In an age of punk where it’s commonplace to see your favorite band playing a Blackberry showcase sponsored by Red Bull with promotional hash-tags smacking you in the face, it’s nice to know there are still bands who are playing music because it’s what they enjoy doing. It’s even nicer when these bands are as seductively strange as Oakland’s Yi, who manage to fuse all sorts of underground punk sounds into their own distinct brew. I hear the East Bay snot-punk sounds of Blatz and Crimpshrine mixed with the arty post-punk of The Monorchid and Outhud, but it’s all filtered through an early UK DIY lens, as if to imagine Desperate Bicycles playing a Gilman St. matinee. Their songs take all sorts of unexpected turns, but never at the expense of the group’s shared excitement, both in being able to play these songs and the chance to share them with you. They’ve self-released two 7″s, and most recently released their debut long-player, Crying, which is far more joyous than the title would lead you to believe. Guitarist and vocalist Jackson Blumgart and I shared a chat over email, even though we could’ve just as easily done so over frozen margaritas when Yi rolled through town a couple weeks ago.

When did Yi officially start? Were there other folks in the band before the lineup really solidified?
David (bass) and I started playing together in mid-2009, just messing around with riffs and ideas in a low key, no pressure/no expectations manner. We played with a few drummers but David kept bringing up that he’d like to play with Chris (drums) again. The three of us all went to high school together in Oakland and I always had my eye on David as we seem to ride the same wavelength most of the time (first time we met he was playing a Primus bassline) and kind of kept him in the back of my mind as someone I’d like to play with someday. It took almost ten years, but we’d both kind of been through the ringer being in bands which despite being filled with friends had sucked the fun right out of playing music for us. I think we had decided on our name prior to Chris coming to play with us so we had kinda been formalized by that point but once he was down it felt like my dream band was realized, a band where we try to do as much fun things as we feel like doing and do none of the non-fun things that are so easy to fall into doing when you are in a band. Everything just felt easy and non-stressful, we play when we feel like it and don’t play when we don’t want to, try to write songs that we like more than the last one and just follow our ideas wherever they lead no matter how dumb or lofty they might be. That vibe remains pretty much intact.

Is there anything in particular that Yi stands for, as a band? From your records, I’ve picked up a pro-DIY attitude, with a sort of community-based feel (due in part to the meaty thanks list on your second single)…
From my personal perspective as a band member I think I started out just wanting to find a way to keep playing music as I got older that wasn’t either soul sucking or needlessly time consuming. To use a roadtrip analogy since I’m answering this while sitting in a car in the middle of nowhere, I’m fine with taking a road trip that leads nowhere as long as the company is good and you’ve got some good tunes (at the moment: a Led Zeppelin live bootleg that sounds like a Siltbreeze record!). Besides that, just thinking about what it is you like about playing in a band and playing music and try to fill your time with that and avoid the rest of the bullshit entirely. We like recording our songs in a comfortable environment so they end up sounding how we want them to sound and so that we have a positive memory of making the recording. We don’t like sitting around in an awkward studio waiting for someone to get the perfect compression setting for the floor drum microphone, so we don’t do that. I like thinking of record cover/packaging ideas and just dealing with a pressing plant in general so we go that route even if it means waiting for money to be saved. We don’t like waiting for some labels to come around to our music or see it in some kind of profitable light so we don’t do that either. We like playing shows that are inclusive and welcoming to any gender/ethnicity and that offer some kind of pleasing aesthetics no matter the perceived genres of the bands. We don’t really like playing shows that are bro-downs in bars that think paying bands in drink tickets is cool, although this can’t be avoided and there are some cool and necessary bars in the Bay Area. As for being community oriented, there are a lot of bands around the Bay Area we feel a kinship with and admire but we tend to kind to be off in our own world sometimes whereas they all seem to share members/practice spaces and seem to party with each other outside of music. We usually show up to every tenth party and play some gnarly tunes and then go back to watching Rig Rundowns at our parents houses. The thank you list from our Punk Memories 7″ was genuine, but it was also meant to be a callback to those kinds of locals-only singles you might pick up in the ’90s where the thank-you list gave you a glimpse into whatever town they were from.

Have you been in a position where you’ve had to describe Yi to friends or family? Is Yi a punk band?
Usually if the person is savvy enough, “punk” does the trick, but dealing with grandmas or extraordinary squares I’ll go with “loud rock and roll”.

