The PAN songwriter and producer’s music is at once soulful and abrasive – listen to his debut album Serpent Music now
Yves Tumor’s music veers between harshness and softness, tenderness and abrasiveness – yet even at its noisiest, it’s always soulful. “I like setting moods,” Yves says over the phone from his current home, Turin. “I’m never consciously trying to make a harsh song, or a dreamy song, or a noisy, disgusting song – it’s more a mood I want to translate.”
Raised in Tennessee, Yves started to make music initially to get away from his dull, conservative surroundings. After moving to Los Angeles, he met rapper and performance artist Mykki Blanco, making early releases with his Dogfood Music Group label. His debut album, Serpent Music, arrives on experimental label PAN and follows a busy year that has seen him make low-key releases with labels like NON Records and perform live at Hood By Air’s LA show. Recorded over a three-year period between Miami, Leipzig, LA and Berlin, Serpent Music is a concise collection of ethereal pop, sideways psychedelia, hypnotic ambient, and hi-tech noise music. There’s a celestial undercurrent to the music, manifested in biblical track titles “Devout”, “Serpent”, and “Role in Creation”, as well as Yves’ warm, choral vocals and melodic guitar hooks. “I think religion is super-toxic, but I do think that spirituality can be important to keeping yourself balanced,” he explains. “The album definitely has a lot of spiritual themes.”
We spoke to Yves ahead of the release of Serpent Music, discussing his nomadic lifestyle, growing up in Tennessee, and his love of Throbbing Gristle.
Can you tell us a bit about your musical background?
Yves Tumor: I’ve been making music since I was about 17. I was raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, so I was influenced by a lot of the white suburban kids that I hung out with. At school, the majority (of people) were white kids – they got me into Nirvana, Slayer and The Velvet Underground. Then my older brother started getting me into more electronic stuff, and then I started to get my own taste. Sonically, Throbbing Gristle (were very inspirational). There’s something about their music, like the hypnotic trance vibes, that really influenced me. When I moved to Los Angeles after college, a good friend of mine would always play Chris & Cosey records when we were hanging out. I slowly became obsessed with them and started reading about Genesis P-Orridge and that whole movement.
What was your experience like growing up in Tennessee?
Yves Tumor: It wasn’t pleasant. It wasn’t bad, but it’s a very conservative, racist, homophobic, sexist environment. It’s the south; they’re not the most open people. They’re all very sweet, everyone’s kind to your face, but they’ll talk shit about you as soon as you walk away. That’s how southern people are. So it wasn’t very constructive growing up and trying to be creative. There were a lot of people either hating or not understanding, so I kind of ran away when I was 20, first to San Diego and slowly to Los Angeles.
How did you find a way to creatively express yourself in that sort of environment?
Yves Tumor: I’d just lock myself away for entire summers instead of just hanging out at the park with my friends getting high constantly. I would literally just be in my room teaching myself guitar or piano. I taught myself drums, bass, guitar, keyboard – I can kind of sing, but not really. Everything was self-taught, just by sitting in my room playing, kind of hiding.
“Sonically, Throbbing Gristle (were very inspirational). There’s something about their music, like the hypnotic trance vibes, that really influenced me” – Yves Tumor
How did you connect with groups like Dogfood and NON?
Yves Tumor: I met Mykki Blanco in 2012. I was hanging out at this club, Mustache Mondays, quite a lot when I first moved to LA. I was a social butterfly when I first moved there, but I met Mykki and we clicked pretty quickly. One day he wrote me, like, ‘Hey, wanna tour with me? I just realised it would be a good fit.’ And a month later, we toured. We toured with Boychild and Larry B for two-and-a-half years together all over Europe and Asia. It was amazing – (I was) super-blessed. Then he got a chance to start his own label with !K7 and put out my music (alongside) Violence and Psychoegyptian on the compilation. With NON, I’d been following (label co-founder) Chino Amobi for ages – I’d been a major fanboy of his early shit as Diamond Black Hearted Boy. We’ve always been online friends, so it was only a matter of time until we actually did a release. I support the NON family to the full extent. It’s incredible what they’re doing.
So you’d gone from hiding yourself away to becoming a social butterfly in LA?
Yves Tumor: My shut-in days were mostly in Knoxville, ’cos there’s really nothing to do there. The kids were just, like, lots of parties and prescription drugs, just miserable. It was fine when I was there, but looking back on it now, it was pretty depressing. Instead of getting too involved in that stuff, I’d just be inside creating shitty loops, or whatever I was making. When I got to California, I would be out a lot. I made really good connections. I immediately met Barron Machat (head of experimental label Hippos in Tanks, who died in 2015), who was a really close friend of mine. We immediately clicked – he was wearing a Hype Williams t-shirt, I complimented him on it, we started talking and I got involved in that scene. I never released with them, but I was very close to that whole like movement. Rest in peace, Barron. Rest in paradise.
How did Serpent Music come together?
Yves Tumor: I had moved to Leipzig. I would just be up every night (working on it), and eventually I had a whole album. I never thought of it as soul music, but that’s just what I was doing. It was kind of cheesy – well, not cheesy, but just about relationships and stuff. They were really personal songs, and I was really proud of it. I didn’t want to just put it on Bandcamp, I wanted it to really spread, so I just sat on it for years until someone was down to release it. Bill Kouligas (head of PAN) wrote to me saying he was into it. I wrote a few more songs and it started coming to life. I was so excited, I really wanted to put this onto vinyl – not that vinyl means anything to anyone, but I think the physical aspect of it, holding it in your hands and looking at it, is just incredible. I don’t even have a vinyl player and I’ll never own one, probably, it’s just the physicality of it.
Can you talk about your approach to writing lyrics?
Yves Tumor: I usually take stuff that relates to me, then things that have nothing to do with me, then something to do with people I know. I definitely like to hide my vocals a little, because they’re not that important. I actually can’t really sing that well. (But) I like to put vocals on stuff – loops are just too easy to make. It makes a song much more relatable when that human touch is there, otherwise it’s just some robotic-ass symmetrical loop or something. I put out a record earlier this year called When Man Fails You, and it was almost lyricless. (With Serpent Music) I wanted to put myself out there a little bit more.
“I think religion is super-toxic, but I do think that spirituality can be important to keeping yourself balanced. The album definitely has a lot of spiritual themes” – Yves Tumor
The album strikes a balance between harshness and softness. Why are you drawn to those ideas?
Yves Tumor: I like setting moods. It’s not really about making a song. I definitely think there’s a difference between a song, a track, and a mood, and I’m very into making moods. I’m never consciously trying to make a harsh song, or a dreamy song, or a noisy, disgusting song – it’s more a mood I want to translate. Then I piece the album together, and think about how it should flow.
There are a lot of very biblical track names on Serpent Music. Do you see yourself as a spiritual person?
Yves Tumor: I think religion is super-toxic, but I do think that spirituality can be important to keeping yourself balanced. The album definitely has a lot of spiritual themes. The original album was actually called God Fearing, and it had that same cinematic feel to it, kind of like it’s soundtracking this movie that I’ve never made – or I might make one day, I don’t know.
What do you have coming up once the album’s out?
Yves Tumor: I have a couple of shows lined up, and more music. I’m doing a video with two directors in Berlin, for the song ‘Broke In’ featuring Oxhy. It’s a screenplay we’ve been working on based around biohacking and cloning, and feeling trapped. Oxhy wrote the lyrics – it’s about living in the UK and feeling claustrophobic and trapped there. If you listen to the lyrics, they’re super fucking creepy. It’s incredible. It’s gonna kind of build around that vibe.