How Oso Oso Made ‘The Yunahon Mixtape,’ The Best Old-School ’00s Indie Album of 2017

In January, a 24-year-old Long Island native named Jade Lilitri posted a new album, The Yunahon Mixtape, on Bandcamp as a pay-what-you-want download. Recording under the band name Oso Oso — a moniker that has no literal meaning, Lilitri just likes the pattern the letters make — he had virtually no expectations for Yunahon. After making some well-regarded emo albums with his first band, State Lines, and then veering into pop-punk on the first two Oso Oso releases, Lilitri couldn’t find a label to put out his latest LP, which leaned more toward a classic ’00s indie sound in the vein of Death Cab For Cutie, Built to Spill, Weezer, and Bleed American-era Jimmy Eat World.

Frustrated by the lack of industry interest, Lilitri resigned himself to never earning back the money he had spent recording The Yunahon Mixtape with his friends Aaron Masih, who plays drums — Lilitri plays everything else — and Billy Mannino, who produced, engineered and mixed the album. It was then that Masih suggested calling the album a “mixtape” and putting it on Bandcamp with minimal fanfare.

“It just felt like it was at a point where I was like, are you doing this to get it out to a bigger audience? Because, if that’s the situation, it doesn’t look like your chances are too good judging by the interest of labels,” Lilitri said when I spoke with him. He decided to “just give it to the people who really care about it.”

Against all odds, The Yunahon Mixtape has become a sleeper hit on Bandcamp, with Lilitri’s insistently tuneful songwriting turning listeners into proselytizers on social media. When I discovered it, The Yunahon Mixtape quickly became one of my favorite albums of early 2017. For a certain kind of indie fan, the shimmering guitars and melancholy melodies will be pure ear candy. The call and response chorus of “Reindeer Games,” the start-stop riff of “The Walk,” the creamy backing vocals on “Shoes (The Sneaker Song)” — The Yunahon Mixtape positively overflows with catchy, car-stereo-designed hooks. It’s hard to imagine a more likable ’00s-style indie album coming out in 2017.

Oso Oso should get another boost this month with a planned vinyl release of The Yunahon Mixtape. Similar to how Car Seat Headrest built a following on Bandcamp before becoming one of 2016’s breakout indie acts, Oso Oso has the potential — and certainly the songs — to follow the same path this year.

“It could have been [received] half as well as it has been so far and I think I’d still be surprised. I don’t know. It’s pretty cool,” Lilitri said shyly. I reached him by phone last week at his parents house, where he lives. Outside of a few interviews with blogs, Lilitri hasn’t done much press yet. He still works a day job, though he’s been adding tour dates this spring as The Yunahon Mixtape grows in popularity.

Lilitri’s command of indie-rock songwriting has inevitably caused many listeners to play “spot the influence” with The Yunahon Mixtape. But if Lilitri was influenced by classic indie records from the George W. Bush administration, he claims to have learned about them secondhand from more contemporary groups such as The Sidekicks, whose 2012 emo-revival touchstone Awkward Breeds was a primary influence on The Yunahon Mixtape. “I don’t even know how it sounds so good,” Lilitri enthused of that record.

In terms of the lyrics, Lilitri cites Hutch Harris of The Thermals as a role model, particularly when it comes to writing in the third person about characters in songs that are connected by a narrative thread. Contrary to the slapdash informality that the word “mixtape” conjures, The Yunahon Mixtape was very much conceived as an album, depicting a group of friends who fall in and out of romantic relationships in a fictional town called Yunahon. (In “Shoes,” when it sounds like Lilitri is singing “oh-ah,” he’s actually saying “Yuuu-naaa.”)

A conventional plot is difficult to discern from the lyrics, as the songs play out as a series of conversations in which the characters aren’t always identified. Lilitri is also reluctant to spell anything out, because “each time I reveal more about the record, it kind of ruins it for people,” he said. But there are clues if you pay close enough attention. Four proper names recur in the lyrics: Nathan, Annie, Mariah, and Hayley. Scenes take place at the beach early on in the record and amid snow later on, which suggests the passing from a carefree summer to the emotional hangover of winter. Lilitri reluctantly admitted that the album’s final song, the blissfully driving “Out Of The Blue,” is about a woman who leaves town to get an abortion, prompting a falling-out with her father.

Lilitri describes The Yunahon Mixtape as a “loose concept” record, in which “the narrator of one song meets Mariah, and then two songs later it trails someone else that Mariah knows into their life.” In comparison, the previous Oso Oso album, 2015’s Real Stories Of True People, Who Kind Of Looked Like Monsters…, had a much more elaborate narrative that Lilitri felt inclined to explain. “I wrote out some kind of Tumblr explanation,” he said sheepishly.

Given the superficial breeziness of The Yunahon Mixtape, in which each track can function as a instantly accessible stand-alone guitar-pop jam, the dense interpersonal entanglements embedded in the lyrics might seem like an indulgence. But for Lilitri, taking a more literary approach has been a way to separate himself from the pop-punk pack.

“The bands that get big in that pop-punk world, their lyrics are super misogynistic, and just about hating people that don’t owe you anything. That was so frustrating for me, to know that that was music that I was into at 17, and that’s how it’s being fed off to the kids,” he said. “We just wanted to make something really high energy and poppy, but with a little bit more conscious lyrics in terms of being more grown up about how you perceive the world, and how people who are wronging you aren’t necessarily wronging you.”

With The Yunahon Mixtape, Lilitri was also conscious about avoiding the “pop-punk bubble” in terms of sonics. He refocused on making his music more austere, even elegant. Before recording The Yunahon Mixtape last November and December, Lilitri spent four months demoing the songs, far longer than he spent on pre-production in the past.

Lilitri started writing songs at around 13, playing his earliest compositions into a TASCAM eight-track recorder. He admits that “my recording knowledge, in terms of navigating around ProTools and stuff like that, is really, really poor.” But he still geeks out about guitar and drum tones and the way records sound. During our conversation, Lilitri went on a long tangent about the Rae Sremmurd hit “Black Beatles,” and how he and Masih recently had an hour-long conversation about the song’s “genius” production.

As for the genius of his own record, Lilitri is just happy that The Yunahon Mixtape seems to be finding a niche.

“I’ve come to really appreciate the fact that anybody is stoked on my music at all,” he said, with a trace of amazement. “It doesn’t happen super often, but sometimes people are like, ‘Hey, I just wanted to say I’m a college kid and the fact that this album was for free download, thanks.’ Even just a simple thank you is cool.”