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Album: Empty Pockets
Song: Ain't That a Sin

Great music from Yarn

By Rick Cornell, March 2009

Current Home: New York City

Years together: a little over three

Musical Influences: Ricky Nelson, Grateful Dead, Rex Moroux, Neil Young, Tom Waits

Artist Bio: This is a more is less is more situation. With five members - songwriter/lead vocalist/guitarist Blake Christiana, guitarist/harmony vocalist Trevor MacArthur, bassist Rick Bugel, drummer Jay Frederick, and Andrew Hendryx on mandolin - Yarn is pretty big on numbers. But the Brooklyn-based five-piece is such a cohesive unit that there's not an ounce of musical clutter, just streamlined and spirited acoustic music bolstered by a jazz-vets rhythm section. And you appreciate 'em that much more because of it.

Yarn spun out of the long-running Blake & the Family Dog, a more jam-centered enterprise led by Christiana and co-starring MacArthur that was, well, spinning out of control, with the new group representing a relative and welcome calm when compared to Blake & the Family Dog's barely controlled chaos. Yarn's self-titled debut deftly captured this change in the musical weather, but its follow-up "Empty Pockets" (with a guest list that includes Caitlin Cary of Whiskeytown and Tres Chicas, Tony Trischka and Casey Dreissen) delivers even bigger thrills and edgier tales, and it has the Americana Chart time to back it up.

CST's Take: Acoustic instrumentation creating rustic frames that serve to highlight the snapshots of fringe-dwellers within. Live, though, it's another story; the frame glass has been known to crack.

Country Standard Time: Much of your music, at least on record, can be described as "somewhat hushed," courtesy of both the band's acoustic make-up and the delivery of the songs in general. What are the pros and cons of such a delivery?
Blake Christiana: Hmmm, not really sure. We set out to make a couple of very cohesive acoustic records, which I think we did. The cons may come later when we release a more electric record, which might possibly be the one we have in the works. We're not sure yet what is going to happen. Maybe we'll piss off some of our diehard acoustic music fans. But the truth is, most of our fans come out and support us live, and they love the live show, which incorporates electric guitar, electric mandolin, saxophone, and a whole lot more freedom. I can't really put it into terms of pros and cons; it's just what we do.

CST: The acoustic approach can tend to put more of a spotlight on the words. With that in mind, as a songwriter, which is more important for you: telling a story (after all, the band is named Yarn) or creating a mood?
BC: Most of these songs start with me, an acoustic guitar, a melody, and then, hopefully, some decent words to go along with it. The mood isn't really created entirely until I bring that song to the band. We just had a rehearsal this week, and I brought some new tunes to work out. One particular song called Strikes & Gutters was written as this slow, mellow ballad, kind of a sad story about a dude living night by night, drugs, women, constant cloudy disposition and very lonely existence. But our drummer, Jay Frederick, heard something that everyone else didn't, and it became this rocking '70s Merle Haggard-esque country-rock tune. It completely changed the song and made it exactly what it should be. I don't really think in the matter of importance at all; I don't think I ever have. It all happens song by song. If it sucks, we throw it away.

CST: For lack of a better word, there seems to be a real sense of teamwork in Yarn, as if everyone not only knows his role, but embraces it. What are those different roles, and how do y'all make it work so well?
BC: It's a group effort completely. I can't believe how lucky I am to have found these brilliantly talented people. More than that, they work hard to make this band the absolutely best it can be. We're all invested in every way. That doesn't typically happen, especially in this goddamn city.

CST: How is Yarn a departure from your long-standing Blake & the Family Dog, and what prompted the shift?
BC: Blake & The Family Dog was a complete mess really. It was good excuse to get really drunk and play music in front of a bunch of really drunk people. I can't believe people actually continued to come out to see us, frankly. It was a whole lot of fun and a great learning experience. But it was completely out of control, and everyone had a little too much freedom. And when me and Trevor first started that band, we were going for something more like what we have with Yarn. The main reason it was a bit chaotic was entirely my fault I would say. The players in the band were amazing. It probably could have been great. But it just got too far out to ever rein it back in, so I moved on.

CST: Gram Parsons and Jerry Garcia/the Grateful Dead (you cover Friend of the Devil in your live shows) are acknowledged influences of yours. What common ground do you hear in the music of those artists, and what effect have they had on the music of Yarn?
BC: I grew up with it, I went to Dead shows, I listened to bootlegs, I partook in all the wonderful things a Grateful Dead show had to offer, and I loved it. When making the first Yarn record, I had "American Beauty" in mind both as a record and The Grateful Dead in mind as a band. I wanted the record to be a very cohesive, acoustic, country-folk record and already knew that the live show was something completely different. Like I said before, we plug it in a little, and we jam a little. The jamming aspect of the show is completely secondary though. We still like to keep the focus on the song. It is kept to a minimum. But I love the idea of music spurring counter-cultures, and I want those fans to embrace our music more than anything. They are the most loyal people in the world - long live Deadheads. As far as Gram Parson goes, I had just bought both his solo records Christmas Eve 2005 and listened to them over and over again. In the week following Christmas, I had written what turned out to be the first dozen or so Yarn songs.

CST: Garcia and, especially, Gram - that's going back a ways. My guess is that you guys are young enough that you experienced the alt.-country heyday of the mid '90s (Son Volt, Whiskeytown, etc.) while you were in your teens or close to it. So, is it fair to say that in addition to being influenced by Gram and the Grateful Dead directly you were also influenced by another wave of musicians that had been influenced by them (if that makes sense)?
BC: Truthfully, I don't think any of us were all that in tune with the alt.-country movement in the mid '90s. I knew about it, but hadn't listened to whole lot of it. I did, however, spend an entire year riding around in the subways of N.Y. listening to Ryan Adams "Gold" on my portable CD player, sometime around 2002. Ryan Adams can do no wrong really. He makes beautiful music; even the ugly stuff is beautiful. He gets quite a bit of time in our van's CD player when were out on the road. And Whiskeytown's "Strangers Almanac" also became a huge influence. It is just one of those perfect records to me. I love how he repeats the same verse on Everything I Do three times. I don't know why, but that just strikes a chord with me.

CST: Other musicians based in New York City have talked about how it can be a tough music city, maybe even especially so for a roots band. What has your experience been with NYC?
BC: It's been great, minus the cost of living. NYC loves roots music just like everybody else.

Yarn's MySpace page

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