The Velvety One
Just before my early evening interview with Arthur Yoria at La Carafe, I stood under the porch at Treebeards and watched the lightning dancing off the skyscrapers and torrents of water sweeping the Market Square streets. Bus after bus full of tired commuters plowed up Travis Street on the long way home to Kuykendahl, North Shepherd or Veterans Memorial. To paraphrase one of Yoria's finest songs, I wondered if they would consider this one of their best routines. Probably not, but the scene would have fit right into a video for Yoria's wistful daydream about impossible love.
The words to that song are as simply mysterious and powerful as a prayer: "In my fall and in my reach / in my words before they speak / in my best routines you'll be with me." At the front corner table at La Carafe, Yoria says he wants them that way. "What I try to do lyrically is connect with the lowest common denominator -- not get too abstract," he says. "I want it to be a new spin on something universal."
Arthur Yoria, you see, wants to dominate your soul. "Here's the goal," he says with a straight face. "To be undeniable." And therein lies the problem that many have with Yoria. He means it when he says he wants to connect with the lowest common denominator. He isn't being ironic; he never is. He ain't in this biz for the funsies, unlike the indie rockers with whom his music is lumped for convenience and with whom he says he has "ever-so-thin" patience.
Speaking broadly, Yoria's glistening guitar pop music could be construed as indie, but his personality definitely could not. He's too earnest, too meticulous, too competitive. So far, though, what little press that has come Yoria's way has been mainly from the indie rock press, and one of those reviews is quite telling. "After reading Arthur Yoria's press release," wrote Amy Leach of Splendid E-Zine, "which speaks of his 'pretty boy looks' and his ability to 'seduce' audiences, and after viewing his album artwork, with his aren't-I-sexy gaze on the cover, I wasn't exactly expecting the best. In fact, I wanted to not like him."
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To her credit, Leach listened to the album before writing her review and was won over in spite of herself. "Then I played the disc, and was reminded once again that it's about the music," she wrote. "And the music is lovely. Pretty boy or not, Yoria has a knack for writing beautiful, melancholy songs à la Jeff Buckley, charged with a bit of Matthew Sweet-styled pop, creating a most satisfying listening experience."
"I love that review," says Yoria without a hint of sarcasm. It all fits in with his philosophy, which is that music is a challenge, and the goal is to conquer the hipper-than-thou and the blasé. "The challenge is to get the people who regard music as wallpaper, the people who see music as the background to their conversation about what they're fuckin' wearing, the people who don't go out to check out guitar pop. If you can get a roomful of people like that and command their attention, that's an exhilarating feeling. It'll feel like a coup to get the attention of a million people like that, and sneaking in substance? I can't think of anyone in recent history who's done that."
That bit about "guitar pop" doesn't do Yoria's music justice. First, his version of pop doesn't conquer you by main force, it doesn't grab you by the lapels and shake you. Instead, it sidles up and puts its arm around you. Before you know it, it's an old friend.
As for the guitar, as often as not we're not talking about a Gibson or a Fender but Matt Rhodes's pedal steel. In Yoria's band, the steel is completely and uniquely shorn of any C&W allusions. It provides the glissando around which so much of Yoria's sound is based -- the fluid, slipping, silky texture that is his trademark. "The steel is able to sound more like a human voice than any other instrument," he says. "You've got one instrument which can sound like an orchestra, a guitar and a backup singer. It's capable of so much, I don't know why more people haven't done it. Every time I've heard it used in pop music, they're making a reference to country -- which is the obvious, kitschy thing to do."
Avoiding the obvious is a must for anyone who calls their music pop and hopes to rise above mediocrity. For Yoria, careful song selection and overriding perfectionism -- in the studio and on stage -- help him avoid that pitfall. He's only released two EPs over the three years of his solo career (which followed a stint in the Jeepneys).
He thinks overly fertile songwriters are full of crap, anyway. "Being a prolific songwriter doesn't interest me," he says. "What's hilarious is when I read about well-known national guys who go to the studio with 40 or 50 songs. What the fuck is that? Not even Lennon and McCartney could churn out 40 or 50 songs over the course of a year. You've gotta think the majority of that is fluff, bullshit."
According to Yoria, the trouble is that fluff is, if not exactly lauded by the media and fans, then certainly overpraised nonetheless. "Mediocrity is championed, glorified," he says. "I don't see vicious reviews anymore. The media worldwide is too kind. Everything is two stars out of five, and a lot of that stuff really sucks."
Yoria believes his competitiveness stems from his athletic background. A native of Chicago and the son of Colombian parents, Yoria played soccer at the University of Houston, which is also where he first got into music. He sees himself as being perceived by indie rockers as a "jock" and a "Neanderthal."
And he really doesn't give a damn. In fact, he sees his image as an opportunity. "I've not pledged allegiance to any scene," he says, which has worked out to his benefit where booking gigs is concerned. Yoria plays everywhere from Brasil to the Sidecar Pub, the Engine Room to Ovations. It's a little unusual in Houston, where so many bands belong to, say, either the Fitzgerald's or Rudyard's scene. "It's easy to do in this town," he says of his scattershot gigs. "There are many venues in this town. It's just a matter of making yourself available. There are different parts of town, different types of venues. Anyone bitching about no gigs has got a hang-up of one type or another."
Some local studio engineers think Yoria may have a hang-up or two himself. When Yoria comes to your studio, you're gonna earn your money. Yoria admits he drove Marco Saenz crazy when Saenz engineered his latest EP, Can You Still Look Adorable. "I give Marco disclaimers before I go record," Yoria chuckles. "I'm like, 'Hey, Marco, this is gonna be really tough. I'm gonna get on your fuckin' nerves. You're gonna hate me, you're gonna talk about my ancestors and whatever, man, but we're gonna do it and it's gonna sound good.' Some people are never gonna agree with that type of behavior. Usually I can read those people, and they've gotta stay away from me."
As serious as he is about it when he has the time, so far music has been only Yoria's hobby. That may change soon. Later this month, Yoria and band will be showcasing in L.A. "If nothing materializes with a decent label and a decent offer after that, I want to know what it feels like to do music full-time," he says. "I don't write that often, to be honest. I can easily go three months without even touching a guitar if I'm not rehearsing with the band, so I don't know what it feels like to be on a deadline and to have to come up with a certain number of tunes. There's been a couple of times when I've done it, and it worked out well. But I'd like to know what it feels like to do this for a living, where this is all you're worried about."
By a "decent offer," he means a label that understands what he does. "Until I see that, I can't sign with, say, any major out there that says, 'Well, we've got a single so we're gonna put you out there. Tell you what, can you wear these torn jeans, man?' In that sense I'm not bitter that I'm not on a major label. My stuff is poppy enough to be on there. I've never offended anybody with my music. It's catchy. It's meant to be catchy -- it's a calculated thing."
He can't understand why anybody would not try to be catchy. "There's some talented people in this town even among indie rockers," he says. "I don't want to be a hypocrite and not give them a chance. I'm willing to listen and see if they know what they're doing, and some of them really do. It's a shame when some of them get caught up in that scene and end up making music for their circle of friends. If you're just gonna make music for your friends, fine, but why did you press up a thousand CDs in that case?
"I decided early on that I liked what I do and I wanted as many people as possible to hear it," he says. "Does that make me a sellout? No! I like what I do, and I want as many people as possible to hear it."
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