BUSAN, South Korea — Few bands are as aptly named as Wayfarer State, the banner under which prolific local singer-songwriter Trey Yip performs. Hailing from New Orleans, Yip has busked on the streets of San Francisco, played alongside old Memphis guitar men and pacified many a soju-doused crowd with his soulful tales of love and wandering. So when Yip says in “Author’s Preface” from his newest album The Faustian Bargain that the songs you’re about to hear are “stories about the state of the world, the state of mankind,” you get the feeling the man speaks with the authority of experience.
Yip has earned himself a reputation as one of Busan’s old souls, and this latest collection of songs reflects that. Much of The Faustian Bargain is a heartfelt examination of the merits of our many cures for and distractions from suffering in the modern world. This theme is perfectly captured in the first proper song on the album, “The Abolition of Mankind,” a meandering rallying cry to anyone who’s ever gotten sick of checking Facebook or munching pills.
“We’ve traded all these pains, we’ve cured them in the modern West through these technological advances,” Yip says over Irish coffee in his Gwangan apartment. “We’ve tried to end all these kinds of suffering, and what we’ve done is created a society of people that are bored, depressed. And we have medicine for that, which just makes us more depressed, so it’s just a different kind of pain now […] Either way, you have to trade something to end your suffering, so we just keep trading it away from something that might be worse. That’s the bargain with the devil.”
This is weighty stuff to carry around on the back of just a voice, a guitar and a harmonica, so Yip enlisted Better Magic Music’s Gabriel Ulfan (as well as guitarists Robbie Erickson and Gino Brann) to build on his songs. Recognizing the strength of Yip’s songwriting chops, Ulfan got to work crafting musical arrangements that would help drive home the message.
“I wanted to give the songs the sonic weight that they deserved,” Ulfan says. “When Trey sings about a hopeless man who eventually hangs himself, I wanted the listener to feel the dramatics of that kind of song. So what you will end up hearing is a lot of twisted organs and dark ambient stuff, but there's a lot of pretty piano and sweet chords in there too.”
Perhaps one of the most inspired bits of production flair was entirely unplanned. The day Japan was struck by the tsunami, Yip and Ulfan were recording “The Abolition of Man” in Yip’s apartment when an air-raid siren started sounding nearby. “We had to stop recording and we just put the microphone out the window,” Yip says. “It was in the same key and everything!” The siren wound up in the final version of the song, whining eerily under Yip’s voice.
Somehow, through the siren, the sad stories and the search for meaning in a sea of superficial diversions, Yip manages to imbue The Faustian Bargain with a sense of hope that he finds in literature, good conversation, and the love of a good woman. He doesn’t pontificate or moralize. Rather, Yip approaches his songwriting as a means of opening a conversation. “If anything I want to make people ask questions and make their own decisions and go forward from that. When someone hears something and asks me questions about a song, I know they were listening.”
Yip won’t be sticking around for questioning much longer. Come September, he’ll be wayward again, this time on his way to teach in Taiwan. Busan music fans will be sad to see him go, but we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that, as long he’s out there on the road somewhere, another batch of rich, thoughtful songs will be coming just behind him.
You can catch Trey at The Crossroads Friday July 1st
Photos by Rachel Bailey