Let’s Plug in and Play: An Interview with Phil Yates

Phil Yates has been on my radar for a while now, but I really sat up and took notice of his music when I found it he was going to be coming to the next town over from mine — Ardmore, Pennsylvania — for a show with Philadelphia locals Scoopski and the Bees, along with New Jersey’s own self-proclaimed lo-fi rock god Graham Repulski. Curious about what might bring him from Chicago to the Philly suburbs, I dropped him a line–but not before buying his most recent album, which I highly recommend!

You teach statistics at the college level, and you’re also a musician. Was it a case of getting your degree in statistics after being in music for a while, or was getting the degree always part of the plan?

I started playing guitar and bass when I was 15 after years of playing the trumpet. For the guitar, it was the geometry of chord shapes that really interested me at the time. Having the book of the complete scores of The Beatles was my “go to” manual. Truthfully, I think I went into math because I thought I could get a job crunching numbers for the Chicago Cubs. I had some friends when I was about 22 years old who pushed me to do a couple of open mics. I had just started graduate school at that time mainly because there were two distinctly non-math jobs I had lined up after graduation fell through due to lack of funding for those positions. Off to grad school I went. The balancing of musician Phil and academic Phil began then.

Do the two worlds intersect? How do they inform each other?

Ha! They do not intersect at all. Maybe someday I will figure out how to combine music with statistical research and write a paper that nobody would ever read – as opposed to writing songs that nobody would ever hear.

I’m also thinking about the performative aspects of teaching. Do you bring any elements of rock-n-roll stagecraft (for lack of a better phrase) to the classroom? Do you ever feel like starting class with a booming HELLLOOO CHICAGO!!!?

This is a great question! I think being comfortable on stage makes me more comfortable in front of a room full of students and vice-versa. For people who see me play live, I sometimes channel my inner Billy Bragg or Robyn Hitchcock and get a little chatty, sometimes to the chagrin of bandmates. The banter I have with the audience on stage is not that different from the banter I have with students in the classroom.

I just bought your 2018 album Party Music on vinyl for $15 (including shipping!) through BandCamp. That’s an incredible deal for fans, but I can’t imagine you’re making a whole lot of money on your end. Am I right about that? Are you looking at the decision to release the album on vinyl from an economic perspective, or do you have another way of looking at it?

That steal of a deal is an attempt to clear some space for when the new record arrives on vinyl. Futureman Records is releasing it. The album, in theory, will arrive mid-to-late July. It’s called A Thin Thread, and it is the first full-length release with the Chicago version of the Affiliates. Also, it will be $20 plus shipping from Bandcamp. I’ve released a handful of singles with the new crew. In the grand scheme of things, I hope to break even on these vinyl or CD releases. Having a steady day job I guess reduces the pressure of trying to immediately sell out all the merch. I consider myself fortunate in that regard. I listen to CDs in the car, but my wife and I own cars that are 10 to 15-years old. At home, we listen to a lot of records. In the end, my decision-making boils down to “what format am I buying?”

You released the vinyl edition of Party Music through Futureman Records. What’s your relationship with them?  How did you find them – or did they find you? What do they offer that you’d rather not do on your own?

The album before Party Music! was No Need To Beg. I was lucky to work with Almost Halloween Time Records, a tiny label out of Bari, Italy, on that release. An artist, Luigi Falagario, runs that label. I must give him some press here because what he does is amazing! He hand-draws every record sleeve on his releases, making each release a work of art. Anyway, Luigi was too busy to release Party Music!, so  when it was finished being recorded, I searched for other small labels to release it. I found Futureman Records, a label out of Detroit run by Keith Klingensmith (of the wonderful band The Legal Matters). He agreed to put it out. When working with them, I am responsible for any CD or vinyl production. Futureman Records helps with promotion. That saves me time of contacting reviewers at magazines, blogs, online radio stations, and avenues like that. He can do that for me. Promotion is a pain in the ass. Also, I find that being on label opens a few more doors in terms of booking shows.

