Wyatt Parks and the Mute Choir: New kids on the block

Stomps, voices and a collision of bluegrass melodies became clearer as I walked toward the Western Washington University Performing Arts Center on a rainy Thursday night. From outside, I was convinced there were at least 10 musicians in there or amplifiers intensifying the sound. To my surprise, I walked in to the lobby to find four musicians totally unplugged: a fiddle, banjo, acoustic guitar and a mandolin.  It was Wyatt Parks and the Mute Choir.

Comprised of Western students, the quartet includes Wyatt Parks on lead vocals and guitar, Chris Shank on banjo, Collin McAvinchey on mandolin and Chandra Johnson on fiddle.

Parks and the group have been playing together for about nine months. Parks was recording an audition demo to apply for the E.M.P. Sound Off and needed to find musicians to play with. He lived with Shank and McAvinchey, who knew Johnson from living in the dorms. The four of got together for the first time and learned the songs as they recorded. To date, those recordings are still the only ones that can be found anywhere, McAvinchey said.

They’ve been playing together ever since. They are currently recording another demo album through the Fairhaven recording studio on Western’s campus they hope to release sometime in November, Parks said.

When the band first began recording Park’s tracks nine months ago, they didn’t anticipate to be playing bluegrass. The original songs the group played were more mellow and had a singer/songwriter vibe, Parks said.

Their music took a turn to bluegrass when Shank picked up the banjo last spring. He had never played the instrument before and he is entirely self taught. Before, he was playing bass for the band.

“I always had a huge crush on the banjo,” Shank said. “I had a banjo-boner. A banjoner.”

They describe their music as “power-folk” or “turbo-folk.”

“I believe we should seek out folk music with balls,” Shank said. “It has so much potential to be more rockin’ than rock music.”

Johnson said bluegrass and folk music is a type of music that everyone feels they can identify to whether they think they can or not. It is so entrenched in American culture that people feel a sense of nostalgia when they listen to it, she said.

“It seems like we are tapping into some kind of energy that people like,” Shank said. “Who was listening to folk music in the 90s?”

The band’s music writing process begins with Parks, who will bring a song he writes to Shank, who will approve or deny it. If Shank likes it, they bring it to the group and the rest of the band writes their parts on top of it. Their process is “emergent,” as Shank called it, and no song is played the same way twice.

Over the last nine months, the band has played over a dozen shows at places like the Underground Coffeehouse, The Shakedown and the Wild Buffalo. Parks said he only booked one show and the rest were because other bands recommended them or venues sought them out, Parks said.

At one show they found themselves opening for a burlesque performance at the Can Can near Pike Place Market in Seattle. Their green room doubled as the burlesque performer dressing room and they spent the evening in feather boas and buckets on their head, McAvinchey said.

Their favorite show was played with San Fransisco band The Brothers Comatose at The Roost. Parks and the band got their horizons broadened by watching this band.

“It’s a good group of ass kicking folk music,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t have to be straight up bluegrass to make you want to stomp.”

Parks said if they ever wanted to play in California, the band promised to help them.

“They made it very clear if we came to San Fran they’d play with us or set us up with a good gig,” Parks said.

Given the nature of mostly acoustic, they can basically play anywhere. The band moves practices often, from parking lots to parks to the Performing Arts Center lobby. Playing in public improves stage presence, McAvinchey said. People also appreciate the music when they play at parks and children will often come up and dance, Johnson said.

“We are confident enough if we have to fix mistakes we don’t mind making them in public,” Johnson said.

The band hopes to go on tour with a band and make a name for themselves, Johnson said. Even if it wasn’t an official tour, they can pack up their instruments, travel around and “busk” on street corners and parks around the country, Shank said.