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Universe People interview with Jo Claxton, Kimberly Morrison and Min Yee

Pop, punk and garage all bleed together into an inkblot, strange enigmatic imagery and broken melodies scattered across the landscape, Claxton’s dystopian guitars riffs croon and drone along with Morrison’s playfully bouncy, yet somehow menacingly unhinged and threatening bass lines, all the while the music’s propelled and sustained by veteran rocker Min Yee’s air tight drums to form a post-punk Voltron towering above the competition in the form of Seattle, Washington’s Universe People.  From the moment you drop the needle on their debut album Go to the Sun there’s something, different…  Something, something that transcends the harrowing vocal crescendos, bravado and subtle harmonies that run through out their music.  While Universe People do embody a lot of sounds that I recognize as being from Seattle, there’s something fundamentally different about them that reminds me more of a European, Aussie or UK band so when I found out lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Jo Claxton originally hails from Sydney Australia things started to fall into place.  Dissonant tones and harmonies filtered through an undeniable sense of grace and intelligence, all the while blending the lines between punk, noise, psych and garage – Universe People are busy carving out their own niche with their second full-length album Are Coming To The Dance, available digitally now and out on vinyl in late August or early September.  Have a listen, let me know what you think and as always, keep it Psychedelic Baby!

Now I’ve talked to Min about one of his other bands not too long ago, Dreamsalon (Interview here), but I don’t know a super lot about Universe People at this point outside of the fact that Min’s your drummer and I dig your music!  What’s the lineup in the Universe People at this point?  Is this your original lineup or has there been any changes made since you started?

Jo:  The lineup currently is Min Yee on drums, Kimberly Morrison on bass/vocals and myself, Jo Claxton, on guitar and vocals.  The original lineup was myself, Kellie Payne on bass and Dave Ramm on drums.  They played on the first record.  So yes, two thirds changes to the lineup!

Kimberly:  Universe People is Min on drums, songstress extraordinaire Jo Claxton singing and playing guitar, and me, Kimberly Morrison, playing bass and singing.   Jo has been the only constant, which makes sense because she writes all the songs.  The original drummer was Dave Ramm who left to focus on grad school and his other band, Wimps, the original bass player was Kellie Payne who was very sad to go, but her husband was offered his dream job out-of-state.

As I mentioned before I talked to Min about his musical background and I know he’s got several things going on right now.  Are any of the rest of you involved in any other bands or do you have any side projects going on right now?  Have you released any music with anyone in the past?  If so, can you tell us a little bit about this?

Jo:  I'm not doing any side projects, just Universe People at the moment.  I used to play in a band called Welcome and we put out a recording called Sirs several years ago, I love that record and was so happy to play on it.  Other bands I've played in are the Heroic Trio, The Intelligence, actually all present Universe People members are ex-Intelligence members, and a fun grindcore band with only bass and pitch shifted vocals.  We sang about things like amputee fetishes and Countess Bathory, playing to confused audiences in Seattle for a couple of years.

Kimberly:  Not really…  An old band of mine The Dutchess and the Duke just did a one-off reunion, but there’re no plans to make it a real band again.  Bands take a lot of time and effort!  I don’t know how I pulled it off in my twenties when I played in four or five bands at a time.

I know Min’s originally from Marin and then lived in Ft. Meyers.  Where are the rest of your originally from and how old are all of you?

Jo:  I’m originally from Sydney Australia and a lady never reveals her age, except that by the looks of some of your other questions, you may be able to figure it out.

Kimberly:  Old enough!  I was born and raised here in Seattle and its suburbs. 

How would you describe the local scene where you grew up?  Did you see a lot of shows when you were growing up?  Do you feel like that scene played a large role in shaping your musical tastes or an important role in how you perform today?

Jo:  The music scene in Sydney that I grew up around was amazing.  I saw Lubricated Goat fairly regularly.  My friends' band Matrimony was a big influence on me.  There were lots of great bands when I was a teenager, and touring bands from other cities; the Scientists from Perth, Venom P Stinger from Melbourne.  I think that bands I saw back then are definitely part of my music consciousness and influence me to a degree, but aren’t necessarily directly influencing this current project.