I think it took me exactly twenty-four hours to get the pun in your band name – Phil Yates and the Affiliates. It’s the kind of name that was meant to be. Do you remember when the epiphany struck? I picture the clouds parting and light shining down on you. Or maybe a clap of thunder. Did the name precede the band, or was it the other way around?

I was doing the solo acoustic thing for a while and was excited to finally recruit musicians to beef up my songs. The name came when I had the original lineup of the band in Burlington, Vermont. I distinctly remember that I wanted something like Phil Yates & The First Dates, which while not terrible, it is not very good. It was either my bassist at the time, Raph Worrick, or the lead guitarist, Kevin Stevens, who said “Why not Phil Yates & The Affiliates?” Boom! Done! Now we need to learn more of my songs and go play shows. People either get that pun right away, like you did, or it takes them a long, long time for it to click. The head music editor of the weekly alternative newspaper in Burlington (I won’t embarrass him by calling him out by name) came to me, after one of my last shows before moving back to Chicago, and said “I’ve reviewed and seen you guys for years and only now I get the name.”

How long has the band been together, and has the lineup changed over time?

Phil Yates & The Affiliates started in Fall 2010 in Burlington, Vermont. The lineup was Raph Worrick (bass), Kevin Stevens (lead guitar), and Dev Jana (drums). Dev moved away after two years and then we had Jake Blodgett behind the kit. He appears on Oh So Sour, No Need To Beg, and Party Music!. That last album took a while to mix. In fact, I moved to Chicago in 2017 before it was officially released in 2018. Since I had an album by Phil Yates & The Affiliates being released, I needed to form a new band to play those songs. With the blessing from the old Affiliates, I kept the name and now have new Affiliates. They play on the new record, A Thin Thread. Shout out to Jay Lyon (bass), Richard Bandini (lead guitar), and Bill Urban (drums).

You’re touring this summer with stops in Chicago, Detroit, Dayton, Philadelphia(ish), and Winooski, Vermont. How did you decide the itinerary? What goes into planning a tour of this scale? Why do you do it?

First, Richard and I both teach – me at a university and Richard at an elementary school. I love this version of the band and want to play as many shows as possible. We chose Detroit because of Futureman. Dayton appeared because I was having no luck with Cleveland and my search kept pushing me further south in Ohio. Pittsburgh might be in the works. I have a handful of friends in Philly, and that bill has come together nicely with BEES!, Scoopski, and Graham Repulski. NYC is in the works. Winooski is outside of Burlington, and where I am playing is my favorite place to play in the greater Burlington area. A lot of emailing bookers and networking with bands I know in those various locations goes a long way in the planning. I do it because I love playing live. I hate recording. I hate the entire process, but it is a necessary evil. Let’s plug in and play! Get sweaty, play my three-minute pop songs loudly, and hang out with other like-minded artists. That’s it. That’s a perfect evening.

Is the tour in support of a new release? 

Yes. A Thin Thread should be on my doorstep mid-to-late July. I will have a short run of CDs for promo purposes (college radio, Futureman’s sending to blogs, etc.).

Any plans for after the tour?

We will have an album release show on August 7 at my neighborhood record store, Tone Deaf Records in Chicago. We will be playing a handful of shows in Chicago the rest of the year. Then I get back to academic work. I also plan on going to some shows. I have tickets for Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe in August, the Decemberists (also in August), and will be taking my daughter to her first “in door” show in September for her birthday – Pavement (one of her favorite bands, which is a parenting win!). She’s been to a ton of outdoor shows with us.

Did I geek out a little and design a poster for the Ardmore show? Yes, I did.

Great Chemistry: An Interview with Torrid (A Love Affair)

Torrid (A Love Affair) has been gaining a loyal following among those in the know since the release of their debut album, Poems from Mars, on Bandcamp in February. Indie singer-songwriter duo the Kintners, for example, described as a “pretty effin’ inspiring group of rockers.” And with good reason: Soaring over a solid foundation of grunge-inspired noise, their crystal-clear vocals offer a message of hope and strength in uncertain times. With their album making the leap to all major streaming services on June 10, I dropped them a line to see what makes them tick.

Who’s in the band, and what does everyone do—both musically and beyond? Who’s your biggest cheerleader? Who takes care of business? Who handles social media?

