Yves Tumor’s birth name may or may not be Sean Lee Bowie. The electronic musician has gone by a variety of monikers in his artistic career, but his given name has also been listed differently around the web—he’s been called Rahel Ali by some publications, Sean Bowie by others (I’ve seen it spelled Shan, too). When I ask him about what he actually goes by in his personal life, he rebuffs me as though the answer does not matter.
This, I will discover across our 90-minute conversation, is his process: He’s loath to broach the real world topics that might have influenced his wonderful 2016 album, Serpent Music, fearing they might ruin his art’s eerie spell. The record does inspire questions, though: Who could make an album both this difficult and this charismatic? Who could bend through soulful R&B grooves and dissonant feedback this lithely? Who could emerge with such an unlikely gift for both rhythm and, as he puts it throughout our talk, “nasty” and “disgusting” noise sounds?
Tumor is committed to his mystique but, thankfully, he’s not too self-serious about it—his evasions are generally lightened with a laugh. Skyping in from Berlin, he mostly keeps the screen cheekily affixed above his brows so as not to make eye contact. After about 30 minutes, he turns the camera off completely, leaving just his voice and a blank screen.
Yves Tumor: "Serpent I" (via SoundCloud)
We do know Tumor was raised in Knoxville, Tennessee and spent some time hanging out in Los Angeles’ experimental scene. He is also an associate of rapper Mykki Blanco and contributed greatly to a 2015 compilation put out by Blanco for his Dogfood Music imprint called C-ORE. Since at least 2010, Tumor has put out music under various pseudonyms—Bekelé Berhanu, Shanti, TEAMS—that vacillates nimbly between ambiance and aggression, simplicity and polyrhythm, darkness and light. He has played live shows, known for their tumult, mostly in Europe. Last June, he performed for fashion brand Hood By Air’s June runway show in L.A., moaning like a zombie on top of a pile of sand in the middle of the models.
And then came Serpent Music, Tumor’s biggest statement yet. It is a beguiling introduction to a larger world, featuring the incredibly soulful highlight “The Feeling When You Walk Away,” which almost sounds like a lost B-side from a 1970s funk band. But then Tumor shifts quickly to lefter contexts, including songs filled with ambient nature sounds, field recordings of a man talking, harsh and fuzzy loops, and then, ultimately, what sounds like a choir of angels. Serpent Music is a slippery album, as it’s title suggests, made more so by its allusions to spirituality, including a song named for Dajjal, Islam’s antichrist, and a lighter, maybe more hopeful one called “Role in Creation.” We don’t know if we are in heaven or hell here, and that seems to be the point.
As I found through our discussion, elusiveness is not just Tumor’s approach to journalists, but to music as well. Serpent Music, just like the man who made it, seems to say: keep them guessing.
Pitchfork: It’s hard to find out exactly where you live—I’ve heard Turin, Italy, Los Angeles, and now you’re hanging out in Berlin?
Yves Tumor: A lot of people are confused about my actual whereabouts, but that’s OK.
Do you have a permanent home?
Where is it?
Question mark, question mark, question mark—it’s private.
It seems like there are a lot of things about you that are private. I couldn’t even definitively determine that your name is Sean.
That’s one of my names.
Why don’t you want people to know your name?
I don’t keep anything from people—the people who should know my name and where I live know those things. But as far as journalists and bloggers, I may fabricate things at times. I’m not trying to be like Burial or anything, but I don’t really like people to be involved in my personal life unless they are very close to me and I’ve known them for a long time, just out of respect.
Being online so much, I’ve noticed that people who post a lot of stuff about themselves grow a fanbase out of the constant show that they are putting online, and then their fanbase starts to feel like they know this person personally even though they’ve never met them. It’s happened to my friends who have put themselves out there intensely. Sometimes the fans cross the line and take advantage of this connection, and it becomes super unsettling, and it’s hard to reverse. So I just started to draw back the things I say about myself online, so they don’t have a chance to cross that line.
Yves Tumor: “Role in Creation” (via SoundCloud)
Let’s talk about your music then. Is there a deliberate narrative to Serpent Music?
There absolutely is an arc, but it wasn’t intentional. I want it to be like a journey, like you’ve just walked with me through some dystopian place.
Well, even saying “dystopian” boxes the production in—I try to steer away from that stuff.
If you had to pick a word, what kind of story is it?
What is your own spirituality like?
It’s very real, but it’s not something I discuss with too many people. Are you a spiritual person?
What do you feel when you listen to it?
Well, on “Perdition,” the image that came into my mind was not spiritual, but it was quite frightening: It sounded like somebody digging a grave by water to bury a body in the middle of the night.