Kimberly:  The local scene was cool, but there was a real shortage of all-ages venues.  The Redmond Firehouse had great shows, but was hard to get to if you didn’t drive.  The Velvet Elvis closed and broke everyone’s hearts.  When I was underage, I would’ve gladly paid double or even triple the admission to see the music I loved and not drink, but that wasn’t an option because of the Teen Dance Ordinance and Washington State’s archaic liquor laws.  In some ways, I guess you could say that those hindrances only made us hungrier for the stuff we were being denied.  I mean, it certainly encouraged me to get a fake ID, and when I finally was of age and didn’t have to stress about whether or not I was going to be denied entry, I saw live music three or four nights a week for years.

What about your home when you were a kid?  Were either your parents or any of your relatives musicians or extremely involved/interested in music?

Jo:  My father was a double bass player in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and my mother was a clarinetist and ballet dancer.  Lots of music in my childhood!

Kimberly:  My mom played the piano and sang often, much to the chagrin of my sister and I.  My dad never played an instrument, but he loved music and had/has a wonderful voice.  When I go hang out with him, we sit at the kitchen table with our chosen libations and listen to oldies and talk and sing to each other; when Roy Orbison or Bob Dylan comes on, the conversations cease and the stereo goes way up.

What do you consider to be your first real exposure to music?

Jo:  Besides being in a baby bouncer while my dad played scales for hours on the double bass, I think the kind of music that I thought I would want to play was what I was seeing and hearing at shows I went to when I was in art school in Sydney.  Seeing bands like Box the Jesuit and Thug and meeting Zeb Olsen, who was in Matrimony and other bands, felt like my people and I eventually felt like I could play music too.

Kimberly:  I guess just the records my parents would play as a kid, lots of Beatles, Peter, Paul & Mary, Roger Whittaker and a lot of classical music as well, which I still enjoy.  I was always whistling, singing, tapping my fingers, making noise as a kid…  I was pretty hyperactive.  My sister and I would sit at the piano and make up “songs”.  We’d use the minor keys when we wanted to convey sadness or fear, and the major ones when things were happy.  Then we got a Nintendo…

If you were to pick a single moment, a moment that seemed to change everything for you and opened your eyes to the infinite possibilities of music, what would it be?  I know Min’s brother Tai sent him some mixtapes when he was like fourteen or fifteen and that seemed to really change everything for him.

Jo:  Probably the first time was when I played with my friends Zeb and Fiona.  Fiona and I had written some bits of songs and then just hearing Zeb play drums along to them was so cool and made them actually sound like songs.

Kimberly:  Probably as a teenager when I got into Nirvana.

When did you decide that you wanted to start writing and performing your own music?  What brought that decision about for you?

Jo:  When I was about twenty-one, I was playing violin and cello duets with my friend Fiona in Sydney, which was nice but I think we got bored and wanted to write songs and decided we wanted to play guitars instead.  I had been playing bass a bit before that I think, but switched to guitar to try something else.

Kimberly:  Ha-ha!  It sounds so dorky now, but from a very young age I always thought I would be a rock star.

What was your first instrument?  When and how did you get that?

Jo:  I played violin for several years as a kid, and I also learned the double bass a little from my dad.  But my first rock instrument was bass guitar.

Kimberly:  Well, I guess the family piano.  When I got into fifth grade, we had school band, and I was so excited, thinking I was going to play the trumpet, the violin, the drums and the flute!  I was pretty bummed when they told me you had to pick one.  Some friend of mine had a flute she wasn’t using, so that’s what I ended up playing.  I really wanted to play the drums, though, badly.  You had to be a sixth grader for that.  I tooted away on that flute for a year, and at the beginning of sixth grade, I excitedly brought home the form for my parents to sign that would allow me to play drums.  They put the kibosh on that one real quick.  I was crushed.  The guy that got to play drums wasn’t exactly a natural, so I’d go to the back of the room after class and try and help him with his parts.  He rode the same bus as me, and sometimes he’d let me take his sticks home and I’d bang on stuff in my room after school.  Years ago, I was in the car with my mom, and I told her she had done a good job helping me explore my interests and talents, but that I was still sad she hadn’t signed the form, because I really wanted to play the drums and I thought I’d be a pretty good drummer by that time if she’d let me.  She responded that when I decided I wanted to be a drummer, she and my dad were getting divorced.  She was just realizing that she was a lesbian, and if I’d had a drum set she’d have killed herself, so she decided it was far more important that I had a mother.  Couldn’t really argue with that!  I had a crappy little acoustic guitar for a while, then for my sixteenth birthday, I got my first electric guitar, woo hoo!  A Fernandes Strat copy.  The guy at the shop I bought it from threw in the tablature book for Alice In Chains Dirt for free because I loved them so much.  I would listen to the radio and my cassette tapes, screwing around on the fretboard until I found the right notes and could play along.

