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 Process Is the Motivation: An Interview with the Jasmine Monk (aka “Jaz”) of The Smashing Times

Thanks once again to Janglepop Hub for turning me on to another great band! This time around, it’s The Smashing Times. What really grabbed me about this band – even before I heard their music – was the fact that they were releasing their songs as singles on 45 RPM seven-inch vinyl. Given the price point, it’s the kind of move that takes more than a bit of chutzpah, but when I gave the music a listen, I ponied up and ordered the record, whose echoing, twangy guitars and plaintive vocals made me nostalgic for the days of my youth when the seven-inch single was the coin of the realm for indie bands. What really piqued my interest, though, was the fact that I couldn’t find any trace of the band on social media beyond their Instagram page, so I dropped them a line to find out more…

Who’s in The Smashing Times? How did you get together? What’s your working relationship like?

Myself – Jaz – Ole and Zelda/Anais. Ole and I knew each other from a now defunct punk house in Bellingham, Washington, that was called D. Street and I think may have even been on a street with a similar name to that. Anais and I go way back and similarly met at various occasions in odd places in those shabby early twenties bohemian party scene days. It’s interesting how being young and poor sort of deposits you in buildings that have gone without updates. It’s as if bohemia really does exist in some static dimension.

We sort of conceptualize what we want to do. When Ole and I first met again here in Baltimore we were sitting at Asian Taste talking about the Yardbirds and Mod Revival stuff, Squire, Purple Hearts, The Jam etc… For us the Television Personalities are really the perfect intersection between the punk DIY, irreverence, and the sick riffs of Petula Clark’s session musicians. Then Ole turned me on to The Times single “Red with Purple Flashes.” Holy moly, that single is everything. Our name is sort of a portmanteau of The Times and the single “Smashing Time,” also that film.

When we started, we wanted to be a mod revival band, but Anais had never drummed before and Ole hadn’t played bass in nine years or something. So, I wrote tunes that were carried by the vocals and guitar. We were drawing heavy from Cleaners from Venus, The Times, and TVPs on the first EP.

One thing I love about The Smashing Times is that I feel like you’re really going all-in on a kind of DIY nostalgia: seven-inch records, cassette releases, general avoidance of social media. Is that all part of a single conscious decision with respect to how the band presents itself, or is it just organic to who you are?

We are lucky to have inherited this concept from Crass. I’m so sick of perfect things and cleanliness. I want to make something with no motivation other than to make it. Like an Enso circle, the brush stroke is the art, the process is the motivation.

Ole is the largest contributor to our tactile and visual aesthetic, he is like our Gee Vaucher. Part of it is tradition, part of it is convenience and habit. I think on my last count I have been in 15 or 16 bands. And it’s like, here we go again, gotta get the tape out and then a single and try to get somebody to finance an LP. The price point on a single is about the same as a cassette but you can get a smaller batch of cassettes made and don’t have to sit on them for as long. Summer Inside happened because we were couped up for so long and couldn’t play shows so we were just like, lets make some tunes and keep putting out mixtapes.

It feels really good to me to have so much control over it. Ole and I started playing music during the Napster days, but people still bought CDs and LPs. It’s been awesome to have access to so much music but at the same time it has become really devalued. Having a tactile thing is like an offering to people who listen to the music. It’s like, hey you found us, good job, here is a thing most people can’t appreciate, but you listened, so here is a delightful bauble which, for your perseverance, you deserve to enjoy.  

We have another single in the bag but we are learning that the plants are still so backlogged with the success of Mcartney III that they don’t want to do singles anymore. They don’t really make money for the plant, labels, or for the bands. So yea, we do it so that little you, the listener, can enjoy the experience. Here is the single, get ready for the LP… “Big A, Little A, bouncing be. The system might have got you but it won’t get me.”

I mean, even the sleeve for the 45 I bought (“Dreams on Union”) is, I think, a hand-folded, photocopied sheet of letter-sized paper, just like the indie records I used to buy from bands when I was in college. I’m picturing the band hunched over a dinner table, folding the sleeves by hand and sliding each record into the package. Is that accurate, or am I romanticizing things?

