Why Kevin Boyer’s arty, gnarly, and anthemic punk bands Tyvek and the Intended matter

Insulation rock

Nov 16, 2016 at 1:00 am

Weirdo, literate punk band Tyvek has notoriously clocked in two dozen members since forming 12 years ago in an attic on the corner of Fourth and West Willis streets. And though the group's sole constant — 36-year-old singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter Kevin Boyer — lives these days in south Philadelphia, Tyvek remains a Detroit band. Everyone else in the group lives here, and they always record in the area (unless making a live album at Third Man Nashville). You don't nasally chant the words to a tune like their new "Real Estate and Finance," let alone the anthem "Wayne County Roads," unless some Detroit soot remains deeply caked inside you.

"Detroit has always been about the guitar, at least as far as rock music," Boyer says. "And though we're not a typical Detroit guitar style, Tyvek music is still based around loud guitar — that's what drives the music I love, like, old Bob Seger, that stuff. I think that Detroiters appreciate value, and they appreciate utility. They like something they can use, something that's gonna last. And obviously I'm not directly comparing Tyvek with Motown, but there's that quality control where people are like, 'Let's make something really fucking good that everyone's gonna want.' That's always been a drive to make the best thing possible, not so that everyone owns it and has to buy it, but just because that is what you want to do."

Tyvek music is life-changingly good. Protomartyr's Joe Casey calls them "Michigan's Talking Heads" and says his band would simply not exist without Tyvek. A friend of Boyer's for decades, Casey spoke for years of doing a documentary on the scrappy underground art-punks, but it never came together. In the wake of a new Tyvek album, The Origin of What, and the debut full-length Time Will Tell by the sort-of-side-band the Intended (both released on Nov. 4 by In the Red, the Los Angeles-based label that got started in the early 1990s to put out a Gories 45), Boyer returns to town this week to lead a rare area Tyvek show at the UFO Factory on Saturday, Nov. 19.

When he's not working for a company that administers post-graduate exams during the week, and then at a record store over the weekends, Boyer is usually out playing shows. He sat down with Metro Times on a rare day off to discuss a number of important matters: how Tyvek managed to be an original-sounding punk band in the first place, the politics of time, the new albums from both bands, and of course, mods versus rockers.

"What's always been the driving impulse behind this stuff is that visceral feeling of making really loud noise and just having something propelling," Boyer says. "That's what I always like — drummers who are loud and play it fast and feel that that push, you know. You could be not playing anything, and letting a chord ring out. It's a physical charge — there's nothing cerebral about it. You know, it's just like that, 'Go go go yeah!' Just getting adrenaline."

Tyvek might be the most important rock band to emerge from Detroit's garage hangover. From the first 7-inch released on X! in 2006, the Tyvek template hasn't changed much: mysterious, fun, strange, and loud. "You start a punk band and something so pure and largely un-graspable as punk is now on the map to the point where whatever you end up saying or playing fits into some bracket before you even begin," says Fred Thomas of Saturday Looks Good To Me. "Somehow Tyvek side steps that, and I'm not sure how."

Insistent guitars, drums that sound like cardboard, and curious, deadpan words about Midwestern basements, rental rates, or the importance of having an air conditioner. Lyrics that stick in your brain like glue, like that first released song of theirs, which begins, "Mary Ellen claims she gets a vision every night, she gets a vision every night in her bed." The other week, Pitchfork's Detroit envoy, Evan Minsker, enthusiastically called Tyvek songs "shouted abstract poems." We approve of this assessment.

The new record got a 7.8 out of 10 from the taste-making site, which is good. It means record stores will order a few, even those staffed by folks so young they don't remember 2012's On Triple Beams (also on In the Red, and that one got an 8.0 from Pitchfork). Pitchfork's love for Tyvek is nothing new, and it really doesn't mean anyone is liable to quit their day jobs anytime soon. At this point, Tyvek is more of a journeyman-type band: They still sleep on the floors of punk houses, but tours do pay for themselves, and they get to go to places like Croatia, where a large swath of the crowd shouts along to the songs.