Sarah: I’m Sarah, I’m the singer and main songwriter – we all contribute but they generally start with me. I think I champion the band by driving us forward, but my lovely bandmates definitely cheer me along when I’m having doubts about something – usually my latest song!.

Will: I’m Will, the drummer and producer of Poems from Mars! Honestly, I think Ads is the biggest cheerleader, but everyone encourages and inspires each other all the time. That could be just in a rehearsal room with a new riff or comment on a new drum fill, or by sending a message to the band about a song they’ve listened to and were inspired by! Sarah takes a lot of the weight of socials and business but I’m trying to take a more active part in some of those business roles.

Syd: I’m the bass player, Sydney. Sarah is definitely our cheerleader and we wouldn’t exist without her.

Ads: I’m Adam. I guitarinate and sing high bits. And what the others said.

I don’t often see bands with parentheticals in their names. Can you say a little bit about that? And why “a love affair”?

Sarah: Well that’s my fault! Back in the early days of Syd, Ads and I putting songs together we were discussing band names. I said I wanted something poetic like the word torrid. At some point during the session Ads mentioned something about a love affair and I said that’s it! But to be different (a recurring problem of mine) I said let’s not just be Torrid Love Affair, let’s switch it up!

Can your friends just call you “Torrid,” or do you prefer the full name?

Sarah: You can call us anything you like! But Torrid is fine.

How would you describe the chemistry within the band?

Syd: I love our chemistry. We have always worked well together in a musical and social way. I think it’s fair to say we all pretty much clicked from the start

Will: I think we have a great chemistry, when we’re writing new music I think (and hope) everyone feels comfortable experimenting and throwing their ideas into the hat, knowing that we’ll all listen and give our honest opinions. Outside of music we all get on well, we have a lot in common, enjoy the same things and are all pretty easy going, though it’s not often we all get to hang out all four of us together unless it’s just after a gig!

Ads: I’m enormously attracted to all of them. On a spiritual, physical and musical level. Plus Sarah brings crisps.

Sarah: We get on really well! I’m lucky as I get to spend the most time with each of them individually, writing, producing or just down the pub! I can be honest in front of them, which is challenging for me writing such frank songs. I remember actually shaking the first time I showed All The Bad Men to Ads, I didn’t think I could get through it! But thank god I did cos look what it’s become! That is the kind of chemistry you need from your bandmates.

And how is that chemistry reflected in the music?

Will: I see the union of our various parts played on the songs as a reflection of our chemistry, we all know when to work together and play in unison, and also when to spend some time on our owns and take the lead or fall back. Sarah does an amazing job of bringing a great concept to the studio every time, then we build on that together while also thinking about our own parts. We often have quickfire discussions about our favourite artists or songs recently and that helps us work together musically. Our writing group process is very laid back and very naturally flowing and I think that shows in the end product!

Sarah: For me it’s seeing the journey of the song, from 1 acoustic guitar to the final track. But it’s also what you see on stage. I think you can tell we like each other, we enjoy what we do and we believe in it.

Ads: I think our personalities can be heard in each instrument and although individual, they all fit together to form an unstoppable mega-personality. Called Torrid.

Syd: Agree with all of the answers here. Our individuality is reflected at the same time as how we all come together to create our sound.

Your songs have an underlying theme of strength and resilience. What makes Torrid (A Love Affair) especially qualified to deliver that message?

Will: Though I think Sarah is most qualified to answer this as they’re her songs, I think that absolutely anyone is qualified to deliver a message that is personal to them, we’re no more qualified than anyone else, but we’re choosing to convey those themes and emotional states through music.

Ads: Age.

Sarah: Er, I don’t think we or I are any more qualified than anyone else! I just write what I know, what I feel, and I do it because I have to do it. If Torrid didn’t exist I’d do it anyway. So I guess it’s more about the receptiveness of the listener than what we have to say!

I understand that the art that the album art was produced by local artists. How did that come about? And how does their contribution enhance the overall presentation of the music?

