An interview with Yeo

Photo credit: 
Tim Fenby

It’s been a few weeks since art felicis chatted with Australian artist, Yeo, over the phone. Sorry guyz, when the binge television watching takes over, it takes over! We managed to catch him the day before he jetsetted off to tour LA, New York and Canada for Canadian Music Week.

As one of the first artists to appear on the triple j Unearthed website, Yeo has been around since 2006, with his album Trouble Being Yourself. After taking a bit of a hiatus to study audiology at university, he decided to give music another crack, and has since released three more albums, including Bag O’ ItemsHome, and Sell Out. Dabbling around in smooth pop, country-folk, and electronic production, Yeo is known for genre hopping, and has supported artists like Kimbra and Adam Green. Not a bad résumé!

Since releasing his hugely successful single ‘Girl’ last year, and more recently ‘Kobe’, Yeo plans to release an EP this year, titled Come Find Me, as well as tour Australia throughout June and July. Busy busy. And I struggle to attend the gym once a month between watching Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad episodes. Check out our interview where we find out why Yeo turned down an offer from Universal, how his relationships have influenced his music, all about his Asian parents (reprezent!), and where to find the best second-hand books in Melbourne.


AF: I can’t find any details regarding your full name. Is that something you’re trying to keep under wraps?

YEO: Not really. I don’t have a glamorous last name, it’s just easier for people to remember my first name, and I haven’t met many people who have it as a first name, especially spelt the way it is. Why, have you been hunting down my Facebook profile? [laughs] My last name is Choong. Very classic Chinese last name. My parents are from Malaysia, and their parents are from China.

AF: So you’re leaving tomorrow to tour Canada for Canadian Music Week, and perform in LA and New York. Do you have a big fan base over there?

YEO: You know what’s funny? I don’t reckon that a lot of people in those cities specifically like my music, but if you look at the Soundcloud statistics, I’m getting five times more plays in the United States than I am in Australia. That might just be a population thing, I’m not sure, but I don’t know what the shows are going to be like. They’re not huge, just the odd support spot here and the odd headliner there. I guess the main purpose of the trip is to show people what we have, and win new fans. I put the word out as much I could—whoever comes comes.

AF: How do you usually prepare for a gig?

YEO: This is the furthest I’ve ever travelled to play any music. The only other international show I’ve done was a solo set at this tiny little bar in Kyoto. So we’re all freaking out, we’re all really excited, we just can’t wait to see what comes. There’s been a lot of preparation. Our manager is financing us because it’s quite a bit just to get over there. The flights are the expensive part, as you can imagine. We’ve been practicing very hard as well, just so that we have a bulletproof live show.

AF: What can your fans expect from a live Yeo gig?

YEO: Well we’re a two-piece at the moment—myself and my drummer Andrew. Melbourne artists are known for folding their arms and standing around on stage, but we’re very energetic. We use a laptop to fill in all the gaps, so there’s a lot of bass, and a lot of other sounds. We just have a great time. That’s what people can expect. If they want to have a good time with us, they can come to our show.

AF: You like to experiment with lots of different genres. Why haven’t you just chosen one and ran with it?

YEO: I think I’m getting closer to finding it with this electronic stuff. At the end of the day, I want to forge a sound that’s my own and doesn’t fit into any pigeonhole. The reason why it’s so varied is because I love a lot of genres and I like to make what I like, if that makes any sense. I can’t help myself. If there’s a new style of music that I like, I’m going to naturally want to try and make something like that.

AF: When did you start experimenting with electronic production?

YEO: It actually started a really long time ago. Back in 2006, I dabbled a little bit in it. I put out this record, Trouble Being Yourself, with about 14 songs, and they were all very different. Two of the tracks were quite electronic, but I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I made a country album about two or three years ago when I moved to Melbourne, and that was awesome, but I just really missed having beats and dancing, so I went back to the electronic stuff and experimented with techniques that other people have used before, and stuff that I know people haven’t tried before.

AF: As your sound has evolved, have your lyrics evolved with it?

YEO: Definitely. The stories you try and tell when you’re a teenager are completely different to the ones you tell when you’re in your late 20s. I don’t know if you know how old I am, but I’m old [laughs]! You learn a lot through life and you really figure out the economy of writing. You can say a lot with few words or you can give a lot of specific detail with many words.

AF: You released your debut album, Trouble Being Yourself, in 2006, and your sophomore album, Bag O’ Items, in 2011. Why did you take such a long break between albums?

