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Yves Tumour for AnOther Spring/Summer 2023
Yves Tumor wears PRADA

On Performing Identities: Yves Tumor and Kembra Pfahler in Conversation

Musician Yves Tumor and artist Kembra Pfahler are radical performers who had never met. Brought together for the first time in AnOther Magazine Spring/Summer 2023, they discuss stage fright, extreme performance and why happiness is overrated

Lead ImageYves Tumor wears PRADA

This article is taken from the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of AnOther Magazine:

Kembra Pfahler: Nice to meet you, Yves. I was asked to do this interview with you and I thought, “Well, this sounds like a wonderful person to speak to.” Then I started listening to your songs and I thought they go on a tremendous adventure. I made you an award – you deserve it.

Yves Tumor: [Laughs]. Whaaaat? It’s a Statue of Liberty with my name on it? Thank you so much, it’s beautiful. I love it. Now I feel bad for not bringing you anything. I wasn’t sure if you even knew who I was or cared, so I was super-excited when this interview was confirmed.

KP: How has your day been? You’re in Paris, right?

YT: Yeah. My day was really nice. I went to my favourite bookstore, it’s called 1909 – they just moved it to Dover Street Market – I bought some books and some clothes. And now I’m at my friend’s house and he has all these insane fetish latex magazines from the Sixties and Seventies.

KP: I’ve been listening to your songs [from your new album, Praise a Lord Who Chews But Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds)] and you really don’t sound like anyone I’ve ever listened to. It’s very strange, the way you put shit together. There are these very typical paradigms of putting a song together, and the way you put songs together is really beautiful and very strange. These songs have such trippy, strange beginnings. It’s like watching a movie – the songs are cinematic. God Is a Circle, Lovely Sewer, Interlude, Parody, Operator … It doesn’t sound like any other shit I’ve heard. And I loved how you chose your guitar and your bass. Has that been fun for you, working with all those different musicians? Have you all worked together for a long time?

YT: Almost every song has multiple session players. I write everything myself and then I bring it to a producer I work with called Noah Goldstein. And then we select session players to come in and replay everything. I sit by them and poke them and prod them until they get it exactly how I want it. There are a lot of different people on the record – sometimes it’s four people playing drums on the same song, or three different bass players. It’s very frantic, but it’s fun.

KP: It takes me about ten years to write ten songs. My process is very slow. What’s your writing process like? Do you write in journals? Do you start out with a title?

YT: I do start with titles, but the title doesn’t correlate to the song. I usually have a loop playing and then a melody will come out of my mind and I’ll open voice notes on my phone. I’ll just record the melody quickly while it’s in my head. Then I’ll forget about it for three months, find it and write words to it on the spot. Sometimes I can write an entire song on the spot, sometimes it’s just a disaster and kind of embarrassing. I don’t really have an actual method.

“[Being on a label] keeps the fire under your ass. It keeps me on task. I have a terrible attention span, but I think I’m a good multitasker.” – Yves Tumor

KP: I heard Led Zeppelin wrote Stairway to Heaven in two minutes. Sometimes songs just come out in the snap of a finger and other songs are more like writing a painful long opera.

YT: Sometimes I get rushed by the label and the industry to release new music. I wish I could take ten years to write ten songs. But being signed to a label and booking shows – the whole hamster wheel that artists are on nowadays – sort of forces you to expedite a product.

KP: Maybe this is because I’m not on a label. We started our own record label with [my band] The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.

YT: What’s the label called?

KP: It’s called Beautiful Label.

YT: I love the name.

KP: But Yves, that’s just something that we did in the Eighties when we started. It’s a whole different world now. And to be pushed or eagerly rushed by a label, I think that might be fun in a way, a challenge.

YT: Yeah, it keeps the fire under your ass. It keeps me on task. I have a terrible attention span, but I think I’m a good multitasker.

KP: That’s a very female quality. They say, historically, multitasking is a femme thing.

YT: I have a lot of femme qualities.

