Yoko Pwno are a difficult band to describe without emphasising the initial incongruities of the influences (writes Andy Wood). It’s certainly an error I made after first seeing them play for the first time in a living room at an Oxjam House gig last October. I loved them but couldn’t really put it into words, at least not coherently, and blurted out that ‘it shouldn’t really work but it does’. I may also, regrettably used the phrase ‘teuchter techno’ or something similar.
Certainly Yoko Pwno combine influences such as electronic music, guitars, and fiddle – drawing on strands of folk music as well dance music to create something very special. It’s a beguiling sound, cinematic and beautiful and very engaging. Calum and Marco switch around a fair bit live between laptops and guitars while Lewis moves around like a man possessed with his evocative fiddle playing. While electronic music can sometimes appear a little sterile or lack connection in a live context, this is not a criticism that can be made of Yoko Pwno. Watching them again recently at Henry’s Cellar Bar in Edinburgh I found them wholly engaging and a great deal of fun live.
They have just recently released a four song E.P. The first thing that strikes you about the E.P. is the sheer love and thought put into the packaging. Printed on recycled cardboard (mine was on a Pizza box rather than a cereal box) it looks thoroughly gorgeous with its line drawing of the band. It opens out into a fold out cover with more drawings on the booklet. It’s so lovely to touch and look at. It feels like a lovely gift, personal and special, handmade but elegantly so.
An even bigger treat are the songs contained on the E.P. The four instrumental tracks create fascinating soundscapes, shifting in mood and feel and always engaging. As with the live sound these songs aren’t for creating a background or ambient sound but are immersive and enthralling.
Opening song ‘Welcome To Spam Valley’ feels very melancholy with it’s spacey percussion and backing. The fiddle gives a solid feel to the ghostly, spectral electronics and it sounds like a beautiful elegy to something lost, whether an idea or a solid reality. In terms of atmosphere it reminds me of Mogwai’s gorgeously evocative and creepy soundtrack to Les Revenants (one of my favourite soundtracks and television shows of last year). It mixes a sense of eeriness with a remarkable beauty, with sparse piano and guitar adding layers to the sound. I’m not sure that I ever want to visit Spam Valley with it’s suggestion of poverty and loss but this song has no poverty in its aspiration or scope.
‘Night Drive Through Baberton’ pushes the tempo up a bit with its solid rhythm and dubscapes. There is a real sense of space and movement in the arrangement, evoking a sense of urban and countryside side by side, with beautifully moving passages interspersed by sirens.
‘Genghis Shan’ opens with a simple fiddle line and thump of a snare. The fiddle swoops and soars around the song before giving way to a picked guitar line and a wordless female vocal before pulling the song back into it’s orbit. I’ve no idea what the title means but the song itself is fantastic, building up and breaking down with different vistas opening up all the time in front of you.
‘It Could Always be Worse’ wraps things up wonderfully. The looping guitar line holds the song together while the fiddle and electronics swoop and soar giving the song such an uplifting feel. At the same time it feels slightly disorientating as if it is messing with your head albeit in a playful and pretty enjoyable manner. As with the whole E.P. it often feels like the songs last for a lot less time than they actually do. I was convinced for ages that the opening track was about a minute and a half long but it actually clocks in at over four minutes. Which, to my mind, is an amazing achievement. I could lose hours in this E.P. In fact, I pretty much have done since I got it!
Yoko Pwno make music to dream to, to remember and to forget. It’s incredibly visual music, generating atmosphere and shifting all the time. It makes me think of so many different things – there are elements of the euphoria of the best dance music, the spaciness and other-worldliness of dub, Hauntology, the more outré parts of folk music, Post-Rock, Mo-Wax and so on but these are all traces. The only answer to what do they sound like is that they sound like Yoko Pwno. And Yoko Pwno sound absolutely brilliant.
Prior to messing with heads at The Cool Cat Club Calum from Yoko Pwno kindly agreed to answer some questions for the Manic Pop Thrills inquisition.
Who are Yoko Pwno? Please introduce yourselves and what your role in the band is.
“My name’s Calum, and my cohorts are named Marco and Lewis. When we play live, Lewis plays fiddle while Marco and I swap between guitar, keys and laptops. When we’re recording it’s a bit less clear cut, but generally I’m the one pressing the buttons and doing the editing.”
How did you come to be Yoko Pwno?
