Derek Yeager is telling me about the day his career changed. The day the Director of Engineering at Answers.com called him and offered to send him to programming classes, because he believed Derek—who had never written a line of code in his life, mind you—could be an amazing developer.
It’s a story about trust, redemption, white-knuckle faith in one’s own abilities and years of hard work, and it will renew your belief in the power of true friendship.
But before you hear it, you need to know a few things about Derek.
If he walked by you right now, you’d be forgiven for assuming Derek was a 23-year-old recent college graduate. Jeans, t-shirt, black Vans. Medium height, blond hair, thin as a swimmer. A mosaic of tattoos on both forearms.
However, Derek is actually pushing 40 and is a married father of two: a 20-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. The only indications of his true age are his voice, which is calm and quiet, and something ineffable around the eyes which suggests Derek has, you know, seen some things, and this turns out to be true, and the ways in which it is true are simultaneously awe-inspiring and a little heartbreaking. And then Derek unspools his work history--line cook, sound man for KDHX, house renovator, shipping clerk, operations manager, front-man for a metal band, front-end developer, DJ, record producer (“I’ve had a lot of jobs, man.”)--and you think, somewhere in his attic there is a portrait of Derek looking fucking exhausted.
But the actual Derek looks remarkably composed. He sits with the coiled energy of a man who might, if the situation demanded, reach out with a lightning-quick jab and collapse your trachea. This is technically not impossible, since he’s been studying Muay Thai for the past year and attacks people repeatedly with his knees for fun and relaxation.
The day of our first interview, we are sitting outside at a coffee shop in Sunset Hills. Across the street, an old mall complex is being torn down. Our conversation is interrupted occasionally by the sounds of dump-trucks belching diesel exhaust or making that BEEP-BEEP-BEEP, “I’m-backing-up-now!” noise. The sounds, in other words, of a perfectly good edifice being torn down to make room for something newer and more satisfying.
With that in mind, here is the story I promised you.
“I was working as a line cook at Blueberry Hill,” Derek remembers. “And this guy who worked as a server showed up in a Sunny Day Real Estate t-shirt. Well, nobody else in my world had even heard about that band, so I knew I wanted to talk music with this guy.”
“This guy” turned out to be Rob McVey. Rob was one of the few people Derek had met who shared his appreciation for obscure, avant garde music. One of the few people since his dad.
Derek’s father had been a professional musician who gigged with B.B. King and The Who. When he was little, Derek would sit on his dad’s lap down in their music room, picking out LPs for his dad to play. Derek would select a record and his dad would play whatever he felt was the best track. One album after another. This was how Derek’s musical education started. “My dad always had this passion for unknown sonic movements, and he was always digging for the most underground and obscure tracks,” Derek says. “It was how we spent time together, basically.”
So you can imagine his relief to find Rob, a fellow sonic adventurer, right there in his workplace, wearing a Sunny Day Real Estate t-shirt.
Derek and Rob started meeting up two or three times a week to talk and write music. “Rob was kind of a homebody then,” Derek remembers. “So we would always meet over at his place. But he had all kinds of instruments and drums. Bongos, djembes. He had a four-track recorder, so It was like a playground for us.”
Before long, their casual jamming turned into a formal project named Yamanaka, which is Japanese for “the mountain inside.” They recorded mostly acoustic stuff, influenced by the likes of Nick Drake.
They also signed on as volunteer audio engineers at KDHX, learning to use the soundboard and recording artists like Neko Case, The Decemberists and Drive-By Truckers. They got a crash course in mic placements, sound checks and audio mixing. It was a kind of heaven on Earth.
Yamanaka kept improving as musicians and producers, and Derek used his rapidly expanding skills and tastes to pursue other projects, including a metal band called Sine Nomine (Latin for “No Name.” “I hate coming up with band names,” Derek explains).
Somewhere along the way, when they were in their late 20s, Rob got married. He and his wife bought a house in Clifton Heights that, as they say, needed some work. Rob and his wife had put all their money into a down payment, and couldn’t really swing the cost of a contractor. Derek thought, shit, I know how to do this.
“One of the odd jobs I had was helping people flip houses,” he recalls. “I worked for guys who would buy run-down places at auction for fifteen grand, then put another fifteen grand into them, turn around and sell them for $120k.”
So Derek told Rob he’d do the work in his spare time, for free. It took a while, but Derek was true to his word. “I got a few friends to help, but we got the work done.”
During this time--around 2002, 2003--Sine Nomine started to take off. Their brand of super raw, gritty, borderline-gross math metal was scratching an itch for kids who were bored with the predictable verse/chorus/verse crap Metallica and Megadeth were still pumping out. (“Metallica doesn’t count,” says Derek. “They write soft rock, as far as I’m concerned.”)
Sine Nomine, with Derek playing guitar, singing lead and handling most of the songwriting duties, recorded some albums, and major labels started to sniff around. Metalblade Records offered to re-release their debut album, but Sine Nomine declined (“It was exciting, but we didn’t want to go into debt.”). Established metal acts began to take notice, as well. Before long, Sine Nomine was spending a big chunk of their time on the road.