How did the Universe People all originally meet and when would that have been?

Jo:  I had known Kellie for a long time and had played with her in two previous bands before.  And Dave I'd known for several years too from around the scene.
Min:  I met Jo in 1995 when her band Deep Traction were recording at my friend Josh’s place.  I’d seen them play at the Rendezvous and was really into what they were doing, it was sort of creepy and dark and sexy; just what I wanted.  When Deep Traction broke up, my band at the time, Bend Sinister, stole their drummer Steve Kaplan.  Jo and I have been friends ever since.  Fast forward sixteen years, and we started dating in 2011.  Then I was able to sneak into Universe People last year when Dave quit!  I first met Kimberly in maybe 2001.  She worked the door at the Breakroom and I met her through Lars because they were dating.  Kimberly and I were in The Intelligence in 2003-2004, I think it was lineup number six.

Kimberly:  Hmmm…  Min and I met many years ago when he was playing bass in A-Frames.  I was dating their drummer, so we’d all just end up hanging out.  The first time I saw Jo, she was playing with Min in The Intelligence at a club I worked at.  I think I first met her when we sang on an A-Frames record together.  I always thought she was super cool, but she didn’t really hang out or go to shows as much as other people I knew, so we never became great friends, just acquaintances.

When and what led to the formation of Universe People?

Kimberly:  Jo?

Jo:  We formed in 2011.  I first asked Kellie if she’d like to start a band with me.  She had mostly been playing drums in her recent bands, but I wanted her to play bass so that she could sing with me.  She can play anything.  I had some demos I played her and she was into it.  Then, I asked Dave and sent him some demos as well and he was down and we went from there.

What does the name Universe People mean or refer to?  Who came up with that and how did you all go about choosing it?

Jo:  Universe People is from the name of a Czech space religion.  I spotted that name on the internet somewhere and said, "Bam!  I'm grabbin' that".  Kellie and Dave liked it, so we went with it.

Is there any sort of shared creed, code, ideal or mantra that the band shares or lives by?

Jo:  Just stuff about not wanting to play weeknights and that everyone should own at least one cat.  It's sort of like a band of grandmas.

Kimberly:  Not really.  Live slow, die old maybe?

Where are Universe People located at these days?

Kimberly:  The mean streets of Seattle, WA.

How would you describe the local music scene where you all are at?

Jo:  I kind of only know about certain kinds of bands, and even then I don't go to a lot of shows, but there are some bands here I really like - Pony Time, Dreamsalon (Interviewhere), Stickers, the Lindseys, Zebrahunt.  I'm sure there are more I'm not thinking of right now.

Do you feel like you’ve very involved in the local scene there?  Do you book or attend a lot of local shows or anything?

Jo:  Not too involved.  I've only occasionally sort of booked shows at this one venue called the Rendezvous where it’s up to the band to line up the show and do the door, etcetera.

Kimberly:  Not necessarily…  I used to go to a lot more shows, but the older I get, the more introverted I become.  I still go to shows, but I don’t have the “fear of missing out” that I did when I was younger.

Are you involved in recording or releasing any local music at all?  If so, can you talk about that briefly?

Jo:  No, just my own recordings.

Do you feel like the local scene’s played an important role in the history of Universe People or in the formation of your sound?  Or do you all feel like you could be doing what you are and sound like you do regardless of where you were at or what you were surrounded by?

Jo:  I think maybe not.  I had pretty specific ideas of what I wanted to do with this band, and I've stuck with those ideas.  I don't think the scene here has influenced or changed it.

