Opening up dreams with Ylayali’s Francis Lyons - WXPN
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Ylayali is a lovable, peculiar home recording project run by Francis Lyons out of Philadelphia, with a deep catalog of releases — though you can’t hear all of them now. Lyons has spent years documenting his ideas on tape, sharing them sporadically in concert and over the internet, but sometimes erasing them from the internet, too, and without much concern for whether we hear them, dance to them, or make out the words he sings. I loved discovering his recent albums magic eye and caterpillar graveyard from a nearby stranger’s Twitter post, knowing nothing about who made them. And Lyons himself explains that his abstract approach to writing and composing was partly inspired by his experiences uncovering anonymous, distant, and impossibly distinctive music online as a teen.

separation is the latest album by Ylayali (pronounced yah-LAY-ah-lee), out this month on the local Dear Life Records. These 12 tracks stay friendly and bright from start to finish, even as Lyons weaves his own dreams and imagined personalities through a web of noise: guitars burnt to a crisp, tender violins, drum patterns with unwavering focus, and plenty of jingle bells. As in shoegaze and lo-fi music, instruments pummel his voice in the mix like pillows, but he points out that this album puts his voice further forward than his others, partly because his friends encouraged him. Compared to predecessors magic eye and shadow on the grass, separation feels warmer, buoyed buy uptempo tracks like the teasing “green walls” and the bubbly, unbeatable “circle change” early in the sequence. Grooving on square beats, four-on-the-floor forever, feels like the deep-seated joy on which the rest of Lyons’ dreamscape sits: drums have been his main tools since adolescence, and he’s also spent years contributing drums to other projects around Philadelphia, including Free Cake For Every Creature, 2nd Grade, and 22º Halo — the latter being the project of Will Kennedy, whose name comes up several times in this interview.

A few weeks before the release of separation, I had a curious conversation with Francis Lyons over the phone about his early inspiration, the joys of physical packaging, and stumbling into new songs on purpose, knowing some of them will inevitably disappear.

Ylayali - Circle Change

TH: What musical experience did you get when you were growing up, before you started recording as Ylayali?

FL: It started fairly early. I had wanted to record for a while, when I first got a laptop capable of putting Audacity — that free recording software — on there. As soon as I had that on there I started messing around and the first six or seven years were absolutely terrible. I remember from childhood my dad was very into music, and never played but he loved to blast music around the house while we were doing chores and dancing around, those were kind of foundational musical experiences. I grew up in upstate New York, a town called Ballston Spa, right near Saratoga Springs, the racing track town; me and my siblings all did piano lessons but we all kinda hated it. I did jazz band for a year, and percussion all throughout high school, but it was kinda just a place to hang out.

TH: When did you first come to Philadelphia, and how did you get involved in the music scene here?

FL: My now-wife Katie Bennett started a band called Free Cake For Every Creature in college, and I started playing drums with her. She was a year ahead of me, so when she graduated she stayed in Saratoga Springs near where I grew up. She’s from down here and she and I were both interested in staying involved in music, and Philly just seemed like the place that people were going at the time. Also, her parents were down here and she’d spent a long time away from them, so it just kinda made sense. So when we moved here I was playing drums in the band, and my main instrument is drums.

TH: Who are some of the musicians you’ve spent time around in Philadelphia, and how would you describe their influence on your music as Ylayali?

FL: The most pivotal experience was when my friend Will Kennedy and some other folks started a house venue [called All Nite Diner], where we did shows a lot for a handful of years; I feel like all the people I now collaborate with and are my closest friends were born out of that environment. And pretty early on with Free Cake, we met my friend Heeyoon Won, who plays as Boosegumps in New Brunswick, and Katie had asked them to play bass in Free Cake, so they’ve always been a close friend and collaborator, too.

