It’s hard to put your finger on why listening to Yawn Mower feels so right. There are familiar sounds and structures in their songs that you’re sure you’ve heard before, but which you definitely haven’t. You’ll hear things on the duo’s forthcoming LP To Each Their Own Coat that evoke almost nostalgia—a wavering, lo-fi synth; a lightly distorted screaming guitar whipping through tight licks; a raucous drum kit that pulls you on a string from your bellybutton through the music; a song structure that seems to end every part with a period, only to open the next phrase with an exclamation point. And that voice, is it Stephen Malkmus, Wayne Coyne c. ’93, Ben Gibbard with a sinus infection? Did Yo La Tengo drink a bunch of Red Bull and release an album we don’t know about?
It’s deja vu music. You’re sure you’ve heard it, but none of the neural sparks are matching up to the memory receptors of your brain (I’m not a neurologist). It’s a throwback in the best sense of the word—music that builds upon a suite of influences to create something of the genre by which it’s inspired, but results in something original.
“This record is a love letter to all of our influences,” says guitarist and vocalist Mike Chick. “What’s cool about it is there are parts of songs that are nods to our favorite artists. That chorus sounds like Pavement, or that part sounds like Broken Social Scene. That part sounds like Mike Krol. ‘Sixteen Minutes’ [a track on the new LP] is a full-on love letter to Mike Krol. You try to walk this line of admiring and kind of sounding like who you admire, but you don’t want to be a complete rip-off act.”
“When we first started, the loose conversation was Pavement meets Death from Above 1979,” says Biff Swenson, drums. “I don’t think we frequently sounded like that.”
When they started, Yawn Mower had a form unique from those bands; they were a duo with a baritone guitar and a drum set. Sure they’d throw in some ancillary instruments—a trumpet, a synth—but the limits of that lineup helped generate a unique sound. It was also the best luck they had creating music together.
Chick and Swenson met playing in the Asbury Park band GayGuy/StraightGuy and then played together in a Nirvana cover band, for which they played a handful of shows, but spent a lot of time together practicing the catalog.
“That was the most Mike and I have gotten to hang out,” says Swenson. “We’d seen each other around the scene. We were practicing weekly for months, and figured out we have similar senses of humor.”
Also, the context of playing a cover band helped the two unpack universally beloved music, and hear a different response while on stage.
“You’re learning the guts of the song so I feel like it changes how you approach music. The same group of people ended up approaching Weezer; you learn another technique or think about it differently,” Swenson says.
“As an original band, you get a response, but when you play somebody else’s music and see everybody lose their shit to ‘Lithium,’ it’s amazing. It’s just really wild,” Chick says.
Adds Swenson, though: “By the time we were going to write, we were actively trying to not sound like Nirvana and GayGuy/StraightGuy.”
They’d been talking about doing something together, but the catalyst was a baritone guitar. When Chick got one, he called up Swenson and put plans in the works to get a group together. But something wasn’t working.
“Mike and I tried jamming at least twice with other people. Like months apart and it was never good,” says Swenson. “We felt discouraged every time. We finally had the idea that maybe we just do it as a two-piece. I think when Mike got the baritone, we jammed and after the first practice, we had two songs completely done. It was pretty natural once it was the two of us. Once we had the baritone, it kind of defined what we sound like pretty quickly.”
What creates Yawn Mower’s unique sound, apart from the songwriting, is the baritone guitar itself. The baritone guitar is slightly larger than a standard guitar and can be tuned lower without sacrificing tension in the strings. It’s a bit of an adjustment to play, but the payoff, for Chick, was huge.
“If you’re used to driving an automatic car, it’s like getting a manual,” Chick says. “For a two-piece, it’s nice, it fills up a little more space than a regular six-string would sonically. A lot of times with two-pieces, guitar players are gonna use octave pedals to make it a thicker sound, and with the baritone, it was kind of there. I plugged it through a bass amp and that was the sound.”
Empowered and inspired by their sound, Yawn Mower released five EPs from 2016-19. Both are in other bands and balance live shows and recording with full-time jobs.
“A friend a while ago said—he was a musician as well—he said this was his golf. And, you know, this is just… we make time for it because this is what we love to do,” Chick says.
“At no point is it ever a hindrance,” adds Swenson. “I’m bored when I’m not playing music. I don’t like sitting around and doing nothing. Mike also does art and does flea markets as well. When I’m stagnant and not doing things, I tend to get angry and ornery.”
On Sept. 30, they’ll release their first full-length LP, To Each Their Own Coat, on Mint 400 Records. (It’ll be available digitally, of course, but also on vinyl). They’ve released three ultra catchy and sound-typifying singles from the album in anticipation of the full release, which, upon an early listen, is a pretty remarkable indie album. It’s sonically fuzzy but structurally punchy, a sound you’ll recognize from the bands mentioned above.
They recorded the baritone and drum tracks with Evan Bernard in Philadelphia, before trading it back and forth over the course of more than a year, each floored by the progress the other had made on it. They both sing and play various instruments on the record, as they had done in the past, but this was the first album where they actively brought in many other musicians.
Because of the bigger sound, Yawn Mower is playing with more people on stage. They’ll play at Wonder Bar the night before Sea. Hear. Now. in Asbury Park; sadly, tickets are sold out, but the show figures to be a blast.
“We have some people who are like, ‘We miss the old Yawn Mower,’ but the majority are like, ‘This is a cool step.’ After quarantine, now’s the time to switch things up and we’re stoked about the new songs,” Chick says.
Being in Asbury Park, too, helped Yawn Mower connect with musicians both for the album and the live performances.
“I found with playing shows over the years, you’re gonna meet people. It’s kind of like high school, you’re gonna meet people that you immediately click with and you’re gonna meet people you don’t click with. And I’ve felt that forever,” Chick says. “But I’ve also found people like Biff, I’ve found long-time friends and creative partners through that. I think that’s the best thing to have people around and having access to people too, because that’s what drives us. With a new record, you just call people up and say, ‘Would you mind doing this vocal part or violin thing?’”
Look, if this is the sound that comes out of expanding the band, we’re here for it.
“It’s funny,” Chick says. “When you find somebody where stuff starts happening and stuff works, it’s like, yeah, we gotta keep doing this.”
For more on Yawn Mower, go here.