Before you ask: No, they haven't gotten much guff from DuPont, the makers of the pervasive insulation they borrowed their name from. "We've never had any real issues apart from the fact that we have to change the spelling for social media," Boyer says. "We can't use the proper band name for MySpace or Facebook; they'll just take down the page." Note: Search "Tyvek" and you're liable to find what you're looking for.

Boyer's comments on the guitar aside, Tyvek has largely fit into Detroit's scene by never trying to. Why else celebrate driving a Honda, when you're from the Motor City? "They seem to draw on influences that I really love: U.K. DIY and early punk and post-punk, which I thought made them an anomaly in the Detroit music scene when they started out," In the Red's label head Larry Hardy says.

Another person who's released their records agrees. "It never seemed like pastiche, or record-store-employee rock," says Brett Lyman of M'Lady's Records, who also briefly played in the band. "They were positive about humanism, positive about not being Samsons with Les Pauls, quietly radical just by existing in a context of tough-guy rock, without needing to point out such a thing."

Like the Patti Smith Group's Lenny Kaye or Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan, Boyer started out as a fanzine guy before he made music himself.

And Tyvkek's roots do lie in the local garage scene.

"My first band was called Los Pinkos," Boyer says. "This was like '96-'98, so I was like 16, 17. It was a couple friends from high school, from U of D Jesuit, and another friend from Birmingham who I met via my punk 'zine The Verdict Was Mail Fraud. I'd gotten it reviewed in Maximum Rock 'n' Roll, and one day I got this letter out of the blue from this kid who was like, 'Hey, looks like we're into the same stuff, let's go to this Epileptix show together.' We started off as more early hardcore and some Killed By Death stuff plus British '70s punk — a mix of that combined with everything that was going on at the time, like Estrus-style garage rock. Which," he laughs, "made it lame."

By the end, the group had started to branch out. "We discovered the Velvet Underground, Electric Eels, and MC5, but it just like fizzled," Boyer says. "The guitarist had become very mod fixated. I was just the singer, you know, but I would have to refuse to sing lyrics because he would write songs about mods and rockers. I had to be like, 'Dude this has nothing to do with our vibes. I am not singing about smashing a mod in the face with a bicycle chain.' It was like the lamest shit I ever heard."

In college, Boyer started over again.

"After I went to U of M in Ann Arbor, I formed a band called Kevin Boyer and the Noise, the first band that I played guitar and sang in," Boyer says. "I had played solo before that, in definitely kind of a Billy Bragg, uh, style." He laughs again. "And Kevin Boyer and the Noise coincided with me becoming a huge Replacements fan and getting that out of my system."

"The only way I know how to describe Kevin's songwriting style is that it is an ever-changing clear vision," Tyvek drummer Matt Ziolkowski says. Boyer's songwriting style is both hook-heavy and elliptical, but raw — as if Guided by Voices' Robert Pollard were locked in a closet with every 7-inch by late 1970s acts such as the brutal pop act Eater or the angular and visionary Homosexuals.

"As a songwriter and musician, Kevin is always game to push things sonically, try new things, not follow any formula for what punk rock should sound like," Glen Morren from the Intended says.

Tyvek started in 2004: Matt Ziolkowski on drums and Boyer on guitar, in the attic where Boyer lived, with Larry Williams joining soon after on bass. Both Ziolkowski and Williams are handsome and frequently smiling dudes with well-developed senses of humor, though Ziolkowski's is dryer, a bit closer to comedian Stephen Wright. "It's funny because Matt's not like an obsessive music fan in the way most people who are fans of Tyvek are, or even most in the band," Boyer says. "Larry and I have always had much more of a shared vocabulary, so we have to communicate differently with Matt."

"I've known Larry since the seventh grade; he was a few years older than me, but we've always hung out and traded music, on through college together," Boyer says. "But Larry was studying for the bar exam at the time so he was like, 'When I pass the bar I'm gonna get that bass out and we're gonna play.'"

