The Wiyos catch the swing

A nostalgic mix of old American music and history, the rising band makes big plans.
Brooklyn band The Wiyos make the kind of music that make you ask yourself, "Wiyo why haven't I heard of this band?" Courtesy of The Wiyos

After 1,000 performances and driving more than 400,000 miles in seven countries, the lifestyles of the four members of old-timey Brooklyn quartet The Wiyos finally match their music.

The band's two founding members, multi-instrumentalists Parrish Ellis and Michael Farkas have decided in recent months to leave the city for more rural environments.

"We're really into outdoor recreation: paddling, kayaking, mountain biking," Ellis said. "After touring, we'd rather be doing something different."

The band, with a post-modern style still reminiscent of jug bands, washboard swing, bouncy ragtime and piedmont blues, began in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 2002 when Ellis and Farkas met through mutual acquaintances.

"Before we knew it we were collaborating on other things, and we started writing songs," Ellis said.

After doing some gigs in the city for fun, Ellis and Farkas began working with Joseph "Joebass" DeJarnette, a friend of Ellis' who works as a recording engineer in Brooklyn.

"Joe and I met at college in Virginia, and we recruited him to play bass with us when we recorded our first album," Ellis said.

Thus a trio was born, but with no name. At the time, Farkas was reading Herbert Asbury's "The Gangs of New York," a history book about Manhattan's fin-de-sicle Lower East Side, then named the Five Points district. There was an Irish street gang called the Why'os who, which Ellis said "was a small and elite group of crazy people you just didn't fuck with. Michael just threw out the names of gangs from his book and that just jumped at us."

Following the creation of their first studio album, which experimented with acoustic tonalities using items such as cobs and ceramic cups, The Wiyos began to tour relentlessly, always exploring new regions of the country that add to their unique musical style.

"All of us are passionate about studying and learning how to play American vernacular music," Ellis said. "We listened to all that, researched and absorbed it."

Spending a couple of years in New Orleans studying music of the 1920s and '30s added to their amalgamation of modern and nostalgic styles.

"Our songs are informed by older American musical idioms," Ellis said. "The music goes through a filter of our own personal sensibility."

The trio's lively performances have garnished acclaim and endorsements, even a nod from The New Yorker.

More recently, The Wiyos have changed from a trio to a quartet, adding Teddy Webber from The Hunger Mountain Boys, a musical group similar to The Wiyos but based out of Massachusetts.

Webber collaborated on The Wiyos' most recent album, and he will be joining them on stage this weekend.  

"Playing with Teddy is kind of a rebirth of the band as a quartet," Ellis said. "He's singing, writing songs. We've written some of our best songs yet with him."

This weekend's performance will be the band's second in Columbia. They have previously played at various festivals in Kansas and Missouri, including the nearby Boonville Festival and the True/False Film Fest.

Their return is "a back by popular demand type of thing," Ellis said. "People really took to us in the Midwest."

With three studio albums (with one more on the way), a recently-released solo album by Ellis and yet another tour, the ultimate goal for The Wiyos, like many of their peers, is to make a steady living doing what they love.

"We're still working at that," Ellis said, laughing.

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