Singing “I just wanna be a rock star baby” on ‘Caught Dreaming’, Theresa Jarvis is drawn to the same fantasy world that many dream of, one that only a lucky few ever get to enjoy for real. For her and her band Yonaka however, it’s one that’s about to become a reality.
Ever since ‘Ignorance’ exploded onto the airwaves in 2016, Yonaka have been anything but ignorable. Taking no easy short cuts, they have set about stealthily increasing their notoriety, and fanbase, through a series of phenomenal live shows and support slots with some of the biggest names in rock. Part of a new generation of bands set to sweep the old guard aside, the group - named after the Japanese word for ‘dead of night’ - are about to see the sun rise on their thrilling debut ‘Don’t Wait ‘Til Tomorrow’. No longer a mere fantasy, it’s all falling into place for the Brighton group.
Some people are born to be rock stars. Even in their earliest days, few who saw Yonaka in full flow would have doubted that this moment would arrive one day. Sitting outside the Barbican on a day that aptly feels like it’s on the cusp of exploding into summer, Theresa isn’t so sure that they even fit the tag though.
“People say we’re in a rock band, and I’m like… are we?”
There are many artists that can claim to be above pigeonhole, but few that blur genres like Yonaka, the foursome taking great pleasure in smashing pop hooks into big guitar riffs and mashing hip hop rhythms with synth breakdowns. Flitting between musical worlds, they seem able to slot into any line-up on any stage with ease. Carefully evolving their sound since their formation in 2015, a series of single and EP releases have gradually zeroed in on the genre-straddling beast that we see today.
Despite making it all look easy, merging all these influences and inspirations into a cohesive sound has been a painstaking process. Most important of all, however, the band wanted to wait until they knew exactly what they wanted to say. That moment arrived in the autumn of last year.
Having resisted the temptation to jump into recording a debut in their earlier years, Theresa admits that she was unsure whether she even wanted to record an album at all, but a turbulent period for the lyricist and singer resulted in her realising that she finally knew exactly what she wanted to say.
“I was in a weird place, not sleeping and stuff, and there was this constant wave of people taking their lives. All my family and friends, they’ve all gone through these different situations with either depression or anxiety affecting them, and I was just writing about mental health a lot.”
A door opened, and the more she wrote, the more it came. “It was so, so present in me, it was almost like vomit. I just thought, I have to talk about this.”
Even the album title itself comes with a clarion-like urgency, a call to reach out. With a knowledge that ‘the time is now’, the record carries a message of acting before it’s too late. Aware of the downsides of emotionally baring all like this, all her fears and hopes on full display, there is still a slight nervousness at points.
“Sometimes if I overthink it I’m like, I don’t wanna talk about it too much. But then I realise that is exactly what I’m telling people not to do.”
The others, all listening intently as she speaks, nod in support.
“So now, I talk about it quite a lot, I’m open about it, and I think it’s important for other people to know that they’re not the only ones to feel a certain way sometimes. Other people are experiencing the same things, and I feel like it’s nice when you know you’re not the only one. That brought some comfort to me, anyway.”
After years of people suffering in silence until it was too late, the times seem to be changing.
“It’s the only way the message keeps going,” guitarist George Edwards adds quietly. “The more people open up, that’s how messages like this stick around and become permanent.”
Suitably for a band with those nocturnal origins to their name, themes of dreams and wakefulness are also prevalent to much of the record. Digging into the differences between an idealised Facebook version of perfect relationships versus the imperfect reality, there is much here about love too - but all viewed through a filter of honesty.
“If you can find someone who can tolerate you in your worst moments, when I’m ugly and low and stuff, it’s just fucking cool,” explains Theresa. “I’ve been in relationships where people just see the outside of it, and it’s all kissing and lovely and being nice. But it’s not just that, you’ve got the underlying bits when people go through bad patches. If you find someone who can still love you through the bad times, then that’s real.”
These are not fluffy sentiments, but instead a big statement from an act and a singer who feel they have delivered a defining debut. Discussing other iconic first records, some seriously big guns are thrown into the mix by the four - the likes of Arctic Monkeys, The Strokes, Jeff Buckley amongst those picked out. In an impatient world, Theresa fully understands the need to make the right impact the first time.