“We all met through playing in bands together. I’d been making music on computers for years when Marco and I met up and started fooling around with our laptops with no real aim in mind. After a couple of months I ran into Lewis at a gig in Edinburgh and asked him to come down for a jam on a whim. I remembered having seen him play a cover of ‘Voodoo People’ by the Prodigy with a band called Lightning Jack and the Riverbugs and being struck by how good the lead synth line sounded on the fiddle. It seemed to fall into place pretty quickly after that.”
What are your influences, musical or otherwise?
“Artists like Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Plaid and Autechre are big influences, as well as Scottish acts like Martyn Bennett, Lau, Shooglenifty and the Peatbog Faeries. Pink Floyd, Radiohead, NIN, Eat Meater and The Super Furry Animals also feature pretty heavily on our musical radar, along with lots of old Detroit techno producers like Juan Atkins and Derrick May.
“At the moment I’ve been listening to lots of the artists on an English label called Ghost Box Recordings. They’re an electronic label with this really cool aesthetic going on, reminiscent of a lot of old British science fiction and horror – sort of like Boards of Canada meets Arthur Machen. Check out Moon Wiring Club and The Advisory Circle if you get the chance.”
The name, Yoko Pwno, has certainly caused some confusion and raised a few eyebrows when I’ve mentioned it. Why did you choose the name? And what is the correct pronunciation please.
“About a year ago when we were just starting to get this band together our friend James Campbell (aka ‘Landings’) asked us to play a gig at his album launch at Sneaky Pete’s. We didn’t have a name, so when he called and asked us what to put on the poster we said the first thing that came into our heads. Sadly, we’ve since failed to come up with anything better. I tend to pronounce it ‘Yoko Oh-no’, whereas Lewis insists that the ‘P’ is hard. Secretly we all really like the name. It’s like a self-defeating pun – it only really works if you see it written down.”
You recently released your debut E.P. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
“We released the EP at the end of March with a party in a secret location in Edinburgh. The whole thing took 6 months to put together – we recorded and produced the whole thing ourselves, and as none of us had really attempted anything quite like it before there was a lot of trial and error involved – I think we’re pretty happy with the results though. It was mastered by Connor Dalton at Calyx Mastering in Berlin – he does work for Soma Records (home of Glaswegian techno heroes Slam) so it seemed a pretty obvious choice. We’ve only made physical copies of it available just now. Digital copies will be made available via bandcamp from around the beginning of June, bundled with a couple of exclusive bonus tracks.”
The packaging is very beautiful and clearly a lot of thought went into it. How important was that to you as a band?
“The packaging was handmade by our friend Lara (www.madebylara.co.uk). She screen printed her design onto old cereal boxes. It really suits the music and we’re all very pleased with it.
“It was really important for us to get the packaging right. Selling physical copies of your music seems pretty old fashioned these days, so we had to make something that people would actually want to own. We’ve pretty much sold out of CDs already, so it was totally worth the effort.”
How has the response been so far to the E.P. and live shows?
“It’s been fantastic! On paper ‘techno with fiddles’ looks like a slightly odd concept, but folk seem to like it. At first we got a lot of comments like ‘This shouldn’t work, but it really does’ – I think folk have got used to it now though. Certainly most of our shows seem to be full of happy, dancing people. What more could you want?”
What has been the best thing about being in Yoko Pwno so far?
“We played a set at Landed Festival in Wales recently. It’s set in the Wye Valley near Rhayader, which is beautiful enough during the daytime, but at night the whole site was lit up with coloured lights and projections in the trees. We were on stage at 1am, the atmosphere was amazing and the crowd were really good. It was a great place to be. Totally magic.”
And the worst or most awkward?
“The drive back to Scotland the next day was a bit rough!”
What does the future hold for Yoko Pwno?
“After the Cool Cat Club show we’ve got a few gigs lined up over the summer – we’ll be appearing at Meadows Festival in Edinburgh in June and then Audiosoup in July. We’ve a couple of other shows booked which we can’t talk about just yet – we’ll be announcing them via the band’s Facebook page when the time comes.
“We’re going to be putting another E.P .out either late this year or early next. As with the gigs, we can’t really go into too much detail about that just yet – however, it’s looking pretty exciting! We’ve already started writing and recording the tracks which might appear on it, so you’ll be able to get a sneak preview at upcoming shows.”
You can purchase the E.P. here http://yokopwno.bandcamp.com/album/yoko-pwno-ep
And here’s a track from the E.P.