When I show up at the Wicker Park apartment Adam Gil and Daniel Perzan share with two other guys, Super Mario Kart for the SNES is paused on the TV. Gil and Perzan, half of the band Yawn, have just climbed out of a cluttered basement whose walls are covered in creepy, fading murals of biblical scenes, a space they’ve partially converted into a rehearsal room and recording studio.
“It’s a great life, man,” Gil says. “We just come up here and play Super Nintendo when we’re sick of recording. And when we’re sick of that we go back down.”
Yawn are still a pretty green band. They’ve been together about two years, and so far their only releases are a self-produced, self-titled EP from last fall and a collection of remixes that came out in mid-May—both of which they’ve given away online at yawntheband.com. They’re not in talks with a label and have no booking agent. Gil and Perzan, both 23, work in their dads’ offices, the former at an architecture firm and the latter at a medical supply company; the other two members, Jorge Perez, 22, and Sam Wolf, 23, are both undergrads at UIC, studying electrical engineering and history, respectively. They’ve all been friends since high school.
For a group that’s only played seven shows outside Chicago, though, they’re doing pretty well for themselves. They opened for indie darlings Yeasayer in Saint Louis on April 26, filling in for Sleigh Bells, and in March at South by Southwest they snagged a slot at the Fader Fort, one of the most-hyped venues at the festival. Since then Pitchfork has posted two tracks from the EP to the Forkcast section of the site, and on Monday it will premiere the video for one of them, “Kind of Guy.”
But for now, Yawn’s business is in that basement. Though they fantasize about capitalizing on their buzz with a west-coast tour, they’re in the middle of recording a second EP—one track of which, “Acid,” they leaked to the Internet this winter. Every time the band, or any subset of the band, starts working in the practice space, it’s like a continuation of an extended studio session that’s lasted for most of Yawn’s existence. “For us recently,” Gil says, “the writing process has been the recording process. One of us will have a snippet of a song and we’ll start putting it into the computer and go, ‘Where do we go from here?'”
Each member takes on multiple roles—vocals, keys, and guitar for Gil; guitar, bass, and sometimes percussion for Perzan, bass, keyboards, and occasional vocals for Wolf, drums for Perez, and samplers and electronics for pretty much everybody—which means it’s easier for Yawn to build up a song bit by bit as different players drop in and add parts. Their current process is almost the opposite of how they started out—they wrote by jamming, a holdover from their first band together, a Pixies-influenced guitar-rock outfit called Metrovox with all the same members. “We got sick of that,” Gil says. He and Perzan “bought some samplers and our music tastes changed.”
This shift coincided with their discovery of synth lovers from Brian Eno to Ariel Pink, sample-based groups like Avalanches, and a compilation of Bollywood soundtrack music passed down from Perez’s parents, which he says has been “really big” for the band. Listening to Yawn’s EP, you might get the impression you’re hearing a bunch of young guys who grew up on alt-rock or punk suddenly learning how big the world of music actually is, then pillaging all their new finds for raw materials—and that’s pretty much what’s happening. Samples from the Bollywood comp show up in the drum parts to some of their songs, and the nimble guitar leads laced through them betray a fascination with West African highlife. Animal Collective has had a huge effect on Yawn’s aesthetic too, providing a rough template for their attempts to fuse electronic experimentation with catchy indie pop, and they love Beyonce and radio R & B—though that influence is more on the subliminal side.
Yawn’s frequent appropriation of stylistic cues from non-Western cultures has earned them plenty of comparisons to Vampire Weekend, and like that band they don’t see such borrowings as colonialism. In Wolf’s view they’re a natural outgrowth of the digital age. “It may have to do with just the more-interconnectedness of the world today,” he says, “and how easy it is to hear this kind of music, and not really try and limit yourself to this one type of sound.”
Yawn have the particular talent it takes to combine indie-pop fundamentals, a vaguely African melodic sensibility, and washes of abstract sound into music that hangs together organically—”Kind of Guy,” maybe their catchiest song, is a perfect example—but in other respects they’re proud amateurs. Like many of their peers, they learned the basics of electronic music—basic sampling skills, step sequencing—mostly through trial and error. “We always kinda resented thinking of a band as having to be technically proficient at one instrument,” Wolf says, “because it just seemed limiting to be so obsessed with one particular instrument. I was actually a music major and I was kinda just turned off by that whole thing.” In videos of their Fader Fort set, they hold it together fine, but at times they look worried the songs are about to fly apart.
That kind of onstage insecurity is a predictable side effect of being an idea band first and a get-in-the-van band second, if at all. Fortunately Yawn are still coming up with good ideas. Their remix collection came about after they posted the individual instrumental and vocal tracks to the songs from their EP online, accompanied by an open invitation to remixers; they pared about two dozen responses down to an 11-track mix that expands the band’s genre mashing exponentially. German producer Groovehahn turns “Toys” from an AnCo-goes-Bollywood dream-pop tune into a booming, hip-hop-inflected club banger. New Yorker the Great Red Shark gives the same song a dubstep treatment that makes an implicit connection between the genre’s trademark wobbly bass and the swooping, pitch-bending low-end percussion of bhangra. And in one of the more radical transformations, local friend of the band Starfoxxx refashions “Kind of Guy” into something you might call tribal juke.
If they put their backs into to it, Yawn could probably get signed, given the exposure they’ve already had and the fact that their most obvious influences include some of the biggest indie-rock bands in the world. “We wouldn’t be opposed to having a label come up to us and maybe ask us to do a vinyl or something,” Perzan admits. But they’re in no rush. When they finish their next EP, they plan to post it online for free, just like all the rest of their recordings. “I don’t think we’re ready for people to pay for our music yet,” he says.