We laugh, stepping carefully, heading into the dark basement of Northside hangout The Comet. Scattered red lights glow, hanging from the low ceiling. Ghostly “after-dance-party” feel. The smell of booze seeps from the floor and walls.
We walk across a slanted, shady floor. The air, hot and stale, like a young band’s practice space. Our light is a naked bulb, an interrogation lamp. It’s creepy but fun-creepy, like Goonies or a kids’ haunted house.
And ironically, You, You’re Awesome’s sound is far, far away from a dungeon feel. At one show, they gave out cookies.
Bunnies and monsters. Yusef Quotah (noise, bleeps, synths, Atari 2600) draws them — box-headed characters that obscure the band’s faces in all photos, putting emphasis on the music rather than looks. Accidentally discovered, the bunny drawings have become signature band artwork, part of the package.
“That very square style I use, that pretty awesome art stuff," Quotah says, "it’ll always be there.”
A small-framed, energetic soul, Quotah wears glasses, a beard and striped clothes. Imaginative with curious eyes, he's naturally friendly, talking smoothly, munching on dates. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, in 2000 he came to the University of Cincinnati to study design at DAAP. Currently, he focuses on animation.
Before YYA, Quotah played guitar and sang with the Rock band Kamikaze Saucers, then switched to keyboards and Electronic music.
“I’d always messed with it as far as production and writing,” he says, “but I’d never performed Electronic music live.”
Kevin Bayer (drums) is taller with a deeper voice. But Bayer speaks with a certain excited edge and the deeper toned words upturn at the ends of sentences. After a while, his voice mimics Quotah’s. Close my eyes and it’s hard to tell their smart minds and kid hearts apart.
From Pennsylvania, Bayer formerly played in a Dayton Jam band, learning how to improvise. Handling the video that accompanies YYA’s shows, he carefully synchronizes each image with the beat.
Quotah says, “I don’t talk a whole lot on stage, so no one knows our song titles, but they’re able to tell us the songs that they liked based on the images. Every time you hear a song, you see the same video. I think our music stands on its own, but live you want to see something extra.”
They began formulating ideas for the band during a Columbus road trip.
“We saw the band Holy Fuck," Quotah says. "A bunch of guys doing Electronic stuff (with) a bass player and a drummer. I started talking about how Electronic music lacks something without live drums. Originally, I wanted to do something portable that I could put in a suitcase, but now I can’t imagine myself without the drums. People love what I do, but it’s the drums that bring it to light.”
In January 2008, they found a practice space.
“I use in-ear monitors, which I’ve never done before," Bayer says. "And just figuring out the logistics of how to perform it live, we were kind of lost for a little bit. We figured it out quickly.”
Unlike most Techno, YYA keeps the songs shorter — four or five minutes — nearly creating Pop songs using electronic instruments and tricks like the actual Atari 2600 video game music, along with computers, keys and live drums. Quotah explains, “There’s a lot of stuff that I have pre-recorded, but then there’s extra bits that I layer on top or I can also trigger things at different times.”
With influences including everything from DJ Mr. Scruff to Orbital to Duke Ellington, YYA’s music echoes the sentiment of playtime, stuffed animals, hand-drawn worlds made of shapes and colored innocence with a touch of pleasantly weird history.
At work on their third EP, in October they’ll play New York’s CMJ Music Marathon, feverishly hitting the road. “We need to get people to hear us in other towns, making the right connections,” Quotah says. "Things could take off, you don’t know."
Ready or not, it's time to leave the cellar. Hey, we need to breathe. But before we creep up the narrow stairway, Quotah says, “The hope is that I write something, people enjoy it and, live, it’s the whole package. It hits them.”
True, at a recent packed show downtown these two showed off a kicking live presence with memorable energy. An adventure. A coloring book. Just two men, the strange music, a rocking beat holding it together and the sexy, funny, ultimately bizarre background video.
The seemingly surprised crowd was engaged, and for You, You’re Awesome, Quotah says, the biggest goal is simply "to make people happy.” Worked for me.
YOU, YOU’RE AWESOME plays the Midpoint Music Festival at 10:30 p.m. Saturday at the Contemporary Arts Center. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get MPMF details here.