Dice, drugs, booze and rock ‘n’ roll: On the road and eventually landing in Denver, our correspondent finds an evening with the band’s frontman to be fraught in more ways than one. But he did locate the titular Sal…
BY RAYMOND LEE
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world. —W. Whitman
The job was simple enough: Interview Denver musician Nate Cook of the breaking rock band The Yawpers for a music publication. I’ve accomplished similar articles countless times, but God laughs at the best laid plans of mice and men. What made this particular assignment unique was the fact I wasn’t thwarted in my attempts to get at the heart of the story from the usual barriers erected by editors, the family friendly prerequisite demands of labels and PR folk, or the delicate sensibilities of the ‘artist.’ You see, whether an artist interview or an armed invasion, politics are paramount. But instead of bureaucracy, I found myself frustrated by the very excess I intended to document.
As a nation, Americans have to face the fact there’s no authenticity left to our rock n’ roll. The rise of indie over the past decade means the guitar oriented lot have been dominated by the same asking-before-acting lyrical introspection found in lousy breakup poetry. Death Cab for Cutie—or, say, Conor Oberst—were refreshing for their time, but the legion of penny ante poets and posers they and others have inspired has reduced the mainstream market to a losing proposition. Much like our nation’s politicians who try too hard to sell themselves to too many, we’re left with a crisis of choice between two pathetic, polarized camps. The illegitimate children of the last 20 years of pop culture have taken rock music right back to its innocent, innocuous beginning. Mainstream rock, like mainstream politics, leaves very little to believe in. When the local station’s most rotated artist is either The Lumineers or Lincoln Park, do we really have a choice?
Whatever happened to the “Give me crack and anal sex,” or the “Look on the bright side, suicide,” socio-lyrical outlook of rock’s more heady days? Time was musicians testified before courts to defend the validity of their artistic contributions. These days, it doesn’t feel like mainstream musicians take those hard fought battles for granted so much as take pains to avoid any type of material controversy.
Since 2011 Denver three piece The Yawpers have been simmering just below the radar of popular media. There’s much liberty in having nothing to lose. Without a national label to nitpick his output Cook’s been free to explore the white boy blues found in topics like heartache, hangovers and huffing gasoline. His frenetic, possessed showmanship and The Yawper’s bluesy, boozy alternative to the typical radio fare has attracted a cult following. That combined with a left-for-dead capacity showcase at 2015’s SXSW landed The Yawpers a deal with Chicago’s legendary independent Bloodshot Records. Press quickly followed with endorsements from Rolling Stone and Consequence of Sound replacing the clamor from the zines and blogs that previously trumpeted their music to a limited audience.
For The Yawpers, the pressure to perform is intense. It’s not unfair to say their entire career rests on the success of their new record, American Man, released this week (Oct.3) by Bloodshot. But instead of relying on methods that have worked so well for the group up to this point, Cook’s lyrical penchant for the old electric evil has taken a dive off the deep end. Perhaps informed by years of kicking out at a transparent industry and the musical personalities that endorse it, Cook is attempting during the herd mentality frenzy of the election cycle to define America’s most at risk minority: the individual.
As it stands, America is the world’s largest exporter of both art and war. Unfortunately we haven’t done well at either in quite some time. We are a society characterized by strife and creativity. Our whorehouse roots, the dirty Delta Blues and sinister Dixieland jazz perfected by those from the bottom of society have been hijacked by the very mediums they popularized. As well, the record companies and radio empires that popular music long ago built have turned against the culture that originally sold its adspace. Those luminaries who once forsook the conventional wisdom of toil, education, and savings for the slum life plucking six strings stretched across a hollowed box couldn’t get signed today even after selling their souls at the crossroads. Instead of musicians we find anymore our airwaves saturated by personalities massaged from the very cradle to generate maximum returns. Satan isn’t as evil or as influential as iHeartRadio.
Our culture suffers for it. Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre famously said, “The only thing in the middle of the road is dead animals and dumb fucking Americans.” This wisdom has never been truer. American media has been dumbed down so intensely and for so long, the aftershocks register across all mediums of popular consumption. A single glance at the nightly news registers this fact better than any. Trend coverage and groupthink editorials have unequivocally replaced anything resembling journalism or analytical thought. Worse yet, our greatest contender for President—the most powerful position on earth—is a former reality television star.
