After bursting onto the EDM scene with Peking Duk around a decade ago, it’s fair to say Reuben Styles has seen a modicum of success within the Australian music scene, if almost as many Platinum singles as years in the industry is any measure of success.
But for Styles – and fellow Duk Adam Hyde – this came with a price. The studio, he said, began to bring feelings of anxiety and apprehension before even stepping inside. And for Styles, this began to take a toll on his mental health.
“When you get used to doing what you know in the studio for so long it starts to feel a bit like work, because you do your thing… and you also have a bit of pressure to like, produce something that’s done well, because with Duk I guess there’s a bit of a hot streak with singles success,” he said.
“So you feel like you can’t lose that streak of songs performing well. And I think when you start thinking like that, you start rocking up to the studio worried about the song is going to do. Before you even start making the song. That’s when you’re really fucked,” he added.
“You go in with a predisposition of, ‘This needs to do well’, and that’s already screwed up the session. Because you’re just going in with the wrong headspace. It’s not about making the song, it’s about what the song is going to achieve. So that really affected my mental health quite a bit, and I started really fretting going to the studio. I started not being excited.”
“That really affected my mental health quite a bit, and I started really fretting going to the studio. I started not being excited.”
The first signs of this inner turmoil came to the fore around 2018, when the pair began doing what Styles refers to as, ‘a lot of extra-curricular activities’. The duo wrote a children’s book, they opened a bar in Melbourne – they almost started their own vodka brand.
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“Don’t get me wrong, it was great, and I don’t regret a single part of it,” Styles said.
“But I guess we were just starting to look at things outside of music that were fun to do. I don’t know what was going on in our heads, but I guess a lot of that is to do with Duk’s output being roughly two songs a year and we’d be writing like a hundred songs a year. It was just that pressure of feeling like we had to produce something really, really, really above and beyond, it got to us.
“I guess that’s one of the beauties of when Adam hit me up and was like, ‘Mate, I have a feeling you’re thinking what I’m thinking, but I’m just going to say it. Do you want to do side projects, along with Duk?’ And I was just like, ‘Oh my God! You’ve got to be kidding! That is something I’ve been wanting to do for fucking ever’. So straight away he was like, ‘Cool, I’m working on some songs that I’m going to release on my own,’ and I was like, ‘Sick! So am I!’.”
That project, for Styles, is Y.O.G.A. An acronym for ‘You’re Only Great Always’, Y.O.G.A. has gotten Styles back into the positive headspace he had been missing prior to that conversation with Hyde.
“It felt great, like, straight away I was like, ‘Woah! I’ve never had so many wings!’,” he laughed.
“I just felt like I was… not in shackles, but the wings were getting clipped in some way. It was all mental, but I never knew I could do all these things, and of course, I just needed to talk to Adam and just say, ‘Hey, wassup, let’s do this!’
“I started producing for other artists and started Y.O.G.A. where now I can go to the studio without a plan. And the chance of the song going to song heaven, like, back in 2018 99 per cent of songs were just going up to song heaven for no one to ever hear, nowadays it’s like, nah, this song can literally get released. Whether it’s with Y.O.G.A., with Duk, with another artist, or just push it for sync as an instrumental.”
“I started producing for other artists and started Y.O.G.A. where now I can go to the studio without a plan.”
One example of this is the fresh Y.O.G.A. track ‘Pain Makes Us Alive’, which began as a writing session with Jack Glass from Bag Raiders – originally intended as a Bag Raiders x Peking Duk song.
“The chords and the melodies, they weren’t overly hooky or catchy, and it was a super electronic synth-based song,” Styles said.
“Then we were trying to muck around with it and turn it into a big, screaming banger and it just never felt like it was meant to go there. The melodies were a little bit more, I don’t know, it sounds a little bit like ‘Four Seasons In One Day’ or something by Crowded House. It felt a bit more, like, if we did switch all the synths to guitars that it might sound like a Y.O.G.A. song.
“I think working that song into just a straight-up guitar song – and we made it kind of psychedelic, playing with a lot of quarter tones and trying to get it a little bit Middle Eastern sounding – just gave it a cool kind of psychedelic feel to it. So I’m really happy with the end result. I guess the song, what it means to me, is pain does make us alive – if you never experience lows you’ll never appreciate the highs, and I think to be broken and re-built is to come back stronger and more beautiful than before.”