“Right now, I think this album defines us completely. There are some special messages in there; this isn’t a throwaway album.”
There is a familial sense about Yonaka that is apparent immediately; each member tripping over themselves during the interview to finish each other’s sentence. Every anecdote ends in all of them laughing and speaking over each other, ripping lovingly into someone (usually Theresa), a fierce bond that comes from a closeness that is far more than just musical. It’s clear that a spark burns deeply inside all of them, a self-contained drive and gang mentality that extends to the music too.
Admitting that there were plenty of people offering advice before recording, they felt unerring confidence in their own vision and abilities. Having self-produced their previous EP, ‘Don’t Wait ‘Til Tomorrow’ was again produced entirely in-house, bassist Alex Crosby pulling the strings during and after an exhausting recording session in a cottage near Milton Keynes.
As drummer Rob Mason explains: “We’d worked with loads of other producers before, that’s always good to do. But ultimately with this album, we got it sounding exactly how we wanted and had complete creative control.”
“We didn’t have to compromise at all” nods Alex.
Aware of just how rare and lucky they were to be in that position of total power for their debut album, the pressure came from within.
“It felt like we were locked away for a while, but it was the best thing that could have happened,” ponders Theresa, the prospect of self-imposed deadlines inspiring the band to deliver more, faster.
“You’re always looking at the clock in a big studio, with a set amount of time to get it done. It can be good to have that amount of stress sometimes,” nods George.
Spending what felt like every waking moment in the studio, they’re honest about the stresses that eventually resulted in gold.
“At points, we were all like, we’re never gonna do this,” admits Theresa, while Rob, the permanent voice of calm during the interview, proclaims: “It’s good to have that mini-meltdown and let it all out, and then go cool, that’s done. Let’s get back on it.”
Trial and error it may have been at certain points in the recording process, but the results reflect a group of musicians sure of foot and certain of purpose.
“No-one got that uptight because we all just knew that there was no point, you’re never gonna get anywhere if you get all sassy about it,” says Theresa. “That’s how we kept moving forward.”
‘Fresh’ was Theresa’s buzzword for each song, a desire to not sound like anybody else, either now or in the past.
“You want people to be like, who’s that? You don’t want them just to be, oh that sounds like so-and-so, or that sounds like something from the eighties. We don’t want that at all.”
Guitars and synths may have been mashed together for decades, but it’s rarely with as much, well, freshness as this.
“Music is just post-genre anyway now,” they say, proving it with a diversity of early musical influences such as Amy Winehouse, funk and Motown, even joking that they will invite neo-soul legend Erykah Badu in for album number two - but they quickly began to lean more into one specific direction.
“We’re way more open to the ideas of a more electronic influence than most bands, we’ve just been more experimental,” says Rob, while the fact that they write largely on a computer brings its own unique touches.
“You go to places you wouldn’t naturally go, even if it’s through accident or design,” explains Alex, as Theresa elaborates: “You hear a sound on its own, and it’s a bit weird, but then you put it in, and it sounds perfect. We can experiment a lot that way.”
Keeping things fresh, all bar a handful of older songs were discarded for the debut. Early single ‘Ignorance’ has morphed and undergone an evolution into ‘Awake’, joined only by older favourites ‘Fired Up’ and ‘Creature’ on the record.
“I don’t like it when bands fill an album with old stuff, I feel like it’s a bit of a cop-out really,” admits Rob. Theresa meanwhile, is open about her feelings that much of their earlier work now doesn’t speak to her personally. “I’m not in that place anymore, and stuff like ‘Heavy’ is not something that I would release today.”
The songwriting process was kept lean, with barely any offcuts or extras kept back.
“I don’t think there are many songs that we started writing that we didn’t use, we’re quite particular. We only had a couple more songs that didn’t make it; one was called ‘Girl’, but it just didn’t fit,” she shrugs.
George is more blunt: “We have to love every song,” he states firmly. “We’re quite protective that way.”