How would you describe Universe People’s sound in your own words to our readers who might not have heard you before?

Jo:  Angular kind of post-punk sort of sounding with weird girl harmonies.  Lyrics about humiliation and vampires, that sort of thing.

I seriously dig the music and if I understand correctly you all draw inspirations from all over the planet as you all come from all over the place.  Can you tell us who some of your major musical influences are?  What about influences on the band as a whole rather than just individually?

Jo:  I think there’re bands that we all like but I'm not sure if there's one source that we're all thinking of when it comes to Universe People, maybe The Raincoats, The Country Teasers and Dolly Mixture?

What’s the songwriting process with Universe People like, is there someone who comes in to practice with basically a finished song to share with the rest of you?  Or do you all work together more as a team to compose and arrange stuff?

Jo:  I write the songs and demo them.  Sometimes I have the drums figured out, but sometimes I leave it up to Min ‘cause he has really good taste in drumbeats and will come up with something great.  Then once we all play them in the practice space, everyone contributes to the final version of how the song sounds.  Kimberly adds cool little stylings to the bass lines that I never would have thought of.

What about recording?  I think that most musicians can definitely appreciate the end result of all the time, hard work and effort.  Holding that album in your hands is an awesome thing indeed, getting to that point though, getting stuff sounding the way that you want it to and do that as a band especially, can be extremely difficult to say the least.  What’s it like recording for Universe People?

Jo:  I really like it but it's difficult.  I have a hard time with mixing drums, so I always rely on someone else who has a good ear for drums to make those decisions.  Min has a good ear for drums in the mix.  I think communication is the hardest thing.  It's great when you have an engineer that can understand all your weird descriptive requests.  I don't describe things in colors or anything lame like that, but I did ask for a vocal to be "robot-y" once.  And the engineer was very patient with me and helped get my "robot-y" vocal.

Kimberly:  Fun!  Relatively stress-free.  The record we just made was absolutely the most fun, low stress session I’ve ever participated in.  I think it helps that we’ve all been playing music for a long time, are all pretty laid back, and we really like each other a lot.  We laugh and hug all the time, it’s pretty rad.

Do you all take a more DIY approach to recording where you like to handle that process of your own or do Universe People head into the studio and let someone else worry about that kind of thing so you can kind of kick back and concentrate on playing and performing the music?

Jo:  Studio for sure.  I'm fine making little demos on my Zoom recorder, but even then I keep it very simple.

Kimberly:  I think we’re pretty hands-on, all having been in bands for years and having a pretty good idea of what we want things to sound like.  Sure, we have an engineer run the board and add some things, but we’re constantly listening and reviewing, and making tweaks together.

Is there a ton of preparation that goes into a recording session for Universe People where you all work out every nook and cranny of a song and figure out exactly how you want it to sound, or do you all get a good idea of what a song should sound like and then give it plenty of room to breathe and evolve during the recording process?

Kimberly:  Nah.  We’re not exactly a “jam band”.  The songs are pretty straight-forward.  I mean, we practice them and figure out what we want them to sound like, but we don’t have the time or budget to work them out in the studio.

Jo:  Total preparation equals less money in the studio.  I have all my overdubs demoed and figured out before I go in.  There are some happy accidents in the recording process, but mostly we like to have a very clear idea of what we're doing before we go in.  I'm cautious about editing too, not playing the crap out of some erhu on a track just because they happen to have one at the studio.

In 2013 you all released your first material that I know of, the killer Go To The Sun on Little Black Cloud Records in a ridiculously limited run of only 250 copies!  The lineup that recorded this material was slightly different than the one that you’re performing with at this point if I understand correctly.  What was the recording of the material for Go To The Sun like?  When and where was that recorded?  Who recorded it?  What kind of equipment was used?  I did a little pocking around and couldn’t find a lot of details about the release of the album.  I know that Go To The Sun’s also available digitally via your Bandcamp page and as I mentioned was released on 12” vinyl, was it released on CD or cassette either one? 

Jo:  We recorded Go to the Sun at the Pool Recording studio in Portland, Oregon with Alex Yusimov.  His studio’s all analog but I'm not sure I remember any specifics about the equipment used.  It wasn't released on CD or cassette, just vinyl and digital.

