No Limits. Smash Limits.
Tyvek Tears Down Punk, Builds It Back Up Again
Tyvek is a household name. Not the band, but the building product. Anyone who drives regularly through the Old Fourth Ward encounters the brand on a daily basis, plastered across countless in-flight condo units. Heck, why invest the energy papering walls around town with band posters, when construction companies willingly do the work for you?
Kevin Boyer saw no shortage of Tyvek in his native Detroit. “There was a field of houses across the street from where I was living when the band started up in 2004,” he recalls. “So every morning I’d wake up and outside of the kitchen I’d see rows and rows of Tyvek.” The protective “housewrap” is also useful to shield buildings in states of disrepair – which for most of the band’s existence has likely been its more common Detroit usage.
Garage Punk is a common genre tag, particularly for bands on In the Red’s label roster, Tyvek’s home. I prefer to think of Tyvek as Punk Garage, however – with emphasis on the first word. Their music has a raw urgency and inventiveness that for me recalls the heady early days of first wave art-punks Wire and Pere Ubu. “I love the little off-kilter elements of punk that pop up every now and again, a band that changes it up a little,” Tyvek’s front man (and sole consistent presence) Kevin Boyer tells me. “Pink Flag or Chairs Missing – I can never decide, but one of them is always on my list of my favorite records.”
Tyvek’s new album Origin of What brings those Wire influences further to the foreground. For example, “Mirror Image Of” seems to meld the best elements of “Mannequin” and “106 Beats That” from Pink Flag into a single three-minute joyride. Perhaps this is because they’ve slowed some of their earlier breakneck tempos and also returned to short, sharp songs with staccato guitars – after moving toward longer forms on 2012’s On Triple Beams. “I tend to write shorter songs. Sometimes in rehearsal a short song turns into a long song,” Boyer explains. “Maybe it’s because we didn’t spend as much time working these out in practice.”
Tyvek’s early albums sounded a bit like a band that had simply pressed Record on a Panasonic cassette deck in the corner of their rehearsal room. That’s not an insult; the approach captured a ton of great energy, but likely somewhat limited those records’ broader appeal. Longtime friend and Detroit scene veteran Fred Thomas has recorded the band’s past two albums, bringing a clear step-up in care to the production process. Still far from polished, Origin of What draws added power from bizarre overdubs and effects, particularly on the vocals. “Fred’s always been a huge fan of dub reggae. He had an old Echoplex he was messing around with during recording, the disorienting stuff. Fred and I mixed remotely, sending files back and forth and talking about stuff we like to hear on records. Some of those delays and weird little things were already envisioned during recording, though.” Thomas, who now lives in Montreal, drummed on the majority of Origin and will join the band on tour – not on stage, but doing his own set supporting his newly minted solo release, Changer.
Originally a three-piece, Tyvek’s lineup has been perpetually malleable – some reports claim upward of 25 members have filtered through the band at various times, but that count seems to include pals who lent a hand for the random song or tour along the way. “I’ve never really had a definition of membership – or come up with a number, just for that reason. It’s difficult to know where to draw the line. But as far as core members, I’d probably say we’ve had 10 to 12 mainstays at some point,” Boyer estimates. The original three all appear on Origin, though not on the same track. “Larry (Williams) does the bass on half, Matt Z plays some drums” (and is back for the current tour).
Although “some of its songs had been kicking around for months,” Origin of What was recorded in a single burst, Boyer tells me. It’s not one of those collections of bits and pieces collected over four years and various sessions. The band’s live configuration ebbs and flows but I was excited to learn that the Tyvek hitting Atlanta in February will be a five-piece, including a three-guitar arsenal. This iteration has yet to play as a unit, so their “catch it as it happens” energy should be fully intact.
Although Tyvek has been relatively low-profile since On Triple Beams, that quiet should not be mistaken for inaction. “The Triple Beams lineup pretty much went away as soon as the record came out,” Boyer explains, which delayed touring for a bit. Boyer is also a master of the small-batch CD-R and cassette release, some of which the band will be bringing on tour. He also spent the four-year interim completing work on an album with The Intended, a band in which he splits songwriting duties with guitarist Glen Morren (“three quarters of us have played in Tyvek at some point”) and whose debut Time Will Tell came out on In the Red the same week as Origin of What. Their shared DNA is evident, especially on Boyer’s songs, although The Intended is somewhat more melodic and psych-pop leaning.
Tyvek has garnered shout-outs from Joe Casey of recent Detroit breakout Protomartyr (whose The Agent Intellect, if I had a do-over, would stand alone as the finest album of 2015). Boyer played bass in an early, pre-recording lineup of Protomartyr. “Joe’s one of my best friends from high school,” Boyer says. He’s a couple years older than me, but I’ve known him since middle school. Joe’s lent his vocal stylings to some of our live shows.”
Boyer politely pushes back on my notion that Detroit’s scene has actually benefited from a 1970s Soho-like situation of artists squatting in abandoned buildings, with access to ample rehearsal space and the ability to scratch out a living and forge a community. “That’s certainly the myth, and I think some people come there with that myth in mind. But it’s never been my experience.” Some of the lyrics on 2011’s On Triple Beams led me to believe Boyer had grown disgruntled by what he saw as the Motor City’s gentrification, but today he strikes a more pragmatic tone. “People in general are moving to Detroit – young people and music fans included. It still has one of the best music scenes in the country. More economic activity sparks people into going out and doing more stuff.”
It’s not until this stage of our conversation, however, that I discover Boyer relocated to Philadelphia two years ago. He’s quick to point out that “Tyvek will always be a Detroit band,” although its three most active members now span both coasts (current guitarist Heath Heemsbergen now lives in Los Angeles). Perhaps by design, he’s leapt from one cross-pollinating scene to another, Boyer having jumped into collaborative Philly units like Taiwan Housing Project and PANS.
Tyvek’s situation can’t help but make me think of Kleenex, the late ’70s off-kilter Swiss punk band that eventually capitulated and changed its name to Liliput after threats from the Kimberly Clark Corporation. DuPont has yet to take issue with their creative appropriation, however. “So far I think we’re not bothering anybody,” Boyer reports. “Someone did get in touch with us back in the days of Myspace and requested we take our site down because of some third party copyright complaint. But they gave us a number we could call and we wound up talking to their legal department. It was unreal – did we really talk to this person in like 2006? And they said as long as it was limited to social media content we were OK.” In the case of Kleenex the name was meant as a commentary on pop culture’s disposability. If I wanted to geek out I might conjecture that Tyvek is a statement of its resilience.
One of Origin’s most interesting tracks is closer “Underwater 3 Dub.” Fans fondly remember “Underwater 1 and 2,” which ran back-to-back as centerpieces of 2010’s Nothing Fits, possibly Tyvek’s best – although aside from a drum pattern I’ve never discerned much of a connection between those two instalments. Each edition has been successively less grimy but the third truly stands out from the pack, retaining the melody but wrapping it in a slowed-down, gauzy, almost Paisley Underground vibe. “I’d written a different lyric and vocal for it, but when we recorded it was just too similar to ‘Underwater 2,’ so we decided to slow it down, and break it down. “The new chorus, “No limits/ Smash limits,” shares an ethos with its predecessor’s “Just do what you want/Do what you feel.” In fact, in a case of false memory I mistakenly thought the “no limits” line was a carryover– it fits that well.
“To me there’s something about the last song on a record, an opportunity to do something else,” Boyer offers. Doing something else seems to come naturally to him. Without limits.
Photo by Ash Nowak.