Q&A: The Yardarm Hit Chapel Hill with Twangy Rock ‘n Roll

The Yardarm create a powerful sense of place with rollicking Americana.

In my professional opinion, there are not too many bands in this town. Heck, having lots of bands is good for business when your business is chronicling the local arts and culture scene.

Jason Bales and JJ Westfield of The Yardarm don’t think there are too many bands in the Triangle, either, despite the title of The Yardarm’s latest single, “Too Many Bands.”

In fact, “Too Many Bands” is a tongue-in-cheek Americana romp that chronicles the struggles of coming up in the local music scene. It’s charming storytelling to a rollicking rhythm, with Bales and Westfield’s knack for setting a scene on full display.

Bales and Westfield’s gift for creating powerful sense of place takes over again on the tender ballad “Camp Song,” in which Westfield croons about fireflies over rippling guitar.

With Bales and Westfield on guitar and vox, Palmer Smith on bass, and John Cowan on drums, The Yardarm are bringing their dynamic mix of rock and Americana to eager Chapel Hill ears. With a new EP, “Camp Songs,” coming out Saturday, October 12, 2019, there’s never been a better time to embrace The Yardarm.

I sat down with Jason Bales and JJ Westfield to discuss band dynamics, MTV, and “Camp Songs.”

You can catch The Yardarm celebrating the release of “Camp Songs” with The Gone Ghosts and Owen Fitzgerald at The Cave on October 12, 2019. Info here.

TTG: What is The Yardarm’s origin story?

Jason: So JJ’s wife and my wife messaged each other on this Facebook group that was for moms in the South Durham area, and I think Bri had posted, y’know, “My husband plays music, I do knitting and art stuff,” and my wife was like, “Hey, same.” And so they organized a get-together. So it was a blind date for us, organized by our wives.

TTG: Was the chemistry there right away?

JJ: I think we walked away from that first time together thinking, “Hey, that went surprisingly well.” It’s so easy to walk away from a first time playing with somebody going “Never again!”

Jason: It worked out well. Everyone in the band does their homework, we’re all very Type A. We had some pretty good versions of songs early on. 

JJ: If there’s any competitiveness, it’s totally friendly. It’s us trying to push each other to another level.

TTG: That sounds disgustingly healthy.

JJ: I know! We should be throwing things at each other, Oasis-style.

Jason: Yeah, the whole band dynamic is really just disgusting. We’d have a very boring “Behind the Music” so far.

TTG: You’ve got a great single called “Too Many Bands.” Tell me about that one. 

Jason: “Too Many Bands” was a bit of an origin story song for me. So when I was in college I was in a band with my brother, and when I moved down here, I didn’t know anybody, had no connections at all. I started trying to do solo shows, and I wasn’t super resilient about it. And this is a town where there are millions of bands! And as somebody who isn’t part of the music scene, how do you become part of it? Just because everybody else is doing it, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Because I felt like what we were doing was too good not to just be, like, an attic band nobody hears.

TTG: Setting comes up a lot in your lyrics, especially in “Camp Song.” You guys are great at creating a sense of place in your music. Where does that come from?

JJ: “Camp Song” is about a camp I used to go to. I was actually a counselor, so it’s a love song to the camp. Sense of place and location…it comes pretty naturally to me. I think that’s how I dream, I dream in very vivid locations and places, and maybe that comes out in songwriting.

Jason: I really like when books have maps, I’m a big geography nerd, and I think that comes in when writing about place.

TTG: You guys have lived on every side of the Mason-Dixon line. How has living in different parts of the country affected your music?

Jason: There’s a group called The Ingham County Regulars that never really played outside of Lansing, Michigan, but it was this great, like…honky-tonk thing, but the guy who played lead guitar could shred like Pete Anderson from Dwight Yoakam. Those guys, and that gritty vibe you get from post-industrial towns in Michigan.

JJ: I grew up mostly in Florida, I grew up in Vero Beach, which is where Alison Mosshart from Dead Weather and The Kills was from. Honestly, I feel like I’m more a product of MTV than anything else.

Jason: We’ve talked a lot about our MTV in the early 90s, and how alternative radio had everything.

JJ: Ska, to industrial, to swing…that was a great education, I think, growing up when everything was mashed together.

Jason: I can definitely see that eclecticism in our music.

TTG: The Yardarm names Tom Petty as a big influence, and the anniversary of his passing is coming up. In his honor, could you name a favorite Tom Petty song?

Jason: “Wildflowers”. He’s such a singles artist, Damn the Torpedoes is absurd, the amount of hit singles off it. But “Wildflowers,” I try to emulate a lot. That sort of acoustic wave- but rockin’!

JJ: For a deeper cut, “All the Wrong Reasons.” Sad songs. I just want to depress the audience. 

Jason: I think we’ve got a fair amount of sad songs between us. I mean, some of them have a beat.

JJ: It’s hard. An audience wants to escape for a night, and you want to write something with some weight to it, and it’s hard to strike that balance. 

TTG: Tell me about recording the new EP. What kind of production were you going for in “Camp Songs?” 

JJ: We decided to bring in Jeff Crawford, to get his take on it, to see what his vision of it was. We recorded at Arbor Ridge.

Jason: On the first EP, you’ve got “Lucy,” more distorted guitars, and it’s pretty heavy. And I think Jeff did a good job of evening everything out. We’ve got a straightforward rock song, an ethereal, sort of pastoral song, one that we really rip up live. And Jeff stripped things down and shaped the instrumental sections in ways we hadn’t done live, but we thought it sounded really cool that way. He tempered the heavier elements, made it sound very organic and cohesive.

All images courtesy of The Yardarm.

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