Foregoing the “new collection of songs” album route for a tried-and-true concept record, The Yawpers are ready to take you on a head-spinning journey (both musically and lyrically) with their new album Boy In A Well. For our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One, we talked with head Yawper Nate Cook to try and get to the bottom of the album’s thematic inspirations, its transition from idea to reality, working with legendary Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson as producer, the story behind the companion comic book, and more!
NoiseTrade: I’ve read that your new album Boy In A Well seems to be a bit of a concept record set in France during World War I involving an unwed mother and an unwanted child. Where did the inspirational spark come from for this idea and do you feel you accomplished what you first set out to write (lyrically and musically)?
Nate Cook: I’d say that initially a lot of it was born out of what felt like constant abandonment by my wife. We would spend two years together, a year apart, and together again, ad nauseam. She was from France and I wanted to explore isolation in a fitting context. But that all felt a bit too on the nose and there were other types of abandonment that I have experienced that I wanted in there – types that are far more difficult to talk about directly, particularly with a larger audience. So I tried to develop a story that dealt with sexuality, adolescence, the desire for love, and how the perversion or misuse of those can make you into a monster, albeit one that you can understand.
In truth, I think I achieved a lot of what I wanted but I fell short in some areas. It’s really difficult to use tropes to describe something so personal without skewing ironic or making the tragedy have too much levity. I don’t know if it makes the work worse in small doses but it was pitfall I constantly worked to avoid, but sometimes didn’t.
NT: Compared to writing a collection of songs for a conventional (i.e. non-concept) record, was it harder or easier to write songs with a concept record being your end goal? Did you write them sequentially or out-of-order as they came to you?
Cook: The answer is complicated. Overall, the record took a lot more time, but the time spent felt easier. Maybe even more gratifying. I never dreaded sitting down to work on it, which is not always the case. In that sense it felt less like work, even though the amount of work was more. Musically, the album was pretty scattershot as to how and when the songs were written. Once the lyrics came into play, everything was written sequentially – though not chronologically.
NT: You’re offering three of your new songs – “Mon Dieu,” “Mon Nom,” and “Reunion” – here on your Noisetrade sampler. How do each of these three songs fit into the larger album story?
Cook: “Mon Dieu” is essentially a Steinbeck rip-off and describes the impetus for our eponymous character leaving the well. He has his first encounter with the outside, which in this case is a rabbit who falls into his world by accident. His overwhelming desire to feel love, or the touch of someone else, causes the death of the object of his affections. He is then driven out of the well, now strong enough to climb and motivated by agony and rage.
“Mon Nom” comes a couple tracks later and is really the boy’s first foray into the world. Most of this song is spent trying to describe himself by context since he has no frame of reference. Because he doesn’t really have a sense of “I,” the entire record up to this point has, for the most part, avoided personal pronouns. Here, we build up to it. The first set of verses he describes himself through leading questions, the second through film, and the final coda is in French where he settles on “I am the second coming of Christ.” The latter of these is more like a translation of how he must feel, rather than a direct one, since the kid would obviously have no ability to use language.
“Reunion” closes the record and describes the world after the boy and his mother have met a tragic end. After an Oedipal copulation and subsequent suicide by the boy, the mother gives birth to their son and dies in childbirth. Due to its genesis and disfigurement, its grandparents decide to dispose of it as to avoid embarrassment. By coincidence, they throw the child down the well where its father’s bones wait to be reunited with its son’s.
NT: Boy in A Well was produced by Tommy Stinson of The Replacements. How did that partnership come about and what was the experience like in the studio? What did you learn from working with a legend in that capacity?
Cook: Tommy was great. He was really supportive of the concept and a great person to help navigate the desire for perfection – and to point it out as folly. Tommy came to us by way of our publisher, Randy Sabiston, sharing an office with Tommy’s manager at the time. It was pretty lucky.
NT: As an extra component to the album, pre-orders will include a companion comic book illustrated by J.D. Wilkes (The Legendary Shack Shakers). Did this idea come up after the album had been completed or was it a part of the plan all along?
Cook: It was immediately part of the plan. With writing something so dense, and possibly convoluted, I thought having a visual aid would be helpful. I also wanted the art to match the period. JD, who I have a friendship with, offered to do it. His work speaks for itself. The other thing it allowed was to add a more lighthearted element to the whole thing, so I could show my head wasn’t entirely up my own ass.
NT: Finally, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Beyonce’s Lemonade, and Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads are all fantastic examples of top-shelf concept records. Do you have any favorite concept records or did you study any while writing and recording Boy In A Well?
Cook: Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads is an all time favorite. All of those are, to be honest. But for the most part, the answer is no. Maybe Tommy? Frankly, I’m not a huge fan of concept records. It remains to be seen if I’m a fan of this one even.