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An Interview with Pete Yorn

BrooklynVegan interviewer Paula Pou caught up with singer-songwriter Pete Yorn while he was in Chicago this weekend. He took a break to chat with her on the phone from his hotel room…

Pete Yorn

BrooklynVegan Paula: How’s Chicago treating you?

Pete: It’s nice. The nights have actually cooled down a bit so it’s nice out. A taste of that fall weather you can’t get in LA.

You’re from brooklynvegan, right? My cousin is super hipster. He just graduated from Wesleyan. He actually won best senior film there. I asked him what some of the cool blogs were these days and he said brooklynvegan was one of them. When I told him I was talking to you guys he was really excited.

BrooklynVegan Paula: Thanks for the props — So what have you been up to for the past three years?

Pete Yorn and REMPete: I can barely remember the past three days, let alone the past three years. But I can try—I’ll do my darndest. Let’s see—today’s September 9, 2006 so let’s back up to September 9, 2003. I was still supporting Day I Forgot, so was either on tour on getting ready to go on tour with R.E.M.

I toured until the beginning of 2004 when I came off the road and went home to Los Angeles and kind of settled back into some sort of normalcy. I’d been touring so much with the first record and I kind of rolled right into with the second one and I missed being around my family and friends and having a normal life, so I kind of just hung out for a while and readjusted, which was weird at first. When you get off the road—after being out there for so long—when 8 o’clock comes around at night something would kick in in your body. I would feel like I needed to be out playing a show; it was like some sort of energy would kick in and it would usually manifest itself with me having to go to the pub to have a drink. That happened a lot for a while, but then I started getting ideas for song and started writing a lot of songs and recording on and off up until I decided I was going to put out the record that eventually became Nightcrawler. I just spent a lot of time in different studios developing songs and enjoying being in one place for a while.

BrooklynVegan Paula: I heard you actually recorded a lot of songs. How did you decide what would ultimately make the cut on Nightcrawler?

Pete: I didn’t decide—the record label just said, “This is what we’re putting on.” [Awkward pause, followed by laughter]. Nah, I’m kidding—I’m completely kidding. It was hard because I went through a lot of phases. I went through a phase where I was really into this ‘acousticy’ kind of country-like stuff and I kind of got to sneak that out in a little EP called Western that is only available at my shows right now. But then I went through a different phase where I started rocking out more. Actually, most of Nightcrawler feels to me more like a rock record. But yeah, leading up to it, I think I recorded something like 50 songs. I always record too much and I guess it’s always good to have a bunch of stuff.

BrooklynVegan Paula: Are you going to pull a Ryan Adams and release like four CDs in the same year?

Pete: I don’t know if I need to do that right now. One thing about the record label, and I don’t know if it’s because of the way they like to sell records—I mean they really want to sell records right now because of the state of the business; which is fine, that’s the business they’re in. I get it. But the record label said, “Please, just 12 songs on the record. No more than 12.” And I settled for 14. At one point I was thinking 19 and I was going to go double, but now I’ve just been sneaking out all these extra tracks I did. There’s the Western EP, which has 5 songs that aren’t on Nightcrawler.

These days, in order to boost get good placement in stores, you usually throw in a bonus track exclusive, which at first I was hesitant to do because I thought it was just going to piss off my fans—you know, making them buy the record again to get a track. But we did the exclusives and then I just started encouraging the fans to download the extra tracks for free on my website. For people who’ve never heard of me before, then the better store placement means they’ll see my record and maybe get turned on to my stuff. So, between all the bonus tracks, I think there are about 24 new songs floating around. I guess I did eke out a double record, but not really.

Pete YornBrooklynVegan Paula: You seem to get more experimental in Nightcrawler. A song like “Vampyre” comes off as darker than your earlier material, but you also delve into Americana (with help from the Dixie Chicks) on “The Man,” you play around with electronic beats, and Rolling Stone called “Georgie Boy” Kinks-like. Were you going for such a spread out sound or is it just something that emerged while you were in studio?

Pete: I feel that’s always been who I am. I’ve always thought my records are all over the place—that’s just what I do. I’ve never been really concerned with making a record that has the same aesthetic from song to song. There are artists that do that, and it works for them, but that’s not my intention and that’s not who I am. My moods are ever changing and the things I’m into are ever changing. Maybe one day I’ll make a record that has just one sound. For my first record (musicforthemorningafter), before I put it out, I knew it was all over the map. You have a song like “Just Another” which is a total 60s little ditty and then a song like “For Nancy”. They don’t really fit together, but they do in a weird way. Also, for me as a live performer, I like having that kind of diversity because it really adds to the act—I kind of become all of these different characters as I do the songs that are so diverse sounding…at least in my own mind.

BrooklynVegan Paula: When you were doing press for musicforthemorningafter, you often said that every song on that album actually began as a drum beat. Is that the case in Nightcrawler?

