Dancing on His Own
On Thursday, The Mohawk welcomes back Nashville's Night Beds, the creation of young Winston Yellen, who at age 23 has already recorded three EP's and a full-length album under the moniker.
Songs from his new album Country Sleep were a highlight of SXSW 2013; the album has drawn comparisons to early My Morning Jacket and Ryan Adams and has garnered great ink from NME, Pitchfork and The Guardian. While the music press have lapped up the record's backstory (Yellen recorded Country Sleep in a Tennessee home once occupied by Johnny and June Carter Cash), the tunes have less to do with The Man in Black and more with the classic sounds of alt-country.
We spoke with Yellen last week as he traveled through the Midwest en route to a Minneapolis show. Our topics of conversation included things you'd expect (tequila, Patsy Cline) and others you might not (like his love of Swedish pop star Robyn).
CultureMap: You were actually the very first band I saw at South by Southwest this year at the Pitchfork showcase. My friend said that you were setting us up for disappointment, because you guys were playing a very polished show in an environment that is usually pretty ramshackle. How was that SXSW experience was for you? How did you manage to sound prepared and tight when you guys were loading in and out in like 20 minutes?
Winston Yellen: You know, I don't know. I have to give a lot of credit to our sound guy. Our friend has been with us for a while, he knows how to dial it in, so I'm gonna give him the credit on that one. SXSW was good; it was a whirlwind, and I guess we had a couple shows where you're kind of thrown to the wolves. I think that's some of the fun part about it. It's very chaotic. I guess it invites that. It was wild, I've never been there before so it was very interesting to be a part of.
CM: Did you actually have time to watch any music or were you just gigging the whole time?
WY: No, though we were trying to catch a few things. It just didn't work out, we were pretty busy. So I mean, we played our label showcase and got to see all those bands and the Jagjaguar and Secretly Canadian guys, so that was cool to get to see some of the bands that we share a label with. Like Foxygen, for example.
CM: That Dead Oceans showcase is always one of the best shows of the year — it's usually stacked.
WY: Yeah, it's awesome.
CM: When researching reviews of your album, everyone likes play the name-check game and say, "This guy must like Heartbreaker by Ryan Adams or he must like Anodyne by Uncle Tupelo." What are your more stealthy influences? The things that you go back to again and again that aren't obvious from the sound of your record.
WY: That wouldn't be obvious? A lot of Motown. A lot of Diana Ross, Temptations, Marvin Gaye. Fleetwood Mac's The Dance, That's one of my favorite recordings ever. You know, stuff like that. Burl Ives, Bing Crosby. I can keep going. I could do this for hours.
CM: You're now doing some headlining dates, but you have a record that's 35 minutes long. What do you do to fill out the rest of your set?
WY: Killer dance moves. No, we do a couple of covers; we have a Gillian Welch cover that's going over well with our crowds. We have three EP's as well, so we'll do a couple of older songs. So yeah, it's actually pretty easy to pull off an hour at this point. An hour and fifteen is not out of reach. But we usually don't, because we want to keep it interesting and err on the short side. So it works.
CM: You leave them wanting more. The touring process these days is pretty lean — and pretty brutal — from everything we know of it. Other than the onstage time, is there anything fun about the process for you, any places or things you look forward to as you drive around the country?
WY: I like a lot of the drives themselves. You know, I like seeing the remote parts of America, and this tour is kind of that. Kind of the backwoods side, and I like it. There's the fireworks stands, the weird truck stops and weird people in the middle of nowhere in motels. Being in the weird parts of America is always good for me. But if you're not into the mundane or monotonous, it's definitely not for you.
CM: On Country Sleep, your storytelling and your songwriting are pretty direct and straightforward. Are you ever tempted when you write to mask an emotion or invent a character? It seems like you are talking pretty literally, and I wondered if you've ever experimented with doing something totally not that way.
WY: Well, until this record that was kind of how I'd written. I had a non-direct approach, and I think I liked being obscure or ambiguous with what I was saying. You know, playing with the words a lot more and phonetics. I think with this record I only did a little bit of that. On the third song I kind of fall back into that, that bastardized Whitman kind of stuff. But it is very intentional to be direct.
I took that form of writing in the vein of an old country song or a blues song. I'd never done that: approaching a song like that trying to just be as linear and direct as possible. I needled myself to write that way because that just captures a very nostalgic kind of old-timey way of writing songs. Like Patsy Cline songs, that is what I wanted to do.
So I disciplined myself to do that, because on a lot of songs I didn't want to say it like that. I wanted to use a metaphor or something more poetic, but that wouldn't have serviced what I was trying to do which was, you know, very simple.
CM: A much more frivolous question: You are going to be playing here in a sweaty indoor bar in June in Texas. If a fan wants to send a drink on stage, what should they send you?
WY: Oh man! Tequila usually, a nice tequila goes a long way with me on the rocks.
CM: Finally, as we were researching this interview, we found your AV Club cover of Robyn's "Dancing On My Own." What inspired you to cover that? It seemed like such an unlikely choice.
WY: Well, the list they gave us was limited. There were only like five songs left. And one was Modest Mouse and one was Radiohead. I just didn't want to go near that. And I actually like Robyn a lot. I like that record a lot. I like a lot of kind of pop and dancey stuff. I like the way she sings it. I really enjoy female voices and interesting Top 40 stuff, like The Dream. It just has a vibe to it that's very clubby. And that song is good.
CM: Robyn was actually one of the best live shows we've seen in the last couple of years.
WY: Dude, she kills it live. She is so good.
Night Beds play indoors at The Mohawk on Thursday, June 6. Doors are at 9 p.m., with support from Tristen and Reservations. Tickets are $10 advance and $12 at the door. Night Beds' full-length debut Country Sleep is out now on Dead Oceans.