Sarah: Well, when we realised the album was going to be an actual tangible object (thanks to Lights&Lines), I was reflecting on what I loved most about getting a new CD or tape. Yes, listening obviously, but for me as a budding vocalist even then, it was opening the insert and praying all the lyrics would be there, seeing photos and the personalities of the artist! So I starting thinking how we could incite that same excitement. I can’t draw stick men, but I have some very talented friends, so I asked around and it went from there! The support from people was incredible and it was great to help and be helped in such a creative and reciprocal way! So it was a real pleasure to be able to put unknown or local artists work in print. I think it looks stunning and I honestly couldn’t be prouder, it’s a such a wonderful layer to the album.

In addition to the art, how is the band part of a larger community, however you might define it—on a local scale or within a more global context? How do you use your voice, and what do you use it for?

Ads: Lyrically, I love that although from a female perspective, the themes are so universal and realistic that everyone can dig it. I can feel the connection with the audience on a much fuller level than when I was singing about goblins and apocalypse…es.

Sarah: Really, I just want to be relatable as a writer. I tell stories, usually real stories, of real emotions and experiences. I was always inspired by Alanis Morissette and George Michael for the way they didn’t ‘write a song’, they told a story. That’s all I want to do, and I believe if you tell the truth then people will hear that and respond. And even if you don’t understand the lyrics, hopefully our riffs and hooks will be enough to engage with. And that’s really what music is all about; connection.

You’re billed as a combination of grunge and stoner rock, but I’m also hearing a strong echo of what might be termed classic rock in your sound. Your harmonies in particular call to mind Heart. Do you have any… I don’t know what to call them… “Hidden” or “secret” influences?

Sarah: Firstly – thank you! Well despite being mainly into the rock and grunge genres now, I grew up on a mix of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, The Beatles and Barbershop! So harmonies were everywhere in my house! Singing a 5th along with the microwave was not uncommon! Later, seminal albums like Jagged Little Pill, the greatest hits of Roxette, Bon Jovi and Aerosmith never left my stereo. So yes, lots of influences and you’ll hear moments throughout our album – the title is a courteous nod to David Bowie.

Will: I believe that 90% of people you talk to, especially musicians or people with musical interests, won’t primarily listen to the music they play. I absolutely enjoy stoner rock and grunge and desert rock, but I often listen to RnB, Soul, Jazz, Soul, Opera, Classical/Orchestral pieces. Absolutely I enjoy thrashing to some power metal and chilling to some stoner doom, but musical influences come from all over the place and I truly believe that that is really well reflected in the songs. If you look at the whole album, there are rock and grunge riffs, jazz beats, funk basslines. We’re channeling our influences into these songs but those influences aren’t always as obvious, immediate and recognisable as a lot of people think!

Ads: I love ethereal shoegaze guitars and I really connected with that in the 90’s. Being a very 90’s influenced band, I like to try and fit in some of that mournful psychedelic stuff where I can.

Syd: I am a huge rock fan, but I also love Country music and the uplifting sound of Spanish music. I love the harmonies in country music which maybe helps inspire me with the backing vocals? Within our genre I think there are lots of sub-genres infused, or just right out in the open! You can hear Queens of The Stone Age, something Sarah calls her Beatles harmony, even Portishead and Tool. Part of what makes us musically interesting is our unique blend of so many styles – we think so anyway!

What are your plans for the future?

Ads: To play loud to people that exist.

Will: We were in the studio a short while back working on some new tracks, we’ve got some shows lined up, maybe there’s a new album secretly brewing in Sarah’s head. If there is, I’ll be ready to tackle it head on!

Syd: To keep doing what we’re doing and see where it takes us. I think the future is exciting!

Sarah: Gigs! Always playing live, ideally some festivals – maybe abroad!?! I’d like to write 15 songs (I’ve got 7 or 8 so far) and make 10 of them good enough for a second album. And lately I’ve been toying with the concept of a remix EP of our favourite songs in different styles? A swing version, maybe a dance remix….it could be fun! We are open to suggestions…

Dutch for Forest: An Interview with Cosmic Bos

Wading into the world of Cosmic Bos is not for the faint of heart, but I highly recommend it nonetheless. Over the past five years, the band has released twenty albums of improvised music along with videos and a podcast documenting their process. The self-contained unit does everything in-house—including music, video production, and marketing—so as to maintain full creative control over their art. I dropped them a line recently to see what makes Cosmic Bos tick and to learn a little more about their latest endeavor, Improv Squared, which allows other musicians to join in the fun. 

