Mike Hill, drummer, reaches into a brown paper bag and fishes out a beer. "Nowadays," says Hill, "when you mention funk, everybody thinks of the Chili Peppers, but that's not the essence or the core of funk. I like to think we ride more on the vibe of what old-school funk was."
"Not me," says guitarist Andrew Kleine. "For me, funk is the stuff beneath my balls."
Another wave of laughter erupts in this trio's Tempe-based practice studio as beers begin to circulate. A defaced poster of a swimsuit model hangs on a wall nearby a gallery of X-rated cartoons. An impromptu round of jokes concerning altar boys, crack cocaine and whorehouses confirms the band members' reputation for being crude, amiably obnoxious and slightly depraved. Yet you'd be hard-pressed to find a more talented or exciting funk-based band in the Valley.
Mixing the oddly partnered elements of jazz, rap, blues and rock with a solid core of funk, Yoko Love creates energetic, danceable music full of frenetic, bluesy chords, meaty bass grooves and fervent rock and hip-hop rhythms.
As a front man, Prior is a natural. By way of vocal intensity, he often energizes audiences to their collective feet. And when he's not expounding the praises of Shorty the Pimp, he's crouched away from the microphone, bobbing to the machine-gun attack of Hill's kick drum.
"I love the stage," admits Prior. "It's so much power, having the microphone. I talk a lot about Mike's cock. I'll introduce Andy as C.C. Deville or George Michael. I'll admit that we can act goofy and stupid, but onstage we're just being us. I assure you it's genuine."
Whether Prior is encouraging the crowd to order more booze, piercing the air with an outstretched middle finger or introducing his bandmates' genitalia, Yoko Love's message is simple, ego-heavy and more overpowering than a progression of Hill's thunderous rolls: We're Yoko Love, so get off your asses and have a good time.
"It's kind of disheartening when an audience doesn't respond," Hill says. "Our main motive is for people to have fun. When they don't, it's like we didn't do our job."
Yoko Love got started 16 months ago when Prior and Kleine--who met at Chandler High School--posted some fliers in the hope of finding a drummer. About the same time, Hill posted his own flier trying to hook up with a band.
Within two days and completely by chance, Hill and Prior had ripped down and stolen each other's fliers so nobody else could use them. After exchanging phone calls, the three of them met at Francisco Studios.
"We played for an hour or two," recalls Prior, "and again later that night. Afterwards, Mike said, 'I don't mean to be a whore or anything, but, man, if you guys want me, I'm yours!' He was the first one we tried out, the first one we took."
Stylistically, blatant comparisons between Yoko Love and 311 or Rage Against the Machine are altogether tempting. However, their individual musical influences and backgrounds create a sound that's distinctive and fresh.
"We never got together and said, 'I want to be in a band that plays this,'" says Prior. "It was unpredictable. The three of us got together, and a year later this is the sound that we've made and still play. I like the combination of everything we've put into our music. I think it's something nobody has tapped into yet, and we're proud of that--doing something original."
Prior's musical melange of funk, jazz and rap--combined with his aggressive vocal style of rap--forms the nucleus of Yoko Love's sound. His bass heroes are a diverse lot.
"Peanut from 311," Prior says, ticking off the names like items on a shopping list. "Chuck Rainey from Steely Dan. Even Sting. But Jaco Pastorius was huge for me. He could do everything. He could play funk, jazz and blues. He brought the bass out as an instrument that could do something more than just carry a groove."
If Prior forms the core of Yoko Love's sound, Hill's energetic versatility and pointblank devotion to music are the foundation--emphasizing attitude over technique.
"I push a lot of the energy," says Hill. "A lot of drummers have the cliche of sitting in the background and just keeping time. I've always preferred drummers that got up and put on a show. They became an element that people watched along with the rest of the band. Mitch Mitchell and Tommy Lee--they just got onstage and blew the shit out of everyone."
Kleine, on the other hand, with a background firmly rooted in classic blues, seems like the oddest musical fit for Yoko Love's funk-based sound. But his addition to the band's chemistry is just discordant enough to be effective.
"I definitely bring in a blues element," says Kleine. "What I'm doing is playing blues over funky bass and drum lines. It just hooks up and is easily adaptable. I love Jimi Hendrix because of all the weird, manic stuff. I got all the fast blues progressions that I play from him. I also love Stevie Ray Vaughan. Basically, I love all the old, dead guitarists."
Given the group's hyperactive--and occasionally sexist--wit, it's hardly surprising that it settled on a band name that would link the two most controversial rock-star wives of all time.
As Prior explains it, one of their ex-girlfriends hung around one too many practice sessions. Soon they began calling her "Yoko Ono" and "Courtney Love." She threatened to end the relationship if the name-calling didn't stop. Predictably, it didn't. A few days after the name "Yoko Love" was coined, she was looking for a new boyfriend.
"We were sitting around at Nello's trying to think of a name for the band," says Prior. "We had tried every stupid fucking name we could think of when I said, 'How 'bout Yoko Love?' It stuck because it was absolutely the stupidest."
They played their first gig in early March '96 at Big Fish Pub, opening for Quixotic. "Even though there were only 10 or 15 people there, I was scared out of my mind," recalls Kleine, shaking his head. "I remember feeling all queasy and nasty and that it was worse than losing my virginity."
The members of Yoko Love persevered, however, and spent the next 11 months toiling at their day jobs, booking shows across the Valley and working to create a reputation associated with positive and infectious music.
Their peerless sound and jaunty stage presence soon caught the attention of the local label Epiphany! Records. Two months later, Yoko Love signed and began work on a debut CD, expected later this summer. The album was produced by Tom Coffeen of Beats the Hell Out of Me.
"Brad Singer [of Epiphany! Records] called me, and said, 'Hey, there's this new band I want you to check out,'" Coffeen says. "I asked him what they sounded like. I thought, 'Another Rage Against the Machine? How much more of that do we really need?' But when I went to see them, it was clear they were coming from a different place. Especially for musicians that age."
At first glance, they do look young enough to be high school seniors, but thus far their youth has surfaced as a positive attribute. Audiences feed off Yoko Love's giddy, youthful exuberance. Ironically, though, the 20-year-old Prior, who's often the focal point of a crowded bar, can't even buy a beer. His underage status can also be a nuisance when approaching many of the venues the band plays.
"The majority of comments I get about our ages are usually pretty flattering," says Prior. "The only time it pisses me off is when some steroid-addicted doorman tells me I have to wait outside because I'm not old enough. I'm there to perform so they can make money off my friends' drinking habits. So, I think maybe I deserve a little more respect than that."
However, with his 21st birthday on the horizon, Prior is content to overlook such minor hassles for those who have supported and encouraged the band thus far.
"When we started this band, we never thought people would react to something that we had written ourselves," Prior says.
"I take a lot of pride that somebody thought we were good enough to pay money for us to record. All in all, we're just happy that people react the way they do, instead of throwing beer bottles at Andy's head.