Another side of Y.O.G.A. is allowing Styles to indulge his passion for mental health, after losing a friend to suicide as a teen.
When he had a few songs ready to go and questioned how to make the project something quintessentially something meaningful to him, the answer seemed obvious. And it all came down to the name.
“’You’re Only Great Always’ was pretty much my daily reminder to everyone because I wanted the project to be focused around mental health, and I think a lot mental health problems do come from that lack of daily reminder that, you know, you are great,” he said.
“’You’re Only Great Always’ was pretty much my daily reminder to everyone because I wanted the project to be focused around mental health.”
“Unfortunately I lost one of my best mates to depression when I was 17, and I guess I’ve always just not known anything about mental health except that I want to do something to make that never happen to anyone ever again. So since I was 17 I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how, which I guess I’m starting to get a clearer picture of, and I’ve also been trying to figure out why, which I doubt I’ll ever figure out.”
Styles said he believed part of the Aussie way of thinking, the “harden the fuck up” attitude towards mental health, was one of the stigmas that needed addressing. “You want to be completely strong and put a smile on your face, to the point where I think that’s what hurt the most, was just how happy my mate looked – it was just so invisible,” he said.
Using social media to share space and stories to “break down the barrier” is part of the Y.O.G.A. philosophy. Every two weeks, Styles will share someone’s mental health journey; which began as a personal one, then other musicians, but he now has other people reaching out wanting to share their own story with therapy, or talking, and how it has helped.
“I guess it’s nice because people are putting their face to their story, and it’s breaking down that barrier,” he said.
“It shouldn’t be hard to tell your friends or your family or your colleagues that you have a mental illness, yet it still apparently is. Where going to a psychologist should be like taking your car to a mechanic; it should just be, you know, what you do. It’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. Cars break down; heads need fixing – or just improving – maybe overall mood could be better.”
Since sharing stories on the Y.O.G.A. Instagram, including his own, Styles said he had seen the hard Aussie exterior starting to break down first-hand.
“I’ve had people inboxing saying, ‘Hey, look, I don’t want to share a story but I just wanted to let you know I’ve told my parents that I’ve got bipolar,’ or whatever their illness may be,” he said.
“And being able to just tell their family or being able to tell their friends – little moments like that just bring me to tears. That’s just everything that I ever could have dreamed of.”
The first single from the second Y.O.G.A. EP, YOU’RE ONLY GREAT ALWAYS II, (out via Sony Music today) was ‘Wolfer & The Dove’, which explores some pretty deep themes in its video. But the concept for the clip stemmed from a much different experience.
“Myself and Nicola (Bruni) had been friends for a while; in fact he danced in drag at my wedding, and it was a super fun and almost raunchy wedding because Nicola started off with an Italian song but then decided to do ‘Man, I Feel Like A Woman’ and, look, things ended up getting a little bit crazy,” he said. “It was the funnest and most outrageous experience I’ve ever been through – at a wedding especially, let alone my own wedding. So I was pretty excited to work with Nicola at some point in the future, especially on a clip.”
Styles and the clip’s director, Lucas Wilkinson, brainstormed and came up with the idea of Nicola being on a farm “as a bloke seeing versions of himself dressed up as herself, if that makes any sense” frolicking around the farm.
“So pretty much he’s just a bloke farmer doing his work, shearing his sheep or whatever it might be, then looks over and sees himself dressed up as herself, dancing around the paddock,” Styles said.
“That was kind of the vague concept, and then we just decided we just take Nicola and the camera to the farm and see what we can do. It was pretty much loosely planned as that. Then we got up there and things just started happening. George (Walters) the farmer was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll show you what I do on like a regular day,’ and started showing us what he would do, and we just got Nicola to perform those tasks, like sharpening the shears and all that sort of stuff. It was hilarious.”
Check out the clip for Y.O.G.A., ‘Wolfer & The Dove’
As it happened, the farm owner himself was very much aligned with mental health values, running a men’s health project connecting farmers from around the Cooma-Monaro area called Around the Campfire.
