Pete Yorn: How being bad at maths meant the alt-rocker went on to make mellow music and collaborate with Scarlet Johansson

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The Independent Culture

“As a freshman everyone gets bullied for a little bit by the seniors,” maintains the indie/alt-rocker Pete Yorn (pronounced “yarn” not “yawn”). “It's a rite of passage, sure it happened to me, and sure I'd be a little frustrated and go take it out on my drums.” 

The California-based singer-songwriter is discussing, between mouthfuls of ham sandwich, the first single, “Lost Weekend”, off his excellent and mellow new album, Arranging Time. The catchy track wasn't inspired by Lloyd Cole's 1985 pop gem or Billy Wilder's 1945 Oscar winner, but by John Lennon's infamous “lost weekend” in early 1970s Los Angeles with May Pang. However, the song's video, beautifully filmed by New Zealand's Maria Ines Manchego, takes another approach, focusing instead on a bullied, long-haired suburban teen who takes his frustration out on his drum kit in his garage. Don't worry, the video ends well, this isn't Nirvana territory, the boy ends up snogging the girl. 

“I didn't want the video to be sad,” claims the personable Yorn. “Sure he takes some beef from these douchebags, but he goes home, rocks out and at the end of the day the girl throws him a bone.”

The 41-year-old is probably best known for his collaboration with Scarlett Johansson, 2009's Break Up, which he wrote in his garage and produced for $6,000 (£4,300), “a very homespun thing”. The album did extremely well in France, but Yorn politely balks at comparisons with M Ward and actress Zooey Deschanel's indie-pop collaboration, claiming “we made Break-up before they existed, but people said we were imitating”.

Yorn was brought up in suburban New Jersey, listening to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden with his two older brothers, Kevin and Rick, to whom he's “super close”: “There's no static, it's not like the Gallagher brothers.” His father was a dentist in the army (“He won outstanding soldier for the 4th Armed Division”) and wanted his youngest son to be a tax lawyer.

“He didn't take into account – no pun intended – that I was horrible at math,” laughs Yorn. He did attempt a summer class in “matrixes”, but didn't last long. He walked out a few minutes into his first class.

“It was a big moment and I literally needed to take a stand, so I went to the bathroom and never went back,” he admits. “I drove around for a few hours and then I thought I've got to man up and tell my dad that I'm not taking the class and it's not my thing. I was only 18 but I at least knew that I wasn't going to do that. My dad just said, 'All right'.”

He ended up going to Syracuse University, where he majored in the department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies and where he spent most of the time “smoking weed” and writing songs. “Early on I used to write these super emotional songs and I just couldn't listen to any of it, and I said, ”I don't want to hear this fucking [the conversation is peppered with quite a bit of profanity] stuff,“ he claims.

So, he changed his songwriting style, making it less “personal” and more elliptical: “I do these weird little subtle thoughts between thoughts, I kinda do these suggestions, which for me have a bigger meaning.”

In 2001, Yorn delivered the wonderful and under-appreciated (at least over here) 2001 debut musicforthemorningafter that featured the terrific singles “Life on a Chain” and “Strange Condition” and “Just Another” which featured on the soundtrack for the Farrelly Brothers' Me, Myself & Irene. He has done quite a bit of film work and has benefited from his brothers forging successful careers in Hollywood; Kevin is an entertainment lawyer and Rick is a talent manager. Yorn was exposed to “very famous people” from a very young age.

“I found over the years that the great ones, and the most talented and most successful ones are the nicest people,” maintains Yorn. “There's a romantic notion of them as weird characters and those people do exist, but even the ones who have a serious mystery on camera or in the persona they play, when you actually hang out with them they're very down to earth and nice.”

He says the same of Pixies frontman Frank Black, who produced his 2010 album Pete Yorn and was “super inspiring” when they worked on songs together. 

Nice applies to Yorn himself, who is an excited new father (he shows me a picture of his five-month-old daughter) and offers me half of his sandwich. His new jangly, cosmic rock album (like a giddy blend of Jonathan Wilson, early MGMT and Teenage Fanclub) should garner him more acclaim over here.

“Arranging Time is a reminder to be present in this moment, I'm the kind of person who for years wherever I was I wouldn't enjoy that place because I thought I was missing out on being somewhere else,” admits Yorn. “Right now for instance I'm in London with an amazing opportunity, but I want to be back home with my baby girl. But I don't want to fall into that trap, I want to be here and enjoy this fucking moment. I put that feeling into the lyrics for ”Summer Was a Day“; it's like that Oasis record Be Here Now and chasing a feeling.”

Yorn's time has surely come. 

Pete Yorn plays London's Bush Hall on 10 March; his new record 'Arranging Time' is released on 11 March