Fairly recently, Beren Elkine from the Intelligence was the drummer for a few years, and Heath Heemsbergen has been a guitarist off and on for a long time despite living in Portland, Ore., for much of that. Most recently, Bobby Columbo from Bonny Doon has joined on bass, while MT contributor Shelley Salant from Shells and Rebel Kind plays guitar.

For Tyvek, Boyer writes all the lyrics and most of the music, but it's very much a group process. Salant explains that Boyer usually starts with a riff; the band jams on those, and they become songs.

Adds guitarist Heemsbergen, "I did help with some arrangements and wrote all my guitar parts. I think the records I'm on sound different than the records I'm not on."

But the lyrics? Those are almost all Boyer.

"Just singing in bands from the start gave me a different perspective, to where I also got into the words," Boyer says. "I've always had like an obsessive brain with words, so there was a point where I was like, 'Oh, I've got words that go to this,' and for a long time the words just followed the melody of whatever the bass was playing, or whatever the guitar line was. Then at some point, I realized I could play just one chord and if I had words that could go on that I could come up with a different tune, or something that's different from what the instruments are doing. It became more of a life practice. It became something that I did subconsciously, and that I never felt the need to control or reign in or modify."

Of songwriting, he says, "It's a compulsion, and sometimes it takes over. It can take over at the most inconvenient times. Like when I was trying to finish the art for the new record, all I could do is write songs. I was supposed to be working on this, but all I could do was think, 'Oh I've got this idea!' So it's a compulsion, and it's an escape, but now I'm excited because I have a handful of new songs I can't wait to work out with the band."

Repeatedly, current and former band members say things on the order of "I don't know how Kevin knew I could play that instrument, or that he'd ever seen me play." Lianna Cecil, bassist from 2010-2011, had never played the bass before (but had played piano since she was a kid) when Boyer approached her to replace Salant on the road. Salant has played drums, bass, and will now play guitar in Tyvek. "I felt like we weren't really playing to our strengths when we switched instruments, but the idea was to mix things up," Salant says.

Boyer allows that a guiding principle for Tyvek is the imposed limitation of working with musicians asked to stretch to a new instrument.

"I believe Kevin has a desire to keep members of Tyvek from overplaying," Ziolkowski says. "Lucky for me, after all these years, I can barely play the drums. I think a lot of bands, if they lack good songwriting capabilities, they tend to overplay."

"We play guitar because this is the easiest thing we could do," Boyer says." And we beat on some drums and play guitar and bass. But from the start we were like, 'Let's try to not make songs predictable. Let's have parts that seem to come out of nowhere or let's just embrace the simplicity of it.' Sometimes the garage people are like, 'You guys are great — you're gonna be really good soon!'"

Clanging, trebly, intentionally distorted, it's easy to see why Tyvek got lumped in with the alleged "lo-fi" movement of the mid- to late 2000s. You don't know what I'm talking about? Pshaw, next you're going to tell me you can't name five electroclash acts. Eat Skull, Psychedelic Horseshit, Dum Dum Girls, Meth Teeth, Sic Alps, Times New Viking, Blank Dogs, Vivian Girls — we're talking a watershed moment for record collectors, who saw the financial value of limited edition 7 inches on tiny labels like Sweet Rot, Fashionable Idiots, and Skull Tones skyrocket like Dutch bulbs. The music was largely good, if pretty samey. And Tyvek, who asked X! to reprint their first record as soon as they saw it go for stupid money, never fit in.

"I never wanted it to be a record collector band, in the sense that I love a band like Endless Boogie," Boyer says. "But I think it's just so stupid to make someone pay $100 for a CD-R, because the only way someone can get it is on eBay. I never wanted things to be like rare. Unlike all the other bands from that scene, Tyvek not only continues and thrives today, but their music hasn't changed much.

Tyvek's music is political, but not in the typical, punk rock, stencil-jacketed, 1977, Crass/Anti-Nowhere League sense. The group started at the tail end of George W. Bush's first administration, "and reflected the anxiety of those times well," Scott Simmons says. "We played a bunch of shows with them in the lead-up to the Obama election, touring around the country in a filthy van with no windows, finding out about the news from really shitty newspapers at gas stations in the middle of nowhere, freaking out that Sarah Palin might become vice president, wondering if Wall Street was finally going to do us in, etc. I'm really glad Tyvek are still going because now, that all seems like no big deal compared to the Idiocracy/Total Recall/Robocop/They Live nightmare now on deck."

