By Shaunacy Ferro
What do beatboxing, the Wizard of Oz and miming have in common? They’re all a part of an upcoming release from the Wiyos, an upstate New York band that is part bluegrass, part rock, part Americana, and entirely difficult to pin down. Currently comprised of Michael Farkas, Teddy Weber and Seth Travins, the band took its name from a late-nineteenth-century New York City street gang—but they sound anything but tough.
They describe themselves as “just a hardworking bunch of guys,” and it seems to have paid off. With four studio albums under their belt after eight years, they’ve been featured on “Folk America—Hollerers, Stompers and Old-Time Ramblers,” a BBC television documentary, and have opened for Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp.
At its core, the band is a trio, but they are looking to expand into a quintet in the future and will probably be on tour as a five-piece band. They’re in what they describe as a transitional period—Farkas is now the only remaining member of the original band, and they have begun to move away from the old-time jug-band blues sound of New Orleans and Appalachian music that has been their mainstay and into a style all their own.
Initially, Farkas says, “we really steeped ourselves deeply in that particular period in the twenties and thirties where there was very little in the way of genre distinctions.” But now they are trying to craft a more contemporary, original sound not defined by any certain genre.
Their next project is more ambitious: a concept album loosely based on “The Wizard of Oz,” due out in the fall. They came upon the idea when a friend and former teacher of Farkas, now head of the dance department at the University of Wichita, Kansas, asked if he could use the Wiyos’ music in a performance he dubbed “The Wiyos of Oz.”
“It somehow really fit into our own personal narrative. It was easy to approach it, not from the film itself, but as someone going on a journey, coming across some weird and wild worlds,” Farkas says. “We’re very, very liberal with our take on it. That’s why I say it’s a very loose portrait. People can find their own story in it as well.”
Unlike previous albums, which were recorded live in an all-analog studio with little mixing afterward, this album will be more complexly arranged than usual. The Wiyos are experts at the quick turnaround—they’ve recorded albums in only a day. For their latest limited edition E.P., “Foxtrots, Polkas and a Waltz” each band member had to write a song or two within a week, then record it the next week in preparation for their latest tour of the U.K.
Even with a more contemporary outlook, their music is still informed by the mid-century American music tradition that inspired them, using vintage instruments and occasionally putting a modern spin on an old idea, like beatboxing.
“Going back to the bands of the thirties, they did all the horn lines vocally—they’re mouth trumpets in a sense,” says Farkas. “It made perfect sense to move into a modern take of some of those tunes, and put human percussionist beatbox along with our music.”
And for Farkas, who has had training in theater, clowning and miming, the band’s performance background is an integral part of their live show. Early in their career, the band did a fair amount of street performing, which he says encouraged their taste for the playful, bouncy sound of their music.
“It’s not just playing your instruments up there,” he says. “You want to throw your hips into it.”
May 24 at Evanston Space, 1245 Chicago, Evanston, (847)492-8860, 8pm. $10-$18.