“In his fly-infested apartment, he spoke openly about his Tinder addiction,” says Josh Burgess of Yumi Zouma, snarkily dictating my own unwritten article as we sit in his living room with his three bandmates. In his high-ceilinged Bushwick abode, the air is muggy, the kind of heat that makes your skin tacky to the touch; the room fan is inadequately blowing at medium-blast. Burgess is one-fourth of the New Zealand pop group Yumi Zouma, who released their debut album, Yoncalla, this past May. It’s a bouncy, playful album, a soundtrack for summer nights—the kind spent sipping shandy in a backyard party illuminated by twinkly strings of lights. Thus far they’ve spent the summer touring their seasonally appropriate pop tracks (including Noisey’s July 4th show in New York), with dates lined up into September, when they’ll fly to Japan.
But right now they’re thousands of miles from Asia, in an apartment where three plump insects dozily weave between us. The hallway is lined with keyboards, guitars, amps, and square, black boxes which I’m sure make beautiful electronic music if someone knew what to do with them. After guffawing over Burgess’ Tinder addiction crack, he suggests we move on. I feel like they’re fucking with me during the whole interview.
Although Yumi Zouma are a New Zealand group, Yoncalla, with its synthy swirl of dream-pop, was a long-distance effort that coalesced through Facebook Messenger and email exchanges, puzzle-pieced together with intense editing. The writing and recording process, they tell me, was decidedly anti-jam-sesh, but yet, the outcome makes you want to get your best buds together in one space and vibe out. Burgess, singer Christine Simpson, and Charlie Ryder grew up together in Christchurch (Sam Perry joined a bit later). But it was only after they scattered to Auckland, New York, and Paris, the band truly began, and Facebook became their meeting space for workshopping lyrics. “It’s probably pretty good that if anyone accuses us of plagiarizing, we have it,” quips Burgess.
Yoncalla covers a lot, even though most of the time, it’s tough to discern what Simpson is saying with her whispery choruses. They admit they’re more drawn to the sound of syllables than what their words actually mean. The LP begins with “Barricade (Matter of Fact),” a polite dance song and a brutally honest exploration of social anxiety: “It’s not a matter of fact / Things are said to your back / It’s just a figure of speech / Seen through your eyes.” Midway through, on “Remember You at All,” you hit a little more insecurity: “If I pretend, would you care, would you notice me?” They end on “Drachma,” a fluttering, syncopated admission of a deceptive relationship.
The band’s mode of writing lyrics may have each member taking turns spilling their life experiences on alternate verses, but they’re smart enough to make sure it comes off as one cohesive voice. “The only hard thing is with three other people, you can’t be precious about what you write,” Ryder says, lounging back in a fold-up chair. As for who went through what, they’re keeping schtum. “Only we know that,” Simpson says, although she does share that Charlie’s favorite song, “Keep It Close To Me,” is about food.
“That one started out pretty silly,” she says. “The lyrics were about Charlie’s favorite Souvlaki shop in Christchurch called Dimitris. That was pretty good. I never expected that that would be our first single.”
They’ve gotten good at working efficiently, while also being mindful of each other’s ideas. They all swap instruments, but for the most part, Simpson serves as the conduit, delivering their lyrics on record and layering her dulcet vocals over beachy guitars and violin riffs. The men’s vocals are just as sweet. I ask Simpson if singing someone else’s lyrics or a group-written poem is strange, given that some people assume the front person is telling their own story.
“That’s kind of interesting,” says Simpson, sitting next to me on the couch. “You get a little bit sick of writing about your own feelings sometimes. I don’t think I could ever be a folk singer that just sings about my feelings all the time. Even when I used to write songs when I was a teenager. I would always write from the perspective of a character I made up.”
Sitting with them all together, as thick wafts of incense float through the air, is a rare treat. Although they’d previously spent face-to-face time opening for Chet Faker and Lorde in New Zealand, in the beginning, they only “saw” each other online. In fact, the first time Burgess and bandmate Sam Perry met in real life was during a band rehearsal, when they came together as Yumi Zouma. The name, Ryder says slyly, was chosen from random collection of letters needed for a Gmail address. I press them to elaborate and Burgess suggests that it’s a combination of Japanese names. But Ryder won’t budge. “In the next album, we reveal the secret anagram,” Perry says, testing my gullibility.
“I don’t know if you know this, but indie bands are supposed to be mysterious,” Burgess says. Well, that explains the incense. While they’re together, they do a little bit of team bonding, the occasional brunch, but their time is sacred. They need new press shots. There are music videos to shoot. They need to work on their second album, which, as it goes, they’ve already have decent dent in.
“If we do another record, we’ll have like 30 Yumi Zouma songs,” Burgess says giddily.
Simpson smiles: “That’s a pretty exciting thought.”
Now that they’re in the same space, their writing process is exponentially faster, the luxury to mull over song parts traded up for immediacy and a different kind of intimacy. But Simpson is certain that their physical closeness will make them more productive. “It’s easier that we all know where we are, here,” Simpson says. “Whereas normally, when you’re working on something, you may have to wait.” The time difference was definitely a factor in creating Yoncalla. Simpson looks at Ryder, who lives in Paris. “Like, you might be asleep, [we] have to wait for you to be awake.”
At some point, Burgess and Perry disappear down the hallway. They’re late for soundcheck at National Sawdust in Williamsburg, where they’ll play later that night. I take that as my cue to leave. So, as Perry stands in the kitchen of the “fly-infested” apartment, rigorously brushing his teeth, with everyone else yelling goodbye from down the hallway, I shut the door behind me.
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