Having first emerged on the capital’s live circuit as early as 2016, YOWL proceeded to put out a handful of stellar EPs and establish a reputation for themselves as one of the most vital bands around (including landing a spot in DIY’s Class of 2019, no less). Now, proving that some good things really are worth the wait, the South London five-piece have shared their debut album.
We caught up with them to dive a bit deeper into their freshly released LP ‘Milksick’.
Your debut album is finally here! How would you describe the journey to finally birthing 'Milksick'?
Definitely longer than we anticipated! Our idea of what a YOWL album might sound like has changed a lot over the years we’ve been doing this, and we’ve never been a band in a massive hurry (a fact that anyone who follows us is probably more than aware of!), so there were a few different iterations of what it might have been - all of which merged a couple of years ago into the songs we did with Alex in the Nave. Since then it’s just been a waiting game on our side really, and we’re truly, very happy it’s finally out.
When you first emerged it was as part of the speak-sing post punk scene, whereas there's a lot more emphasis on melody these days - tell us about that evolution.
It’s always struck us as slightly funny how often we get described as post-punk, but there are obviously elements of the genre in there. It’s something that a lot of bands (many of which I love), including us, were channelling around the time we started out; and you know, as a band you nick things from each other and collage them in various iterations constantly, but I don’t think we ever committed fully to that sound. I think we’ve always tried to have a melody underpinning everything, even in our roughest corners.
Did you feel part of that whole Windmill-adjacent group of bands or was the tag more limiting than helpful?
We were more like a satellite entity to the Windmill thing - we weren’t there as regularly or as deeply involved as many of the bands often mentioned whenever the ‘Windmill list’ would appear in articles, but we had some very good times there, put on a series of gigs, hung out on occasion. We played a lot more at places like Shacklewell when we were starting out. But I wouldn’t say it was limiting - we’ve got no complaints about people having a reason to write about us, even if it is as part of a fleeting reference to a scene.
You've said that a lot of the sounds on this record came about via a series of happy accidents - what were some of those moments and why did they feel so important to leave in?
The first stretch of recording took place shortly after lockdown, so we didn’t get a chance to play any of the songs live before heading to the studio: I think for us, a lot of the understanding regarding the dynamics of our songs comes via that elevated nervousness of playing them in front of other people, so while the tracks were there structurally, we had to work out some of the more textural aspects during the recording process. This led to a lot of messing around with pedals etc, kind of sampling bits of kit we’d brought or that the studio had, and then getting Alex to weave them into the tracks. You end up with a bunch of sounds that can’t necessarily be replicated perfectly every time, like that weird, grinding sound at the start of ‘The Farmer’s Big Spade’, but that’s the point; we wanted to replicate all those stutters and screeches you get during a live show.
There's always been a strong sense of surreal storytelling to your lyrics - tell us about some of the characters populating the album.
There are quite a few floating around in there... initially Mike and I had this vague narrative that was going to run through the album, which we scrapped, but there’s still a ‘secret narrator’ in there threading things together - just don’t go looking for them, they’re well-hidden! The whole thing ended up having a bit of a fairytale feel: there’s the two werewolves/lovers in ‘Canis’; there's ‘The Farmer’s Big Spade’, which features a dying farmer being slowly destroyed by his own crops; and the brother and sister in ‘Positive Exit’ who have something of a malevolent Hansel and Gretel energy, running away from a house that the sister has burned down.
As a title, 'Milksick' is quite body-based and grotesque - why did that feel like the right term to encapsulate the record?
It comes from a line in ‘The Farmer’s Big Spade’, ‘flexing his milk-sick muscles’; ‘milk sickness’ is a colloquial term for the poisoning that occurs after eating the snakeroot plant or even the milk of an animal that’s been eating it. There’s an ecological motif in the album, and the grotesqueness that that phrase elicits, the visceral rejection of nourishment - I thought that tied this idea of a retaliatory natural world together pretty well.
The last track, 'A Birthday with David' is a nod to the late Silver Jews leader - what influence has he had on the band and who are the other key touchstones on this record?
I didn’t really know much about David Berman or Silver Jews until we recorded our first EP, ‘Before the Sleep Sets In’, when one of the guys we were working with used them as a reference. He’s got a beautiful way of turning phrases that became more raw and more personal over time, and many of his songs make you feel you’re being invited to a confession and simultaneously pushed away. I was quite affected by that Purple Mountains record, especially after his passing, and when Billy sent his guitar part through I obviously had him on my mind. I initially considered altering the lyrics as I didn’t want it to come across as if I was writing some mawkish tribute to a man I didn’t know, but ultimately decided to keep them as they were; I think it’s clear that it’s not a direct eulogy but more like you said, a nod, contained within a song.
If people had to listen to one track on the record as an entry point to YOWL, which would you recommend?
Probably A. Wegener! It’s got a bit of everything you could want from a YOWL song, from a twee bible-camp tambourine movement to the death-by-frostbite arctic survival dirge section.
'Milksick' is out now via Clue Records / EMI North.