"I heard Kevin say once that he sums up the Tyvek message as, 'Shit's fucked up but you gotta keep going,'" Salant says.

Boyer allows that there's always been a political element to Tyvek. "And that's not gonna change, for sure," he says. "I can't imagine that not becoming more pronounced in the months to come. I mean, who's to say what's gonna happen, but a Trump presidency certainly isn't going to dampen my enthusiasm for Tyvek. It's just so fucked on so many levels, what's going to happen."

On the new Tyvek album, "Real Estate and Finance" was written just before Boyer moved to the Philadelphia area to be with his partner Kilynn Lunsford, a designer, artist, and musician in the band Little Claw who inspired early songs like "Still Sleep."

"I was just making no money, scraping by, seeing what's going on, and just kind of singing about that in the verses," Boyer says. "Working jobs, working at restaurants, doing that shit. I never really thought it was political when I was writing it. It was just what it was about. I was working at the Mercury Burger Bar, the worst place in town." He laughs. "What a shithole. It'll fit right in in Trump's America."

Origin of What is the first new Tyvek album in four years. Fred Thomas recorded the thing, first on a four-track, and with studio overdubs added later. "We tracked most of it in his former apartment above a trailer park between Ypsi/Ann Arbor," Boyer says. "Some of it was recorded in Matt's basement in Southwest; that was over a year ago. We did a few overdubs after that and then we mixed it via email." Producer Fred Thomas (who also drums on some songs) and Boyer go way back; he'd not only recorded Boyer's first solo project, Kevin Boyer and the Noise, but "my early emo band Lovesick played shows with his teenage punk band Los Pinkos," Thomas says.

A few different lineups appear on the album, which has more slow to mid-tempo and moodier almost quiet moments than any Tyvek LP. It's still loud as fuck, though. "We mixed it up," Boyer says of the musicians on the record. "Larry Williams, Bobby Colombo, and Shelley Salant play bass. Fred Thomas and Matt Ziolkowski play drums. Heath Moerland plays guitar. I sing and play guitar."

The signature distorted aesthetic is there from the album's start. "Something I learned from a long time ago, while playing in bands in high school, is that if you crank a tube amp up without a distortion pedal, you get a gnarly distortion, if it's the right old tube amp," Boyer says. "And I got a four-track when I was probably 21, and I carried the same thing over. It's not so distorted-sounding that it's blown out. I discovered there's a sweet spot where it's loud but clear, and if you do it just right, it sounds cool. When I first recorded with Fred, I realized that I wasn't alone, like this is also how the pros do it."

For Thomas, previous sessions with the band were a tight three days, followed by vocal overdubs. Not this album. "The work for Origin of What stretched out for a long time and included a bunch of different contributors from various incarnations of the band," Thomas says. "Things moved in fits and starts with monthslong silences and then frantic communications about mixes, song orders, lyrical changes, etc. The collage element of this album's process is what makes it one of the most exciting chapters in Tyvek history for me. It feels like the dub mix of some kind of nonverbal history of the band or something, tying together fragments from every part of what's now more than 10 years of development."

An example of Boyer's restless need to create is the band he formed three years ago with Glen Morren and OG Tyvek-ers Moerland and Williams, the Intended. Asked how he knows whether a song he's working on is a Tyvked or Intended song, Boyer says "it's a feel thing." The Intended album was recorded with Chris Durham from Roach Clip and the Bibs, "who much like Fred Thomas is a journeyman on the four-track," according to Boyer.

Time Will Tell is a sleeper of an album, likely the best art-garage record you'll hear all year. Only one of the songs is a cover, though most every song sounds like some killer tune by a forgotten group you forgot about because their records sell for $800 and no one's reissued it yet. "We went down to Durham's basement in Southwest Detroit and we recorded it down there," Boyer says. "We did a lot of cool songs with Fred too to finish it up. We did three songs with Fred, the rest with Chris."

