Tony Cummings spoke to Danny Kwak of Seattle aggregation YESAN DAMEN
If you are a regular Cross Rhythms listener you will already have heard the hugely infectious "Whoa!" by American band Yesan Damen. If you haven't heard this aggregation from Seattle, there is a sticker on Yesan Damen's 'Chronos/Kairos' album which explains what they are about pretty well: "Cursing the human condition with a smile. Lyrically dense vocal pop with complex instrumental layers." Intrigued by what I heard on 'Chronos/Kairos' and their previous 2006 album 'The Never Beginning Story', I tracked down the band's frontman and founder Danny Kwak to get the lowdown on this most creative bunch. I began by asking about the name. "I originally wanted to call the band Yes And Amen. At the time, however, yesandamen.com was taken so a friend suggested that we insert a hyphen somewhere in there. We thought yesan-damen was pretty funny, so we just went with it. Although, sometimes people come up to me and ask, 'Are you Yesan?' We were eventually able to get yesandamen.com as well, but we kept the name as it was."
Guitarist and singer Danny had grown up obsessed with layering electric guitars upon more electric guitars when recording music. After a while, he developed a desire to move away from the "electric-guitar-wall-of-sound" thing and more towards using different instrumentation and interesting vocal arrangements. Yesan Damen became Kwak's outlet to do so. He explained, "I started writing and recording demos under the name Yesan Damen in the fall of 2004 and decided to make a record in 2005. Michael Lerner (drums) and Arick Gouwerok (bass) began rehearsing with me that spring, and in August 2005 we began tracking 'The Never Beginning Story'. I played with Michael and Arick in a previous Seattle band so the songs came together rather quickly."
Yesan Damen were never formed with the normal ambition of doing the "band thing" (forming a group, recording an album and touring the country). Explained Kwak, "We set out to have fun and make something different from what we were working on at that time in other bands. What's interesting about Yesan Damen is that within our entire collective, there are several other bands that make amazing music. Seattle seems to foster a collective mentality among band members. Not all of the band members are Christians, but fortunately, since we are all friends, the fact that my lyrics touch upon spiritual subject matter is not a big deal."
Not surprisingly for this collective of musical eclectics they site a wide range of musical influences. Said Kwak, "One band that we all love is Radiohead. There is simply no band that does what they do as well as they do. Other influences include the Magnetic Fields, Spritualized, Belle & Sebastian, the list goes on. . . Some local Seattle influences are Death Cab For Cutie, Pedro The Lion, Damien Jurado, Jen Wood, anything my good friend Tomo Nakayama is involved in, which most recently is Grand Hallway."
Yesan Damen's first album, 'The Never Beginning Story', was released to critical acclaim on New Wine Records in 2006. Wrote the Cross Rhythms reviewer, "The tracks where flute and cello interweave with delicate acoustic and jangling pop rock guitars are particularly memorable." Said Danny, "'The Never Beginning Story', simply stated, is about regret. During my college years I realised how easy it is to keep things as they are and stay in the exact same spot. When I began writing the songs for that album, I often thought about how many people in the world live their entire lives without ever really pursuing a calling and giving it all they have. I can't quantitatively say how many people are on that track, but I definitely was at that time."
The band endeavoured to play live when the album was released but there were difficulties. Kwak explained, "Every time we played our instrumentation was different. Anytime we had a show, I checked with everyone who played on the record to see who was available. It was great because each show was different. Sometimes it was just me and another vocalist. Other times it was just me and a string quartet. One time I played a duet with our friend Brett Anderson on accordion. When everyone was available to play the stage was very packed, but it was a lot of fun."
Now 'Chronos/Kairos' has been released. Said Danny, "The recording sessions for were extremely fast paced. We tracked 'The Never Beginning Story' over a six-week period, whereas 'Chronos/Kairos' we tracked in 12 days. We worked quickly partly because it was easier the second time around. We were better rehearsed and had a clear idea of how we wanted each song to turn out. We also worked quickly because I was leaving to go to law school at the end of that summer. Having that time constraint on us forced us to stay focused while tracking and mixing."
Two tracks on the album particularly stand out, the haunting "Canons Of Devotion" and the infectious opener, "Whoa!". Danny spoke about the latter, "Recording 'Whoa!' felt like a big party. After we tracked the instruments, we gathered everyone present in the studio - the entire band, some guest musicians, the studio owner and his wife, Michael's friend visiting from England (his name is Thomas Speight, who plays music out in the UK as well) - to shout 'Whoa!' and 'Oh!' with us. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy for asking them to shout the way we did, but we all had a good time."
Kwak spoke about the job commitments of his fellow musicians: "Michael and Arick are both full time musicians. Arick's main gig now is on the upright bass playing in various jazz combos. Michael started a new band called Telekinesis and just signed with Merge Records. I believe they have a record coming out April 7th this year, so be sure to check that out. It's really great music! While recording 'The Never Beginning Story', I had a day job at an audio company, and Michael was working at a local record store. It was great because I had access to a ton of recording gear, but it made for an exhausting recording experience. Working from 8am-5pm, then recording from 6pm to midnight made for extremely long days. By the time we recorded 'Chronos/Kairos', I had already quit my job because I was going to graduate school in the fall of that year."
There is considerable regret and melancholy that pervades much of Yesan Damen's music. However, Danny is positive about what the future might hold in America. "As an ethnic minority in the States, racism was something I grew up with and was aware of my entire life. I've always accepted it as a fact of life and never believed that a minority would ever be elected president, but the fact that more than half the country got behind an African American candidate shattered any doubt in my mind that times are changing."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.