How John Andrews Grew a Music Collective at His New Hampshire Farmhouse

John Andrews back on the farm. June West

While thousands of young musicians cavort and hobnob around Austin for SXSW this week, John Andrews stays home at his 100-acre farmhouse in the woody hills of Barrington, N.H.

Like the house itself, Andrews has become something of a river unto his friends, offering his playing, his animation, and his barn to fellow players in the New England freak scene that he’s been rolling with for years. After meeting Anna Fox Rochinski and Shane Butler, he became a drummer and vocalist for the New York-via-Boston band Quilt in 2011, joining in on the collaborative process that would become their self-titled album later that year.

2013 saw Quilt record their second album, Held in Splendor, with Jarvis Taveniere from the upstate New York band Woods. Andrews had been a fan of Woods for years, and the sessions went so well that when Woods needed a keyboard player, Andrews happily obliged. Since then he’s also cut records with Widowspeak, former Woods bassist Kevin Morby, the great power pop band EZTV and others.

Like his free country home, Andrews’ own band The Yawns is a shapeshifting thing, expanding and contracting with whoever’s around to play. Good friends and frequent guests of the house, former MMOSS Farfisa organist and flutist Rachel Neveu now counts herself among The Yawns, along with Lukas Goudreault of Soft Eyes and Joey Schneider. It’s a testament to Andrews’ adaptability that all these folks also call the farmhouse home.

The first Yawns record, Bit By The Fang was recorded in Amish country of Lancaster, Penn. Bad Posture, released last week on Woodsist Records, trades that scenery for the New Hampshire hills that Andrews and co. affectionately call Mt. Misery.

“Bad Posture was mixed with headphones at the foot of Emma Critchett’s grave, who lived in the Yawns’ house during the 1800s,” notes Quilt’s Shane Butler.

“The record is an ode to her and all who have lived in this house. It also paints a picture of what it feels like to live in the ‘free country’ on the precipice of a rapidly changing political climate. Some folks go back to the woods to escape the harsh realities of contemporary society, for Andrews it seems like he is diving head first into nature’s unknown, searching for love in the tundras of seclusion.”

As much as this story is about Andrews and his role in the rich history of musicians retreating upstate when the city burns them out, it’s about this house, which Andrews visited often as a younger man before the chance came to make it his headquarters. It’s also about how we ought to put ourselves in an environment that’s conducive to making the most of our creativity—and how we should surround ourselves with people who we love to make those things with.

Figure that out and you’ll never need to placate at an industry event ever again; you’ll find the network flows through your front door. Figure that out and you’ll always find something where you need it the most—at home.

So you had to travel down the road to talk, you’re in New Hampshire now?

Yep, back home, driving around right now, I don’t really get cell reception where I live. I’ve been home for about a week.

You snuck a “Live Free or Die” reference onto this record. I think you have to see a certain number of license plates to get that joke if you’re not from New Hampshire.

[Laughs] Yeah, a lot of people are surprised when they hear that’s the state motto. I think it’s awesome.

A more intense version of the Vermonter in a way. Fiercely independent, Northern rustic.

Yeah, all the states up here…New England has this weird mythical charm I haven’t really felt in any other place.

And you mentioned living in a lot of other places too on “Old News.” That’s kind of your John Phillips song, your “Holland Tunnel.”

Yeah, that song was kind of the goodbye song to Pennsylvania. I have a song on my first record called “Pennsylvania,” and that was kind of before I moved to Lancaster I wrote that song to bring me good luck. This song was kind of the reprise, me being like, “Oh! That all happened to me.”

“When you live in the middle of nowhere you really have to keep yourself busy, or you go nuts.”

I’m really interested in learning about how you balance working in an industry and making music and touring with the fact that you seem to live your life as a solitary dude. It’s hard enough to be in one band and not want to kill everybody, but you’re the Zen master of playing with everyone. We had MMOSS play in our loft right after moving to Brooklyn in 2009, and Rachel plays in The Yawns now, but I’m sure you’re close with MMOSS’ Doug Tuttle, too, who’s doing his own thing for Trouble in Mind Records. But you also play in Quilt with Anna and Shane, and you’re close with my homie Ezra and EZTV.

I love them!

They rule! I guess what I’m saying is, you’re the glue, you’re the glue between all these great bands, many of whom also live solitary lives. How do you balance that? How do you live in the ether while still making space for yourself as you need it?