You’re just getting ready to drop your sophomore full-length Are Coming To The Dance and there are even a couple of preview tracks up streaming on your Bandcamp page.  What was the lineup for recording this album and when was this material written and recorded?  Where did you record the material for Are Coming To The Dance?

Jo:  I think about half of these songs were kicking around a year or more ago and then the other half were written in the last few months of 2013. We recorded at MRX studio with Matt Stegner.

Kimberly:  We recorded with this very lineup.

Was the recording of Are Coming To The Dance very different than the session(s) for Go To The Sun?  Did you all try anything radically new or different when it came to the writing or recording of Are Coming To The Dance?  What can our readers expect from the new album?  When is that due for release?

Jo:  The recording was different in that we recorded on tape, but mixed digitally.  I don't think that it was radically different from our first recording.  I think the songs are maybe a bit more cohesive and more developed than the songs on the first one maybe.  The songs are a bit slower.  Min didn't consume the same amount of sugar as our original drummer did on the first recording.  Wednesday June 18th is our digital release day on Bandcamp for the new record and we’ll be also debuting our video for "The Modern Girl" on The Finest Kiss.

Does Universe People have any other music that we haven’t talked about yet, maybe a single or a song on a compilation that I might not know about?

Jo:  No, we don't.  We were going to try recording a Modettes cover with Kellie before she moved to Salt Lake City, but we didn't have time, unfortunately.

With the impending release of Are Coming To The Dance do Universe People have any other releases in the works or on the horizon at this point?

Min:  We did three songs last year as part of a Devo tribute night, which was really fun but kind of a lot of work.  So we’ve been toying with the idea of doing a home recording of those songs since it seems a shame to have done all the work of learning them just to do them for that show.  There’s also at least one video in the works, maybe two.

With the completely insane postage rates these days I try and provide our readers with as many possible options for picking up releases, especially imports and the like.  Where’s the best place for our US readers to pick up copies of your stuff at?

Kimberly:  The internet!

Jo:  In Seattle, Wall of Sound or Georgetown Records, in Portland, Mississipi Records.  For other towns, they could maybe message Little Black Cloud Records and ask about record stores in their town.

What about our international and overseas readers?

Kimberly:  See above.

Jo:  Probably need to order from Little Black Cloud Records for the first record and when the new one comes out, uhhmmm…  I'm not sure.

And where’s the best place for interested readers to keep up with the latest news like upcoming shows and album releases from Universe People at?

Jo:  Our Facebook page is probably best or there’s our Bandcamp page and there’s also Twitter.

Are there any major goals or plans that Universe People are looking to accomplish in 2014?

Kimberly:  We just hope to get this record released and tour a little bit.

Jo:  Music video is next and then West coast tour in September.

Do you all spend a lot of time out on the road touring?  Do you enjoy being out on the road?  What’s life like on the road for Universe People?

Jo:  I’ve hardly toured at all.  I like it okay for a short stint, but I like getting sleep and eating relatively healthy food so touring isn't the best for that.  This September will be our first tour together, so I'll let you know how it is when we get back.

Kimberly:  While the road can be fun and we’ve collectively wracked up more highway miles than most people in all of our other bands over the years, the sad truth is that touring at our small level is not exactly cost-effective…  We all make way more money staying home and working our normal jobs.  Plus, we hate being away from our cats!

Do you remember what the first song that Universe People ever played live was?  Where and when would that have been?

Jo:  Not sure which song was first in the set, it might have been "Bounce To Your Party".  It was at a party at my house in about June 2011.  We played five songs I think.

What, if anything, do you all have planned as far as touring goes for 2014?

Kimberly:  We’re working on a west coast trip for the fall, and I hope we can get over to NY one of these days!

Who are some of your personal favorite bands that you’ve had a chance to play with in the past few years?

Kimberly:  Well, I’ve been in the band for the least amount of time, so Min and Jo may have different answers, but for me it was definitely playing with The Black Lips and The Coathangers in March!  The Black Lips are old friends, so it was great to see them, and they always put on a great show.  The Coathangers worked the crowd into an absolute frenzy!  Even though we played really early, like 9pm, I think – there were people there, dancing and enjoying themselves…  There was just such a great energy all night, when you looked around everyone was smiling and dancing and having fun.

