively split and re-formed in parallel with its amorphous compositions. Yowie writes secular music — meditative songs without even the suggestion of discernible ties to larger canons.

"We could say that it's about some epic journey, but it's not," says O'Connor. "What takes us so long is that we don't start with a map of how the song's going to go or what we're trying to convey or evoke with it. We start very organically. We come up with something we find interesting and start building a song around it.... There's kind of a weird process of letting the parts work themselves out."

Damning with Faint Praise was recorded in July 2011 at Keyclub Recording Co. in Michigan. The group tracked through a MOD N32 Matrix Custom board, originally built for Sly Stone, to both analog tape and digital. Yowie worked with engineers Bill Skibbe and Jessica Ruffins to record Damning while Scott Evans handled mixing.

Lil' Pumpkin left the trio during the mixing and mastering of Damning. To replace him, O'Connor approached guitarist Chris Trull. Although tryouts weren't plausible for Yowie, Trull built the skill set needed through his experience in Grand Ulena, the legendary St. Louis math-rock trio, as well as the pop-sensible Brown Company and post-punk skronkers Darling Little Jackhammer.

"I started Grand Ulena around '99 or 2000, and we had a similar work ethic where we practiced for two years before we even played a show.... There's zero improvisation in this band, and that was a huge part of Grand Ulena," says Trull.

The guitar pieces in Yowie often focus on atonal sound; each part seems mysterious for the casual ear. In late 2011, Trull received isolated guitar tracks from Yowie's recording at Keyclub. Trull took five months to learn five songs.

"I basically considered myself retired from playing in bands until I was messaging Shawn. He brought up that they were looking for someone, and I, without thinking about how much work it was going to be, said yeah. I sort of regretted it, after spending the next five months learning the album," Trull admits.

From song mixes to art direction, Trull became a major voice in every decision about Damning. "It's nice to not feel like a second-class member of the band," says Trull.

Trull found the artist for the Damning cover through a Facebook wall post. He noticed the work of Lance Austin Olsen and saw that he was mutual friends with SKiN GRAFT Records. Olsen's site had featured a series of works augmented with tea bags, and Yowie found a visual connection.

Damning came together in gradual, detailed form. Yowie had engineer Carl Saff master the album eight times. SKiN GRAFT worked through Seek Harbor Booking to put together the one-month tour from September to October of this year.

Tidal shifts in its lineup worked to slow the band's progress, but O'Connor ensured the band never stalled. Even through a short stint with the Conformists and an ongoing membership in R6 Implant, he kept Yowie simmering. Work with Lil' Pumpkin persisted through the band's hiatus while the addition of Trull kick-started the creative process.

"We started writing new stuff immediately when we started playing together," says Trull. "I thought the sort of musical and personal chemistry clicked immediately. It's never easy playing in this band. It was as comfortable a work environment as you could have, being forced to do difficult things and forcing other people to do difficult things."

"It's kind of stressful music. There are parts in 'I Could Care Less' that I still get stressed out playing," Wonsewitz says.

The European tour following Damning's release on vinyl,marked an undoing of broken plans from Yowie's hiatus. New pieces and rewrites of songs from Cryptooology have crept into the band's recent set, and Yowie's weekly practice is a grueling ritual, with the three members barely surviving tumultuous breaks and piercing changes.

"This girlish figure doesn't watch itself," says Wonsewitz.

"It doesn't wash itself either," says Trull.

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