Through Being Spool: Meet Punk Rock's Yo-Yo Master, Steve Brown
He won the Bay Area Classic yo-yo competition three years in a row (once blindfolded) and they asked him to stop entering it.
Photo: Alec Campbell
I met Steve Brown a decade ago in Cleveland, Ohio, backstage at the Grog Shop. Avail were performing with the Hot Water Music side-project The Draft and we were all crammed in a beer-soaked room with penises drawn on nearly every square inch of empty space. Suddenly a guy wearing glasses and covered with tattoos pulled out a yo-yo and everyone became silent. Out of nowhere this mysterious guy was doing tricks that I didn't even know existed and the quiet soon gave way to whoops of exhilaration and joy at the seemingly impossible tricks that Brown was effortlessly pulling off in such a cramped space.
Little did I know that Brown was more than just a one-trick pony. He's one of the most influential modern players ever. Not only has he won the Bay Area Classic competition three times (the final time he did it blindfolded) but he has also invented and patented his own division in competitions called counterweight, essentially making him the Jimi Hendrix of yo-yo playing… but he's, like, still alive. That said, Brown generally performs alongside a soundtrack ranging from Less Than Jake to LCD Soundsystem. We talked to Brown about his yo-yo legacy, the parallels between his craft and punk rock, and how you can also train to be a yo-yo prodigy someday.
Noisey: So how did you become a yo-yo master?
Steve Brown: It wasn't anything that I planned to do. Technically the first time I picked up a yo-yo was when I was a kid. I was ten years old and I was at summer camp and they said, "You guys can learn yo-yo tricks" so I learned three tricks and then I forgot about it. But I legitimately got into it when I was 19 and I was living in Tallahassee, Florida, and I was straight-up homeless due to a series of bad life decisions. [Laughs] I was walking around town and putting in job applications everywhere and I wandered into this kite shop and the dude who owned the place asked if I could juggle but I couldn't. Then he asked if I knew any yo-yo tricks so I showed him the tricks I'd learned as a kid and he said if I could learn to juggle then he could give me a job.
I stole a yo-yo on the way out of the door of his shop and then used three pairs of socks balled-up to learn how to juggle. There was this coffee shop that I was hanging out at because they would let me sleep on the couch and give me free coffee if I just took out the trash and stuff. I kept seeing him there and finally he was like, "I've got a job if you want to sit in the back of a warehouse and assemble stuff." So I was sitting in the back of a warehouse in Tallahassee in the middle of the summer with no air-conditioning assembling yo-yos. He had one of those mall carts set up for the holidays and the person didn't show up for it—and apparently at mall carts you get fined $150 for every half hour late you open—so he was panicking and was like, "Can you work a cash register?" He dropped me off there at like ten in the morning and the kids didn't get out of school until 3:30, so I just sat there at this cart and watched instructional videos and taught myself how to do juggling and yo-yo tricks all day long.
So there I am with six-inch tall blond mohawk and these kids came and hung out at the cart and I taught them how to do a couple of tricks and they bought a ton of shit. Then the owner came by at the end of the day to close out and I had sold most of the stuff off the cart and he was freaking out that we had been robbed or something. But then I told him I sold it all and he was like, "You're hired," so that was kind of the start of it. It's just accident mixed with stupidity mixed with it didn't occur to me that it would be difficult, so it wasn't. I spent two-and-a-half years working with him and he would go out to all of the juggling festivals, and at the time all the yo-yo festivals were held at juggling festivals, so I ended up kind of getting involved just by virtue of the fact that I was one of the few people who was going to every contest.
Did you stand out at those competitions due to your mohawk?
Yeah, at the time, the only people that were playing yo-yo were in their fifties or sixties or they were ten-year-olds, so for me to be in my early twenties playing yo-yo was a huge anomaly. It became easy to be the big brother/hero figure for all the young kids because I had goofy hair, was getting tattooed, and listened to punk rock music. It was one of those things where when the only people you're hanging out with are 15-year-olds, it's really easy to look cool in comparison. I wasn't really winning contests because I never cared that much back then but I was always going to contests and I would always do interesting routines and use crazy loud punk rock. I'd use Bouncing Souls and Less Than Jake and stuff like that, so I made a big impression without having to win.
Do you have any yo-yo titles or records?
There were four years that I placed in the top five at the World Yo-Yo Championship and then there's a contest called the Bay Area Classic. I actually won that three years in a row from 1999 to 2001. It's crazy because that contest has actually become harder to win than the US nationals; it's in exactly the right area with the right players and it's one of the hardest contests in the country. So I didn't win many contests but I won the right one three times in a row.
Is that the one where they asked you to stop entering it?
Yeah, the last time I won it, I did it blindfolded just for shits and giggles and at the end of that they were like, "That was really awesome! You're done. That's enough." [Laughs.]
Do you think there are a lot parallels between yo-yo and punk rock?
Yeah, definitely. If you look at the yo-yo industry it's one of those things where there's a big toy industry and then the kids kind of took the parts of it they like and just did whatever the hell they wanted. It's no different than a bunch of kids deciding "fuck this, we're going to buy guitars and we're going to make a band, too." There's also a huge DIY ethos in the yo-yo industry almost to the point where it's difficult to do well because as soon as you start to succeed people call you a sell-out. If you get any success, people turn on you, it's kind of weird. I've talked to the guys in Less Than Jake about this and it's the same stuff they dealt with when they signed to Capitol. It's so funny.
Have you invented any tricks?
Yeah, actually there's five different divisions in competitions and the fifth one I made up, completely. It's called counterweight so the yo-yo isn't tied to your hands; there's a weight tied to end of the string and you hold it and then you can also police it and do tricks. So you're basically playing with both ends of the string at the same time.
When we both lived in Ohio I remember you doing a lot of tricks backstage for bands before the show. Is that something you still do?
At this point I've got three kids so it's hard to get out to shows but every time I see someone is coming through town I try to go out and hang and I always bring a fistful of yo-yo's with me. It's a time killer for me so if I'm just standing around feeling fidgety and I've got space I can always whip out a yo-yo. I think my friends in bands can relate to the idea of standing around with nothing to do but wait, and I'm good backstage entertainment while the band is going, "Okay, we drank all the beer. Now what?"
Has yo-yo technology changed a lot over the years?
Definitely. When I first started I was using wooden yo-yos and really inexpensive plastic yo-yos with axles, but soon afterward, they started to be available with ball-bearing axles, which completely changed everything. It went from: if you're really lucky you can get 15 seconds of spin on them, to the point now where you can get 20-minute spin times, it's just ridiculous. I started yo-yoing right when that changeover was happening, so I learned how to do everything the old way and then the equipment turned 90 degrees and everything became insane. So I have this weird old-school flavor to all of my tricks that I didn't realize until someone else pointed it out to me recently. I play like an old guy but I just keep going.
What recommendations would you have for someone who wants to learn how to yo-yo?
If you want to get into modern yo-yoing, it's all on YouTube. You can see the rise in YouTube and rise in yo-yo playing as basically two identical lines on a graph, so if you just go to YouTube and find a search for "yo-yo tutorial," you'll find thousands of videos on how to get started. The quality varies obviously but there are a handful of people who have put together really good instructional videos.
Final question: What's your favorite band to listen to when you're yo-yoing?
I guess it would be a toss-up between LCD Soundsystem and Planes Mistaken For Stars. I don't know what it is about those two but I can just yo-yo for hours with either of them playing.
Jonah Bayer can do Walk the Dog. Follow him on Twitter - thttp://twitter.com/mynameisjonah