Cafuné's Noah Yoo on Going Viral, Music Writing, Touring With Chvrches, and Touching Grass

Cafuné's Noah Yoo on Going Viral, Music Writing, Touring With Chvrches, and Touching Grass
Photo by Sam Williams

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I've known Noah Yoo for a while—specifically, since he interned at the FADER while I worked there back in 2014-2015. Since then, he did a tour of duty at Pitchfork and—here's why we're here—has found a considerable amount of success alongside bandmate Sedona Schat as Cafuné. Their very solid 2021 album Running was already the type of thing that was bound to catch people's attention, but after the album's spiky "Tek It" went mega-viral they were signed to Elektra, toured with Chvrches, and have generally experienced the type of rapid ascent in the music industry that is both highly sought out and increasingly rare. With a new EP just freshly released (Love Songs for the End, and it's quite good!) I thought it would be a great time to talk to Noah about his band's experience as well as his transition from one part of music-related things to another.

Going viral is something everybody wants, but it's something that doesn't actually happen that often. But it happened to you guys!
It is very weird. But when we were in the midst of it, it didn't feel like it came out of nowhere. When we went viral, I remember the exact moment I realized there was shit happening. Apple Music will send you a weekly update email with all the data for the week, and while I was looking through my emails it said that our Shazams were up 3,000%. It was something that made no sense. I was like, "Either this is broken or our music is playing in Erewhon." It turned out it was a lot of anime edits of kids shipping together their favorite canonically straight characters, and it went from there. All because of anime TikTok.

Give me the timeline of getting signed. How did things progress?
We definitely weren't on anyone's radar. Maybe we had a couple of conversations here and there over the years with label people, but within the first week of the TikToks and the streams going up, we started fielding emails. The classic line of "A&Rs don't do work anymore," while that might be true, I do think because everyone is so single-oriented, they're getting choosier and also not. We were getting emails from people where it made no sense on an aesthetic or a music level. This makes no sense, and yet you're still reaching out! I think it really does speak to the kids knowing better than anyone when it comes to what they like. Seeing Mitski's song go crazy in the last couple of weeks is an example of that.

We signed pretty quickly, and we determined it early on, because we were all considering not signing for a label. We had a label for 10 years, and because "Tek It" is a song where I produced it and Sedona wrote it—no one else had any ownership—we could've just collected the streaming revenue and stayed independent. But we wanted to tour, and we wanted to have a team. At the end of the day, that's what young artists need more. You can have a huge streaming hit, but there's a lot to be said about what a label can do when you hit a certain level. I don't think we would've ever been worked to radio properly if we hadn't have signed.

You went to Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU, right?
I did.

Do you think that what you learned there provided a notion of what to watch out for? The industry does change pretty fast, too, so it's hard to anticipate things.
We have essentially been on album cycle for a record that came out in 2021 for the last 18 months. Even though we're putting out a new EP, it still feels very much in service to that one album cycle. I kind of feel like we've been in one space for four years now almost. In terms of how that dynamic has shifted with the label coming in, the label has been very supportive and helpful. We've been lucky so far in that we haven't had any creative or marketing pressures. That has to do with the culture at the label. No one's pushing us to do anything that we wouldn't. But I'm curious how that relationship will evolve, because we are about to make an album where it doesn't feel like we're running and gunning at the same time. We'll be able to take some time and write new music instead of trying to write between tours.

What were your takeaways from going to college to study the music industry? Was what you learned helpful, or not so much?
When I was in college, that was around the time that the streaming transition was really happening in earnest. Do you remember when I was interning at the FADER and we transcribed the entire JAY-Z convo and I got in trouble for it?
It was right after the TIDAL launch, he did a Q&A at the school where they were really cagey and didn't answer any of the financial questions. It was meant to be no media, but obviously I didn't get that memo. It was a very big privilege, obviously, to be in that space. JAY-Z was pulling up to speak at the college! That's crazy, that's unbelievable. But when you go to music school, you're taking in accepted knowledge from all your teachers, and then your peers are trying in their own incremental ways to get at this life. "Am I an artist, or someone who wants to work in music for a living in a different way?" That's the internal dialogue a lot of people have in music college. I personally never really thought that the band would be...I always wanted to be a record producer or a journalist, so after I graduated I was never like, "I'm gonna make art."