“E Pluribus Unum”: so the national motto goes, but of one we are also many. Still, there is fault in the lines dividing our country, in the rumbling of political majorities at fundamental odds, pushing against each other to form insurmountable peaks and gaping chasms over the topic of what our cherished liberty really means. Republocrats and Democrans, do the voters really have a choice? Since the millennium we’ve pursued policies based on generic, outdated concepts, wars on ideologies. Our basic fundamental problem is that along with technology our culture has evolved beyond our own understanding. We don’t know who we are anymore.
But that itself is nothing new; as with other critical points in our history, one may look to the individuals who forge paths against the national grain—the poets, writers and musicians—for that sense of identity. The Beats, led by Jack Kerouac, helped form an image of the new American when we emerged as the world’s driving force after the second Great War. But further back, after our darkest hour in the Civil War revealed a new dawn, we had Walt Whitman. He would become the unofficial poet laureate of the national consciousness. Little read in his time, Whitman’s radical verses contrasting democracy against individualism would come to dominate the craft. And from Whitman’s lyrics, Cook pulled the name of The Yawpers. But more than that, to match Whitman’s ambition with their first labelled album, Cook equally attempts to articulate the good fight against the status quo across American Man.
As far as music’s concerned, blame Brooklyn, Nashville, Seattle or Silver Lake. Any economist will tell you the best returns come from growth, not the established giants. If you want to find something truly exciting you must travel outside the bright city lights of the cultivated scene. In place of those washed out trend-sitters try Louisville, Davenport or Muscle Shoals. Or much like Kerouac in On the Road, get to Denver.
Life is good there. One of the fastest growing cities in the nation, Denver has plenty of promise whether you’re a working man or in a working band. The recent legalization of marijuana means one will find like-minded, forward thinking young people and a wealth of options for the day job until the record deal comes through or else America’s Got Talent finally returns that call. In a northbound escape from the 3.2 hinterlands of Oklahoma I searched the roadside for the face of Sal Paradise. None of the day-drunk crust-punk hitchhikers I picked up along the way proved to be Sal, but I was certain, come Denver, he could again be found.
Via text I asked Cook for a floor, possibly a broken pallet and some shards of glass or else rusty nails to sleep on if at all possible. I was assured it wasn’t a problem, then no less than an hour from Denver I received an addendum to the reply. “My wife just threw me out of the house, you can sleep in the van with me tho.” And then moments later. “It’s as good a place to wallow in despair as any.”
Despite the misfortune I was pleased. I would have unfettered access, insight into a recent tragedy and a unique setting to spark some life into the usual humdrum interview. While the proposition seemed dubious I had a trick up my sleeve. From youthful days of cross continental trips and foreign city drunken rips I’d learned simply to pay to park overnight in any garage. It costs little and provides good practice for the future when I’ll doubtlessly exchange housing in cheap motels for the same in my car. With the invite to a tour van camp-out acting as a safety net I stepped confidently into the Denver night amongst the foot traffic of the well-heeled young professionals on 16th street.
Sometime later I found myself outside the rendezvous point at [name redacted by artist’s request]. I expected to find Nate Cook leaning against the bar inside, milking a pint to gloom in the face of his deteriorating relationship and recent homelessness. Instead, obscenities from the rear rang out over the modest crowd of weeknight drunks. He was dressed like a transgendered red-neck, boots and faded jeans topped off by an armless t-shirt of questionable cleanliness, his hair a sea-swell froth of disorder and neglect. It was night and he was wearing rose tinted glasses. Shaking his hand I asked how he was. For a moment I imagined his frivolity a disguise for tumult welling just beneath the surface.
“You got any money?” he asks in return, displaying a wad of singles along with a sinister smile.
“A little…” I nod cautiously.
“Then put it on the bar!”
Cee-lo is a game of three dice. A dollar a round, high scores take the progressive bet to leave the victor clutching at a fistful of crumpled dollars with all the pride of a sorority sister being crowned winner at a strip club’s amateur night. I have to break a twenty, a goddamn fortune to any writer just to get in. I offered to buy the round but Cook insisted all drinks were on him. In on the action is a collection of local degenerates to include Asheville, NC, thrill-rock throwbacks the Dirty Soul Revival. Singer Abraham Drinkin’ looks a little the worse for wear.