Let’s start with your name. “Cosmic” I get, but can you explain “Bos”?

Bos is Dutch for forest, also in English it’s a very lazy way to write boss. We had wanted our name to reflect the spiritual journey of music creation, to evoke the musical nature within us all, to give us all control over our creative destinies, to become our own Boss, to channel the Cosmic Forest, so yeah, Bos is Dutch for forest.

Cosmic Bos consists of Nick Jackson, Andy Jackson, and Joe Philogene. What does each of you bring to the project, and how did you start making music together? 

Andy and Nick are brothers and have been making music together for a very long time, Joe has been working with the pair for several years, appearing on the Cosmic Bos Improv Music podcast since the first season back in 2019. Andy and Nick are both seasoned singer/songwriters with a rich history of improvisation and worked together on previous projects including Products of Monkey Love Podcast (the original improv music podcast from 15 years ago), Vocalizer, Donny Stax & and Meta-Cassette. 

Joe became a full member of Cosmic Bos back at the start of 2021, with four full improvisation sessions making up the backbone of the third season of Cosmic Bos Improv Music Podcast. Joe brings a worldly vibe and rich musical knowledge and history to the project, with his traditional African instruments and his wise soul. 

Andy and Nick are multi-instrumentalists, and both do all the parts of the project, playing the music, mixing the music, releasing the music, shooting the music videos, editing the music videos and releasing the music videos.

What drew you to improv music in particular?

Andy – “the rush you get when you make something up on the spot and it lands is like drugs, and when you can do that with other people it’s an almost transcendent experience, like all taking drugs together. The music side of it was born out of my love for improv comedy, and not quite understanding why improv musical comedy followed such rigid rules for improvisation on the music side of the equation, all geared up for the comedy but little to no freedom in the music.”

Both Andy and Nick grew up with Whose Line is it Anyway? Which certainly helped with a love of improv. 

I’m curious about the extent of your improvisation. A track like “Space Babies,” for example, sounds very polished to me. Is it all just off the top of your heads, as it were? Lyrics, chords, and melody? Do you have any material or framework in place before you start recording? More broadly, how does your process work? 

Well, in the case of “Space Babies” that was indeed a prewritten set of lyrics. Andy has a big Book of Songs (Big B.o.S) full of poems/lyrics which often help inform the music creating process. The music in our sessions is always completely improvised, but if you hear well polished rhymes then the lyric is most likely prewritten, with the melody being improvised over the improv music. Our process is one of removal rather than overdubbing, so if something doesn’t sound quite right then we will just remove it.

On our record “Sunrise Reflections,” you can hear the original improvised version of Space Babies, this is also the version we made the first Space Babies video to, where Baby Theo is literally floating about in space. We were really pleased with how the song had come out of the improv, so we rerecorded it, so we could tighten up its structure, make it a tiny bit faster and put on a ridiculous intro. Then we made another video, this time allowing Baby Theo to build a rocket to take into space. So the extend of the improv is loose, but having a set of lyrics in front of you doesn’t dictate melodies, so sometimes you have to drop words or add in ones to make the lyrics fit the music. We have done it so much by this point that it feels like a game, one with surprising outcomes each time.

Your podcast offers an incredibly detailed look at how you make music. I’m reminded of the old saying about not wanting to know how the sausage is made. Cosmic Bos turns that notion on its head, taking listeners behind the scenes and, in effect, provides a glimpse into the sausage-making. What’s the idea there? 

Because we’ve made so many albums over the years, and have learnt all the in’s and out’s associated with the process, it only seemed right to lay it all out in the open. Back in 2019 we made a documentary about our process, and in the interim years our process has changed considerably. We also wanted to take a bit of a break from releasing improv music every month, and go back to our roots. Cosmic Bos put out our debut album back in 2017 and since then we realised we haven’t actually made an album in the traditional way for five years. It feels right to us to show our process, in the hope that it inspires others to have a go, making music is the most fun thing we know how to do and sharing that with people is the next most fun thing to do.