I can’t argue with that. That’s very close to what I had in mind. It’s actually someone running, panicked, sprinting away from an inevitable source that is going to destroy them.
Yves Tumor: "Perdition" (via SoundCloud)
Let me ask you about something else a little creepy, which is the photos of you that accompany the album. It looks like you are in a coffin—are you?
Yes, I am in a coffin. Well, not necessarily a coffin, but I am definitely not alive.
How did you start making music?
I started playing instruments when I was about 17 in Knoxville, where I was brought up. I got a bass guitar for Christmas and I taught myself corny classic rock: Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix, Zeppelin. Then I started teaching myself acoustic and electric guitar. My grades were so bad my parents took my guitars and bass away, so I just taught myself how to play keyboard. So, in a way, they helped me out in a huge way by doing that. I started making electronic music, and people started to notice my stuff on the internet. I made my first shitty record on GarageBand. It was pretty nasty.
Your earliest music is very noisey.
I had no gear, it was me just recording directly into the Mac microphone. The noisy aspect came from me not being able to record properly.
Noise is such a particular context to come up in. What did it mean to your sense of sound to start there?
It’s a pure way to start, if you don’t think about the scene—the noise scene is pretty scary. But when you get into music and start with noise, there’s so much room to grow from there. If you start with some really technical shit, you just grow from the colonized way of thinking about music.
Yves Tumor: "Spirit in Prison" (via SoundCloud)
To some extent, though, it seems like you made a leap from noise with Serpent Music. Hearing you say your first instrument was a bass guitar makes so much sense now, because there’s such a groove and rhythm to some of this newer work.
It’s in my DNA. My father is obsessed with Motown, so I’ve always had funky, groovy shit in my ears, probably before I even knew what music was—this shit was being blasted to me in the womb. It’s always been around me, and I still listen to a lot of sexy, sensual music, even while I like listening to harsh, disgusting shit as well.
Why add singing, as you do on this record?
A voice is important to me. People can understand it so much more than just a cool groove. Sometimes people want to sing along to some shit.
And the song “The Feeling When You Walk Away” kind of sounds like a classic hit. I know you’re an avant-garde guy, but at some point, did you also just want to make hits?
Yeah, man. I only want to make hits. [laughs] What else would I want to make? I don’t mean in a radio sense. I don’t mean, like, Usher hits. I just mean a track or song that people constantly need to play over and over and over and over again.
What does that title—“The Feeling When You Walk Away”—mean?
People want to think it is about being heartbroken when someone leaves, but it’s moreso about being around someone you love so much, but they just don’t care about themselves. You’re trying to help them help themselves, so when they finally do leave you, you’re relieved and shook and destroyed all at the same time. It’s a mix of feelings. It’s not the classic heartbreak. Sometimes you need to completely collapse to be able to rebuild.
There are a lot of strange ambient samples and interesting field recordings of people talking too. Where did those come from?
I wanted people to lose themselves in the record. The song will stop, and then it slowly builds into this weird psychedelic thing, or just a really serene water stream or bird noises or the sounds of a deer eating some trees, and then the harp and guitar just melds together. When I listen to it, it puts me in another world. Like a dream sequence.
Yves Tumor: "Serpent II" (via SoundCloud)
What’s your general perspective on the world right now?
We’re doomed. That’s it. The world is over. [laughs] Sorry to laugh. But I don’t want people to be happy or sad when they listen. I just want them to be hopeful.
But you just said the world is over. What should people be hopeful about?
A happy ending. And when I say happy ending, I mean that if there is a meteor that’s going to destroy the earth, at least there’s the most beautiful sunset the world has ever seen right before it crushes us. Maybe my album is that sunset.
I’ve been watching videos of your live performances and the audience gets so aggressive and touchy with you. I can’t tell if they are trying to fuck you or kill you.
I really can’t tell if people are trying to fuck me or fight me when I perform either. I think both, really. Or they are just completely terrified and they make a huge circle around me and watch me perform—that I don’t like. I really like the crowd interacting with me. I’ve gotten really fucked up: sprained ankles, punched in the face, busted my lip, busted two guys’ noses in a show. And no one is upset or runs to the hospital. They come up to me really happy even with their noses still bleeding, bloody paper towel in their hand, still telling me how much fun they had that night.
In one of the live videos, you’re singing the words “I love you” to the audience but in a pretty violent way, almost as a threat.
I am threatening them. [laughs]
You performed at a Hood By Air fashion show recently. They bring a conversation about race and gender and sexuality to the table—do you feel a part of that conversation?
I really like to drop hints in the way I express myself, instead of making my gender or my sexuality or my feelings about equality my personal brand. That’s not why I do what I do.
Can you tell me why you do what you do?