YEO: Hmm, wasn’t intentional. I guess I didn’t really feel like anything followed on from Trouble Being Yourself immediately. There were a few label offers that came up, but I realised that when you get involved with that and money comes into it, everything changes. And a lot of the time, it steps on your creative vision, and that scared me a lot. I didn’t want to give up what I was doing just so I could make a few bucks. I thought, “You know what? I’m going to go back to school.” I did half a master’s degree in audiology, but a desk job is bullshit. So I bailed. I was young, figuring out relationships and stuff. I was in a really heavy relationship with this girl who I still love today—she’s great, we’re friends. But I learnt a lot from that. That took up a lot of my time [laughs]. Moving to Melbourne helped clear up everything, and then I just got started again.

AF: When did your music journey start to gain traction?

YEO: I’ve had two bursts. The first one was in 2006 with Trouble Being Yourself. Triple J put me on the old Unearthed website, which went up around the same time that I put that album out, so they really latched on to that. They made me a next top artist, splashed me around the mailing list, and gave me quite a few spot plays. Then I took that five-year break and everyone forgot about me. I jumped back on the map with Bag O’ Items, which was the next release, and then at the end of last year, we put out “Girl”. Zac’s been doing the publicity for that, and it’s really picked up from there. It’s got it’s own organic energy, and lots of beat nerds are latching on to it, which is really cool.

AF: What is your song ‘Girl’ about?

YEO: It’s actually a very general comment. As you grow and mature, you realise that the people you have relationships with, whether that’s your significant other, or whether you’re sleeping around, or not sleeping around—these people are all really important and you’ve got to take care of them. We have to be careful with each other’s feelings, because our hearts can be broken. It’s about sensitivity. I’m a pretty sensitive guy, and relationships go both ways. The comment I’m trying to make is for people to wake up a bit. People get hurt and you can really wreck lives if you’re not careful.

AF: Where do you usually draw inspiration?

YEO: I like telling stories about my friends, and I get a lot of sonic inspiration from books, movies and places. I try to capture vibes from different media forms.

AF: How has the reception to your latest single ‘Kobe’ been?

YEO: The reception’s been quick. It copped a lot of plays in a very short amount of time. There aren’t as many reposts or sharing as ‘Girl’, but that’s probably because I’m already on the map, and they are very different songs. My team are quite confident that it’ll pick up, particularly if it goes to radio because it’s more of a pop song—there are more lyrics, and it’s much more energetic. But we’ll see, it’s only been a month. We’ve got a clip coming, so that will give us another little push, but I’m really happy with it. The good news is that there’s plenty more where that came from. We’ve just got to play the music industry game and release it at the right time.

AF: Are you releasing an EP soon?

YEO: That is the plan. How we’re going to do that is still up in the air, but we want to put out the rest of the EP with one more song and video, because it’ll give people another song to remember when they come to shows. After that, I think I want to do another EP because there are a few songs that I’m halfway through at the moment, and once again, the sound has evolved. I’m really proud of it and I can’t wait to share it with everyone.

AF: When did you start getting into music?

YEO: Probably when I was seven years old. You know, Asian parents, I got into piano, and that’s when the seed was planted. I did hate lessons after a while, and I did hate playing piano, but then I got into bands, and playing in bands is fun, especially if you’re a teenager. I think I was about halfway through uni when I realised, “Let’s do this for real.” And also, when I got my first track on Triple J, it seemed like other people liked my music, and that I should give it a crack. Since then, I haven’t been able to kill the hunger. I’ve tried a lot of different things, but I just keep going back to music.

AF: Are you parents supportive of your music?

YEO: My dad doesn’t even know what I’m doing. That’s some pretty deep shit we don’t need to get into, but my mum knows what I’m doing. She probably wishes I was a doctor or pharmacist, but I didn’t get the grades for that. I don’t have the mental makeup to be something like that. I find science fascinating and I get into stuff other than music, but that’s because I’m a nerd. I’m more about breaking musical boundaries. I guess that’s the creative side of me. My mum is just happy that I’m happy, but she does stress that it’s important to have a good job and to always have a roof over your head.

AF: Who are your musical influences?

YEO: When I was at high school, we all listened to Metallica, Eminem, and Limp Bizkit, and I don’t sound anything like them [laughs]! Obviously pop music is something I’ve always been into. I remember liking those really cheesy pop hits from the 90s. Who didn’t? You still hear that when you go to clubs. My real love of music probably started with hip-hop. I don’t know what it was about hip-hop, it was just really interesting and made your hips move. Now, I think an obvious influence is Jai Paul from the UK. Everyone is in love with him. He’s a big influence, mostly for his forward thinking. Now, bedroom producers are the norm. Young kids are becoming EDM superstars because they’ll put out one track that goes crazy on Hype Machine. There’s a lot of talent coming through. The problem is that a lot of people forget that it’s not about toys and making cool sounds. The thing that keeps music going is a good song, so that’s my focus. I think you can draw a lot from history. I try to draw inspiration from the killer guys like Bruce Springsteen and Fleetwood Mac, and turn my songwriting into something with a modern electronic sound. Like Jai Paul or even Disclosure. They obviously know what they’re doing when it comes to technology.