Man. It’s really difficult, I’ve been figuring it out as I go along. A couple of years ago I tried to be in several bands, have a house, have a girlfriend, go on tour and still find that domestic life. I was younger then, too, so it was very tricky. [Laughs] I don’t know, man. Right now it’s cool because I found this amazing living situation that’s cheap and lets me live off my art. So when I’m home I’m very busy working on things.

You got that house from MMOSS, didn’t you?

Yeah, technically…so have you ever heard of this band Feathers?

John Andrews & The Yawns. Ty Ueda

King Tuff was in Feathers, wasn’t he?

Yeah, King Tuff was in Feathers, Ruth Garbus, a lot of other amazing New England musicians. A few members from that band lived in our house in the early 2000s, including Asa Irons, who was in Witch and Feathers. A group of younger kids have kind of been living in this house for the past 10 to 15 years. Everyone from MMOSS moved into it in 2011. I guess I kind of discovered the house through them. We used to take trips up there from Boston on the weekends to get away from the city.

It’s a big, old colonial house that’s insanely large. There’s many rooms, three kitchens…the rumor is that it was an orphanage, but we’re not sure if that’s true. I always dreamed of living in this house when I was younger and we’d take those weekend trips up here. When the opportunity came I was just like, “You know what? I’m gonna go for it.” I’ve been pretty happy and able to sustain myself just from music and making animation for people.

What’s your medium?

It’s all old-school, hand-drawn on pieces of paper. I have a stop animation program and just go a little crazy drawing the same thing over again, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, almost. I’ve done a couple of music videos; I did one for Woods a couple of years ago. I did a commercial for this venue called The Mothlight in Asheville, N.C. I put it out there on the internet, that you can hire me, and haven’t been able to keep up with it. It takes a lot of work to do it, you know?

You were just on tour with Hand Habits, and I talked to Meg about the difficulty of working in multiple contexts these days. Do you feel that by removing yourself you’re able to switch gears more?

Definitely. If I don’t do anything when I’m home I’ll get cabin fever. A few people moved into our house over the summer, just subletted for a month, and it’s cheap enough to live here that they didn’t have to get a job or anything. They kind of just hung around the house all day, and I could see in their eyes that they weren’t keeping themselves occupied enough and they were getting a little antsy. When you live in the middle of nowhere you really have to keep yourself busy, or you go nuts.

“I’d rather just work on my own art as opposed to have the ability to go out and see a million bands all the time. It’s a tricky thing.”

Well you’re talking about intention, too, right? Insofar as making stuff is a practice, that becomes important when you have nothing else to distract you and you’re just there with your own shit. You could turn it into a creative incubator if you wanted.

Totally, and everyone who lives here is for the most part pretty productive. We have little projects here and there. Right now my roommate Joey has been building a stage for our barn. We have shows every summer in our barn, but we wanna start making it more legit. We had one last year, wanted people to come out and camp and stuff. A lot of people came, we were really surprised with the turnout, but it rained out.

A lot of people came, we were really surprised with the turnout, but it rained out. So unfortunately, not everyone camped. We still had three or four campers anyway. But this summer we wanna have two [shows], one early summer and one late summer. It’s 100 acres so we have a lot of room to have a cool event.

You could do Woodsist East Coast Fest, like they have out West every year.

Yeah, I love Woodsist Fest, missed it last year.

Have you talked to Jeremy Earl about it?

He’s been saying he wants to have it on the East Coast for years, but I’m not sure when it’ll actually happen. It’d be awesome. Last year was my first time missing it.

How did you guys connect?

Well, Jarvis [Taveniere] recorded the second Quilt record, and I was a Woods fan since I was like 16, don’t tell them! Jarvis recorded the second Quilt record, kind of just needed a keyboard player for Woods at the time, and I jumped in.

He really served as a model for how to do it, for how to fuck off and go off the grid to do your work, but maybe keep one foot in the touring cycle or one foot in the grind. There’s a generational thing happening there. Why is it so important to your productivity?

If I lived in New York or L.A., at least at this place in my life, I’d maybe get a little burnt out. When I go on tour, I go on tour forever and it’s music all the time. In those cities, even when I’d be home from tour, it’s music all the time, or industry all the time. I’d rather just work on my own art as opposed to have the ability to go out and see a million bands all the time. It’s a tricky thing.

What was the hex drawn in the dirt?

There’s all sorts of meanings in that song, uh…I don’t wanna give it away. I can’t. That song, in particular, the lyrics are a bit riddled around and I don’t wanna put any meaning to them.

Do you think of yourself as a diplomat around your friends? 