Jo:  We played with The Black Lips and The Coathangers recently, both bands were great and it was a really fun show.  We opened for Mudhoney a year ago or so.  Of course, Mudhoney are one of my favorite bands.

Is there any kind of meaning or message that you all try and convey with your artwork?  Do you give a lot of thought to the visual aspects that represent the band like flyers, posters, shirt designs, covers and that kind of thing?  Is there anyone that you usually turn to in your time of need when it comes to that kind of thing?  If so, who is that and how did you get hooked up with them?

Jo:  I work as a production artist and animator, so I can take care of most of the art needs.  But for Go to the Sun we had an artist friend of ours, Nick Gucker, design a poster as an insert for the record.  He specializes in horror illustration, and we wanted a fake movie poster for our “Vampire Prison” video.  He did such a beautiful job the record’s worth buying just to get his poster!

With all of the various mediums of release that are available to musicians today I’m always curious why they choose and prefer the various methods that they do.  Do you have a preferred medium of release when it comes to putting out your own stuff?  What about when you’re listening to and or purchasing music?  If you do have a reference can you talk a little bit about what that is and why?

Jo:  I tend to listen to music on the computer mostly these days, but sometimes I like to have the vinyl.  I love that you get free digital downloads with vinyl these days.

I grew up around my father’s enormous collection of vintage psych, classic garage and traditional blues music, but beyond that I was really encouraged to dig in and enjoy the collection from an early age.  I grew up in the local record shops and my dad encouraged me to listen to just about anything that floated my boat when I was younger, pushing me to expand my musical horizons and experiences.  He thought that physical media was an important way of becoming introduced and subsequently getting to know a band, and I couldn’t agree more.  There’s something magical about popping an album into the player, kicking back with a set of headphones, reading the liner notes, staring at the cover artwork and letting the whole experience just transport you off.  Having something to hold in my hands and experience along with the music always made for a much more complete listening experience for me.  Do you have any such connection with physically released media?

Jo:  I did as a kid, but not so much these days.  It might be because I can just look up info on the internet about a band and/or recording, so the info contained in the record sleeve, or cover, or whatever isn't so special anymore.

As much as I love my music collection, digital music has changed things for better or worse.  It’s allowed me to really take my collection with me on the go for the first time and it’s changed the way that I listen to and enjoy my collection honestly.  I find myself getting around to listening to a lot more different stuff now that I have more of my stuff readily available at my fingertips and enjoying a lot of my stuff that I probably wouldn’t have given another thought if I had to dig them out every time I wanted to listen to them.  That’s just the beginning though, when you team digital music with the internet you have something really revolutionary on your hands.  Together they’ve exposed people to the expansive world of music that they’re surrounded by and allowed unparalleled communication between the fans and the bands, eliminating a lot of the limitations that arose from locational boundaries in the past almost overnight.  Nothing is every black and white though and illegal downloading is running absolutely rampant right now, and with everyone being given a somewhat “equal” voice online it’s harder and harder to get noticed in the absolutely madcap digital scene out there right now.  As a musician during the reign of the digital era, what’s your opinion on digital music and distribution?

Jo:  I like that it makes it easier for bands to make their music more available.

I try to keep up with as much good music as I possibly can but there’s just not enough hours in the day to listen to even one percent of the amazing stuff that’s out there right now.  As a result I rely on people like you for tips on who I should be checking out.  Is there anyone from your local scene or area that I might not have heard of I should be listening to?

Jo:  Just the bands that I mentioned earlier from the local scene.

What about nationally and internationally?

Jo:  Just listened to a band called Baus yesterday that Min has played with before, from Oakland I think?  Universe People get to play with them on tour too in September.

Kimberly:  Fresh n’ Onlys.

(2013)  Universe People – Go To The Sun – digital, 12” – Little Black Cloud Records (12” Limited to 250 copies)
(2014)  Universe People – Are Coming To The Dance – digital, ? – ? Records (Limited to ? copies)

© Eva Piccininni

Interview made by Roman Rathert/2014
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