Pete: Certain songs did. “Vampyre” was obsessed with Native American rhythms at the beginning of it. [Demonstrates by chanting “Pom, Pom, Pom, Pom…Pom, Pom, Pom, Pom”]. Actually there’s weird footage of me in the studio that somebody got. It’s actually quite funny. I was trying to explain, “It’s got to be like Native American drums. Just make it sound that way.” But then that song blows up into something else completely at the end. In the studio sometimes I would start with the drums, but the songs were already sort of written on guitar or piano. It really varies from song to song.

Pete YornBrooklynVegan Paula: Some critics hailed musicforthemorningafter as an instant classic. Did the automatic pressure that comes attached to statements like that influence Day I Forgot and/or Nightcrawler?

Pete: Just pressure from myself really. I’m really hard on myself. Musicforthemorningafter is an interesting record because there’s an innocence to it sonically and it reflects who I was at the time. When I hear it, and I haven’t listened to it in a long time, but if I hear a song come on I think, “Wow, I sound so much younger” or “I sound like a kid.” It was a very organic affair. No one had any impressions of me and I didn’t have any thoughts in my mind about what people would expect from me. I just wanted to make music that I liked and that I enjoyed and that moved me, I guess. Once you put out your first record you’re out in the public eye and it’s hard to put blinders on and distance yourself from everything people say about you, whether it’s positive or negative. It’s always been important for me to not really pay that much attention to anything – even if someone says I’m the second coming of Elvis Presley, which I actually don’t think anyone’s ever said – it’s always been important to me to just stay focused on what moves me and that’s what I try to put into the records.

BrooklynVegan Paula: Having worked with producer Don Fleming before, how much do you think you’ve evolved together?

Pete: I worked with him on the Westerns EP and we have an entire record that we did together, which we recorded live with my backing band. I want to put it out as a piece for sure. We’ve worked the same way we’ve always worked. We have such a wonderful relationship from years ago. I made a record with him in 1997 that hasn’t been released. It was before I was signed to Sony. I actually took “Simonize” from it and put it on musicforthemorningafter. If you’re familiar with that song, that’s the sound of the unreleased record. We’re really great friends and always enjoyed working together. Recently, I spent a lot of time working with Michael Beinhorn, who’s a brilliant producer, but he can be very difficult to work with for a long period of time. His process is very slow and my process is very fast. I like do get things done quickly once I’m in the studio. I think as a reaction to working with Michael for such an intense time, I decided to do a bunch of songs with Don just to kind of balance things off. What was supposed to be like five songs, turned into a whole record, but we’ll see what comes of it. There’s a song called “Old Boy” from that session that I had put on my Myspace page and when I took it down everyone started asking, “Where the hell’s ‘Old Boy?’” So I put it back up by popular demand.

BrooklynVegan Paula: Who’s backing you up as a live band?

Pete: There’s four of us right now. I’m playing guitar and singing. An old bandmate of mine, Joe Kennedy, plays electric guitar and piano—he’s been with me since the beginning. The rhythm section is from a band called Minibar. They’re these British kids—Malcolm Cross on drums and Sid Jordan on bass and background vocals. They’re great. It’s a really loose band. We’ve gotten much tighter, but when I say “loose” I’m thinking about my old band—they’d learned the record exactly; every single part and I was really into that for a while. For the first three years it was a very robotic show in that sense, and now it’s more in real time. It’s an organic band and everyone’s a great player, and those guys have the ability and talent to stretch out wherever I want to go at any given time. Basically, we’ve been playing these 2+ hour-long marathon shows with no setlist. I just call out the songs. We all have this mental connection that I haven’t had since I used to play with my brother. My middle brother, Rick, was the drummer in my band when I was just starting out and we had that sort sibling connection, you know? All of us now in this band kind of seem to have the same connection and it’s really very nice. It makes the shows for me and I think for the audience, just over the top.

BrooklynVegan Paula: You’re known for playing live covers. What made you want to cover Warren Zevon’s “Splendid Isolation” on Nightcrawler?

Pete: That song was suggested to me by his son, Jordan Zevon. We have a mutual friend and when they were putting together the tribute record (Enjoy Every Sandwich) Jordan reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be part of it. To be honest, at the time, I was not familiar with a lot of Zevon stuff. But Jordan said he had this song called “Splendid Isolation” which would be good for me to do and I remember I went to the Tower Records on Sunset, which probably won’t be there for much longer, and I couldn’t find it on a regular CD, but I found a live recording of it. I listened to it and I thought it was great, but the lyrics especially I just thought were so hysterical. I love the lyrics, you know, it’s all about this guy who’s just like, “Leave me the fuck alone. I just want be by myself.” And I can relate to that character. Usually I like being around people and I have a lot of friends, but maybe one day a week I feel like that I just want to be by myself and that’s how I got turned on to the song. I went and recorded it in the mountains up in Lake Arrowhead in California at my friend’s house and it just came out really nice. It was on the tribute record, but then I realized not that many people heard it. I actually called someone to find out how many copies that record sold and I think it was like 50,000 and this was like eight months ago after it had already been out for a while. I thought, “Damn it! People need to hear this.” For me, it fit into Nightcrawler and I wanted to play it live, so I just threw it on there so more people could hear it. I would play it for friends and they’d ask what it was—they hadn’t even heard it. I just wanted that song to get more exposure.