KP: How did you start playing around with your looks and different selves – your costuming and make-up? That’s pretty extreme.

YT: I don’t know. I’ve always liked wearing loud clothing, I’ve always dressed expressively, for as long as I can remember. There are a lot of talented stylists, make-up artists and videographers that I work with today who help me actualise these things. I can’t take credit for any look or photo because it’s a team of people that help create it. I’m the vessel for multiple people’s creative ideas. Obviously I have the final call and I’m like, “Oh, this looks terrible,” or “This looks incredible.” But it really is a group effort.

KP: It starts with the body – your body is couture, your actual flesh. The body is the instrument that we all work with. The voice and the actual body without any clothes at all. For me it starts there – the body is couture. It reminds me of something Rick Owens said a long time ago, referring to working on your own body like it’s an instrument. Our skin is the first thing we wear and put on.

YT: Yeah – how working out and taking care of your body is the ultimate couture. It’s not even about being obsessed with going to the gym or being fatphobic. He said, “Go to the gym and buy less clothing.”

KP: This is such a fucking stupid question – I don’t even know why I’m asking it – but do you have a gym practice?

YT: No, I wish. I like to go on hikes and I like swimming. The gym environment makes me self-conscious and uncomfortable. I wanted to start rock climbing just to tone my core and to clear a lot of mental stress.

KP: Maybe we should start baseball teams. I’m an absolutely horrible baseball player, but I thought that would be a great place to begin. Then rather than having to go to terrible corporate headquarters or anything, we could meet on the baseball diamond and play baseball. We could have cheerleaders too.

YT: Oh my God. Can I start a team and the first game be my team versus your team?

KP: You can be on my team or you can be on both teams and we’ll break all the rules straight away. I would also have my Persian delicatessen owner, who is my favourite person, who I’m madly in love with. Then I’d have my ex-husband, Samoa [Moriki, an artist and guitarist], and then all the women of Karen Black, they would be on my baseball team.

YT: I have no idea who’d be on mine.

KP: You could just be one person on your team, Yves – that would be even more spectacular. We can design baseball costumes to wear, you have to run all of the bases backwards, start at third base, then do everything backwards and upside down. We can call the team In Spite of War, after one of your songs. Speaking of design, how did you find your stage designer?

YT: At an after-hours party in Berlin, actually. Her name is Hannah.

KP: Wow, how great. I read once in this book by the old classic rock singer David Lee Roth that for every stage he performs on, he has a ritual where he gets on his hands and knees and wipes the entire floor of the stage with a rag. I thought that was so incredible, I started to do that as well. I would do the ritual on every stage – I would clean the entire stage. My friend was calling it floor-itis, like I had a condition. Do you have any rituals?

YT: No, I don’t have any rituals. Sometimes my legs get really tight. I have psychosomatic stress, so I’m excited and stressed out. I usually just sit alone by myself. If it’s a big show I’ll need 20 minutes just by myself in the corner, deep breathing. I guess you would call it stage fright. I just try to take deep breaths.

“Your body is couture, your actual flesh. The body is the instrument that we all work with” – Kembra Pfahler

KP: Stage fright never really bothered me, I just accepted it. I’d say, “This is incredible. My stomach is flipping.” Then my band members would ask me if I wanted to pray. So we started to do strange prayers before we went on stage. I always did this part of my show where I stood on my head and cracked eggs in my vagina. I would imagine that when I was standing on my head someone was going to come and chop me down like a tree. When I first started out I did a lot of shows at places like CBGBs in New York. The shows were so intense and they got really violent – and I never had security.

YT: People were channelling your energy and going too overboard?

KP: Yeah, I guess that’s the essence of doing live shows with extreme performances. At the time we started, people were mostly doing shows that were very simple, with no costumes. This was around the time people were refusing to wear any sort of costume, nobody wore make-up. It was the Nirvana-type vibe – just flannel shirts. We wanted to do something that was completely the opposite. And that’s always been a motive for me, to do something very contrarian. If I’m looking around and I don’t see something happening, then I’m compelled to move towards that missing element. That was something I liked about all your songs as I was saying before, Yves – they really don’t sound like anything I’ve heard. They have your Yves Tumor stamp on them. You’ve got a few different voices that I really loved too. How did you come up with them?

