by Leah Willis
Three o'clock in the afternoon is usually when school lets out, but not today. Today, it's just beginning. It's a Thursday afternoon, and class is in session with Parrish Ellis of Brooklyn-based The WIYOS.
There's something about the conversation that's like signing up for a class you know almost nothing about, just because it fits neatly into your schedule, and you're intrigued by the course title. Today's lesson: â“Vaudevillian Ragtime Jugband Blues and Hillbilly Swing.â”
Ellisâ"who handles a variety of strings, including guitjo, banjo, resonator and archtop guitars, and ukuleleâ"speaks quickly and energetically, with the enthusiasm of an expert and the compassion of a natural-born educator; he pauses briefly to praise good questions, then revs up as he responds, concise and thorough. It's impossible not to be engaged.
He begins: â“We don't want to be academic copyists.â” Clearly. The unique sound that Ellis creates with Joseph â“Joebassâ” DeJarnette (upright bass) and Michael Farkas (washboard, harmonica, kazoo) represents a sampling of genres from the early 20th century, and of regions from New Orleans to New York. And what could potentially be a cacophonous mess is a well-developed, cohesive fusion of styles. â“We like to re-imagine the music, have our own interpretation of the songs. There's a piece of American culture that seems to have been obscured, and we're revitalizing it, putting it out there for people to hear,â” says Ellis of the classic songs they cover. Of original music: â“It's always a journey. We're just starting to realize our own idiosyncratic sound.â”
The WIYOS' journey began with Ellis and Farkas heading to DeJarnette's Virginia home-recording studio, intending to produce a demo, with DeJarnette laying down bass tracks. â“We weren't a band,â” Ellis explains. â“I was just looking for a harmonica player to jam with, met Michael (Farkas), and we thought, â‘Let's make a demo.' We played two gigs with Michael on harmonica. We didn't even know that he could sing, that he can play percussion.â”
But eventually, Farkas' talentâ"punctuated by a comedic theatricality, a Vaudevillian hyper-sensitivity to the performer-audience relationshipâ"came to light with the help of an unusual washboard he purchased in Bristol, Tenn., and that he continually modifies. â“It's just a lot of junk that he's nailed on to the washboard,â” Ellis laughs. â“Hotel front desk bells, car horns, bike horns. No weapons of mass destruction, though. Just weapons of mass irritationâ"or entertainment, depending on your perspective.â”
But it's all entertainmentâ"not shtick, but carefully researched art, designed to keep your eyes on the stage and a smile on your face. While today's musicians so often seem to indicate a preference for benign stage presence, putting more energy into working a merch table than into performing, for The WIYOS the spectacle is as central to the show as the music. â“We come up with original ideas, musically and lyrically. And we inject the tunes with our energy, performatively, which is a big part of what we do.â It's a departure from what a lot of bands are doing these days. Michael has always been hyper-aware that it's a visual presentation. We take cues from silent filmsâ"Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplinâ.â”
Like their live shows, their music has also evolved. What began as predominantly blues-'grass on the first full-length record, Porcupine (2003), has expanded to incorporate more of the feverishness of ragtime and swing, not to mention more original music. The WIYOS have recently finished recording a new album, Midnight Matinee , to be released later this summer. â“It's in the style of piedmont and delta blues, '30s swing tunes, jug band tunes. It's about three-quarters original.â”
The title of the record came from John Lennon's Hard Day's Night : â“Michael (Farkas) heard it and it just stuck in his mind. We liked the alliteration and the opposing concepts; the paradox represents our music. Parents bring their kids [to the shows]. The little ones get into the fun, upbeat, silly washboard. At the same time, the folkum tunes are all about sex and sexual innuendo. It goes over the kids' heads, which is good.â”
WHO: The WIYOS WHEN: Wednesday, June 20 at noon and 9 p.m., respectively WHERE: WDVX Blue Plate Special and Barley's
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