In Texas last month before the coronavirus shut down touring, one fan at an Yves Tumor concert got a little too excited. “He bit me on my neck!” said the musician (real name: Sean Bowie) by phone. “I was signing his album after the show and was like, ‘Why did you bite me? There’s a pandemic going on.’ He said he just wanted to know what I tasted like.”
Mixing it up with the audience is part of the Yves Tumor proposition. Bowie, who uses both gender-neutral and he/him pronouns, is a master of anarchic energy with plenty of stories about bloodying fans’ noses at shows. (They never seemed to mind.) The Yves Tumor sound has frequently shifted since Bowie started releasing albums in 2015, encompassing cacophonous electronic noise and smoky rhythm & blues. Some of the music has been so confrontational, it’s even caused its creator some concern: They said they find “Hope in Suffering (Escaping Oblivion & Overcoming Powerlessness),” a 2018 track that begins with what sounds like a gathering swarm of bees before collapsing into machine-gun blasts and a demonic voice, almost too “terrifying” to listen to.
The latest Yves Tumor album, “Heaven to a Tortured Mind,” which was released on Friday, veers closer to standard pop. It’s an album of (relatively) approachable tracks about the common push and pull of the heart, blending tart psychedelia and maximal glam rock. Though earlier work relied on software and samples, here Bowie mostly used live instrumentation. They produced the album along with Justin Raisen, known for a deft hand with both big pop refrains and fuzzy guitar grit in work for Kim Gordon, Angel Olsen and Sky Ferreira. A number of notable vocalists turn up for steamy duets, including the progressive cellist Kelsey Lu and Julia Cumming of the Brooklyn indie band Sunflower Bean.
“It’s a buffet of sonnets and emotions,” Bowie said. While Yves Tumor lyrics have often been about end times, love is currently the most spine-chilling thing on the docket. “It’s scary,” Bowie said. “It’s like being on a roller coaster. You know there’s going to be a huge plummet, but then there’s an uprise.”
On “Kerosene!,” a duet with the R&B singer Diana Gordon over trippy guitar, Bowie’s voice slithers and croaks, imagining a hookup as something flammable. “He’s in charge, using his sensuality,” said Shayne Oliver, the designer behind the avant-garde fashion label Hood by Air and a close friend of Bowie’s. “You don’t see black men moving like him, a male figure identifying with feminine energy. Tupac and D’Angelo understood it — people think it’s freakish, but it’s just attractive in a new way.”
As an artist committed to mystique, Bowie doesn’t share much about their upbringing. They were born in Miami and grew up in Knoxville, Tenn., and figured out how to play the guitar as a teenager by riffing on Nirvana and Green Day songs. After Bowie’s parents confiscated the instrument over poor grades, the young musician learned keys on the family piano, honed a sense of rhythm that came from being raised on Motown and Jimi Hendrix, and started to make amateur recordings in the basement.
After a brief stint in college, Bowie moved to Los Angeles and fell in with artists like the queer punk rapper Mykki Blanco, who took them on tour. Bowie started releasing music under various monikers, but Yves Tumor stuck, and the project’s early music, which patched together field recordings, harsh noise and slinky funk, attracted a devoted audience.
It didn’t take long for Yves Tumor live shows to become the stuff of legend. “I would find the biggest guy in the audience and use him as a prop,” Bowie said. “Crawl on him, hang from his neck by my legs.”
While their production techniques and sonic aesthetics have undergone several transformations, Bowie has remained devoted to visual shock. In a clip for the new album’s “Gospel for a New Century,” horns and furry goat legs make them appear as Pan, Greek god of the wild and Pagan symbol of male virility. “Yves Tumor is the rock star of our generation,” said Jordan Hemingway, a photographer and director who worked on the album’s artwork. “The way he acts, that’s something that’s not taught.”
Bowie knows that the term “rock star” is an anachronistic, even cheesy label now. “It’s fun to act like one, to look like one,” they said. “It’s a persona.” Still, there’s power in that pose, enough to ignite crowds for good and, occasionally, for creepy. “I do get a lot of strange attention,” Bowie said, perhaps still feeling the vampire kiss on their neck. “It’s hard to draw the line.”
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