How do you say trippy in Portuguese? A Q&A with Chris Yonker of Hello Ocho

When you’re sober

IN PORTUGUESE: Hello Ocho's latest album is out April 1.
Photo credit: Tori Tinsley

In Portuguese, the second album from Atlanta’s twisted pop provocateurs Hello Ocho is set to arrive on CD (vinyl is coming a little later on down the road) on April 1. It’s been a long time in the making; a time that witnessed changes in both Hello Ocho's personnel and indeed the group's approach to songwriting. But the constituent psychedelic parts remain intact. With the arrival of the new album, singer and guitarist Chris Yonker, drummer John Gregg, and bass player Clinton Callahan consummate a relationship with percussionist and vibraphone player Chris Childs and synth player and singer Christian Shepherd, while pushing themselves deeper and higher into the outer limits of art rock.

On the eve of rolling out Hello Ocho’s new website, and word of In Portuguese's imminent arrival, Yonker sat down to talk about the changes Hello Ocho has made while moving forward. The journey to capturing In Portuguese is steeped in tales of overcoming technological hurdles, reaching new levels of DIY financial independence, and an epic mushroom trip that yielded a bonus nugget — The Slippery Hand EP.

How did the title for In Portuguese come about?

It was kind of a joke. Faun and A Pan Flute were talking about possibly shortening their name to just Faun, or something like that. Danny Bailey proposed "Fauno e Uma Flauta Pan," which is Faun and A Pan Flute In Portuguese. We heard that and thought it would be funny to name it Hello Ocho: In Portuguese. We’re self-releasing it. Rather than going the label route we’re taking out a loan and doing it ourselves. We’re paying a publicist, and paying for the pressing, so we can keep the profits, rather than split it with a label.

You’re doing vinyl?

The plan was to just get them pressed. But we had a snag with mixing the record. We basically pulled it from the guy who was mixing it and gave it to our engineer Ben Price. He recorded it.

Who was mixing it before you gave it to Ben?

A guy named John Douglas. He did the first record. The first one was a collaborative effort between the two of us. We both worked to get it to where it is. We recorded this one with Ben and then gave it to John. But there was a disconnect between the two parts of the process that felt kind of unnatural. It took a lot of going back and forth to decide if we were going to have Ben finish it, but we decided to suck it up and blow more money on mixing. It was a hard decision but we’re happy with how it turned out. Ben had a lot of intentions when he recorded it, and was able to see those through to the end.

Photo credit: Courtesy Big Hassle Media

What has changed for Hello Ocho between creating these two records?

Our first record was kind of like a compilation of improvisations that were inspired by the improvisations that came before it. It was written and recorded at the same time. This one was written as a group during practices. We were all influencing each other, and creating the skeletons of songs. Once we had them down we took them into the studio and had fun with overdubbing and weird recording processes. That’s the fun part. I enjoy listening to a record that sounds like more than just want the band sounds like live. If you have that ability to dive deeper and experiment with the recording process you can come up with some interesting textures, and you can really change the way a recording feels.

Tell me about the title track.

It’s always fun to watch people react when we play it live. It’s bookended by these two smooth, sultry parts. The middle part is entirely different — more energetic. It has a lot of movement and goes at a faster pace. It’s intense and then it goes back to the smooth section. You can tell that people have a sense of relief once it goes full circle.

Chris Childs and Christian Shepherd are permanent members of Hello Ocho now?

Yeah. I really enjoy singing with Christian. I was always into his band Christ, Lord. I thought he was an awesome vocalist. There was a while between Christ, Lord and him being in Ocho where we started recording music together. We went on a tour — the Ocho Lord tour — where some nights, when we could only get one spot on a show, we’d all play as one huge band, playing each other’s songs. So we developed a relationship through that, and we recorded some beautiful music together. When figuring out who to have fill the spaces in Ocho, Chris and John just asked: “Why not Christian? You make really cool music together.”

He’s good at all the things I’m bad at. I take forever to write lyrics. I have to sit down and be very intentional about them, and think them through. But Christian can just go smoke a cigarette and come back with an entire page of beautiful lyrics. He’s also more melodic — I’m more rhythmic — so we have a nice balance. Our voices are easy to blend with each other, too. At times, it’s difficult to tell which one of us is singing.

And the record is coming out April 1?
Yes. The original release date was March 25, but we’re going to make it April 1, the day of the release show at Mammal Gallery. It’s coming out on CD first, because we can afford them, and we can get them in time for the show. Vinyl takes forever. Some of the places have a five-month wait time. It’s kind of absurd that you have to start thinking about the release that far in advance.

You can pre-order the digital version as well as the vinyl. As soon as we have the money to send it off, we will. You’ll likely see it in 5 months. After remixing the record there was no way we’d get vinyl on time. So the first run is on CD, and they look great. Tori Tinsley did the artwork. She made the piece after listening to the record. That’s kind of a concept we have going with our release show: A bunch of artists have been given the record to listen to, and are creating artwork that will be put on the walls for our release party. The artists are: Tori Tinsley, Carl Janes, Brian Egan, Frko, Lauren Barfield, Danielle Brutto, Daniel Bailey, Alea Hurst, Estela Semeco, Mike Black, Adrian Barzaga, Nick Madden, Addison Adams, Mr. Paul, JD Koth, Bianca Acosta, KILLAMARI, Allen Taylor, Claire Brooks, Wihro Kim, and Rebecca Kidd. They were selected by Deer Bear Wolf.

