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.

The Shoot (Part Two)

Mike and Miranda are good people — smart, creative, and funny. They’re my go-to friends whenever I have an idea that involves music or robots or both — like the time I asked them to dress up as robots for a show at the historic Old Haverford Friends Meetinghouse or the time they accompanied me and Tim Simmons for a show at the historic Rusty Nail in Ardmore, Pennsyvlania. (I only play at historic venues.)

Even so, it takes a lot of pacing and talking to myself just to get out of the house and into my car. The plan was to stay home all afternoon and play with my dog, Gordon. The plan was never to drive to Mike and Miranda’s house to shoot a video. As a result, there are knots in my stomach as I turn the key in the ignition and take one last look at Gordon, who is staring wistfully at me from the kitchen window.

This is not the plan.

This is not the plan.

This is not the plan.

But it’s okay, I tell myself.

It’s okay because sometimes good things happen when I go off-script. It’s okay because a scrap of paper on my desk reads Note to self for 2018: Get out more and be more social.
And it’s also okay because the route to Mike and Miranda’s house is a familiar one — not because I visit Mike and Miranda all that often but because it’s almost identical to my daily commute to work.

All told, the drive takes about forty-five minutes — time enough for the knots in my stomach to loosen a bit, but also time enough for me to second-guess the whole endeavor. What am I doing? Why am I doing this? What kind of egomaniac wants to star in a rock video? I’m a lactose- and gluten-intolerant forty-five-year-old man with a job and a house and a mortgage, for Pete’s sake.

The same concerns swirl around my head as I walk the path to Mike and Miranda’s front door and ring the doorbell. And wait. And wait. And wait. And wait.

Their dog is barking as I catch a glimpse of myself reflected in the glass of their screen door. Am I standing too close to the door, I wonder as I take a few steps back? Or am I standing too far now? I really wish someone would write a treatise on the appropriate distance to stand from someone’s front door after ringing the doorbell. It would make situations like this a lot easier to handle.

Enough! I say (in my head) to my reflection. Compose yourself!

And with that, the door opens.

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Robots!