To accommodate his different tunings and textures, Parmet performs with multiple guitars. “Yeah, it’s not fun,” he says. “I’ve got five guitars onstage right now.” Photo by Michael Passman
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
—Walt Whitman, from the poem, “Song of Myself,” published in the collection Leaves of Grass.
A strained, hoarse cry—or “yawp,” for those guitarists who spaced out during SAT prep—provides an appropriate nom de plume for the Yawpers, a band whose energy embodies that raucous ideal. They started as a power trio fronted by two electrified, overdriven acoustic guitars, and then graduated to solidbodies as their music evolved, although they’ve never added a bassist. But despite that limited instrumentation, yawping—as in a “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”—seems the best way to describe the music they make. And yes, their name is a nod to the Walt Whitman poem.
The Yawpers played their first gigs in Boulder, Colorado, as an acoustic duo in 2011, but soon added a drummer and got a lot louder, fusing roots Americana with punk energy, psych, and blues. The group’s core is guitarist Jesse Parmet and vocalist/guitarist Nate Cook. The drum chair has changed a few times, and Alex Koshak is their most recent addition. Cook’s primary role is lead singer—he sounds like a cross between Elvis and Bon Scott—and his guitar parts are primarily supportive. Parmet fills in the rest and adds tonal color, beefy mids, and covers for the band not having a bassist.
Parmet does this via his varied and idiosyncratic rig. He uses three amplifiers and five different boxes to split his signal. One line runs to an Ampeg SVT to cover the low end; another goes to a ’70s-era Fender Twin, which he uses for his wet, effected signal; and another is split into both channels of a Matchless SC-30. “I do a lot of tap dancing,” he says. “Which is key to what we do, just being a three-piece and trying to get the dynamics right and get the arrangements to move.”
Human Question is the band’s third full-length release on Chicago’s Bloodshot Records, and their fourth overall. They tracked it at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio (see accompanying sidebar) and Alex Hall engineered and mixed the sessions. The album shows off the band’s breadth, from barnburners like the first two tracks, “Child of Mercy” and “Dancing on My Knees,” to more trippy, introspective numbers, like the title track and “Carry Me.” It stays true to their roots as well, which draw from rockabilly, Delta blues, ’80s-era hardcore, classic rock, and whatever they happen to be listening to.
“When the Yawpers started, I was listening to John Fahey and more fingerstyle stuff, plus Mississippi blues like R.L. Burnside and Bukka White,” Parmet says. “For the Boy in a Well album, our rockabilly influences were people like Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Reverend Horton Heat. This last record was more garage-rock influenced. I was listening to a lot of Link Wray—Captain Beefheart was also a big influence—and Thee Oh Sees.” We caught up with Parmet to discuss making heavy music on acoustics, his unique rig, different tunings, his insanely heavy guitar strings, and how they wrote and recorded Human Question.
The Yawpers started as an acoustic duo and then morphed into what you do now. Is that right?
That is true. Nate and I—Nate is the vocalist—had a group prior to this that had just disbanded. We were collecting ourselves, trying to do something stripped down, not so complicated, and it quickly started to become more of a real band once we added a drummer. For a while, we just had the acoustic guitars. I would run mine through amplifiers and overdrive pedals and gradually started incorporating electric guitars. Now it seems the acoustics are not used very often—mostly just for the older stuff.
How early in the band’s evolution did you start using pedals?
If I was going to play lead guitar, I needed some kind of boost. I had a Tube Screamer—that’s what I used for a while—and then I got the idea to add a second amplifier. I just had a Fender Twin Reverb—I still do—and I also had a Matchless SC-30. I figured out a way to split the signal, used that to fill things out, and had a boost option that gave me a couple of different dynamic possibilities to get louder. And then to get even louder from there.
When did you start using electrics?
For the Boy in a Well album that came out in 2017, I think I played all electric guitar on that. It felt like we had exhausted the possibilities of the acoustics, which is really cool for more of the slide stuff, which I don’t do as much of anymore. But we wanted more of an old-school rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly sound on that record. It was fun getting to try something different.
It seems like you lean more toward pawnshop electrics, as opposed to expensive, high-end gear. You’ve got that black-and-white Danelectro that looks like the Jimmy Page “Kashmir” guitar.
Yeah, just whatever I have laying around. For the last record, Boy in a Well, I did buy a ’64 Gretsch Anniversary. That was after I had broken the headstock on my 335. I had a session that day, and I went to the Chicago Music Exchange and saw that guitar there. It looked amazing and sounded amazing. I used that on the Boy in a Well record for most of the songs. I’ve also had a reissue Danelectro, which felt really cool but never really sounded that great, to be honest. But we recently got a new drummer, and he has a ’59 Danelectro, which is maybe the one you’ve seen me playing. That guitar sounded so much better and I ended up using it on the majority of this new record.
How do you set up your acoustics for playing heavier music?
I use [D’Addario] Resophonic strings, which are made for resonator guitars with higher action and to be played with the slide. They are heavier strings: The high string is a .016 and the low string—which works well for open tunings—is a .056. I use their Flat Top sets as well, which have a little less of that string noise when you’re playing slide guitar.
The Yawpers take their name from a poem in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
How do you keep your acoustics from feeding back at higher volumes?
My guitar is very heavy because it is filled with all sorts of stuff to help with the feedback. Nothing professional, just my old clothing—socks, t-shirts, and underwear. That helps quite a bit. Some nights it gets away from me more than others depending on the room. But it works really well to play at high volumes. The other important part of the acoustic setup is the pickup I’m using. It is a magnetic pickup that’s designed for that sort of thing. It’s made by Sunrise and it works really well at higher volumes.
What are some tunings you use?
For the acoustics, open D [D–A–D–F#–A–D]. And open G [D–G–D–G–B–D] on one of my electrics, the Strat. But I tune down a half-step, so it’s open C# on acoustic and open F# on the electric. For this last record, I now have an open-C tuning that I use for a few songs, which is the same thing, just a step lower.
Your open-C tuning is open D, but a whole-step down?
Exactly. But for most of the album I’m using a bizarre tuning, which was my attempt to do something closer to standard tuning. I can get those barre chords in there and get more of a classic rock sound, if you will, while still having the low notes in there, because we don’t have a bass player, so I always have to be mindful of that.
Can you detail that tuning?
I have a low Bb, and then from there the inside four strings are similar to standard tuning, except they’re up a half-step, and I lower the 1st string a half-step from standard [Bb-Bb-Eb-Ab-C-Eb]. My initial thought was that if I wanted to play an A chord, it’s like an A power chord, but then the lowest string is the low octave of the A, instead of an E. And that would allow me to do barre chords—A-style power chords throughout with that low octave in there. I wasn’t able to get that guitar to work tuned all the way down to an A, so that’s why I went to a Bb as my bottom note. There are also some variations on the album based on that tuning.
When do you use a capo? Is that just to make the song work with the vocal range?
Yes. I’m constantly readjusting the tunings with a capo to get my guitar into whatever key the song is in. We have to take that into account, otherwise everything would be in the same key.
When you tour, do you travel with a number of different guitars?
Yeah, it’s not fun. I’ve got five guitars onstage right now. That goes down a little when I do Europe because it gets expensive to bring that many guitars.