“Since the drought, followed by the bushfires, followed by all this isolation and COVID, it’s been pretty tough on everyone around those areas. George was also saying if farmers weren’t isolated and disconnected enough, add into it the online world, where everyone is so online-focussed now. It doesn’t make it easy for the farmers out there,” Styles said.
“It was nice to be able to put a regional spin on it. I guess, stigma against coming out in a rural area just became the main theme of the video, and people find it quite hard in cities let alone in regional areas, and so the video being a nice almost coming out story in a way, it was really nice to be able to do it somewhere regional.”
The ‘Wolfer’ video is a stark contrast to the second and most recent, ‘See It In Your Eyes’, which Styles filmed himself during lockdown with “whatever the latest iPhone is and some roller blades.”
“I tried to learn the lyrics as best I could, because I’d made the song six months prior. So, re-learning the lyrics and playing at double-speed was – look, it was really hard,” he said.
“And I messed up the lyrics even in the final take, because after the second take I was like, ‘I can only do this one more time.’ The stretch of road was long, and my feet were so sore. I hadn’t worn the roller blades for like 15 years. So I thought if I don’t get it this time, I’m just going to, I don’t know, get a photo and have that work out as it is. So pretty much I didn’t eat shit, but it was my third take and I hung up the boots.
“It was the street where Yulli’s Brews is, so after the third take I just went straight to Yulli’s Brews and popped a few cans and called it a day. Then I opened up the Splice app and checked how the video was looking, and yeah, it seemed okay, I could tell I’d messed up a bunch of lyrics, so I tried to mask that with whatever visual effects the Splice app has. But yeah, what you see on YouTube is the version edited on my phone on that very day.”
Check out the clip for Y.O.G.A., ‘See It In Your Eyes’:
For Peking Duk fans unsure where to start following Styles’ Y.O.G.A. journey, he would recommend starting with the first track he released late last year, ‘Your Devotion.’
“It was the debut single of the project, it’s the most electronic/dancey version,” he said.
“It’s also got a bit of a French House feel to it, the chords are semi kind of French sounding. Which, weirdly, French House and Ennio Morricone, they share a lot of putting wrong major chords all over the place, and that’s kind of the spooky feel that I really really love. ’Your Devotion’ was the first one of those songs of Y.O.G.A.’s to get me excited about playing around with those kinds of chords, which work across the French synth realm – and the Italian Spaghetti Western guitar realm. I guess that’s where those two worlds combine, and I guess that’s where Y.O.G.A. has begun.”
“’Your Devotion’ was the first one of those songs of Y.O.G.A.’s to get me excited about playing around with those kinds of chords, which work across the French synth realm.”
Styles’ enthusiasm is at an all-time high, so don’t expect him to slow down any time soon. Besides tinkering away in the studio on the daily and releasing his second solo EP in under a year, he is currently leading 15 people on Team Y.O.G.A. to a $10,000 donation goal for Black Dog Institute’s Mullets for Mental Health challenge, before flying to Darwin to quarantine for two weeks so he and Hyde can perform a series of shows in regional Queensland through October and November.
“It’s gonna be great! We’re doing a bunch of DJ sets,” he said.
“So it’s going to be exactly how Peking Duk first started – just rocking up, jumping on the decks, jumping around, getting sweaty. Don’t need to worry about how to play each song. Because we did start doing a fully live show in 2017, but it’s nice, just before this outbreak we got to do a few DJ sets and, oh, the DJ sets are very fun. It’s exactly like what Duk first tasted like, and it’s like we’ve gone back to our roots. I’m sure we’ll incorporate live elements again very soon and like create a hybrid set, but the DJ sets are very fun right now.
“The DJ sets are very fun. It’s exactly like what Duk first tasted like, and it’s like we’ve gone back to our roots.”
“I guess there are elements of Y.O.G.A. which have come through to Duk, just naturally because of how much more open I am in the studio in general – there’s techniques I can now bring across when I’m doing Duk sessions. In fact Adam and I got to have a few sessions earlier this year, before Sydney’s lockdown – the one we’re in now – and we both had heaps of new ideas to bring to the table. So yeah, there’s going to be tastes of Y.O.G.A. and tastes of Adam’s new project through the Duk music.”