It literally does happen across the kitchen table. I will try to get a pic for you.

The decision to photocopy it has to do with the early TVPs singles and the O-Level stuff. It’s sort of a shibboleth. Basically Ole sat me down with his collection of old stuff and said “look what Dan Treacy did, let’s do this.”

I know you work with the independent label Painter Man Records. How did that relationship come about? Broadly speaking, what does your deal look like, if you don’t mind me asking? I’m also curious about the choice to release cassettes and seven-inch singles. Was that their idea or yours—or is it more the result of a dialog between the artist and the label?

Technically the cassettes are on Heavy Numbers Choons, Painter Man distributes those. In truth the single is self-released. We like the Painter Man logo so we were fine with it being on there.

Ah, I see. Some but not all of your music is on Spotify and other streaming services. How do you decide what to release on Spotify and what to hold back, as it were?

We do it in batches and the single didn’t make it in the first batch.

You mentioned in our correspondence a while back that you’re based in Seattle. The city is legendary among music lovers for its indie music scene in the 1990s. What’s the scene like today?

We are from various parts of Washington. Inevitably you end up in Seattle. We are mostly from the northern-most part of the state and centered around Bellingham which is near the border with BC. Because of this we had a lock on Vancouver as well as Seattle and could help distros and touring bands facilitate the crossing. I played with Jay Arner in his old group Fine Mist up there and got deported the night we opened for Hercules and Love Affair. DEPORTED. They had us in this holding vestibule and they wouldn’t let my friend Rachel go to the bathroom. Imagine having to pee in the vestibule.

Seattle has become Amazon’s town and is basically unlivable for bohemians. We all moved to Baltimore in 2018 and then Covid happened. Seattle bands that I like are Super Crush and Shine. Baltimore bands that I like are Corduroy and Posmic. It’s cool to be in a new town and meet all these local characters and hear new music.

I’ll have to check them out! In terms of your music, one thing I really love about “Dreams on Union” is your effective use of pauses. They build a tiny amount of tension that propels the music forward like a little sonic slingshot. And, of course, there’s plenty of jangle and echo, which I also love. Can you say a little bit about how you record your songs—how you approach production and arrangements?

That is good to hear. I worried they might be too progressive. It happens differently every song. I write all the parts and have a general sense of arrangement. Anais has had a bigger hand in arrangement on our newer stuff. The arrangement is big part of the value of having band members is. Everyone has suggested things at one time or another that have worked out beautifully to my mind.

I wrote and arranged “Dreams.” Anais really did not want to learn it and hates playing it. That is probably where the tension came from. The drums on it are the first take. She just got up and walked out so we had to make do. I think it turned out well, I love idiomatic art and music. I feel like on the middle 8 bass part you can picture Ole being like “oh shit, what is next?” and that to me recreates the spontaneity of fabulous improvisation like the Velvets and Miles Davis but without the burden of all that horrid skill.

We have three Shure SM57s and some kind of Shure drum mic. I’ve learned a lot about how to use them and EQ and so on and so forth. I think you can really hear the progress. It’s slow going, I’m more of a tactile and intuitive person so rather than looking up a youtube video on how to do things I just dig in and learn from the mistakes as they happen. Those recordings are gloriously imperfect but that was where we were at the time and honestly it’s what we are going for.

I feel like that Sad Eyed Beatniks person really gets the indeterminacy thing. I listened to a bit of one of their tapes on Bandcamp, I heard the drums drop the beat, I’m having that. I bought all the tapes. Similarly, but not nearly as cool, check out the guitar solo on “Heart of Stone” by the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards frets out. He fucks up the solo and they keep it and it sells millions of copies. Because the imperfection is attractive.

What about writing? What moves you? What, to your ears, makes a good song?

