The Covington-based beatmaker who plays Buku today is debating how to move forward as himself.
Visit Fro-Yo Ma’s Soundcloud page and it refers you to his social media pages and the bandcamp page for his Pants EP. That page tells you he’s from Covington. Under his name on his Facebook profile, it says simply, “Middle School.” His image on the pages don’t give you any help; they’re all cartoons he’s drawn. The tags on his songs on Soundcloud identify their genres as “Morris Bart,” “simple legs,” “rustic lemons,” and “cismale” among others. All the places you look for information on him circle enigmatically back on the others, as if the only thing that matters is the music.
In a way, of course, it is all about the music, but at some point listeners connect to the artist behind music as we become involved. The individual songs become part of a story—one that’s at least partly our own creation as we stitch together what we’ve heard and what we think we know. As fans, we invest interest in the person because of the music, but so far Fro-Yo Ma has made that a one-sided relationship.
Fro-Yo Ma plays Buku’s Back Alley Stage today at 3 p.m., and he illustrates how wrong the narratives we write can be. His cartoon avatars aren’t a deliberate attempt to be obscure. He simply has done so little press that he doesn’t have press photos. His stage name was something he took because he thought that was what you do, and he has been through a few of them. His first while he was in high school was Pink Pickle, and he has performed as Octavia Jets and Dr. Zhivago. He took a stage name “because everybody has them, and I didn’t think my name was that cool,” he says. “I don’t actually like my stage name very much, but Fro-Yo Ma was definitely the best of the bunch.”
Recently, Fro-Yo Ma’s Twitter profile revealed that changes are coming. His Twitter handle was @yogurtmani but now it’s @zackvillere, and the profile reads, “im gnna change my name soon.” In fact, his name is Zack Villere, and he plans to start performing under it because “I don’t like being a pun.”
But the Fro-Yo Ma mystery isn’t simply a series of practical choices that produced a question mark. Villere liked the idea of Gorillaz, Damon Albarn’s collaboration with Jamie Hewlett that asked listeners to believe the music was the product of a fictional band with a fictional story. He’s leaning away from that concept now, but once in a while something happens to make him hang on to that possibility a little longer. “I’ve been having people think I’m a band recently,” he says. “They’re like, Yo, you guys are cool, and I’m like, Yeahhhhhh. I might do that, or I might just be me.”
Villere started making beats at home while in high school, and at the time Flying Lotus influenced him, as did Kanye West and Tyler the Creator. Early on, he was doing boom-bap sample loops and straight lifts from Tyler; now he thinks his music is more his own. Flying Lotus doesn’t mean as much to him anymore, and while he still likes Kanye, Villere doesn’t obsess over him the way he once was. These days he still likes Tyler and is more impressed with Pharrell and Justin Timberlake.
When he tells you things like this, Villere sounds tentative, like someone just realizing that his music might be more than just a hobby, and that there could be a future in it. Or, perhaps he’s simply not used to talking about himself and his music. Whatever the case, Villere answers questions as if he’s weighing the probability that what he says is what he actually thinks. His music isn’t like that. He doesn’t make big, monumental dubsteppy demonstrations of his presence, but his songs quietly, confidently ask you to lean in. Many of Villere’s recent recordings are psychedelic R&B slow jams that leave space in the sonically wobbly mix around acoustic guitars, squiggly synths, looped percussion and intimate vocals. Girl, he wants to lay you down, and will lay sweet “Magic—The Gathering” talk on you to get you there.
Up until recently though, the voice in your ear on Fro-Yo Ma tracks hasn’t been his own, but that’s changing. Villere has been working on his voice, singing on recent Soundcloud releases and a track on last fall’s Pants. “I always wanted to [sing], but I didn’t think I could,” he says. “Then one day I said fuck it. Then I put out the song “Window Fog” on my Soundcloud because I wanted to push myself. I made that song pretty quick and put it up online to try to get over that hump. Since then, I’ve been trying to do it on every song that I can. Now I’m trying to move from singing a couple of lines to fit in the beats to actually making songs.” Doing that requires him to listen to lyrics in a way he never has. He used to focus on the melody and the way the words sound together, but now that he wants to sing, he needs to be aware of them as a way to carry an idea. Because of that, they’re coming slowly, and that slows down the rest of his music-making process. “I need to study poetry or something,” he says.
Villere has been reluctant to put genre tags on his music—as many artists do—but if pressed, he thinks of it as pop. He doesn’t sound entirely comfortable with the choice, but “there are so many different facets to pop music that I can make what I want if I call it pop.,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s pop like Justin Timberlake pop, but it might be. You never know what the next wave of popular music will sound like.”
For more on Fro-Yo Ma and Buku, see my story at Nola.com.