Humor is also a major element of what you do, but I wouldn’t describe your songs as “jokey.” Why is humor important to you, and how do you balance it with the more “serious” side of making music, for lack of a better term?

Because improvisation is usually associated with comedy it seemed only natural to include some of it in our work. For both Nick and Andy it’s fair to say they are heavily influenced by The Beatles, and in particular the fun loving approach to music that they had. You would never call The Beatles a comedy band, but songs like “Yellow Submarine,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and “Piggies” to name a few, are clearly meant to invoke humour, while also not being laugh out loud funny. It’s a unique place in music and we love to explore it. We also find that having humour in our work allows for the serious songs to hit with more gravitas, for example, our latest single ‘Vaccine’ is a very heavy song comparing humanity to a virus, but it is paired up with ‘Sir, France is ‘cross the Sea, See’ which is a silly quirky song about language and the French. We have to give a big shout out to our comedy musical influences, with Monty Python, Weird Al, Flight of the Conchords, Tenacious D and The Lonely Island all being inspirations. And finally, Nick and Andy are brothers and as such are mandated to try and make each other laugh at all times.

I definitely hear the Flight of the Conchords influence! You also have a pretty strong following. I saw, for example, that your video for “Astral Underwear” had 7,000 views within weeks of its release. Do you have any advice for building a following? 

Just do your craft, that’s the best advice we can give. Andy and Nick have both been releasing music and video content for 20 years, and for 14 years YouTube has hosted that. We are part of the YouTube partnership program meaning we can host ads on our videos and also promote ourselves, which helps with building a following on that platform, but we had to get to over a thousand subscribers and something like 140,000 hours watched before we got to that point. We always try to make content that we want to share with the world, rather then chasing trends, and our following has grown steadily over time, there must be better ways to build bigger audiences, but they most likely would include compromises to artistry, and at the end of the day we consider ourselves artists.

Do what you love doing, and if no one will help you, then just do it all yourself, it has never been easier to make music then it is right now. Building a following is a byproduct of doing what you love, at least, if you want that following to stick around.

And what about Improv Squared? What’s the idea there, and how is the project coming along? 

Improv Squared is our latest distillation of the music making process. For the first two years of our podcast we made improv-revisation with a producer and performer Chris Mace. That process involved a day of improvising music, followed by a month of revising that music. It was long winded, but we managed to get seventeen albums out of it, with a variety of musicians joining us along the way for an episode or two (which is how we first worked with Joe). For the third year of our podcast we made completely improvised albums, four in total, with Chris stepping aside and Joe becoming the third member. We were searching for the space between these two improv techniques, and we think we found it.

Back in October last year (2021) we started work on Improv Squared, with “Astral Underwear” and “Ensemble Story” being the first two songs we made using the process. It was done by improvising for four minutes, and then overdubbing that improv with another improv, and then another. We put out videos to both these songs which shows us literally recording them. We then booked up sessions with Chris Mace and Joe Philogene to craft five more songs (“Vaccine” and “Back is Back” with Chris, “Champignon, Lumiere,” “Badder Decisions,” and “Talking Frog” with Joe), did an improv squared session with our good friend Donny Stax (“Magic Fun Guy”), crafted two songs using lyrics by Dayne Howcroft (“Faded Memories” and “Forever Bruised”) and constructed our French language dance track (“Sir, France is ‘cross the Sea, See”). These eleven tracks make up the first Improv Squared album titled Petite Champignon de Lumiere which is available on Bandcamp and everywhere else 1st April 2022.

We are already constructing the next set of improv squared songs to send out to other artists to build up album two, and if you are a musician and you would like to get involved then drop us an email at cosmicbos@gmail.com  

Anything else on the horizon?

Hopefully more live performances, but other than that, focusing on making our album ‘The O Door’ and podcasting out the whole process, and improv squareding with all the wonderfully creative musicians around the world.  

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions! 

It was a pleasure, thanks for asking.

Interview by Marc Schuster.