I can’t deny that the “surprise” appearance of Jackson Browne and Fiona Apple at Blake Mills’ performance at World Café Live Last week was one of my musical highlights of 2014. However, it wasn’t the tentative possibility of seeing the legendary singer/songwriters, in a 200-capacity setup, that drew me to the gig, or even the guitar virtuoso that is Mills himself. It was openers, yMusic, who also went on to accompany Mills throughout much of his set. yMusic is a NYC, instrumental six-piece who blur the lines between the “popular” and the “classical.” yMusic is comprised of a string trio, flute, clarinet, and trumpet, which produce a brand of baroque pop that is easily as indebted to “composers” as it is to the most progressive and independently produced popular music and whose players have, individually, toured with the likes of Bjork, Paul Simon, and David Byrne (among many additionally impressive names). They recently released their sophomore LP, Balance Problems, which is comprised of new compositions composed by indie-ultra-heavy-hitters likeNico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens (again, among many additionally impressive names). Just yesterday they unveiled their music video for “Bladed Stance,” (which can be seen below) a song off of Balance Problems, written by Marcos Balter. They also have a small handful of upcoming dates which have them collaborating with documentary filmmaker Sam Green (10/23 at ICA in Boston; 11/15 at Reynolds Industries Theater in Durham, NC; and 11/21 at the Kitchen in New York). After their recent stop at World Café Live I got a chance to chat with yMusic violinist/guitarist Rob Moose about the band, how they came together, and what’s currently in the works for the band.
Izzy Cihak: So, first off, I think your name, inspired by “Generation Y,” is really amazing and I am, indeed, also a member of that generation. I’m curious, what do you consider to be the definitive characteristics of “Generation Y?”
Rob Moose: As musicians, members of yMusic have benefitted from advancements in technology that have enabled us to be exposed to an unprecedented amount of music. This ever-growing and easily accessible archive has fueled our curiosity and fostered the creation of the group. At the same time, it’s a double edged sword, because it’s harder and harder to make a living as a musician in the world of streaming music. But our generation came into the professional world as all of the preexisting industry was collapsing or changing, and we have never had the luxury of taking that for granted, and it certainly keeps us on our toes, if nothing else!
Izzy: And you seem to have a really poignant take on the value of both what is considered “classical” and that which is considered “popular,” which would both seem to be largely arbitrary and useless terms. Is there anything that you think is especially important for fans and potential fans to know about your views on something as big as music?
Rob: We are all conservatory-trained musicians who were raised on the classics — Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms — but who grew up listening to pop music, some of us engaging with it as players, others as casual but consistent listeners. After graduating, we started to run into each other at gigs with bands and songwriters, people like The National and Sufjan Stevens. Early on in our careers, we were able to combine our classical training with song structures and idioms from the pop/rock world, and began to feel as much a part of that community as the classical world. For us, the music that these artists were creating was worthy of every ounce of our training, and we felt it was important to champion it, so much so that we asked some of these people to write instrumental concert music for our group to play. As a result of this chronology, we have always been equally and simultaneously involved in both worlds, and the distinction has largely ceased to exist.
Izzy: You recently released your sophomore effort, Balance Problems. How would you compare this album to your debut? Do you feel like there are any significant differences in your mindsets this time around?
Rob: Our two albums are very distinct, and while we love all our children equally, we are extremely proud of the new record. Balance Problems not only hosts seven amazing pieces by some of the most interesting young composers we’ve heard, but it’s also a strong statement about production and sonics in the world of chamber music. In classical music, a producer is someone whose primary responsibility is to give you performance feedback as you track an album in a hall, essentially attempting to capture a live performance with the flexibility of editing and such. In pop music, the producer is like a band member, and plays a huge role in choosing, fleshing out and arranging the content, as well as in shaping the way an album is going to sound. We wanted to create a three-way conversation between composer, artist, and producer to bring the pieces we play to life, and to make the experience consistent with those we’ve had in popular music. We were lucky enough to work with the amazing Son Lux, who oversaw every sonic angle during tracking, mixed the record, and interwove little overdub ideas he proposed to us to create an album every note of which is true to the written page, but every second of which leaps out of the speaker in a way that we have always dreamed chamber music could!
Izzy: I almost always ask this of artists but, do you consider yourselves to have any particularly significant non-musical influences, whether other genres of art, or simply certain aspects of life?
Rob: We all spend a lot of time in restaurants, and when our group is functioning at its highest level, it often reminds me of the kitchen of a very high level restaurant. Everyone has a role, urgency and calm execution co-exist, and nourishing entertainment is the goal.
Izzy: You just played a number of gigs with Blake Mills, including a stop here in Philadelphia at World Café Live. How is playing with him again (I realize you have before)? What are your thoughts on the guitarist and composer? I go to more than 100 gigs a year and his collaborative tour with Fiona Apple last year was the most progressively intriguing thing I’ve seen in I feel like at least half a decade.
Rob: Blake is a phenomenal artist, and we are honored to be able to open for him and participate in his set. It’s rare to work with someone who is such a master on their instrument that it feels like they are as much joining in our chamber music sphere as we are in their song world. I did the string arrangements on Blake’s record, and they have adapted nicely to yMusic’s formation.
Izzy: And how would you characterize yMusic live?
Rob: yMusic live feels like the combination of a picnic on a slightly brisk but pleasant fall day and what I imagine the inner workings of a, like, high level Danish factory would be like. We enjoy each other’s playing, we crack up sometimes, but we are also playing at 100mph and never fully comfortable.
Izzy: How do you hope to spend 2015? Any more touring in the works? Any new music in the works?
Rob: We have a very exciting 2015 ahead of us. Or so we think! We are in the early stages of a collaborative record with Ben Folds, and we have recently performed and recorded with Jose Gonzalez, and look forward to more concerts with him in the future. Additionally, we are touring with a project called The Measure of All Things, which is essentially a multi-media “live documentary” created by Sam Green.