It would turn out the Denver native was brought home by death. His brother Hank Anderson had been riding in the backseat of an SUV that left the road. He was not wearing his seatbelt. To spite every self-righteous member of MADD, alcohol was not involved. Abraham, Cook and an assortment of close friends would, however, drink to his memory between rounds of dice. The boisterous crowd remained stoic, tipping back glasses and bringing up stories of the good times, laughing along as if he were just out the room. When asked about the topic the group of friends understandably closed ranks, but in a rare moment of vulnerability Cook ventured, “Tragic would be too trite a word. He was honestly the most generous person I’d ever met, the one with the most integrity.” It was touching considering there’s a fierceness to Cook, the desperation of a junkyard dog that bares its teeth to any stranger, but his demeanor softened as he continued, “I wish you could have met him. He was one of us and the best of us.”
We return to the riotous game which now involves passing randos and the bar staff alike. Weak scores illicit a barrage of insults, strong rolls, threats. Cook acts as both referee and top challenger. To roll he takes on an exaggerated pose, shaking the dice with the bravado windup of a major league pitcher, all the while screaming in the faces of his opponents, “C’mon Cookie Tate with that 4 5 6!” It’s a ploy to intimidate the competitors. And it works. If he rolled that 4 5 6 train once, he did it a dozen times, forcing his will and energy into the dice in the same way he conjures so much from a simple six string acoustic on stage.
Between rounds of both Cee-lo and well whiskey I clutch at Cook’s shoulder. I’m on a mission. Drunkenly, I divulge how I want to contrast the success of his artistic work against the trials of his personal life for the interview. He laughs it away, calls me unprintable names to insult both my masculinity and the poor ethics of a staged interview. “There’s plenty of time.” He keeps repeating. [Below: the drinking crew]
The drink has enlivened him and there’s a gleam to his eye when the drugs arrive. We’ve had perhaps a dozen apiece. Half the bar’s patrons ring our little corner with ominous smiles, throwing out bills and screaming in comradery at the dice’s outcome as if it were a Tijuana cock fight. The game is highly illegal, but what we’re about to do after slipping silently away to pile five deep into the single toilet bathroom is nothing short of felonious.
“I don’t do this very often.” I weakly protest but it matters little and I allow the spirit of the night to carry me along. Neither the violence of film nor the pornography of pop music captures debauchery in quite the same excessive way as rock ‘n’ roll. Of sex, of drug abuse and violence, we live in a world where these things are increasingly frowned upon. The appetite remains. Film and radio tell us relationships are the highest goals. Facebook ‘likes’ encourage the sophomore’s illusion that this world can be a better place if we all just attempt a little more understanding or practice compassion. But for those of us born poor, who take up fights that cannot be won, who kick out at the world in all its false sincerity there is a craving for darker thrills. Self-destruction is a piss poor path to enlightenment and its lessons are learned the hard way. There are few second chances and the margin for error falls within the scope of the razor’s edge. Is it evil? Yes, yes it is. But it’s also about the last honest thing in this increasingly veiled existence. The high, whether the flying be from the glorious incoherence of a splendid drunk, the narcotic blasting through the bloodstream, peaking arousal of the sexual encounter, or standing up for what you believe in and throwing a fist at the nose of another requires you to take a stand, to act as an individual in this increasingly homogenized society, and then to deal with the repercussions whether good or ill. And while these acts may not be good, they are honest. They are true.
We shuffle out to the register of aggressive knocking against the bathroom door. “What’s going on in there?” Asks a man the bartender would later identify as the club owner. Cook’s face screws up in consternation. “What do you think five guys do together in a bathroom?” The question seems so obvious as to insult him, and Cook brushes by the man as if he were never there. [Below: Cook with a fan]
With the game broken up the night slips by measured in increments of Lonestar, well whiskey and Marlboro Reds. Despite the rush of intoxicants the energy dips. Hank’s name surfaces between all the usual musician talk filling up the air. Stories abound of closing for such and such a national act, back when no-one knew their names and they were awful. Exaggerated tales are spread like contagion of venues in cities across the American empire, half-truths of police run-ins and long stretches of harsh poverty. Flat out lies are hashed out about one night stands, friendships with big dick company so and so’s, and the possibilities imagined that became possibilities lost. It’s a collective chorus, that old drunken poet’s dream of bigger venues, national exposure and peer respect—all viewed from the murky depths at the bottom of a well.
“Obscurity’s hip these days, right?” Cook asks. “You think any of them kids with shitty haircuts are sleeping on the floor tonight?”
I imagine some of them are, but I say nothing. The bar closes but it is not yet time for sleep. We pile into cars and weave across the city to The Space, a recording and rehearsal studio for what I’m told will be the interview.
