Partway through its throbbing, trancy hit song “Lost at Sea,” headlining duo Dawg Yawp arrives at a full stop, silently counting the beat to come back in. It’s a steady eye at the center of the band’s slow cyclone of sound—a melding of Tyler Randall’s signature sitar and Rob Keenan’s psychedelic synths that seems to span eons, continents—and into this lull, the audience of 250-plus suddenly hoists itself, shouting out the title refrain as one.
A couple of days later at their Northside rehearsal space, Randall and Keenan claim that this has never happened before, another welcome homage in an ever-growing string for the local band. In addition to their self-titled debut album released in October, NPR featured Dawg Yawp numerous times in 2016, including a December performance on David Dye’s World Café. The band has also played Bunbury and MidPoint, and even warmed up a crowd of 1,300 on hand to see Bernie Sanders campaign for Hillary Clinton in early November. If you really want to understand the sort of “youth appeal” the Yawp commands—the kind that makes label execs weak in the knees—watch the video of their April visit to Prince of Peace Montessori, where grade-schoolers sing and dance while Keenan and Randall play “I Wanna Be a Dawg.”
The pair’s collaboration started at Turpin High in Julie Dima’s choir class, circa 2004, and was fostered over many a basement jam session. Dima recalls that as a freshman, Randall learned the famous instrumental “Classical Gas” in one night. “And Rob could listen to almost any song and play it by ear,” she says. Both eventually found their way to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where the edges of their amorphous form of psychedelic folk rock began coming into focus, sonically and aesthetically. Randall—now 26, bearded with shoulder-length hair, and generally dressed in a kaftan—fell hard for the sitar, improvising on it for hours at a time in the Boston subway; Keenan worked on a guitar-heavy EP and explored different genres. “I would find myself totally lost in a style of music that I didn’t know, which was good and challenging,” he says. “Then I would begin to feel somewhere it should go.”
That shared urge to seek, deconstruct, and synthesize something next kept pulling the friends back together musically. In January 2014, they came home to Cincinnati to pursue music full-time. Dawg Yawp—so named for the Whitman-esque expressiveness of Randall’s black lab/pit-bull—was born.
Any time spent watching Keenan and Randall interact quickly exposes how impossible it would be to accuse the two of taking themselves too seriously. But when it comes to their music, they are rather particular. “We’re the only people who can actually work together on this,” says Keenan, a year older than Randall with a slightly fuller beard. “One more person and it becomes a little too much.”
Which is why it took some convincing for Randall to turn over control of the mixing board when working on the debut record, even to musician and producer Rob Fetters of Raisins, Bears, and Psychodots fame. A friend of Keenan’s father, Fetters was hooked by Dawg Yawp’s originality when he saw them play at Taste of Belgium, and eventually won them over at his Sayler Park studio. “I just said, ‘Let’s get some work done, get everybody happy with it, and see where it takes you,’” says Fetters.
The resulting album, Dawg Yawp, is a genre-defying pièce de résistance. Its hypnotic harmonies conceal startling juxtapositions: the crunchy break at the beginning of opening track “Maybe”; a street preacher Randall sampled on L.A.’s Skid Row lending texture to “Not So Sure.” Despite heavy psychedelia and sampling throughout—the MPC 2500, an electronic sequencer, is as integral to the Yawp as Randall’s sitar—they always return to folksy fingers on strings.
It’s a refreshingly novel vibe, one that has Woodward crowds and NPR listeners as attentive as the grade-schoolers at Prince of Peace. The band sounds different, when little else does.
“Many musicians are drawing from the past as a literal transcription for listeners who are too young to know that this has already happened. It’s an echo,” says Fetters. “Dawg Yawp is not an echo. Dawg Yawp is an arrow piercing that bubble.”