Yonnas Abraham, backbone and spirit of Denver hip-hop band The Pirate Signal, is starting over yet again. Over the years, his band has lost and gained members, had masters of an entire album stolen by a former collaborator, moved to New York City only to move back to Denver, and has also toured the nation extensively with Boulder pop band 3OH!3, legendary rapper Kool Keith and the Warped Tour. They’ve been named Denver’s and Colorado’s best hip-hop group by local publications so many times it’s easy to lose count. The band has gone through so many ups and downs that it’s deserving of its own episode of VH1’s Behind the Music.
Last year, The Pirate Signal released No Weak Heart Shall Prosper, their dark and gritty, riot-inducing sophomore album (not counting an EP and a mixtape they released between albums). So everything should have been moving right along, right?
“I was kind of dissatisfied with the performance aspect,” says Abraham, who up until a year ago did two-man shows, him on the vocals and DJ Awhat on the turntables. “So I started talking with this dude DJ Soup, who was really good at this program called Ableton Live, and we started talking about my ambitions with The Pirate Signal.
So he became a DJ for us in that context. As I began to kind of explore this new thing, I guess Awhat kind of felt left out and he wasn’t vibing anymore, so he left.”
Ableton Live is a loop-based software and music sequencer that allows the tracks of a digitally produced song to be played individually through a MIDI keyboard or instrument during a live performance. With DJ Soup now The Pirate Signal’s fulltime DJ, the pair started doing shows using the new software and discovering new ways to play the band’s music live.
“At one show, I ended up meeting this girl Chez [Sheree Strong], who played guitar, keyboard and could sing,” Abraham says. “She was this really beautiful girl with this fascinating look that was alluring and unique. She was like a unicorn. I couldn’t believe it. I really thought she was full of shit. I couldn’t process her being physically talented, per se, and also being musically talented. So I called her bluff and invited her over. She came over with all this gear and shit and I still didn’t believe it until I gave her a piece of music to play and she nailed it. She’s an incredible guitar player and an incredible keyboard player. It was a genuine moment of shock and excitement.”
Chez joined the band, and for the next five or six months, the trio were presenting an entire new experience for fans who would follow them from show to show. But in the midst of this musically successful run, there was a bit of tension between Soup and Chez — the kind of tension that put strain on great bands like Fleetwood Mac and The Fugees.
“What happened is that Soup fell in love with Chez,” Abraham says. “I noticed that they began to spend a lot of time together. And they got along and she liked him as a person, but he started to catch feelings. It was apparent on our last tour that something was bubbling, but I definitely didn’t want to deal with it then. It eventually blew up in my face where it was like, ‘I’m never gonna date you, never in your life.’ Once it got past that point … the tension was thick. There were other issues, too, with Soup fitting in, but this is the first time I can honestly say that it wasn’t my fault that someone left the band!”
“There are definitely other reasons than just that,” Soup says, who currently DJs at Denver spots like Funky Buddah, Shag Lounge, Sushi Hai and Vinyl. “It was more financial on my end. I DJ for a living and being in a band just doesn’t really pay the bills the way DJing does. But yeah, I did fall in love with Chez, it did make it hard, but I probably could have handled being in the group had I made enough money to pay bills.”
Soup was replaced with Chez acquaintance DJ 5am, and the band also added a drummer named Hogans. Thus far, the current lineup has only done three to four shows together, but more are slated for this summer, including the Westword Showcase this weekend and the Brick House in Boulder next week. The band is currently still in the “getting to know each other” stages, so there isn’t going to be any new music soon, says Abraham, who also has another group called BLKHRTS with Denver rappers F.O.E. and Karma (with whom he’s in the midst of recording). But even though this is yet another “starting over” phase for The Pirate Signal, he couldn’t be more excited for what’s to come.
“This [current lineup] is what I’ve always wanted for The Pirate Signal,” Abraham says. “When I was doing music before, I was always doing much more than the context I was given. Now, it’s basically a situation where it’s a new group of people, but I think it’s the right context of people to play songs from No Weak Heart Shall Prosper. This is the band that was intended to play those songs.”
Abraham has always been the driving force behind the sound of The Pirate Signal — loud, uptempo, neck-snapping, mosh pit-type beats — but with more creators of music now in the band, he’s looking forward to what they can cook up for the next album. They’ve been experimenting with new sounds, new ideas and new instruments.
“I’ve always made music by taking other people’s music and fucking around with it,” Abraham says. “Now what I feel like is the source material is going to be the stuff these guys make. They’ll be the samples that I sample. They all want to be contributors and I want them to be too. I’m kind of tired of writing all the music by myself in a room. So I tell everyone to bring ideas, not full, finished songs, but [to] make stuff. The band is now like a production team, and that’s how we’re going to write songs. This is exactly what I wanted to happen, and it happened.”
But even if Abraham is feeling good about this new group of people he’s creating with, history has shown that with The Pirate Signal (whose logo and name are tattooed on Abraham’s neck down to his chest), it’s not really guaranteed that everyone is in this for the long haul, which is now close to a decade. Right?
“I don’t know, man,” he says. “But I do know this group of people that I have met, that I’m working with, I don’t ever want to not work with them. I could not have lucked out more in the collection of human beings that ended up being The Pirate Signal.”