Flashbulb Flashback: In the Lab with Yells At Eels // 1.10.13

{Update: Unconscious Collective, http://www.thewire.co.uk/issues/381}

The front room of Dennis González’ Oak Cliff home is full of musical instruments: A bass on its side, trumpets dangle from the ceiling, or the vibes by a pair of windows. Walls are covered with artifacts and acquisitions of Dennis’ travels – my eye immediately finds a framed Eugene Chadbourne print. Over the years many of the world’s most spectacular musicians have congregated in this room. Members of the hallowed Art Ensemble of Chicago have eaten dinner with the family and played music in this room.

Last week, I had the honor of breaking bread with this family, bringing with me a bottle of wine and my good friend Yinka Ogunro. The first time I heard González’ name was in the context of bass player Henry Grimes, who’s first recording date after disappearing from music for over thirty years was on a 2003 session with Dennis González. Yinka, originally from Dallas but living in Atlanta back then, quipped, “This guy’s from Dallas, and I have to come all the way out here to find him.” The world does indeed work in funny ways, and it seemed appropriate to include my old friend in the festivities.

We were generously welcomed with the easy laughter of home. Dennis introduced us to his wife, Carol, who cooked a divine spread and buzzed around the kitchen as their sons Stefan and Aaron joked. As we ate and drank, the room was a flurry of activity with everyone throwing in commentary, complimenting the food, bursting into laughter as Dennis mimcs his father’s unique sense of humor. By the time we retired to the aforementioned front room for unbelievable blueberry pie, we had established a rapport. It was in this “laboratory” that the first inklings of Yells at Eels came crawling out of the woodwork over thirteen years ago. Teenaged Stefan and Aaron were clearly jumpstarted by their father’s extensive friendships with brilliant musicians; Aaron suggests, “The secret weapon is my mom’s cooking, that’s what got them all over here.”

With pioneers of the expansive free jazz universe like Anthony Braxton influencing the two from the time they were in utero, Stefan and Aaron were impelled to start early with music. Their hardcore band Akkolyte was the springboard for Yells at Eels, “They would tear the place apart, with just the two of them. And they bring that intensity to our music,” Dennis beams. Aaron, who plays double bass, says of the first time they mentioned playing with their dad, “He was skeptical. It was a naïve thing for us; let’s jam with Dad. I just got tired of playing grindcore.”

Dennis clarifies, with a quick retort, “I was afraid of them.”

Stefan explains, “When we started, we were mixing electric overdriven bass, weird samples, synthesizers, multi-tracking, industrial stuff. But we’ve become more traditional free jazz.” When I ask Stefan, drummer and percussionist, about the relationship between performing heavy music or punk as opposed to free jazz, he shakes his head, “I suppose there’s an organic tension across them all, but what we play now has more heart and more give.”

“Give” is an excellent word for what these gentleman achieve, it is seen in the way the conversation rolled through the evening, found in the way one speaker would pull back allowing another to take things in a different course. In two hours, I may have asked three questions, the quintet that had assembled that evening carried the theme out and into a variety of directions. Dennis often asked questions of all of us, sending us following arrow-tipped vectors. A sense of seeking permeated our conversation as it does the music of Yells at Eels, whether playing as a trio or with inimitable artists like Alvin Fielder, Tim Green or Famoudo Don Moye.

Their living potency clears the glut of information from the forebrain, weaving a dance between intuitive control and intense power. The dynamic humanity at the heart of Yells at Eels’ music seeks outward to new levels of inspiration. Thankfully, they represent a necessary counter to algorithmic genres that the music business relies too heavily on.

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