I think we are all sort of coming to this realization that modern life is bunk. Anais and I are in our early thirties. They say you realize there is no future. Even if you can pay your bills, what is the point? That being said, vague lyrics about your condition are bound to strike a chord with someone, I think good poetry needs to be vague enough for a sort of empathic bond to be formed between the speaker and listener. Our shared suffering is where we form solidarity and understanding. The aughts were all about shrugging and racing to be the first one to say “I am detached.” But then we got around to watching Manufacturing Consent, it matters, art matters and solidarity matters, and it seems like awareness is beginning to grow. Pay it forward, you know?

The real challenge is marrying modern day problems with a wide array of 60s-90s British pop culture references and giving you that warm feeling in bottom of your belly like the first time you heard Ride or The Creation. I’ll never be able to do that like Mick Trouble does. Have you heard that LP? Amazing.

I’ll have to look for that one! I imagine playing live is a big part of how you’ve developed a fan base. Any chance you’ll tour anytime in the near future?

We are planning some gigs on the West Coast this June hopefully with Semitrucks from LA. Paul from Expert Alterations/Corduroy will be filling in on drums. We are pretty excited to hit the road again after the last couple years.

Any other plans?

We are wrapping up an EP and will be shopping an LP this summer! Our mastering dude says there are 18 month wait times on vinyl so look for the EP in 2023.

I am working with Blake from Corduroy on a second Midden Heap EP and Anais and I recorded an album in summer of 2021 under the name Roshan Gosh.

Sounds like you’re pretty busy these days! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me! 

Thanks for having me. It means a lot that there are people interested in representing underground music.

Album Review: Drawing from Memory by Scot Sax

There’s a reason Scot Sax is releasing his latest album on vinyl (and CD), and it’s not just that the medium is hip and cool these days. As a recording artist, Sax has been releasing a steady stream of tunes ranging from glam to funk to country and everything in between in one digital format or another for years. This time around, though, the songs have a warm vibe that demands the hum and crackle only vinyl can deliver.

The album is called Drawing from Memory, and it’s the kind of record you might stumble upon in your favorite record shop and think, “Huh… I thought I had all the great records from the 70s. How did I miss this one?” The vibe throughout is definitely retro in a completely unpretentious way. Maybe the best way to describe the album is as a love-letter to the music of the artist’s formative years.

Early on, the album has the feel of a Burt Bacharach record—or maybe, to more contemporary ears, it offers a not to some of Swedish popster Jens Lekman’s best tracks: a big, rich snare drum, lush strings, and a toy piano give way to sentimental lyrics in the album’s opener, “Where Do You Go to Cry?” From here, the album gradually morphs into something more along the lines of Carole King with “I Never Loved You,” a song whose lyrics recall “More Today Than Yesterday” by the Spiral Staircase but whose sound (figuratively speaking) is straight out of A&M’s Studio B, where Carole King recorded her legendary Tapestry album. Seriously, listen to the shaker-snare-piano-acoustic guitar combination on this track, and try to tell yourself it’s not 1972.

Other tracks on the album have something of a Beatles-post-breakup-solo-project feel to them. A slightly distorted slide guitar coupled with a lyrical sense of existential angst make a track called “Am I Still Living?” sound like it could be a lost Phil Spector-produced demo from George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass era, while a country-and-western drumbeat coupled with a funky synthesizer on “Song in A Minor” recall the homespun spirit of early Paul McCartney solo projects like McCartney and Ram.

Perhaps the most overt homage Sax offers on Drawing from Memory is “See All with No Sight,” whose Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac influence is undeniable. Here, a driving Mick Fleetwood floor-tom beat along with a twangy Lindsey Buckingham resonator guitar build up to a rocking chorus with a harmony line that you might, for a brief, shimmering moment, mistake for Stevie Nicks if you squint your ears just right.

Bottom line, if you love the adult-contemporary music that was beginning to seriously take root in the 1970s, you’ll love Drawing from Memory. Every track on the album recalls an era when people went out and bought LPs, brought them home, put them on the turntable, and just listened. At least in terms of music, it’s the best kind of memory to draw from.