Yamagata seems at odds with the musical heritage of its hometown: While Memphis has delivered Elvis Presley, the Stax Sound and some great blues, not many “jam bands” have come to us from the northern tip of Highway 61. But Yamagata hopes to change that.
The group — guitarist Joe Austin, bassist Andy Neely and drummer Jim Britt — covers a ton of musical ground, via a mostly instrumental route. The jams on the band’s new CD originated at the home of the 26-year-old guitarist (on Memphis’ Evelyn Street), and the trio dubbed the disc Eveland (Mempho Records, 1999) in honor of those sessions.
“The album is like a collection of songs from the house,” explains Austin. “I have a lot of friends that play music, and we have two drum sets set up in the basement, and all sorts of other stuff. People that don’t play with Yamagata come by and jam out, and that helps us write other songs. All the songs on the CD were written by [us] — but there are probably 30 or 40 other people responsible for them, too.”
The band christened itself after a poster that hangs in Austin’s house, depicting life in Yamagata (a city in central Japan). But cultural homage wasn’t exactly the trio’s aim: “We liked the way the name rolled off our tongues,” he says.
Bassist Neely, 23, is heavily into industrial rock, reports Austin: “And hip-hop/spoken-word/free-thought type stuff. He hates everything that we listen to,” the guitarist notes. “And Jim is more of a prog-rock guy. He likes Genesis and Kings X and King Crimson. He’s all about that type of staccato percussive stuff, and he’s real into rhythm theory. He was in a drum-corps snare line for 12 years before he even sat down on a kit, and now he’s incorporating the drum kit in his head, like putting the foot where his left hand would usually be.
“Everybody having different backgrounds helps out a lot in creating a sound — you can’t point to any one thing and say, ‘That’s like 311,’ or, ‘They’re like the Allman Brothers,” he continues.
Austin wasn’t always interested in jazz and fusion. “Most of my guitar influences come from rock. I’ve always been a big fan of Angus Young and AC/DC, Pink Floyd, Clapton, Hendrix, even The Cult. But then I’ve also been turned on by a lot of jam music; I’m a real big Phish fan. I’ve also learned a lot of jazz theory in the last five or six years, and have incorporated that into my rock stuff. I’ve been getting into Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin, and Frank Zappa, and it’s making me kind of crazy,” he explains with a laugh.
The group’s instrumental “Referred Pain” delivers a crunching blow, with Austin laying down some fine backward guitar. “That song stretches out, a little bit like what we do live. Most of the songs on our album are three and four minutes long, [whereas] live, they tend to be a lot longer,” he comments. “There’s all kinds of ground that can be covered, and every time we play it’s different. We try to stay away from going the same directions each time we play that song, or any other song.”
At times, their playful sound brings to mind modern-day groove artists Medeski Martin & Wood, or eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter and his Frisco band (as on the funky “Chinese Ants.”)
“I’m a very big fan of Charlie Hunter Trio — I have all their albums,” Austin concedes, remembering: “I first saw [Hunter] on the Lollapalooza tour with the Beastie Boys. I was watching him, thinking, ‘I wonder where the bass player is, he’s really great. He’s probably backstage someplace. … [Then I realized], ‘Oh my gosh, it’s him [playing guitar and bass parts simultaneously].’ … I bought all his albums and delved way into that.”
After growing up in Memphis, Austin attended school in Virginia. His family then moved to Charleston, S.C., and he joined up with a band there called Hot Carl; returning to Memphis, Austin invested three years in medical school. But another world beckoned insistently.
“I decided [medicine] wasn’t my bag; I’d rather play guitar,” he states simply.
Austin soon met Neely and Britt, who were doing time in an ’80s cover band, reeling out Duran Duran covers and the like at clubs and frat parties. “We started making up originals and jamming them out, and were invited to play a Christmas party at this bar,” recalls the guitarist: “We didn’t know any songs; we just set up our stuff and played a three-hour set. People went crazy, dancing on tables and losing their minds over what the three of us were doing. We were laying down some good grooves, wailing on top of it, creating some energy, and people were like, ‘Man!’ … Over the next couple weeks, we listened back to those tapes, and there were 10 different ideas that we turned into songs. We went into the studio and recorded them for real, and got some other musicians around town to sit in.”
Jeff Griffith and Jeff Huddleston add sax to Eveland, while Steve Dolan plays trumpet, Ross Rice contributes some great Hammond B-3, Prentice Wuulff-Woesten wails on trombone, and Kelly Hurt sings memorably on the light-handed “Parachute Day.” Several of these players sit in with the band on gigs around Memphis, and the trio now often travels with a second guitarist, Perry Osbourne, who plays the horn parts on his hollow-body guitar.
The tradition-loving Memphis scene does show signs of embracing Yamagata’s improvisational concept, according to Austin. “If we’re playing other places [than Beale Street], it can be iffy. It can be slamming and great, but it can also be, like, four people there. So we want to get out to where people are a little more appreciative.”