No one knows for certain why some bands connect with the public and others don’t. It’s a mystery that musicians and critics have argued about for ages. No Doubt wallowed in obscurity for almost a decade until Gwen Stefani began writing accusatory songs about her breakup with bassist Tony Kanal and their album Tragic Kingdom finally propelled them into the mainstream. The Red Hot Chili Peppers started off as a punk/thrash band, but it wasn’t until Flea and Anthony Kiedis teamed up with more learned musicians and softened their sound that they found a large following. My personal theory is that the magic tipping point comes when songwriters achieve artistic honesty and surround themselves with musicians who know how to channel the emotional content of their material into a soundtrack that expresses the sorrows and triumphs of their audience.
But then again I’m a music writer. We tend to romanticize this sort of shit.
I first met Yawpers frontman Nate Cook in 2009 at an after-party following a marijuana festival that I helped organize (long story). One of the musicians who performed at the festival was a member of the local Odd Fellows Hall, and he invited a small group of people to convalesce there when the event was over. This took place at around one o’clock in the morning.
It was a small party but an eclectic one. In attendance, there were burlesque dancers, trapeze artists, musicians, journalists and one possible transvestite that I flirted with shamelessly for most of the evening.
Oh, and much to everyone’s surprise, Jello Biafra, the former lead singer of Dead Kennedys, showed up out of nowhere. He stayed for about an hour, insulted several people in his weird, nasally voice, and then disappeared into the night as mysteriously as he came. So it was that kind of party.
At the time, Cook was the driving personality behind a local rock band called Ego vs. Id, which had been the closing musical performance of the festival. I’d been aware of EVI for several years, but I had never seen them live. I was impressed by their confident swagger and substantial musical chops, and when I shook Cook’s hand at the afterparty, I told him I thought his band was going to be a huge hit in Boulder. He leered at me and said, “That’s nice of you to say, but I think it’s probably bullshit. Boulder hasn’t really warmed to us. We can’t even find a paying gig in this town.”
It turns out he was right. Cook and I became friends following that initial introduction, and I monitored the progress of the band until it finally broke up in 2011. Those who were close to the group were not surprised when they called it quits. Plagued with drug addiction, psychological dysfunction, bad relationships and suicidal tendencies, Ego vs. Id might just as well have amputated the first two words from their moniker right from the get-go. It was fairly obvious that the Id was going to win.
However, I was still shocked that they never found a place in the hearts of local audiences before they burned out. In my opinion, the angry, wretched, passionate music produced by EVI filled a void in this prosaic little bubble that will be sorely missed.
It must be stated here that I have never really cottoned to the Boulder music scene. I have been writing about arts and entertainment in this town for more than five years, and although I’ve been consistently impressed with the talented folk singers, mandolin pickers and world-music aficionados in this fair city, I cannot for the life of me figure out why there aren’t any thriving rock, punk or metal bands around. (Yes, yes, I know and love Rose Hill Drive, but allow me a moment of hyperbole here.) I mean, we live in “the West” and we don’t even have any good depressing country bands to cry over. Why is that?
Here is my theory: Boulder, you’ve gone soft.
There was a time when this town was a lightning rod for artistic innovators and social rebels. People came here from all over the country to shake things up. Talk to any Baby Boomer who was living in the People’s Republic during the hallowed 1960s, and they will tell stories of war protesters blocking major highways with flaming tires and psychedelic poets who consistently raged against the dying of the light. Boulder was plugged into the national consciousness. It was relevant.
But, alas, that Boulder is no more. Somewhere along the way the culture began to curl in on itself like a set of crusty, yellow toenails that had gone unclipped for far too long. The long hair and tie-dyed clothing of yesteryear eventually became costume pieces that local teenagers wore as part of a nostalgic Passion play designed to remind everyone of the good ol’ days. Open mic poetry nights filled up with Ginsberg wannabes and Kerouac ripoffs. The true social malcontents who wanted to change the world were driven out and replaced with affluent nirvana seekers who wanted to change their gluten intake.
And in all that time, the soundtrack never altered. The jambands of the ’60s and ’70s were gratefully dead, but the jambands of the ’80s and ’90s lived on. The rest of the nation began to search for the future of music, but in Boulder the new millennium featured the same tired folk and bluegrass of the past. Nothing changed.
Ego vs. Id was one of the more interesting bands that Boulder produced in the past decade, despite the fact that they were essentially ignored into oblivion. C’est la vie, fellas. We hardly knew ye.
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. After hitting a rocky, whiskey-soaked bottom, Cook managed to find his voice again, a new voice, a better voice. This one is a little more humble, a little more serious and a hell of a lot more authentic.
The Yawpers are named after the famous line in Walt Whitman’s filthy, narcissistic, histrionic, wonderful ode to himself, “Song of Myself.”
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
With those words, Whitman posted a challenge to the American transcendental poets of his day, who he believed had gone soft and a little stale. Put up or shut up, he said.
In less than six months, The Yawpers have achieved more success than EVI in their entire five-year career. The quiet, unassuming Jesse Parmet has taken over lead guitar duties with nary a flinch, and the new addition on drums, Adam Perry, has provided a grounding musical and psychological influence that has changed the entire direction of the trio. The sometimes-disreputable Mr. Cook has finally put both his ego and his id aside, and the songs on The Yawpers’ debut EP, Savage Blue, out Dec. 2 at the band’s CD release party at Shug’s, reach into the depths of his soul, where he will most certainly find darkness, rage, longing and (hopefully) redemption.
Compared to past musical projects, The Yawpers’ rise has been positively meteoric. Local label Adventure Records has signed them to a deal, and they’re performing several nights a week in venues all over the Front Range. Cook’s surreal country ballad, “Jesus Car,” which is about the Messiah coming back as his father’s ’67 Nova Super Sport, is getting some airplay and might just turn into one of those underground indie classics. The Yawpers have even managed to put together a tour, delighting audiences in Nebraska, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and California with their foot-stomping cowboy rock.
But will The Yawpers find a home in their own hometown? The jury is still out on that one. I can only tell you this — people are finally paying attention. Their gigs are still small, but Boulderites are starting to show up to the party.
Perhaps it’s the raw, honest sound of the new band, or maybe it’s the changing direction of the country itself — the rumblings of a new international youth movement, the promise of a financial and cultural revolution in the wind — but whatever the case Boulder is going to have to make a decision, and soon: remain stuck in the past or tune in to the soundtrack of the future.
On the Bill:
The Yawpers’ (http://theyawpers.com) release party for their new EP Savage Blue will start at 9 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 2, at Shug’s. Radical Knitting Circle and Antennas Up will open. 2017 13th St., 720-398-9036.