AF: A few years ago, you supported Kimbra. Tell us about that experience.

YEO: That was a real milestone for me. I think that was probably the biggest artist I’ve supported to date. She wasn’t as big back then, but those gigs were some of our biggest audiences. We played to sold-out crowds, between 500-1000 people in big venues. That was when a lot of people heard me for the first time. Kimbra is just very cool, really nice and down-to-earth. Now everyone hounds her so I don’t hear from her anymore, but I don’t take that personally. She actually headhunted me to support her because she really liked my music, and when I showed up to the gig, she said “I burnt you this CD of this band, Facing New York, that I really like because they remind me so much of you.” To think that people still do that, and actually forge a relationship with people they play shows with is incredible. A burnt CD is not much, but coming from someone who is so busy, and actually took the time to think about what I do and acknowledge that is just so sweet. How nice is that!

AF: What other artists have you worked with?

YEO: I played bass at a show with this guy called Adam Green, from The Moldy Peaches. That was an eye opener. We played Meredith, we played up and down the east coast. That was really cool and a bit of a taste of what it’s like to be a band that gets really looked after. We had all the alcohol—more than we could drink, and there were instrument techs—the guys that hand you your guitar when you walk on stage and have set up all the equipment just the way you like it. That was a really fun experience, Adam’s a champion.

AF: Let’s talk pipe dreams. Which festival would you love to play at?

YEO: I would love to play at Fuji Rock Festival in Japan. If I got a spot there, that would be sweet. The Japanese really know to party and get into their music. They’re just fanatic. Japan is a number one destination for holidays. They’re all bloody night owls, and they like staying out late and getting drunk [laughs]. Not everyone obviously.

AF: The Australian music industry seems like a really big, happy community, but your song “Like I Don’t Already Know” makes it seem a bit sinister. Has it been a particularly cutthroat journey?

YEO: Yes and no. “Like I Don’t Already Know” is not just a comment on Australia, it’s about the music industry internationally. I still have trouble coming to terms with the sad fact that the majority of people in the industry don’t care about the art, it’s all about the money. Money governs a lot of decisions, and I understand that people need to live, but a lot of the industry professionals forget about the hard hours we spend writing or recording in the studio. I got an offer from Universal once upon a time, and they wanted to completely change my image, repackage and re-record everything, and I thought, “Hang on a second, that’s not what I want to do. My record is already finished. You can come with me on my journey, I’m not going with you on your journey.” They wanted me to collaborate with dudes like Nick Littlemore from PNAU and just gloss up my sound. And yeah, I listen to the record now, and it could probably do with that, it might have been better, but at the same time, I was just confident in what I did, and liked my process. I didn’t want to change it for a buck. The Australian musicians though, are all beautiful souls. They’re generally supportive. I recommend that artists get to the stage where they can have a manager, because that buffer zone is so good.

AF: Of all your songs, which is your favourite?

YEO: That’s a hard one. Every time I finish a song, it seems to be my new favourite. I just finished one the other day. I had a really shit day, and in the afternoon I locked myself in the shed, screwed around, and wrote this song in eight hours. I really like it. I think it’s a step in a new direction. I know that’s really vague. It’s called “Got No Game”. Check it out in 2015, it’s coming soon [laughs]!

AF: What do you get up to when you’re not making music?

YEO: I am a film nerd. Westerns, horrors, dramas, mafia movies, I’m a big anime geek as well. I like sport too, I’m an amateur baseballer, I’ve recently gotten into running, and I love building bikes and riding them everywhere. I like reading too. I’ve got quite a lot of books in my pipeline. I get most of my books from Book Depository, but there’s also this really great bookseller in Northcote called Howard Bolton, but it’s only open on the weekend. His books are awesome, the titles are between $5 and $10, and they’re all immaculate, well-curated second hand books. Heaps of classics but a lot of good modern authors as well.

AF: What’s your favourite Melbourne hangout?

YEO: There are so many bars and pubs and restaurants, but when people come down to Melbourne I like to show them this rooftop at the top of a car park on Flinders Lane. You kind of have to scale a fire escape, but once you’re up there, you can just let everyone up through the stairs. Often we just hang out up there because it’s got a good view, with the Botanical Gardens and the Yarra on one side, and then Flinders Street train station on the other.


Hometown: Brisbane, Queensland, and Geelong, Victoria, Australia.
Latest single: ‘Kobe’, released a month ago.
Sounds like: Jai Paul, Disclosure, and not Limp Bizkit.
Say what? “My drummer and I were practicing in rehearsal room and he made a really lame joke. I can’t remember what it was, but when I went to pay him out, I kind of just opened my mouth and all this drool just fell out. I just drooled everywhere. Now he pays me out.”

Ciao ciao, Arianna.

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