You’re an Oakland band, an area which seems to be thriving despite so many factors going against it (cost of living increases, proliferation of uninteresting music everywhere, etc). Do you have a sense of Oakland pride? Are there any misconceptions you’ve noticed people having about your city?
I think we feel a sense of civic pride just from having all grown up here and having our families here. It’s definitely my favorite place in the world that I’ve been to so far, and is diverse in every way imaginable. It’s always kind of had a tough underdog status that served well as a deterrent for various undesirable culture vultures but that is changing/has changed due to whatever is happening across the bay. As far as music goes, there has always been good things happening in Oakland but for a long time it was overshadowed by either Berkeley or San Francisco. Thanks to urban adventurers discovering Oakland a few years ago, now it’s the place to be I guess. We tend to stick to a little subsection of bands like Violence Creeps, Prison Library (RIP Mick), Yogurt Brain, Acid Fast, Wet Drag, Seperate Knobs, Street Eaters/Wild Assumptions/Fleshies, Stillsuit, Replica, Rude, etc., but there are always new bands showing up and blowing us away. As long as people acknowledge that this was a thriving functioning city before they showed up, we are all good.

How’d your recent tour go? Any specific tragedies or triumphs you care to recall?
Tour was fun, and simultaneously it reinforced the fact that I am in no way a road dog. I can’t speak for my band mates, but I pretty much hit the wall energy-wise by the last night. It was a good time though – we got to meet good people in some places we’d never been before. Personally I was most psyched to get to see Meltaways, K9 Sniffies, Alpha Hopper, The Holidays, Mordecai and Splashin’ Safari, and to spend time in places I’ve admired from afar like Baltimore, Louisville and Philadelphia. I’m not sure how often, if ever, we’ll be doing anything another week-long thing like that, so it was nice to enjoy it while it was happening and to get back to regular life. People were really so very generous to us with their time, money and attention, which our tiny band feels exceedingly grateful for.

The art for your album is mostly handwritten on each copy (correct me if I’m wrong). Why not just get printed sleeves or do something no so personally time-consuming?
Besides just being a fan of those personal packaging touches that used to be more common with DIY records, it’s mainly because I need something to sustain the excitement of releasing a record while it is being pressed and not let the waiting drag the experience down. It is also pretty pricey to print up jackets and although I’d like to be able to support that segment of the record production industry one day, it is honestly just not in the budget for a bare-bones operation like ours. The artwork for our LP went through a few variations – originally it was just going to be a one color silkscreened image of Ed Harris crying at the end of Apollo 13, but we had some internal disagreements about what people might think we were implying with using that classic image. Magically though we all approved the same image being used twelve times instead of once, a good example of band decision-making not making much sense. Anyway, screenprinting one color would’ve been a much less time-consuming task but since consuming time was the point, I decided to just handpaint the title on each record. This has allowed me to do the painting safely in front of my parents’ new television, which has access to a lot of cable channels and streaming video services, so it’s a pretty perfect excuse to take full advantage of that and kill a few Saturdays out of direct sunlight. The back cover track listing was supposed to use another classic DIY punk record method, the rubber stamp, but after spending a few nights carving up some rubber, I inked it up and discovered I had carved the stamp in such a way so that the text would be backwards when stamped, and was quickly reminded why people spend the extra money to have professionals print things for them.

What scenario would be worse: no one buying your records, or your records being bought up by people you personally dislike?
It’s probably a nightmare for most bands who take the effort to write/record/release music that no one will care about what they have done, so I’d probably go with the first option being worse. But I also think it’s pretty much out of your control once it’s out in the world anyway. I’m not sure we have much of a dedicated fanbase really, but there isn’t really anyone I can think of who we actively dislike who shows up to our shows on a regular basis.

Doing the records by hand like that, is it in any way a sort of backlash toward instant streaming-MP3 culture, where the extent of the artwork is a JPG image? Or did you just really want to catch up on TV?
Not a backlash, as we also gladly make our stuff available in multiple places online for free. Since demand for our physical records is pretty low, it is possible to create a more personalized object for the people who value owning things like that, and then make a cold unwelcoming HTML link available to everyone else who just want MP3s for their cell phone. I’ve kind of trained myself to not judge people’s listening habits or routines; one of my best friends growing up would exclusively listen to CDs on shuffle mode, never once hearing albums that he loved in the order that the musician intended them to be heard. This kind of thing boggles my mind, but it probably desensitized me to the weirdness of things like viewing our Soundcloud playcounts, where people avoid certain tracks like the plague in great numbers but other songs are really popular with no clear reason.

