“I drove off a cliff with five young rich girls in my car,” says Nate Cook, frontman of the Denver-based Americana-punk band the Yawpers.
He’s sitting in a coffee shop, nervously talking about becoming a professional musician. He looks like a rockabilly Ernest Hemingway, with his slicked-back hair, black T-shirt, mustache, firm jaw and fragile eyes.
The story goes like this: It was around 2005, and he was traveling from Texas, where he grew up, to his parents’ new home in the prison town of Cañon City, Colorado. The trip should have ended at Emerson College in Boston, where he planned to study to be a journalist. But on the way, he met a few teens at a park in Colorado. They started playing a game called Kill the Rock Star, which involves snorting lines of uppers and downers and chasing it all down with shots of tequila.
A diabetic girl they were hanging out with had a blood-sugar crash, and she began to slip into a coma. The youth drew straws to decide who would drive her to town for help.
“I literally drew the short straw, and when she got in the car, all her friends got in the car, and the rest is history,” he recalls. “I wound up smashing my ocular cavity. There was one broken clavicle. We were all at the bottom of a creek. We’re at the bottom of a cliff, and there was a creek down there, and the car landed upside down, and everybody floated out somehow.
“I had to scale a cliff and walk two miles to call the cops on myself to get these girls picked up,” he recalls. “I wound up spending a little time in jail and definitely on harsh probation for a number of years.”
The arrest torpedoed his scholarship to Emerson, and he changed gears, trading in his journalistic aspirations for music, a career he could pursue without a college degree. He decided to move to Boulder.
“Being from Nowheresville, Texas, I thought Boulder was this mecca of coolness and culture, which only a backwards redneck who had not left the state of Texas during his entire formative years would believe,” he says. “I stayed there because I got locked in with a girlfriend.”
Around that time, he started playing guitar and singing in coffee shops. He studied philosophy, read poetry and looked to psychoanalytic writings for answers to life’s pressing questions. All of that shaped his music, and not necessarily in a good way.
“We started off as kind of a douchey folk-acoustic duo playing lame covers at coffee shops a number of years ago, back in Boulder, which should say something about the genesis of the band,” he says. “I absolutely fucking quiver at the thought of having to relive it — just the pretension of it. I was so fucking cocky, and I thought loud was good. I would do folk music and then scream at people. I was trying to cultivate this identity of the loud but soft — just this really contrived but vulnerable and angry horseshit. It’s really upsetting to me now.”
The band was called the Ego and the Id, an on-the-nose reference to Sigmund Freud that Cook looks back on with horror. A few years later, his relationship that had anchored him to Boulder fell apart, and he moved to Denver. With that shift, his sound became more aggressive and frenetic. Over the years, he added a drummer and a harmonica player, a decision he now refers to as “tacky.” He fired both, added another drummer, fired him, and finally picked one he liked.
The band renamed itself the Yawpers, a tip of the hat to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and developed its chops as a punk-infused Americana act, writing and performing music even the self-loathing Cook still enjoys.
In Denver, Cook met a French woman, and three months after they met, they were married; this was the beginning of an “at-each-other’s-throats” roller-coaster relationship that eventually led to a divorce.
Though his life was unpredictable, his career was rising. The band toured aggressively, playing shows in small college towns. Eventually, the Yawpers would play to those same fans in larger markets.
“It’s a long game,” he says. “So you’ve got to be in your mid-twenties, and you’ve got to have some perspective, because it’s going to take a fucking long time, and you’re going to play a lot of shitty places for a lot of people who don’t give a fuck because the fucking game’s on. But the people that identify with you there are lifers, because you’re their lifeline in a backwoods fucking community. And when they move, they’ll spread the fucking word like nobody’s business.”
In 2015, the band played a show at South by Southwest. There were three people in the crowd, and two happened to be from Bloodshot Records, a Chicago-based alt-country label that has represented greats like Jon Langford, the Old 97’s, the Mekons and Lydia Loveless. The label signed the Yawpers and released the album American Man.
“I still enjoy it,” says Cook. “But it’s that very trite, ironic patriotism sort of thing that is so prevalent in Americana now that has been played out.”
When he pitched his most recent album, Boy in a Well, to the label, the team was skeptical. It had expected the second full-length to be a continuation of straight-up Americana; instead, he approached Bloodshot with a concept album. He told them it would be a post-World War I Oedipal story set in France — not exactly a tried-and-true formula, even for a label with an adventurous spirit.
Despite hesitating, Bloodshot bit on the idea, and he started to write it. The album drags the reader through the story of a troubled boy thrown into a well who ultimately escapes, only to rape and murder his mother and kill himself, eventually throwing himself back down into the well. The lyrics, full of rich and painful imagery, were Cook’s way of addressing a series of childhood sexual assaults he experienced at the hands of an older man.
“Initially, I wanted to write a concept album about that,” Cook says. “The guy wound up going to prison for seventeen counts of it, and I wanted to write a seventeen-song album about it, and I pussed out. And so I wound up obfuscating it through metaphor and writing this album instead, which is a long way around trying to talk about that kind of abandonment and that kind of isolation and the rage — whether rational or irrational — you feel against your parents and how it makes a monster out of you, in some ways. Or at least you self-identify as that.”
Cook wrote some of the songs on Boy in a Well with his father, a poet, who served as a social worker in the military and eventually became a psychiatrist. But mostly he composed the lyrics in solitude, then taking them to his bandmates, who helped him refine the melodies and arrange the parts.
The album is a wild detour for a band that built its reputation on songs Cook says some consider to be “bro music.” Boy in a Well achieves the status of poetry. It is unnerving and surreal. The blow-by-blow, scene-by-scene storytelling is thin, while the imagery and emotional force are undeniable. And while the album has plenty of songs worth drinking hard to (if not quite as many as American Man), it also deserves a contemplative ear.
Despite having an album that has received positive reviews and a band that has built a national fan base, Cook can’t stop hating himself. “I’m a drug addict and alcoholic who’s fucking too talkative and narcissistic to let anybody get a word in edgewise,” he says, even though he constantly asks questions and seems to genuinely care what other people think.
Off tour, he’s stripped raw of confidence, which might explain why the band plays roughly 180 shows a year. But the past few months have been different. The label made the Yawpers slow down their tour schedule to build up anticipation for the album, leaving Cook with little to do.
He talks frankly about how his addictions are killing him as he waits for tour, how his wife finally filed divorce papers, how he’s put on fifteen pounds since he returned home because he’s been sitting around drinking himself to death, and how he can’t wait to get back to practicing five days a week, four hours a day, in a warehouse he rents off Evans and Santa Fe.
But he isn’t exactly relaxed in his home town. “Denver doesn’t piss me off. I love Denver. I just feel alone here, artistically,” he says. “I feel like I could disappear from the scene and nobody would care — that kind of loneliness.”
On the day we speak, he’s sober, but he rambles like he’s not. He worries about what his mother will think when she reads this story — never mind what she’ll think about the end of Boy in a Well and its mother-raping/killing theme.
He admits he likes his band’s work on the album — a rare instance of praise for a man who rarely stops beating himself up.
“I’m incredibly proud of the work I’ve done on it,” he says. “I know it’s not going to be for everybody. And I know how it probably comes across: ‘This fuck writes a concept album.’ It’s kind of a tool move. But I’m confident in the work, and I think it let me exorcise some things in me that I needed to, and, yeah, I’m very proud of it.”
The Yawpers, Saturday, September 16, Oriental Theater, $20-$25, Oriental Theater, 4335 West 44th Avenue, 720-420-0030.