Making the bold choice to disregard much of the material that got them to this point is yet another confident decision from a band who seemed to suddenly hit the booster button following last year’s festival season.
“I felt that change in myself,” agrees Theresa about the rapid acceleration. “It took me a while to find it in myself; I would always ask myself what I wanted to say or do.”
At the same time that her songwriting evolved, she feels that the others took massive strides too. “It was like they found this way of matching the music to my words, matching the same emotion as my lyrics.”
Everyone noticed the same upgrade. “It’s always weird when people tell you that you won’t notice when your moment arrives,” says George, “but a couple of months ago, that’s when you knew it had clicked in.”
Theresa describes it in even stronger terms: “It was only a few months ago that I felt we actually became Yonaka for real.”
‘Don’t Wait ‘Til Tomorrow’ comes out during an interesting time for rock, where a new breed of artist is pushing against a very traditional history. Are the old guard about to be swept away?
“I love it right now, personally,” says Theresa. “Rock getting mixed with hip hop influences and electronic stuff, I think it sounds wicked. Because it’s new, isn’t it?”
They all nearly leap to their feet with excitement at this topic.
“It’s the only logical way for rock to go, blending and mashing stuff up,” says Rob, while Alex points out that “even bands like IDLES, they don’t have any sort of electronic edge but it’s still fresh, they’re still pushing what they can do within their genre.”
Fresh. Always fresh.
“Their lyrics are amazing; they have real messages in them. I feel like there was a patch where no-one cared much lyrically. It all used to be, ‘I’m at a party, I’m drinking Henny, I’m doing drugs, I’m getting laid’,” sings Theresa in a perfect impression of much of early-00s music. “But now, if you have this platform, you do need to be saying something with it.”
That’s not to say that they have anything but love for some of the elder statesmen of rock. Killing Joke, who Yonaka played with in 2017, are credited by Theresa as inspiring them to find a bigger message to the world. “Jaz and Youth [from the band] kept asking us, ‘What’s your fucking manifesto?’, and I was like errr… I’m just gonna go get some food.”
So do they have one now? “Yeah. It’s about being powerful, sticking up for yourself, about not feeling like you’re alone in this world, and about reaching out to other people. I just want people to feel strong and know that they have a place here.”
Jaz and Youth would approve.
As anecdotes roll about Dave Grohl minesweeping the tables and stealing Rob’s beer at last year’s Kerrang! Awards, (“I gave it to him,” claims the drummer to widespread disbelief), talk turns to the annual online moanfest about Reading & Leeds’ line-up, which has the Foos at the top of the bill alongside The 1975, Twenty One Pilots and Post Malone.
“If they had the internet back in the 80s, they’d have still been moaning about Reading then!” points out George, before adding “Music is always a revolution.”
In this way, Yonaka are the perfect representation of the current state of guitar music and its rapid evolution. Noticing a slow shift towards gender equality, Theresa is optimistic about the current state of affairs. Though still admitting that she is often the only woman on a bill, there is a sense that a shift is starting to occur slowly.
“I’m seeing more women on line-ups, so it is getting better. But what I think is cool is the number of young girls I get coming up to me after a show saying that they feel like they can go and do this now. That’s when it’s sick, when I feel like this is really doing something.”
Before their debut is even out, they are already looking to the next steps. Admitting that album number two will soon be in their sights, they chat amiably about potential topics. With their rock star dreams hopefully being realised, will it all be big cars and burning money?
“Yeah, totally!” laughs Theresa as the interview dissolves into chaos, their PR suddenly looking panicked on a neighbouring table as potential headlines of burning £50 notes undoubtedly flash through his mind. In reality, though, there is a sense that they could go literally anywhere from here. The only certainty is that wherever they do go, it won’t be boring. No more dreaming, it’s time to wake up and leap into Yonaka’s world.
Taken from the June issue of Dork, out now. Order a copy below. Yonaka’s debut album ‘Don’t Wait ‘Til Tomorrow’ is out 31st May.
Featuring Yonaka, Employed to Serve and more in our 2019 Summer Special.