photo by Derek Yurkiewicz - De Wook Photography
Sometimes the right teacher, early in a person’s life, can make all the difference. Such is the story for Madison-based musician Jonathan Hoel. His instrument of choice is saxophone, and has been for as long as he can remember. Jon credits his family, but also music instructors throughout his life for helping him discover, and pursue, his passion on stage. And the best part? He’s typically playing shows with his friends in their band, Better Yeti. And though you may remember Jon from The Mustache, Dub Messenger, Nuggernaut or several other groups, Better Yeti is creating a brand of its own funky style, and you can check it out for yourself at The Harmony Bar in Madison on Friday, March 29th. So, before you give your ears a thrill, check out my Q and A with Jon where he reveals his musical influences, and the funny story behind the Better Yeti name.
Maximum Ink: When did you start playing the saxophone?
Jonathan Hoel: I started playing saxophone when I was 12! My parents always had music on and my grandfather was a jazz drummer who had an extensive library of records. I had a great private teacher in high school named Anders Svanoe. These factors together, really helped me blossom, and nurture my love of music, especially jazz. They also fully supported my decision to pursue a music degree at UW-Stevens Point where I was lucky enough to have many more great teachers during my time there; plus, I got to play and develop professional relationships with many of my peers, some who are in Better Yeti.
MI: Tell me about Better Yeti. How did you get the group together?
JH: Better Yeti features Andrew Traverse on trumpet, Kelvin Kaspar on guitar,
Michael Randall on guitar, Steven Radtke on keyboards, Eric Ross on bass, Kelby Kryshak on drums, and I play saxophone in the group. We also count frequent guest vocalists and collaborators Guy Weatherspoon, and Robin Lee, as part of the band.
All of us, with the exception of Andrew and Michael, were music students at UWSP. We played together in many ensembles and bands, both in and out of college, and have kept our close personal and musical relationships since graduating. We had a band called The Mustache and in 2017 we decided to disband that group to take a break. Then we got back together and started Better Yeti.
MI: You have some talent in Better Yeti! How do you describe your music?
JH: We play original funk with its roots in the 1980’s sounds of Rick James and P-Funk but also heavily influenced in the newer funk sounds of bands like Lettuce. Our music is high energy, booty shakin’, horn heavy funk. We take it seriously, but we love to have a good time and love making the audience smile and laugh. By the way, you may want to watch out for the dancing yeti..!
MI: And what about playing saxophone? I played alto sax through high school and for credit in college, but the music you are making is so cool. Did you ever think playing a saxophone would be considered “cool?”
JH: The saxophone is the coolest - look at Sonny Rollins! That dude is the coolest MF’er that ever lived. It’s amazing the things that the saxophone has brought into my life - places I’ve gone, people I’ve met. It’s also taken a ton of hard work, hours of practice, and bouts of dejection. But, outside of the time I get to spend with my family, I live to create music and specifically to improvise on the bandstand. To be able to create and communicate with those musicians in the moment is extremely rewarding.
MI: It must make you really happy?
JH: Creating music and improvisation is what I’m all about. I’m very happy, and humbled, that people come out and see me play in all of my groups. That I have a “following,” no matter how big or small, and that people appreciate my time, talent, and efforts makes me extremely proud. It also pushes me to continue in earnest, while also being hungry to grow as a musician.
MI: Do you have a long-term goal for Better Yeti, or for your own musical career?
JH: For me, I just want to continue improving as a musician. And as far as Better Yeti, my goals are a little more modest compared to other projects I have been in. I want us to continue to improve, create great music, and rock the dance floor; but in the end, I’m also just content making music with some of my best friends.
MI: Is that also what keeps you in the Madison area?
JH: I grew up in Madison, went to UWSP, and then came right back. I love Madison. There are so many great musicians creating unbelievable original music. Most of my family is here, and now my wife Katie, son Julius and I call the north side our home.
MI: You know I have to ask about the story behind the band’s name. I hear it’s pretty funny?
JH: The Better Yeti story begins in 1987, when a group of 7 Martian teenagers were abandoned by their alien parents in the mountains of Tibet, because they played their music too loud. For years, the group lived in obscurity—honing their talents and shaping their sound, while surviving solely on a diet of funky baselines—growing their beards and back hair. All this changed in 2016, when Swedish explorer Hans Hanson happened across the group. Quickly, word spread of the elusive Better Yeti. To escape the persecution of the Chinese government (and the flashing bulbs of tourists), the group made their way to Madison, Wisconsin where they could assimilate to their newfound American culture, learn English, and shave a little bit. Better Yeti has one goal: to Himalaya down in a hot tub full of funky grooves.