Dixie ChicksBrooklynVegan Paula: How in the world did you hook up with the Dixie Chicks?

Pete: The Dixie Chicks reached out to me a couple of years ago to ask if I wanted to write songs for their new record, Taking the Long Way, which just came out in May. It’s a really angry record. I’d met them once before at a party in New York and they’d seemed pretty nice so I said yes and I went down to Austin—that’s another thing I was doing over the past three years; I went and visited them three times. We would hang out at either Natalie’s house or Martie’s house and just jam and come up with song ideas. I remember just being blown away the first time I went, because I never really wrote with anyone before—I was more of a solitary writer. And I said, “Alright girls, show me what you got.” I mean, I really wasn’t that familiar with their music—I’d heard their “Landslide” cover, as well as “Wide Open Spaces,” but that was it. Next thing I know, I found myself in this really surreal moment where I’m sitting on the couch and the three of them are sitting across from me—Martie had a fiddle and Emily had an acoustic guitar—and they just started singing and they have this three-part harmony where, whether you’re a fan of their music or not, is just angelic and it blew me away. But they’re super down to earth and we came up with a bunch of song ideas. They ended up coming to LA to make their record with Rick Rubin and I was happy to end up with a song on their record called “Baby Hold On.” They also happened to be in LA when I was working on my record. I had a couple of songs that I thought would be great to have Natalie sing on and when I called them up, they were totally up for it

BrooklynVegan Paula: So you’re going to be one of the last acts to play at CBGB’s before it shutters.

Pete: That’s what I hear. This will actually be my first time in CBGB’s. I’ve never been—I grew up in New Jersey, but I was too young for the whole Ramones thing and after that I never really went into New York that much. I hear they’re opening a CBGB’s in Vegas and I bet it’ll do well there. I mean if House of Blues can do well there, why can’t CBGB’s do well? If they do it right it could be good.

BrooklynVegan Paula: What’s your dream venue in New York?

Pete: Madison Square Garden, for sure. I’m on a quest to get to the Garden. I’ve played the other room at the Garden (the Theater), but I’d really like to play the Garden proper.

BrooklynVegan Paula: On this tour you’re playing some pretty intimate venues. Are there plans for a larger scale tour later in the year?

Pete: Yeah, definitely. I love playing really small sweaty clubs as well, it’s super fun, but this is kind of a promotional thing for the new record. I’m playing really intimate shows for the really hardcore fans first and then I’ll be in Australia for most of October. I’m doing two headline shows there, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne, and then we’re with the Dixie Chicks. I’ve never been to Australia before so I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve wanted to go for a while. Then I’ll come back and do some more headlining shows.

BrooklynVegan Paula: What are you listening to these days?

Flamin GrooviesPete: I don’t have that many records on my iPod—just my song list. Let’s see…what comes on first? “19th Nervous Breakdown” by the Rolling Stones comes up. “A Million Miles Away” by the Plimsouls comes up next—all the songs with numbers come up first. You know what song’s really been hitting me great lately? “Allentown” by Billy Joel. I never even liked that song when I was growing up, but I just realized it’s a great song. I think I like the drums. I’ve been digging Flamin Groovies. I just discovered their “Teenage Head” record. I absolutely love it. It’s raunchy. I think Keith Richards said it was better than Sticky Fingers. In a later incarnation Flamin Groovies have “Shake Some Action” (1976) but this is actually earlier I’m talking about (1971), and it’s kind of got a little Stooges to it, but mostly it really does have that kind of awesome raunchiness to it. They cover “Louie, Louie” on it. It’s really good. If Kings of Leon haven’t heard it they should, because it totally sounds like what they aspire to be. What else have I been liking lately? Anything new. I sound like such an old fogy. People give me so much music that it’s become a blur of new material. When I’m in my car I listen to talk radio. I’m surrounded by music at all times that talk radio is kind of a nice break—I listen to the news or NPR.

STREAM Pete Yorn “For Us” feat. Dave Grohl on drums:
Win Media – Low | Win Media – High | Real Audio | Quicktime

SEE PETE YORN
Sep 12 2006 11:30P Joe’s Pub – New York, NY
Sep 13 2006 10:00P Mercury Lounge – New York, NY
Sep 14 2006 6:00P In-Store @ Virgin New York, NY
Sep 14 2006 10:00P CBGB’S – New York, NY
Sep 16 2006 8:00P 9:30 Club – Washington, DC

More tour dates at his MySpace

Paula Pou previously interviewed David Bazan.

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