From the greasy hair of Elvis Presley to the dirty Chucks and Daniel Johnston t-shirts of Nirvana, rock n’ roll has always been a marriage of sight and sound. But somewhere down the line, the divide between the two grew wider. Artists often find themselves leaning into either one or the other. While there’s nothing wrong with seeing a good show, there needs to be a bit more behind the sweat and glitter to stand the test of time.
Somewhere between David Bowie and T-Rex, there’s Gyasi.
Combining elements of glam and 70s arena rock, his musical output is just as interesting as his showmanship. Like Bowie, Gyasi (pronounced Jossy) is all about looking cool, but he’s quick to back it up. With Lennon/McCartney melody and stage presence of The New York Dolls, Gyasi is bridging the gap of sight and sound.
Ahead of his 7 inch vinyl debut Teacher on Fat Elvis Records, I had the opportunity to talk with Gyasi. We discuss influence, the state of psychedelic rock, and why Teacher just might be the year’s first classic record.
Coop: For those not familiar, what is Gyasi? How would you describe what kind of artist you are?
Gyasi: Gyasi is a glam rock project based on my songs. I write the music and produce it with various musicians, some in my live group and some not. Then I have a live band that performs the material. It kind of straddles between being a solo project and a band. It feels and sounds like a band, but the songs are all me or at least have been so far. I’ve been exploring some co-writing for the next album which has been fun and that brought out some new flavors.
Did you set out to make this project what it is today or did it sort of just happen?
I wanted to make theatrical rock n roll that created its own world of characters, and I just love fashion and creating with clothing and makeup to make something fantastical.
At what point in your life did you want to become a musician?
At the age of 6 I would play along with The Rolling Stones and the Beatles almost every day, and I would put on women’s clothing and makeup and play Bowie or T-Rex records. I dreamed of one day being in a rock and roll band but wasn’t sure it was still something you could do, especially back in rural West Virginia where I’m from. Once I got a taste of performing with my first band when I was 15, I decided that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so I pursued it and set out to learn everything I could.
Listening to the Stones and Beatles at such an early age is never a bad thing!
I was very lucky to grow up in a really rich and diverse musical environment. My parents have an incredible record collection full of music from all over the world and almost entirely older music from the 70s and earlier. So I was listening to Bob Dylan, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix etc from a really young age but also their predecessors like Cab Calloway, Robert Johnson, Lightning Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy, plus world music from Africa and even calypso. It was an isolated hollow and the only neighbors on the farm were a family of Russian intellectuals from St. Petersburg. They were very educated in glam rock and the great rock poets like Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry, and Bowie so between the two houses I was immersed in so much great music and culture.
Do all those early records of your childhood still influence you today?
I suppose it all kind of swirls around in my music though. For a long time, I think I had a hard time finding my voice as my music was almost genre-less because of such varying influences. I had to really do some searching to find the best way to express myself and find my identity as an artist, which happened through songwriting and the desire to create a real theatrical rock n roll show.
There seems to be this resurgence in psychedelic. Its been there with indie artist for years, but now it’s creeping into the mainstream with bands like Tame Impala and The Black Angels. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
I suppose both. Those things are always tricky. The hope is always that the stuff that’s good will stand the test of time and the rest will fade away. One must always be wary of trends. Things can get turned into a mockery of what they once were and I’ve seen it happen over and over. I think as far as psych music goes, hopefully, the bigger artists like Tame Impala open the doors for other artists to reach a wider audience and I think anything that promotes experimentation is good which is what psych is all about. Of course, then again I hear a lot of psych bands these days that tend to sound the same. So once again, I think what’s good and powerful will stick around.
Your vinyl debut Teacher is out on one of my favorite indie labels, Fat Elvis Records. The label owner, Sean Russell has a knack for finding interesting artists like Fantastic Negrito, Cheval Sombre, and Reverends to name a few! How did that come about?
Sean actually sent me a message about possibly doing a 7 inch when I released the very first song as Gyasi. It was a live video of a song called “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To” shot on my farm on WV. He had put out some records for my good friends the Blackfoot Gypsies and I really wanted to make a 45 but didn’t have the funds. We kept in touch for a year and when the timing was right we got together on this release. Sean has been awesome to work with. The records are beautiful and sound great! He’s got a great thing going on at Fat Elvis. It’s so important for people like him to be out there helping new artists get their music out.
How do you approach your songwriting? Is there a certain method?
There is no single method. A lot of it comes from spontaneity, either jamming with other musicians or picking up an instrument and just playing the first thing that comes. The finishing is the part that takes blood, sweat, and tears. If I could finish every good musical idea I have, I’d have written thousands of songs. Lyrics and melody are very important and I can’t write a song if I don’t believe it, ya know? It has to be hitting some kind of real truth or beauty or it’s not there for me, and so that can lead me to do all sorts of strange things in search of lyrics. I take my notebook out to bars and nearly everywhere I go to catch any spark that could make a song. Songs are funny little things. They’re like catching water in your hands.
You look like rock n’ roll and sound like rock n’ roll. How about your live show? How important is showmanship to Gyasi as an artist?
VERY. It’s all part of it for me, and it’s what made me realize this is what I wanted to do. Performing is where I naturally felt most at home and able to express myself, not just musically but physically. I’ve danced since I was very young and been very interested in physical comedy and mime. I grew up obsessed with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, who were masters of physical storytelling. Cab Calloway had some of that as well. So for me, it’s a huge part of who I am as a performer.
I am always looking to bring more theatre to our live show and find new ways of bringing theatre into a rock n roll show. At the moment I’m in songwriting mode, but as we get out on the road this year I’ll be focusing more on the theatrical development of the show. As for the clothes, I’ve always been a bit of a dandy and has an eye for aesthetics so when it came to presenting this music, I knew the clothes had to tell the same stories so I searched out and designed my clothes and makeup to be a glamorous, androgynous extension of who I am.
What are you listening to at the moment?
Man, it’s all over the place! Today I’ve been listening to a lot of Michael Jackson (laughs)
Hey, I’m a big Michael fan! I just did an article on him recently. Most of his records still hold up today, especially the early ones!
The arrangements are so rich on those early records. I’ve recently gotten really into blues musician J.B. Lenoir. He’s a bit under the radar but an incredible singer and guitarist. Also McCartney and Lennon’s solo records; Jaques Brel, James Brown, Lou Reed; some early Brittish rockers like the Pretty Things, and then a lot of Iggy and the Stooges. Not much contemporary stuff there. I will say I recently discovered an artist from New Zealand named Aldous Harding who has a very unique thing going. Really digging her.
So you live in Nashville? I’ve been obsessed with Nashville’s indie rock scene since I was a kid and I’ve covered more artists from that scene than anywhere else. Does the scene influence how you go about writing or performing?
It’s quite a scene! I think it certainly has influenced me just by being here. It’s great to be surrounded by so much talent and it challenges you to work harder. It’s also been great to be able to play with so many fantastic musicians and record at some amazing studios. All of it’s here.
Why should everyone check out Teacher?
It’s quite different from anything happening in Nashville and it’s a fun little record. Teacher is a representative of my first phase as a writer and producer. The music is growing and evolving now and there will be much more to come but it’s a good place to start with my music. Also, the b-side will not be released anywhere else. I have no plans at the moment to even put it online at all so the only way to hear it is straight off the groove.
Teacher is now available on 7′ vinyl exclusively from Fat Elvis Records
photography by Michael Alley
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.