Reverb Interview: Pete Yorn

Pete Yorn isn’t afraid to change things up. Over the course of eight solo records, he’s approached the recording process from a variety of angles, from writing and performing every part to hiring an independent backup band to engaging with high-profile collaborators. He’s gone from more folk-y guitar-based compositions to now writing predominantly on keyboards.

On Arranging Time, Yorn’s first solo album in nearly five years, he returns to his musical roots, writing the songs and providing virtually all of the instrumentation by himself.

From Europe, and just before the kick off of his North American tour, Yorn spoke with Reverb about his new album, writing with keyboards rather than guitars, his constantly changing approach to recording, his collaborations with Natalie Maines, Scarlett Johansson and J.D. King, and the challenge of balancing creaky old guitars and amps with modern, technological flourishes while touring.

The new album Arranging Time has been described as a return to your musical roots. What influenced that decision?

It's more the recording approach. When I started out, my signature sound was me playing most of the instruments, especially the drums, bass and guitar. After making a bunch of records that way, I wanted to try something different.

I remembered hearing stories about Dylan and how he’d have a song, go to a studio and there would be a bunch of musicians; he would teach them the song once and then they would track it. It kind of had that freewheeling feel, and I wanted to try to record like that. So my last two records have more of that backing band sound, but I gave up a lot of control, which was a trade-off for me. At the same time, it was just fun to try a new approach. After doing that, I wanted to play everything again.

Another thing is that a part of this record was recorded by R. Walt Vincent, the guy with whom I did my first couple of records. Hooking up with him again was cool. He'd just moved into a new loft in Los Angeles and was setting up a new studio. So I went down there, and we'd just naturally record music. I remembered real quick why I liked working with Walt: the cool aesthetic that he brings to the table. Then it branched out.

Did that change your choice of instrumentation?

I wanted to start a bunch of songs on keyboards and piano. I'm not a great piano player; it's probably my weakest instrument. But I would phrase my chords differently that way. I think starting off from there would take this all in a different direction than if I just started recording acoustic guitar.

What kind of keyboards are you using?

Sometimes it's a shitty old upright; sometimes it will be an old Juno or an old Prophet 5, and I have this old student Rhodes. I love the synth strings right out of a sampler from old keyboards, so we use a lot of that stuff. Definitely a lot of digital stuff in the computer, like old sample libraries. They sound really great.

1985 Sequential Circuits Prophet 5

I've made records on tape — really pure: old mics, old gear — and I've made records totally digital with MIDI and stuff like that. I love the results from both. People get so dogmatic, like it has to be one way or the other. I just feel like it's so much more the driver and not the cars.

That's a great way to put it. Are you using any new modular gear on it?

Yeah. This is a very heavy record for me. It's all over the place. I think it comes as a reaction that the last record I made, this side project called The Olms. It was an old gear, vintage '60s record: guitars, drums and some old keyboards, but no samples. After doing that, I just wanted to fuck around with the drum machines and my shitty little keyboards. There's a lot of that on this record. You hear it right away from the first track. The single “Lost Weekend” has a lot of very electro sounds.

You've done several collaborations, like The Olms, on top of your solo work. How are they different? Which do you prefer? Why?

I just see what I'm into at the moment. Once I get it out of my system, I want to do something else. Collaborating is cool. My third record is called Night Crawler and Natalie Maines from Dixie Chicks sang these beautiful background harmonies on a couple of songs; one of them is “The Man.” That was maybe the catalyst for when I worked with Scarlett Johansson on Breakup. I wanted to do a record with a female perspective and sing with a woman, but I wrote all of the songs myself.

You hear stories about Lennon and McCartney and these partnerships in writing songs. I never had that; I was kind of a very solitary writer. With The Olms, I decided I wanted to do something where you fight with somebody and you finish each other's sentences. I was trying to have that. So I just started naturally working with J.D. King, he's a good buddy of mine and he's a really good songwriter. We made this project, and that was cool. I did that right before I finished my new record. I think that getting away from my old stuff for a little bit and exploring other things enabled me to get back to my stuff with a really fresh perspective.

What lyrical themes do you explore? Are there any overarching themes on the record?

A theme for me might not be what somebody else gets out of it; I encourage people to see what they're going to see in it. As far as the title Arranging Time, it's a reminder to take in the present moment. I think that that is represented in the characters in the different songs.

Sometimes you've got a character who is stuck in the past or one who's worried about the future, and someone who might be super zen’ed out or just in the moment. I hear sometimes all three of those voices within one song; the verse will be one character, and the chorus another and then the bridge is the character seeing all of it from a distance and saying, "This is how it is." I play with that stuff. It just kind of happens.

I like that. It's not like a singer-songwriter baring their soul so much; it's a multi-perspective, more-philosophical exploration of these themes.

Exactly. Definitely.

Any new or noteworthy gear influencing your sound our your songwriting approach?

Roland SPD-30-BK Octapad

For live, the Roland SPD pad. That thing is invaluable to me. There are a lot of loops and samples and stuff going on. I have a four-piece band and I really wanted to present the sound of the record live. We're able to kind of trigger all of the sounds from the record, so that pattern trigger is really is invaluable.

It's just such a simple piece of gear, too, and it's pretty reliable. It's a cool thing. On the record, it was all done digitally. Live, it has a balance of vintage stuff and new stuff. It will be like creaky old guitars and amps, and we'll balance it with modern, technological flourishes. That's kind of the sound of my first record, and definitely the sound of this record.

Any advice that you would offer to an aspiring songwriter or player?

Follow your emotions and keep an open mind. Don't listen to the radio too much because listening to the radio and thinking you're going to make music? You just sound like something else that's already out there. So just do your thing.

Whatever bands you're into, find out who they're influenced by and go find who they were influenced by. Don’t become like them, but mash them all together and then you’ll have your own sound. As a creative person, you just have to love the struggle because it's fucking hard to do. Most likely no one is ever going to pay attention to you, so you've got to be cool with that. When people reject you, you just have to laugh it off; you have to be a masochist in that way and keep plowing forward. At some point you've got to be realistic; if it's not working and you've got to do something else and that's it.

Pete Yorn (Photo by Jim Wright)

Did you come from a musical family? Did you always know you were going to be a professional?

No. My dad was a dentist, and my mom played piano, but it was never a thing. My brothers had a drum set in the basement. They were a few years older than me, so they were already in high school and in college when I was seven years old. I grew up worshipping my brothers, and they turned me on to so much music as a kid; a lot of formative moments with music happened from them.

They would have their early '80s burnout friends come over and play Iron Maiden and Judas Priest covers in my basement. I would just watch them cranking Marshall amps and just rocking loud. I would just watch this, no earplugs or anything, and think, "Wow, this is so cool!" Then my middle brother finally taught me how to play drums a little bit. I just kind of ran with it.

I learned how to play guitar when I was around 12 because I wanted to write songs. It was always just for fun. I went to college — I was supposed to go to law school — and I never thought I was going to make music for a career; I just liked doing it. By the time I was finishing up college, I was writing a lot of songs, and I was like, "I could always go to law school." So I decided to try music for a little bit and, if it doesn't work, I'll go to law school. I'm still trying the music thing.

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