I don’t know, I try to make everyone happy. When you tour everyone has their own personality, and I try to see each side of it or how people are feeling. I was actually really nervous about the last tour, the Hand Habits/Yawns tour, because it was the most people I’ve ever toured with in one vehicle. Seven people in one vehicle is totally crazy. [Laughs]

So I was kind of nervous beforehand, and it actually ended up being the best tour I’ve ever been on. Everyone got along great, and we had such an amazing time. Some of the other members of my band haven’t toured as much as Meg, Kevin and I, so there’s an excited energy to be on tour. Me, when I think about going on an East Coast tour in the wintertime, it sounds greeeeat. But with the crew that we were touring with it was a pretty amazing time.

“New England has this weird mythical charm I haven’t really felt in any other place.”

It can be done.

It can be! We got really into Magic: The Gathering, did Meg tell you that? Noah from The Yawns brought a deck, and wasn’t really expecting anyone to want to play. But we were so curious, he taught us the rules, and it took over our entire tour.

There was one day when we had to wake up early to go to a comic book store to buy more Magic cards. It was pretty awesome. We would play in the van all day, sound check, and then play Magic until we had to play our set.

It was cool because I’ve toured so much over the last few years with bands that are just on their iPhones all day, and there’s no interaction between band members and it’s kind of sad. It’s really what a lot of touring has turned into for a lot of bands.

You need that thing to bind everyone together.

Definitely. There was so much interaction and hanging out on this last tour that it made it very special.

There’s this East Coast history of the heads kind of retreating from the city to work and collaborate together, too. After Dylan’s motorcycle crash he went to the basement and recorded all those songs with The Band for other people to cover. Retreating to lose your mind with your friends, I guess, we’re going crazy but we’re all together.

John Andrews with his dog and his Grateful Dead hat. Cynthia Lewis

I’m actually in a huge Dylan phase right now, was just driving listening to Self Portrait. I just rented No Direction Home online, the documentary, which I had never seen before. It’s like six hours long, but so in depth, and I just love watching him talk about everything because he’s a mysterious, elusive person who doesn’t like to talk about his past that much.

I think that’s part of why I’m so attracted to him, too. When Dylan talks about his past it feels like he’s letting you in on this secret or something. He has a mysterious aura around him.

“Something There” on Quilt’s Plazathe only song you sing on on the record, has this similarly great ability to sound profound while being simple. “Open up your windows, your windows are closed” hits you like Neil Young or Hemingway. How do you put yourself in a place to when you can communicate something that simply? When does the metaphor just smack you in the face?

I don’t know, it never smacks you in the face! It just happens. I can never sit down and think of something like that. That lyric happened while I was just playing guitar and making up words.

What’s your vocal range? You seem to have a wide register.

I sing any way that I can, any way that I have to. [Laughs] That’s part of the goal with The Yawns, to be versatile. We play shows as three-pieces, we play shows where I’m playing drums and singing; I play solo shows. I think the most important thing that you can do is be a flexible band.

[We talk about an upcoming show he’s playing that has since passed]

Yeah, Lina Tullgren is playing, she’s a new signee to Captured Tracks. She recorded her new record in our barn, actually, up here in New Hampshire, and it sounds great. I guess I play keyboard on it, I’m really happy she let me play keys on it. It’s really awesome and people are gonna like it.

If you keep opening the barn up to people you’re kind of pulling a Levon Helm move, feeding it back to yourself and the property but also to them, you know?

Definitely, that’s the vibe of the barn shows, the Midnight Rambles Levon Helm would do. We just want anyone to come.

When I listen to “Painting a Picture” or “Old News” I picture an old married couple who’ve been married for like 75 years slow dancing.

That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.

John Andrews Forcefield PR

[We talk a bit about venues in the city]

We played that Elvis Guesthouse place over the summer, drove all the way from New Hampshire to play the show, set up and they were like, “You guys actually only have 15 minutes to play because we have this last-minute DJ event.”

I was just like, “I don’t know about that, we’ll see what we can do.” We played for 15 minutes and they told us we had to be done. But I didn’t drive five and a half hours to play for 15 minutes, and the DJ just had their shit set up and started playing. They turned our PAs off, so we just turned our amps up all the way and played instrumentally over the DJ music.

It was the best! It was the most rewarding thing we’ve ever done musically. People who were there to see The Yawns, realistically just a few people, were so pumped on it. They were like, “That was the most punk thing I’ve ever seen.” It sounded like shit, but it was fuckin’ cool.

How John Andrews Grew a Music Collective at His New Hampshire Farmhouse