Where does the name Yi come from? I’ve been bothered that it’s not a playable Scrabble word on numerous occasions since I first heard of you guys.
That’s surprising that it’s not playable in Scrabble as Yi is the name of a pretty large ethnic minority in China/Vietnam, though I’m not really familiar with the rules of that game re: non-English words. Anyway, our name is an appropriated from the greeting/affirmation “yee” popular in Oakland/Richmond in the mid ’00s by the area’s high school-aged hyphy youth. When I brainstorm band names I tend to fixate on certain words and write them over and over in a notepad, like an insane person. I was like seven pages deep into the word “Viper” when I got distracted and stopped at “Vi”, and then like Tom Hanks deciphering the Da Vinci Code, my mind warped and bent and I drew one little line off the “V” and all secrets were revealed. I brought it up to David that night at an Ovens show in San Francisco, and he just started laughing which is how you know you have a good idea.

Let me turn this fairly standard band-interview question on its side – are there any specific forms of guitar-based music that Yi is NOT influenced by?
I’ve never gravitated towards shoegaze guitars I guess, although I have a hard time condemning an entire style of guitar playing because I have spent minimal time with the genre, but the lack of dynamics and muddiness of the tone on the records I have heard just never grabbed me. This is a hard question… most of my guitar playing is basically just a failed attempt at an established style so no matter where the idea begins it generally ends up back at amateur punk/cling-clang guitar.

Is that sort of “failed attempt” a crucial element to Yi?
I’d never thought about it really, but yeah I would say most of the things we do are failed attempts at something else that we just happen to still be happy with. I remember very clearly that the first few riffs I brought to work on with David being strong rip offs of The Breeders and Curtis Mayfield, and in my head thinking “wow this band is going to rule, we are going to have all these classic melodic pop songs that we can be proud of and I can finally play some of my music for my grandma”, but those ideas just kind of came out sideways and ended up in a very different place. I can’t really think of a song or release of ours that was a straight line from conception to completion, and although it can be frustrating when you are sitting on some monster hit only to have it ripped apart and have its body parts mailed to different corners of the country, I have enjoyed the creative process in this band way more than I have in any other band I’ve been a part of.

How do you listen to music? If you know some artist you like has a new record out, what do you do?
I illegally download MP3s of most releases before I decide if I want to own them. If I love it and it has a vinyl version I will buy it, but I also sometimes just buy a record unheard for the thrill of it.

Yi songs seem to avoid the standard verse/chorus/repeat/end rock song format. Is that something you set out to avoid, to not just write two-and-a-half minute rock songs, or just how it ended up?
Most of my favorite songs are verse/chorus/verse, and I’m frequently annoyed by bands with more zany song formatting/too many parts, but we still always seem to have a hard time playing that standard rock song formula and end up with songs that are more like journeys through various different and sometimes-unrelated parts. That was never really a conscious decision between the three of us, more like we just try to make an effort to follow whatever ideas we might have, to write songs that don’t bore us to play a bunch of times and are open enough structurally to be able to continue to evolve. Back to the failed attempts thing, a lot of times our songs end up being cobbled together parts of songs we’d been jamming on for months that we liked enough to keep playing but never seemed to go anywhere. Eventually the parts we like most from a song will rise up and merge with a part from a different song or a new idea and all these failed attempts will start to morph into one and make sense to us as a whole. And sometimes they have no business being in a song together and that might be the appeal. Hopefully we haven’t really come off as zany or scatter brained.

What happens next for Yi? You recently released your debut LP and completed an East Coast / Midwest tour. Back to writing new material?
Just going back to playing our usual house-party circuit around Oakland, and I think we’ll do a weekend of shows in Southern California around late summer but nothing too big. Every few weeks I’ll Google-map out a tour route for the Northwest so maybe that will actually happen sometime this year, although that drive is treacherous. We have been cataloging exciting new riffs for awhile now, and I have an idea for a Yes-style concept album. I can see us putting a lot of effort into this idea, and I can also see that it will likely just end up sounding like our other records. Whatever the outcome I’m sure we’ll have a good time.

What’s one non-Yi record every Yi fan should own?
Green Day’s Slappy EP 7″.