I’m supremely happy that there are these other people to bounce things off of and take inspiration from. The first that comes to mind is Will Kennedy, who is a close friend of mine and a constant supportive cheerleader, and it is just so helpful to have someone like that who is in your ear, in your mind, to push you to share things further than you had before or try different things that you might not have in the past. Another thing is that I think my friends make the best music out of anybody that I know, and I can’t be a completely impartial judge, but I feel like 90% comes from other people. Just by nature of being supportive—you hear someone say, woah, this is really good, it helps prop you up and give confidence. Especially when a lot of the time it is a very solo endeavor, so it needs propping up sometimes.

Ylayali | photo courtesy of the artist

TH: I’ve noticed you don’t usually share much information about your music, or explain the meaning behind it, or write out lyrics. Is this part of your artistic vision for Ylayali, leaving things unexplained?

FL: I don’t know, I guess I didn’t realize I really do that. I do definitely like a sense of mystery, certainly. I suppose not sharing lyrics is because I imagine someone listening to the song, and they may even hear a word wrong — and it’s their experience to have — so, the least input and direction I can give somebody to tell them how to digest it and interpret it, the better.

TH: Mike Cormier from Dear Life wrote that Ylayali music is “made to be discovered, rummaged through.” What inspired you to make music like this?

FL: I like that; I don’t know if I would necessarily say that about myself. I do like the idea that this is sort of a lifelong project and I’m just gonna keep outputting material year after year and inevitably some is gonna disappear. There’s a lot of detritus and artifacts to rummage through, so to speak. So I do like that, it does resonate with me.

That was one of my favorite things, in early musical discovery experiences, finding that random-ass MySpace of a band with 10 listens on each one of their songs, or diving deep into various forums on Soulseek and blog spots that were around at the time. I feel like all my favorite stuff was just finding the crappiest recordings possible. The stuff that comes to mind, obviously—or, maybe not obviously—I was big into screamo and emo music, and also making discoveries in metal and grindcore, a lot of solo-person internet grindcore bands. Not necessarily a kind of music that I have made myself, but I take some inspiration from the ethos of: they’re just super into what they do, and they’re gonna go off on their own path and put it out there and hardly anybody’s gonna even see it.

TH: You wrote that your project began as a vehicle for “exorcizing specific, painful, embarrassing or confusing experiences,” and you recalled a phone conversation with your therapist as a key moment on the way to completing Circle Change. Do you feel like your musical approach has some things in common with talk therapy?

FL: I am a big fan of talking about that kind of stuff. Looking back on old songs now, that aren’t necessarily the ones that are online, I’m struck by how specific I am describing specific life events.  Not necessarily describing to other people, but for myself trying to conjure these certain events that were in my mind feeling unresolved or emotionally charged. And what I was trying to get at in the most recent album and the couple leading up to it is abstracting that stuff more, where it’s not discussing specific events, but characters in my internal landscape. Those are the things I can interact with instead of trying to deal with a past that I can’t get back to, if that makes any sense. The therapist that I’ve been seeing for a couple years is mostly interested in spirituality and dream work, and the dream work is mostly about dialoguing with these internal characters, or coming to peace or understanding or respect with the thing floating around in the ether of your mind.

TH: How did you come up with the concept of dialoguing with imaginary characters on this album?

FL: I guess the set of characters I was imagining on the album is — there’s the real me, kind of the puppet master, forcing these other two characters to interact; one is this older man, who first occurred in a dream; and one is an imagined version of myself that I can set into these scenes to interact with someone else. And that whole basic idea came right out of the mode of therapy that I was involved in, which is expanding on ideas and images from dreams, either by journaling or by meditating or whatever you want to do, drawing a picture, just thinking about it while you’re doing the dishes, kind of expanding them and seeing where they go. Thinking a second longer about it, it’s just like what everybody does: you know, waking fantasies expand into a whole novel, that’s just using your imagination in the end.

TH: Do you hope for listeners to literally understand the lyrics you sing on Ylayali recordings? Or do you not care whether they understand the words?

FL: I definitely have not cared in the past. Going back to Will Kennedy being my cheerleader, what he has always said is that he wants to hear the words more. So definitely with this new set of songs I tried to be a little clearer, so that somebody might be able to understand what I’m saying. I dunno, I go back and forth on it. On songs where the vocals are a little more buried, it’s more about that texture and melody than what the person is saying, so it almost doesn’t matter what the words are.