YT: I just slowly experiment with them. I’ve never been that confident with my singing voice, so I try to work with whatever works with the song and the feeling. I still think I fuck up a lot, actually. Even on the new record, the one that you heard, I’m still like, “Fuck, I should have sung that part softer,” or “I should have sung this part harder,” or “I should have added more emphasis there.” I’m still figuring it out, to be honest.

KP: We all have our entire lives to find that out, we have so many voices inside our bodies. That’s something that’s fun about doing records – there’s no end to discovering the many voices a person has inside them. Do people ask you about your feelings about God all the time because of the title of the album and the names of your songs?

YT: No, not at all. I try not to push this religious rhetoric or anything. I just like to play with these themes – I’m being very playful with it and it’s not meant to be taken literally. It’s not meant to push against anyone’s beliefs or how anyone feels, I’m just playing with the imagery and referencing it in a fun way.

KP: I’m looking at your song titles. I loved Operator, and Ebony Eye is beautiful.

YT: Thank you so much. That’s my favourite song on the album, I think. Even before it was finished it was just that melody and the way the beat, the swing of the drums and the sample and the guitar all go together, I always loved it. I put it at the end because it’s like the coup de grace, the final blow. I’m bad at talking about my music, can you tell?

KP: Talking about one’s artwork can be very awkward. But it challenges us to invent new ways to describe what we’re doing. The first ten years I was doing Karen Black I couldn’t really articulate what my vocabulary of images was about. It got a lot easier as time went on.

YT: Yeah, I’ve read and watched your interviews. You’re very eloquent when you talk about it. I don’t know why I can talk about so many other things very fluidly and gracefully but when it’s about my music I get this mental block – which I don’t have a problem with at all. I feel like it should be that way. I feel like the music should speak for itself and the art and the imagery should say enough – if you just look at the art, you should know what the fuck I’m saying.

KP: For some reason I’ve been wishing that you would do the weather report on CNN, like if Yves Tumor could sing the weather report. I thought that would be lovely. I wondered if you ever thought of singing the weather report.

YT: [Laughs.] I might try that. I don’t know if it will sound good but I’m down for anything.

KP: Did you ever like the singer Meat Loaf?

YT: I’m familiar with him, but I don’t know his music that well. I always really liked his look but I never got that deep into his music. Why do you ask?

KP: Because in some of your songs you have a female singing with you, like a conversation between you and another female singing to each other.

YT: Yeah, I really do love this. It’s not really a battle, or a duet. I just like the softness and the harshness of my voice with a lighter voice. I’m kind of obsessed with it. What Meat Loaf album should I check out?

KP: Oh, none of them. Have you heard of a band called Wire? They’re from England and one of your songs reminded me of this hit song they did – I Am the Fly, which might be inspiring for you to watch, Yves.

Are there riots in the street over there in Paris all the time? I imagine Paris being like that musical Les Misérables, with revolution happening all the time.

“Sometimes I can write an entire song on the spot, sometimes it’s just a disaster and kind of embarrassing. I don’t really have an actual method” – Yves Tumor

YT: Yeah, but they’re not exactly riots, they’re protests. I’ve been here for about two and a half weeks and there are, like, two protests each week. It has mostly to do with taxis and the Métro – today the Métro is shut down because the Métro workers are striking. And I believe the taxi drivers are striking. I think the French are just never happy. I can relate to that.

KP: I love people who are never happy. Happiness is so overrated – I can’t stand it when people ask me, “Are you happy?” I always want to say back to them, “Of course, I might be happy once in a blue moon, but is that really a goal?” As human beings we have about 20 to 30 different emotions happening each day, especially these days. There’s a lot to cry about right now, that’s for sure.

YT: Yeah, it’s almost patronising.