Glen Morren from Odd Clouds pens half the songs on the Intended's Time Will Tell album. "They seem like an extension of Tyvek, even though it's a completely separate band," In the Red's Larry Hardy says. "I really love Glen's band Odd Clouds."

The group's long-awaited debut begins with a track originally released as a 7-inch last year, "Huguenot." It recalls sludge-punkers Flipper covering psychedelic garage-rock act the Creation with the spirit of early British chant-based punk. The album just gets better from there, and it goes sideways more often than the Tyvek record — which is sonically diverse, but Tyvek songs are primarily Boyer compositions, where Intended is a group effort.

"Mirrors don't have rules; they are reflections of what we create — be that crystal clear, warped, bent, tinted, or cracked," Heath Moerland says of the Intended. "Glen and Kevin split the songwriting. I play drums, mostly, and Larry holds down the bass."

"One of the first songs we finished is on our 7-inch and our new LP and is called 'Huguenot,' and came when Larry was jamming this bass line and we started playing along and for some reason these words, 'Huguenot! I am not!' we chanted," Glen Morren says. "When we practiced next, Kevin had these amazing lyrics, this whole world out of that strange phrase concerning the horrors and terrors of the Protestant and Catholic battles during the Reformation.

"And since I was raised Protestant and he Catholic, I liked that the song has an even perspective of both sides of the conflict. Delving into history and using the imagination to put yourself in a place and time: I think 'Huguenot' is effective at doing that within a punk rock context."

The Morren-penned "Fighter Pilot" sounds like a vaguely good-time mid-tempo tune at first, until you realize it's told from the perspective of a modern-day drone pilot. "Since Kevin and I share songwriting and lyrical duties, the Intended is a separate beast," Morren says. "Heath and Larry both played in Tyvek, but Heath is on drums for the Intended, so he's our secret weapon; he's an awesome drummer."

The Intended has more of a garage feel than Tyvek. Morren calls it "the teenage punk band I never had (who may or may not have existed during the '60s)."

He says, "It's simple, what we're doing, but fun. Kevin is amazing at coming up with guitar parts to take a few chords and a melody and turn it into something completely different and amazing."

Boyer is happy to be home, and has a nuanced take on the inevitable subject of development in Detroit. Boyer grew up in Rosedale Park and lived there until he was about 21. He went to Christ the King School on Grand River and Six Mile for K-6 ("Amazing school — go Colts!" he embellishes) and then University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy for grades 7-12. After that, he earned a bachelor's degree in comparative literature from the University of Michigan. Boyer returns as often as possible, to record and hang out and play shows. "It works having Kevin live in Philly because this band just won't go away (in a good way), so it doesn't matter who's in it or where people live," Ziolkowski says.

"A lot of the changes we think of as 'New Detroit' are happening everywhere, in other cities in America," Boyer says. "I graduated from U of M not too long ago, but you go to Ann Arbor now and it's unrecognizable: townhouses for wealthy children, chain stores. We play a lot of college towns, and it's the same story in Columbia, Missouri, same story. But I still love the place and I like to go here. From a lot of people's perspectives, Detroit was this kind of this forgotten place. You hope that people come at development with the right attitude, to also try to help those who have been putting up with the hardness of living here for so long. You hope they can improve the situation for those people too, and not just make some money or just like have the coolest tchotchke shop."

In the Red's Larry Hardy assures that fans will not have to wait so long for more new material from Tyvek.

"More records are in the works," Hardy says, including an album that collects unreleased odds and ends, including some tracks from when drummer Beren Elkine was in the group.

Tyvek albums "actually sell pretty well, and I feel strongly that their records will continue to sell for years to come as people find out about them," Hardy says. "I also intend to keep releasing more things by them. I think they're really important."

Tyvek plays the UFO Factory on Saturday, Nov. 19; doors at 9 p.m.; 2110 Trumbull Ave., Detroit; ufofactory.com; $10.