Parmet cranks his acoustic through electric guitar amps, which forces him to take an unconventional approach to keep it from howling onstage. “My guitar is very heavy because it is filled with all sorts of stuff to help with the feedback,” he says. “Nothing professional, just my old clothing—socks, t-shirts, and underwear.” Photo by Anthony Nguyen
Do some pedals lend themselves better to acoustic guitars than others?
As far as overdrive, I used the Tube Screamer for a while, and I’ve tried a few other overdrive pedals. I found that the one I like best with the acoustic is the Boss Blues Driver. It adds that crunch to it but doesn’t take away too much from the character of the guitar.
Do you still have that in your pedalboard now?
Yes, and I use that as a boost for the electric as well. We were at Electrical Audio in Chicago for the last record—that’s Steve Albini’s recording complex, which is amazing. They have all sorts of great gear, and they have a really cool pedal selection. I ended up needing a couple of those pedals that I used for recording. They especially have a lot of EarthQuaker Devices, and I picked up a Park Fuzz Sound, which is an obnoxiously loud, noisy fuzz pedal. We use it for some of the extreme moments. I also got something called a Tentacle, which is a bizarre sounding pedal. It sort of gives you an octave. It’s not even clear to me what octave, if it’s going higher or lower. It’s not that extreme in terms of the octave effect—just a hint of it to my ears—and it also has a bit of a dying battery sound and a little bit of brightness. That in conjunction with the overdrive pedal adds some real crazy tones.
You also have a lot of switching devices.
My pedalboard is complicated, not because I have a lot of effects but because of my signal flow. I’m running two different guitar amplifiers, plus splitting out to a bass amp, plus I’m using a bunch of different guitars. I have one pedal on the front end that allows me to switch between three guitars. I have five, so I still have to unplug in the middle of the set. Then I have to split the signal from there out to the three different amplifiers. The bass chain has a boost going through it, and a mute pedal, and then each chain has a different flow. The Fender Twin is most of the overdrive and all of the effects. The Matchless is set dry: one splitter going into the clean channel and one going into its dirty channel.
Do you run both channels at the same time?
Yeah, I’m able to use the natural boost on the Matchless, which sounds great. I’m not quite able to get that sound from a pedal. I do a lot of tap dancing, 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.
Do you use an octave effect for the bass or does the bottom end just come from the lower tuning?
I’ve never used octave effects. I tried it a couple of times, but it sounded kind of artificial to me. I run it straight to the bass amp. I take out all the highs from the bass split and boost the lows, and I also take out the mids and hope for the best. If you just plug your guitar into a bass amp, it doesn’t sound very good, but if you’re able to filter out those higher notes and let the low notes come through, it adds a lot.
Does your drummer do a lot to compensate for not having a bass as well?
We’ve always had to be conscious of that and the drummer has a pretty demanding job because of it. When we’re working out songs, we’re always trying to figure out cool drum parts and interesting ways to approach the music. One thing is to rely more on the floor tom, but every song is different. For me on guitar, a lot of times I’ll think of it like those old Delta blues guitar players, where you’re doing the bass line with your thumb and the rhythm with your fingers. We have all these little tricks we use, but every song is different and we try not to repeat ourselves too much.
So you also use a number of different picking and fingerpicking techniques?
I use a flatpick, and I use my fingers for some songs as well. When we were first starting out, I had been more into fingerstyle, like John Fahey, and trying to figure out how to do that. I experimented with a few things, like metal picks on my fingers—because I am always breaking my nails—but none of that stuff worked out that well for me. Some songs are more a straight punk rock thing with a pick, or I’ll use my fingers and a pick at the same time, or I’ll use straight fingers where my thumb is doing an alternating bass line.
How tight are your arrangements? Do you jam and leave room to improvise or is it more structured and set?
It’s pretty structured, maybe more so than I would like. Things gradually evolve over time. Sometimes it’s conscious—we’ll have a rehearsal and we’ll try something—but other times, things occur naturally. We’ll start playing something onstage one night, it sounds good, and we’ll try it again the next night. But we’re certainly not too heavy on improvisation.
Some songs—“Savage Blue,” for example—have an epic arc and seem designed to take you to a new place.
“Savage Blue” is an example of one of our songs that leaves room for improv. That middle section in there, that is as close as we get to jamming. It’s just a big open section for whatever to happen.
At this point, can you intuit a lot of what Nate is going to do?
Absolutely. By now it’s pretty much second nature. We know each other’s sensibilities well and can feel where the other person is going to go, particularly when we’re arranging songs together. We have similar tastes.
How does the songwriting process work? Does it come out of jams? Do you show up with ideas?
We all show up with ideas. More and more, I spend time at home with my home studio—my bedroom basically—messing around with different ideas. Maybe trying drum loops or trying to figure out new, cool ways to approach things, combining different elements and different styles. Sometimes the structure comes together a little more, but usually not until I bring it into rehearsals. That’s when the arrangements really come together. Nate will bring in little pieces, too, and we’ll make those into songs. Sometimes Nate will bring in a more traditional song, something that’s more fleshed out. But these days we like that more experimental, raucous sound we get when all three of us are working stuff out together in the rehearsal space.
Do different tunings or different effects lend themselves to new ideas or force you to play the instrument differently?
Absolutely. I mean, I don’t want to say it’s a crutch, but it’s definitely something I lean on. Different tunings force you to play in different ways and come up with different parts. Open strings resonate in different ways than they would with standard tuning. Especially with our limited instrumentation, sometimes you need to find just the right part that’s going to cover all the bases.
What’s your setup like at home?
Nothing fancy. I just have a bare-bones Mbox Pro Tools setup. But lately, I’ve been able to get cool guitar tones at home. I live in an apartment and I don’t like to play through amplifiers there because I worry about the neighbors. It was always a problem getting decent guitar tones just going direct. So I got this speaker simulator made by a company called Palmer, and I’m stoked about it. You plug your guitar into your amplifier, disconnect the speaker connection, go from the output of the amplifier into the speaker simulator, and from there right into Pro Tools. You’re still hitting the amplifier and the tubes and all that without hearing it through the speaker. You get the quality of the amplifier, but basically you’re going direct.
Does the device have different speaker options?
They have it set up as British and American. They also have a tone selector with a deep setting and a brighter setting.
How do you and Nate divvy up your parts?I’m holding down the low end. He’s been playing through a Vox AC15 for the last couple of records. He’s got this bright, lo-fi ’50s tone, and I’ve got a beefier tone. But that’s just as far as tone. As far as arrangements, we intuitively know. When it comes time for the verse, I’ll make room for the vocals and when it comes time for the raging part, he’ll make room for me to do my thing. It’s not all that thought-out as far as how our guitar parts work together. It just happens.
Watch the Yawpers play a ripping “acoustic” set on Audiotree Live and see Jesse Parmet push his drop-tuned flattop into realms unimagined by its builders.