“Almost everyone in the band was working in a warehouse for a company owned by the drummer’s cousin. We’d work for a couple of months, save our money, make sure the bills were paid, and then we’d just go.”
They’d tour for 2-3 weeks at a time, kind of batching it out, hitting different regions in nonstop, all-night, blitzkrieg maneuvors that showed them the whole country, one leg at a time. They’d hit Texas, New Mexico, Arizona. Come home, work, regroup. Then cannonball to the Upper Midwest. This lasted, off and on, for more than four years.
“We lived in vans. We slept in some rough places. Part of it was what you expect: late nights, a drummer who needed to ride on the roof of the van going highway speed, stuff like that. But we were kind of known as the upstanding band. We’d show up on time, always cordial, always thanked the venue owner.”
But the crash pads offered Derek an education in both acceptance and self-reliance.
“We’d always ask the audience, you know, if anyone has a floor to crash on, that would be awesome. Nine times out of ten, a complete stranger would say sure, come with us. You go to these peoples house and they’re in their early 20s and there’s 10 people living together in a dilapidated home and all kinds of drugs and alcohol and just filth everywhere. We’d just roll with it.”
I ask him to tell me the craziest thing that ever happened on the road.
“We were out west, doing some shows, and had to be in Colorado Springs the next night for a gig. As we’re driving through the Rocky Mountains, our other guitarist drives over a safety cone and the van breaks down. Just right on the side of the mountain. I crawled underneath and the radiator hose was broken. This is before GPS. Before iPhones. So we just started walking.”
Eventually, the got AAA to take Derek to an auto parts store, where he bought a hose clamp. Then they raced back up the mountain, Derek crawled underneath the van, and he fixed the hose. First problem solved. The next problem? They were scheduled to start playing in three hours, but they were four hours away from their destination.
“We drove like madmen and came screeching into the venue at midnight. It’s a fraternity party. Before we even get out of the van, some 18-year-old kid walks up and shoves an enormous wad of cash into my hand. It’s more money than we’ve seen the whole tour and this kid just smiles and says ‘You made it! Go in there and kill it!’”
“We go in to set up and this house is packed with hundreds of kids. And they went ape-shit for 40 minutes. It was amazing. We played our guts out, and then we ran back to the van and drove all night back to St. Louis, because our bassist had to work the next morning.”
Maybe you heard, but 2008 was a bit of a bitch for several dozen million Americans. Derek Yeager was one of them.
The warehouse where Derek had worked to support both his family and his band lost some of its biggest contracts. Derek was a manager by then and he took a pay cut to help save his job and the jobs of a couple of other employees. Eventually, not even those sacrifices could force the ends to meet. The warehouse shuttered and Derek was cut adrift.
He was suddenly a guy in his early 30s with talent, experience and a work ethic, nothing much to show for it except an underpaying job as a shipping clerk. It was rough.
And then the phone rang.
“Rob said, ‘I’ve been giving it some thought, and you really helped me out a number of years back, and you did that out of the kindness of your heart, and I want to repay you. Have you ever thought about coding?’”
Well, no, Derek had not thought about coding. Furthermore, why would Rob think Derek would even be suited to it?
“I asked him the same question,” Derek says. “And his response was: ‘You program music. I’ve seen what you can do with patterns, and there’s no difference. It’s just a different language.’”
“Rob said, ‘Look, you’re my friend. But I’m throwing you to the wolves. I’m not going to protect you. Whether you survive or fail, it’s up to you.’”
Derek remembers it as the biggest risk he had taken in his life. This, from the guy who used to stand up in front of strangers and scream into a microphone for part of his living.
He survived, but you knew that.
These days, Derek works as a developer and QA lead at Paradowski.
Rob is in California, working at some fly-by-night operation called “Netflix.” They still write and record music together, when they aren’t working, raising their families or pursuing other projects.
Derek’s new passions are the aforementioned Muay Thai and Teep, which is the new stage name he uses for his electronic music projects.
“Teep” also happens to be the name of a push-kick move in Muay Thai. Basically, you raise your leg directly in front of you, put your whole body weight behind it, and kick forward like you’re trying to kick down a door.
A teep can be used to dictate flow and frustrate your opponent. You keep kicking him in his legs and chest, making it hard to get within striking distance. That’s one way to use it. Or you can just teep him in the face. Getting hit in the face with a teep is like getting hit with a bowling ball. It breaks bones. It breaks spirits.
That’s a dangerous move. If you do it right, you stop your opponent. If you do it wrong, he might stop you. If you think the metaphorical ramifications of this fact haven’t occurred to Derek, you haven’t been paying attention.
“I’m not interested in safety or predictability. The only reason to do something is to see what happens. With my practice, my music, my life--you can react however you want, but you’re going to know I’m there.”