KP: Isn’t it rude? It’s just ridiculous. I also find it offensive when people say, “I’m living my best life.” I want to say, “I’m living my worst life on a daily basis.” Seriously, Yves, it’s really hard to live your worst life.

YT: Oh my God. “I’m living my worst life” – amazing, I’m going to start saying that.

KP: You know what else I find to be so incorrigible? When people say, “I’m blessed.” Are they chosen to be blessed? Why is my mother not blessed? Why would one child be blessed and another child not be blessed? Everyone is blessed.

YT: Yeah, it’s giving entitlement energy.

KP: My mother is calling me from Hawaii. [Answers the phone]. “Mom, I can’t talk right now. I’m having a conversation with an artist called Yves Tumor. They’re in Paris and we’re talking about the album they’re about to put out. I’m going to call you back, OK? Yes, I’ll send you Aunt Karen’s number. I love you a lot.” [Hangs up]. My mother has been calling me so often. She lives in Maui.

YT: Do you visit often?

KP: I lived there a lot. Hawaii is part of my life – I would go every year. But during the pandemic I couldn’t go as often – I went once when my parents were in hospital with Covid. But when I got back I had a huge concert that wiped me out. Travelling to Hawaii wiped me out. I don’t really fly around a lot.

YT: Do you surf?

KP: I do, yeah. My dad was a surfer, so I grew up surfing. I’m not very good.

YT: I’ve always wanted to learn. The hardest part is just getting on the board, pushing your whole body up and then balancing. I used to skate, so I understand balancing on a piece of wood, but it was just getting on the board.

KP: Bet you could do it.

YT: Can you give me lessons?

KP: Oh, absolutely. We could go after baseball. You could surf in France, there are places to do it. Is it really boring to ask you what your favourite bands were when you were growing up?

YT: I wasn’t completely into music when I was a kid, I was just absorbing what was around me. I was so young when I bought my first album. My dad took me to a record store and I just picked the first thing that I thought looked funny or cool. And it was Weird Al Yankovic’s Bad Hair Day. Which is so funny. But it kind of changed my life because he did parodies of Green Day and Nirvana and shit. I discovered all these different artists through his parodies. Then I grew up listening to Slayer through my friends in high school, the Velvet Underground too. Then my brother got me into Aphex Twin and the Postal Service, which got me into electronic music. I was listening to the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, just typical high-schooler, stoner music. I’m from the south, from Tennessee, so we listened to lots of bluegrass and lots of corny jam bands. I listened to lots of emo, obviously, which inspired lots of my records and vocal styles too.

KP: I can really hear that in your songs, a lot of eclectic references. Each song on the album is a little adventure, which is fun, too. Because a lot of the time I hear stuff and I just want to break glass – it’s so painful because they sound so homogenous. I think you deserve to have ... actually ... I heard you got a Grammy for this. Let’s just start making up stories about all the awards you got. The coverline of the magazine should be “Grammy and Academy Award-winning artist Yves Tumor”. I think we should give those things to ourselves before the work is even finished. Competitiveness with artists, I never really understood, because each artist is hopefully quite different.

YT: I love this. I’m going to go by this for the rest of my life.

Hair: Shingo Shibata at Streeters using BUMBLE AND BUMBLE. Make-up: Kanako Takase at Streeters using ADDICTION BEAUTY. Set design: Patience Harding at New School Represents. Photographic assistants: Joey Abreu and Sebastian Johnson. Styling assistants: Bella Kavanagh, Jordan Duddy, Elliot Soriano and Charlotte Ghesquiere. Make-up assistants: Aimi Osada and Miki Ishikura. Set-design assistants: Aaliyah Dominguez and Bradford Schroeder. Printing: Sarah England. Producer: Rhianna Rule. Production assistants: Jack Clarke and Peter Giang. Special thanks to Yves' stylist Peri Rosenzweig.

This story features in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of AnOther Magazine, which is on sale internationally on 23 March 2023. Pre-order here