I did a bit of writing for Rip It Up in the early-mid 00s, mostly reviews and a weird little column called “Wellington Rumours” and every now and then they’d get me to write a longer essay or interview someone. One of my favourites was talking to Pete Yorn. I was glad to find this interview again and wanted to republish it for a couple of reasons. It’s a perfunctory piece, as far as my input – but it’s stayed with me for many years, a lot of Yorn’s sentiment. I was a fan of his debut album, then the follow-up was dull, the album he released at the time of this interview was good, but I quickly forgot about it. Anyway, it wasn’t about his music or fandom, it was about finding a very self-aware, sometimes self-effacing musician. He was honest. A rare thing in interviews. The thing I crave. He admitted to not caring about things he was perhaps ‘supposed’ to care about, he geeked-out when talking about the music that wasn’t his; he was a guy finding his way, almost baffled by the “overnight success” stuff. And then he just nailed it at the end of the interview with a line that I’ve heard other musicians say since, but I’ve never quite believed it from most of them. I wonder what Yorn is up to. I never kept up with his music. I hope he’s doing well in this word. Wherever he is, whatever he’s up to. I might go listen to that debut album again now…anyway, here’s the interview (from around 2006/2007, I guess?)
“Things change when you least expect it. That’s all I can say really. I never set out to write about the things I’m writing about – life just has this way of changing on you, good or bad, and as a writer you adapt to that, feed off it and reflect those changes in your work”.
Pete Yorn is straight in to it. I asked him about the loose thread through his trilogy of studio albums to date. And Yorn, on the line from America, is quick to explain his approach to work. He loves music. Loves playing. But as a writer, he is determined to stay earnest – to capture what is happening to him, to reflect the state of his life, whether grim or happy.
You may remember Pete Yorn from his 2001 solo debut, musicforthemorningafter. It seemed to leap out of nowhere and quickly gained some chart success for the singles and a heap of critical acclaim. Yorn’s lucky break was to have his ridiculously catchy song, Strange Condition, chosen for the soundtrack to the Farrelly brothers’ farce (and Jim Carey vehicle) Me, Myself & Irene. Yorn scored the role of scoring the film – a couple of his songs really stood out, helping morningafter when it arrived the following year.
Since then Yorn has taken his time between albums, releasing the overly reflective Day I Forgot (2003) and now Nightcrawler. So you see the thread: morning, day, night. But this alleged “trilogy” was, Yorn is adamant, never planned.
“I have never been trying to consciously follow anything up – or beat the album before, or link to it, or anything”.
The end result, three albums that vaguely capture their titular emotions and circumstances, is, as far as Yorn will admit, “just what happened”. He backs it up, “sure, as you grow, you experience more, but these themes I’m exploring are pretty universal. I mean, you’ve got love, death, mortality, adulthood, maturity – these are recurring themes; and not just for me. I’m not doing anything new here – just doing what I do”.
Pete Yorn might give the impression of being aloof, but that’s not so. He’s happy talking about his own work, but doesn’t seem overly boastful and doesn’t see what the big deal is. He doesn’t have favourites amongst his albums. When I suggest that the latest record must be his pick, he laughs softly and replies, “well that sounds like marketing to me. That’s someone else’s job. Honestly, I don’t have favourites – I don’t even see the point in comparing albums. This new one is just a piece of work I’ve put out – it’s just another album, just like the other ones are; a collection of work”. Again, he repeats, “this is what I do”.
But engage Yorn on the subject of one of his favourite artists and he’s happy to chat – in fact it’s like talking to a like-minded music fan.
“I love The Smiths. Oh man, I love The Smiths – they were such a big early influence. Such good melodies and Morrissey is so funny – a lot of people don’t instantly pick up on how funny he is, cos they’re like, you know, trying to get in to the music and be all deep. The Smiths are one of those great stage-bands, you know? Like you find The Smiths at a certain point in your life and that’s what they’re about. And for me that was true – they were one of the first groups I heard where it was more than just being about the music, it was…it was…” I realise he’s pausing for affect as much as anything, “like a total mentality!”
Another hero is Bruce Springsteen. Since 2003’s slightly lackluster second album, Yorn has been compared to Springsteen. He’s flattered by the compliment, but remains baffled. “I don’t really see it – and I’m not just saying that, not trying to be modest. The thing with me and Springsteen is, I never liked him growing up. You know, I’m from [New] Jersey and if you’re from Jersey, it’s like, Springsteen is it. And I just figured, why bother, ya know? What’s the point!” He laughs, loud, almost mocking himself. “And so I got in to all sorts of other things, but then when I was older, I dunno, maybe like 21 or something, it just clicked and I got right in to Springsteen. And my god, he’s so good – just so pure”.
Perhaps the comparisons stem from Yorn’s insistence of playing at least once Springsteen cover in every set?
“Yeah, I guess”, he offers, nonchalantly. “But you know, I’m sure journalists who say that, or fans that think it are just trying to be nice or whatever, but it’s like he’s so vivid in his storytelling. And I’m not. I’m more abstract, with little suggestions. And he’s very direct – an amazing teller of tales. I’m not trying to do that, and even if I was trying to be like him, I know I couldn’t. That’s part of why I like him. We’re kinda like two different painters really. The styles are not similar but you can like both”.
The reason given for covering signature tunes of The Boss’ is simply that “they’re fun songs to play”. And this figures high in Yorn’s reasoning when constructing his setlists. Junior Kimbrough songs are played. The Grateful Dead’s Friend Of The Devil gets a regular airing, so too does Warren Zevon’s Splendid Isolation which was recorded for the tribute album, Enjoy Every Sandwich but also ended up making it on to Nightcrawler.
“Warren? Yeah. Man, he’s great. Although, I gotta be honest, I’d never even heard the tune before I was asked to do it?”
“Really man, I kid you not. Warren’s son, Jordan, was putting together that tribute album and he approached me. I had to go in to the shop and buy a copy to hear it. But yeah I love it – as soon as I heard it, I just loved it. And I just got right in to Warren’s back catalogue from there”.
Yorn’s first passion with music is playing the drums. Something he still does on his albums. “I get these feelings of being like rusty, you know, cos I can’t really play drums much on tour, I have to be up the front singing the songs. And I like that. But I love drums man, I love making noise!”
Maybe it’s that early grounding of hiding at the back and thrashing away while his older brothers played their guitars or his piano-teaching mum sat in, but Yorn admits that he is not a born showman. “I love playing live, because I like putting my songs out there but I wouldn’t say I’m a born entertainer. For me it’s about presenting the songs and playing some covers that I like and just doing my best”.
Rave reviews of his shows suggest that the influence of Springsteen hovers, with long sets played out by a hard-working band.
The interview is nearly over, we’ve talked about his early (and enduring) influences, but it’s time to address that early hype that Pete Yorn received after his knockout 2001 debut.
“You know what, good reviews are nice and all, but my sister-in-law has a great line, she told me that if you believe all the good reviews, you have to believe the bad ones too”.
Nice guy Pete Yorn, relaxed, humble and just happy doing what he does. Oh and his new album is a real return to form.