Some have just a single vocal, meant to be a little clearer, but I do like to pile the vocal tracks on so I’m thinking of some that are pretty loaded. I like adding effects to my vocals, like autotune or distortion, just as a way to make myself sound different, or it’s just fun to do. [laughs]

Ylayali - He Needs Me

TH: A lot of your records unfold in unpredictable shapes. How did you think about song structure while recording the tracks on separation?

FL: It’s kind of random, I guess, because sort of the only way I’m able to write a song is like, as I’m recording it it’s just kind of happening, and if something strikes my interest then I’m just pursuing that. Certainly there are vague notions of, maybe I wanna do a longer one, and this one’ll be a little longer. They always just come from messing around, and whatever happens happens. For me, I don’t really want to do anything on purpose. The only way to make something, for me, is that you have to stumble into it; put yourself in the position to stumble into something. And that’s the fun way of doing it, anyway.

TH: So do you always complete your recordings quickly, or do you revisit them and revise them?

FL: It depends; this one I was trying to revise more. The procedure for this specific album was, I was recording demos, one a day for about a month. And at the end of that, I had all these demos that I decided which ones I liked and which ones I didn’t. And they’re all for the most part recorded to a click, so I just kind of chopped them up, if I didn’t like the structure I deleted parts or repeated parts and replaced all the things I didn’t like. This is the first time I’ve ever done that, replacing parts entirely, but it was something that I did want to do going into it, to try something different. So, I purposely made everything sound as sh***y as I could in the demo process so I wouldn’t want to keep the original. Then I recorded drums at a friend’s house and had some other people play, so maybe a two- or three-month procedure all in all.

Before, maybe it would take a couple days, or I’d add the vocals later, but usually it was just like, here’s a big burst. And maybe I’d do it to the tape machine, and there’d be no way to chop it up in the same way as if it was to a click track. I did some stuff to a tape machine still this time — I did the drums and some other things to the tape machine — but it was mostly originally recorded and edited on the computer with Reaper.

Something that I want to continue to expand on is including other people. It’s kind of a whole separate experience playing and recording with other people, bouncing ideas around and chasing that spark with other people, as opposed to me, myself in my room, chasing my own little spark around when I can. So that is a shift I want to try, but I don’t see myself growing in one direction, I like to jump around and dabble in different things.

TH: Do you hope for listeners to dance to your music? Do you dance to your music?

FL: I certainly don’t expect, I wouldn’t want to foist expectations on anybody. [laughs] I could not care less what someone else wants to do, I would encourage someone to do whatever they please. There are some more up-tempo songs that could possibly be danced to, and for the first time as I was recording, I did kind of find myself dancing to songs, getting hyped up about how it was feeling – so yes.

TH: How does your photography and visual art practice fit into your work as Ylayali? And what can you share about the visual art that accompanies this new album?

FL: It’s all kind of tied together for me; always, releases have been tied to the packaging that they came in. Something I always enjoyed was coming up with the images and colors associated with the release, and trying to make packaging that feels special to someone that’s gonna get it. And going to the post office, and signing someone’s name and including a note in the envelope that the tape’s coming in, it’s all stuff that I really enjoy. So I feel like it’s always been very much connected. And music and writing, and painting, and picture-taking, it’s all kind of working around an image, which is a non-tangible thing, so writing music you still have an image in mind, or a character or a personality. So there’s a lot of different angles you can approach that intangible thing from, and I like to try and hit it from as many angles as I can. And for this latest one, I really enjoyed drawing some colored pencil pictures, and the picture on the cover is something I found at an estate sale that serendipitously fit with the themes of the album to me. I like fleshing out the world that the album exists in from as many angles as I can.

My conversation with Francis Lyons has been edited for length and clarity. separation by Ylayali came out September 2nd on Dear Life Records and can be purchasedhere.

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