It took me a second to realize what I’m looking at with the cover art. At first I thought it might be an octopus. Now I see it’s a person hugging their knees, and their eyeballs are jetting out of their skull. And there’s a ghost or someone peeking out from under the table?

Yeah. there’s a sneaky little person right there.
It’s bright and unsettling.

Yeah! And it’s in such beautiful colors, that being such an unsettling image has an interesting balance to it. At first you notice all of the bright, beautiful, happy colors, but when you really look at it you realize that it’s kind of fucked up!

We’re doing pre-orders for the record through our own server instead using Bandcamp or iTunes. We’ve written a program to where we’re only getting charged a 2% fee as opposed to Bandcamp’s 15% or iTunes’ 20%. So we’ve spent time building the website that enables us to do that.

We also did a five-day experiment at Studilaroche with Ben Price. On the first day we set up our instruments. We also got a bunch of Shitty Bedford’s instruments — he’s built some really weird, awesome instruments. We also took a bunch of percussion toys, and mic’d up Ben’s Grand piano, and pretty much anything else we thought would be fun to use. We set it all up and got it where everything sounded nice. Then we all ate mushrooms, which is important to understand the studio experiment. We recorded a separate EP, called The Slippery Hand.

We ate mushrooms started playing in Ben’s basement while we were sober, and descended into mushroom world.

We recorded about three hours of music and got a lot of really interesting stuff. It’s interesting to hear how things progressed from the beginning to the end. We went back the next day — after listening that night — and shortened it down to 20 minutes of our favorite little sections that we thought we could weave together into one flowing piece of music. Once we shortened it down 20 minutes we went back in and spent the next two days adding overdubs to make things make sense. We mostly added transitions.

There was one section where I was singing, but I wasn’t singing real words. When we went back and listened and put legitimate words to what I was almost saying, and it somewhat made sense.

Can you give me an example?

Well, the first line is “Envelopes open to the sound you make.”

You can certainly connect the dots with a line like that …

Yeah, it’s all just kind of phonetically what I was saying. There were a lot of things that played together so if you listen to the whole thing there's kind of a story that unfolds. But we had no idea what we were going to do when we went into Ben’s basement. We saw what happened, picked it apart, and put it together. Now it’s coming out as a cassette tape on Deer Bear Wolf. If you pre-order the vinyl you get the tape. And that’s the only way you can get it, unless you see us on this tour that we’re about to go on. We’ll have it on tour.

It goes to some pretty fucked up places that Ocho generally doesn’t go with written songs. It’s completely unrestrained. If there are people out there who like our first record they’ll probably hear the EP and say ‘What the hell is this?’ But some people will listen and understand the context and be intrigued by it.

So do you call this improvisation, or is this something a little more transcendent than that?

It’s hard to define. There is a huge amount of it that is improvisation. There are a lot of things on there that you might think are overdubs but are really just accidents, and we have no idea how our brains linked up to make it happen. Then there are overdubs that happened the next day while we were still in that headspace.

We've played music on psychedelics before, and it’s always been satisfying. But what hasn’t been satisfying was how ephemeral it was. Once it’s gone it’s gone, never to be heard again.
You remember a lot of it vividly, but it’s just not the same as being able to go back and listen to it. So to do it in Ben’s studio — he’s a badass engineer, and he went on that same trip with all of us. He was there tweaking stuff and listening and going on the journey with us. It’s well captured and has a really raw feel to it. Some of it you go back and listen to it and think, ‘This is bullshit, I thought something cool was happening here.” But there’s also a lot of it where you’re like, “Whoa! How did that happen?”

Like there’s an invisible hand guiding the music?

Yes. It takes out a whole step in playing music. When you’re sober, you’re thinking about moving your hand and then your hand is making noise come out of the instrument. But when you’re tripping you’re not thinking about making stuff happen. It’s just happening. You’re just thinking and then it’s coming out of the amp. It takes out that middle man of consciously telling your hand what to do, and you’re very much feeling everyone else around you. And they affect you heavily. When you’re sober, you’re in your own world and just listening to yourself. On psychedelics you don’t have that separation. You can just look at someone and know what you’re about to do with one another. It’s hard to describe the way it felt down in that basement, but the room was just kind of breathing with us. And the way that you hear things when you’re in headphones you can hear what everyone else you can immerse yourself in it, not think about it, and be purely reactionary. It was just kind of an experiment, but it was a lot of fun.

Hello Ocho celebrates the In Portuguese release party at the Mammal Gallery on Fri., April 1. With Cosmic Trigger and MurderBoats + projections by Kris Pilcher. $10. 8 p.m. 91 Broad Street S.W. www.mammalgallery.com.