In the studio’s control room amidst snaking coils of amplifier chords and towering speaker stacks Cook proudly displays his prized work: the master copy of the new Yawpers album American Man. There are revelers in the background, The Dirty Soul Revival and others. Studio owner and operator Nick Daniluk nervously eyes anyone who approaches the equipment. The air is smoky with the state’s recent economic development, as Cook, jabber-jawing on the cusp of catharsis, carefully places his masterpiece into the CD input. With the first few bars Cook searches my face for a response. I give none. The music hasn’t yet begun and I feel naked save for my beer bottle. He wipes a film of sweat from his face as his eyes roll around in his skull. He’s lost to the music, explaining to me the intricacies of the songs, what they mean, how they were recorded. I nod along, but like interventions, snap judgements are meaningless. He might have been looking for encouragement, but under an impartial guise I remain mute. The truth is I didn’t yet know if it would all work, and I suspect neither does Cook.
The Yawpers are at a crossroads. It’s the most pivotal time in any young band’s career. A record deal with Bloodshot means the good old days are over. They no longer need worry about booking shows or scraping together enough gas money to get to that next gig. Instead, with the Halloween release of their first non-self-released record, The Yawpers are faced with the harsh realities of the music business. And make no mistake, like politics it is a business: one with continually diminishing returns. A group can forge a path, go their own way in the face of an industry when they’ve got nothing to lose, but there’s very little room for failure on the national stage.
For the moment Cook is lost in thought, pulled under by the 12 ounce onslaught of a weeknight in his chosen profession. His eyes are half closed slits and he slurs something about a split 7-inch with Deertick. Though he’s collapsed like a puppet, when I say of that band’s last album, “Fuck Negativity!”, the strings pull taught and he pops from his chair with the fury of a bare knuckle boxer.
It happens so quickly the swinging doesn’t register. The next thing I know I’m on the ground with his hands around my throat. But I’m no stranger to such situations, and after flipping him onto his back I gently urge him to tap out while watching his face turn oxblood from the stranglehold I’ve put him in. He becomes a metaphor in real time. Completely finished, he refuses to tap out. He struggles, flailing about like a fish that’s been landed. He goes for my eyes as the period since his last breath stretches out past the half minute mark. Finally, for Nate Cook, it all goes dark.
Thankfully, America is in the midst of a new age. The wars are over, our recession has rebounded, and the time is incredibly ripe for radicals. A look to the election year hopefuls shows us as much. The obvious choices, Clinton and Bush, are crumbling under their excessive fears of anything that will lessen their appeal. Meanwhile firebrands like Cook, many of them previously unknown, attract the masses. The public has become fed up with business as usual, the murder in our streets by police who increasingly resemble state sponsored brown shirts, lack of medical access for those of us who commit the crime of being born poor, and the endless purgatory endured by people with the audacity to demand rights while displaying skin tones in colors off-white. It seems that after a deep, deep sleep America is finally addressing the issue of who we really are, and by degrees who we want to be.
Waking up mid-afternoon on the floor of The Space’s studio, Cook and cohorts the Dirty Soul Revival have gone. Daniluk [pictured above, in his facility] enters all smiles. He’s a quiet man, courteous and well-spoken, obviously accustomed to the bedlam. On the ride back to the garage in the city he tells me how the rent is on the rise. How the complexes under construction in every direction to house the estimated 1,000 new daily arrivals are pushing out the people who’ve lived there since Denver’s days of faded grandeur as a washed up gold rush mountain town.
The money comes in and the individuals move out. Indeed, the spirit of the West, of all America, suffers from the suburban destruction left behind by the scorched earth policy of our twentieth century culture wars. Heading north for another story, another glorious drunk in a Pacific city that is not my own, I survey the deterioration as the Denver skyline recedes in my rearview. I am Congress in that I haven’t done the simplest of jobs. There was no interview with Nate Cook, no concert to cover and nothing to show my editors. But I did find Sal Paradise. I console myself with the idea he isn’t just a figment of the imagination, the ecstatic form of youth and beauty and liberty from a time as dim to our collective memory as the future is to our collective imagination.
If liberty in Denver ever did exist, it is now buried beneath towers of steel and glass, but they make the perfect rooftop platform for a new generation’s Whitman to sing our untamed poetry.
The Yawpers’ American Man is out Oct. 30 on Bloodshot, and the band will be starting a national tour the following week. Full details HERE.