College did a really good job of instilling in me a professionalization of the work. You can be as inspired and as in touch with your emotions and creating as you want, but for all those things to happen, you also have to show up and do boring stuff and carry yourself that way. The one class I think about frequently was a streaming class where we used the countries where streaming had already proliferated to think about how it will affect the music business at large. This is 2016, way before it became what it is now. It was the same as every other school—you get what you put into it. I know plenty of people who went to it and were like, "This is not for me."

I will say that my years of working in music journalism have made me be a funny fit when it comes to being in the other side of things. I want to take the work very seriously, but I don't know if I can necessarily take the presentation of "I am an artist" the end of the day, every person, whether they're a harsh noise musician or a singer-songwriter, are doing the same thing. I take this sound, I record it, we do a value exchange for it. That's it.

I did want to talk to you about your work in music journalism and music writing as well. There's been plenty of artists over time who have worked at publications at some point as well. The divide of "I'm a musician" versus "I'm a writer" is increasingly less rare, if anything.
It's been a bit of a transition. I've found that I had to quell the inner critic really hard, and in doing so I've sort of killed my outer critic. My desire to look at music and assess it relative to other stuff that sounds like it is sort of gone. I don't want to say I'm not a hater anymore—the hater spirit is pretty unkillable—but when people are making things, it's unhealthy to think about it in terms of "How is this going to be received?" It's the same with writing. You have to get it out, and your editor will figure it out after the fact.

I had someone ask me once if my time working in music journalism makes me second-guess things with the band differently, and my answer was yes, but I also was afraid that I'd never be able to escape my time in music journalism—that I'd just be pegged as, "You're a music writer who has a band." It was an insecurity. What I've found surprising is how quickly that can change and shift. I still read so much music writing, even as I lament the general state of things. I'm reading more music writing than I did before, frankly.

When I was still at Pitchfork, I got coffee with Nick Sylvester to chat about music—he'd obviously transitioned into making music from writing as well. I was like, "How did you navigate this?" He straight up said, "You have to leave if you want the music thing to work out. You will never be able to do both, and you have to accept that. Nothing's gonna change in the world that will make it possible for you to do both." I took it to heart. The insecurities also went away once I read about Patti Smith writing reviews for Rolling Stone back in the day. Diplo wrote a cover story for the FADER. It's definitely not nearly as uncommon as people make it out to be.

You guys did a long tour opening up for Chvrches, which was quite a jump in terms of audience size for Cafune. Tell me about that experience.
It was great. We knew we weren't necessarily ready to headline on our own, but we wanted to put ourselves out there, and the Chvrches thing came together very quickly and fortuitously. It was ideal for us, because we've always felt we're too rock for the electronic kids, but too pop for the real rock kids. But I liked that! And I think that Chvrches is a similar thing, where it's very poppy but unapologetically just straight-up electronic music, too.

We learned everything on that tour. The way they do things is really admirable. At this point, Chvrches are such a big band, and even though they have a huge crew and production, they were so accomodating. They were very good to us personally, which is great because we've admired them for so long. It was fun to play to crowds that have no context for our music. Maybe they know the hit, but maybe not. It gave us our sea legs on how to compete. We played Lollapalooza this past summer, and I thought a lot about how the opening slots for Chvrches drilled a sense of discipline. Every day was in service of getting to the venue, soundchecking, and playing. It introduced a new sense of consistency for our music life, which is really cool.

One piece of advice we got from the band that I'll never forget is that audiences at shows are just looking for permission to feel catharsis. It's not even about whether we're playing or performing well—they're looking for permission to let go and access their emotions, and doing what you can in service of that is important. It made me think a lot about the communal nature of shows after COVID. Some of these shows were the most packed rooms I'd been in in a long time. It was beautiful.

Last question: What video games are you playing lately?
I picked up Disco Elysium because I missed it the first time around. I'm trying my best not to do a centrist playthrough, but the game makes it really hard. I started the new Spider-Man, but every time I play it I just want to go outside instead. I passed my apartment in the game and thought, "I should touch grass."

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Jamie Larson