The first stroke was supposed to be an anomaly. A fluke. The EEG had concluded the electrical activity in his brain was normal and the doctors had all assured him there was nothing to worry about — single seizures were not unheard of. He had made an appointment to get an MRI as a precaution, but five weeks had already passed without incident. In the meantime, Josh Yoder remained as busy as ever, writing new music and finalizing pre-production on his first feature-length film. His proposal for a sizable multimedia art installation at Creative Loafing’s Best of Atlanta party had been accepted. And on June 6th, his longtime band, Jungol, had performed a revised version of FOOFARAW, his three-act performance piece and theatrical rock show, at the newly opened Ponce City Market.
But here he was again, unable to sing or speak, his voice capable only of a violent stutter as his body began to seize. The convulsions began first in his hands, then spread to his arms and sides, before finally consuming his legs. Everything became excruciatingly hot as the contortions continued their assault. It felt as if his muscles were becoming detached and switching places, his limbs growing increasingly tangled as an unimaginable pain began to shoot from his core to every extremity. Just a few moments before he had been sitting at his piano, working on songs for a new musical he had been trying to write, but now his body was being crushed and twisted like one might do to an empty can of beer or soda. Soon, darkness overtook him and for a hellish 30 seconds he was blind, writhing in agony as the pain ravaged his body. He could hear his girlfriend crying out to him, her voice muffled and distant. When he finally collapsed next to his piano bench, the foam forming steadily at his mouth, he was certain he was dying.
Josh was rushed to Emory University Hospital where he would undergo an MRI and other tests over the course of a few days. It felt like every muscle in his body had been severely damaged. When the results came in, they showed he had an egg-sized tumor in his left frontal lobe. At that point, however, the doctors could only discern so much. It would take surgery or a biopsy to learn the pathology of the mass in his brain. After considerable research and consultation, it became obvious they would need to eradicate as much of the tumor as possible. On July 27th, Josh underwent a craniotomy which successfully removed over 60 percent of the mass. Two weeks later, after having the staples removed from his head, the pathology report came back. It was a malignant diffuse astrocytoma — brain cancer.
His particular type of tumor was found to be in the middle of the grading scale. On the one hand, it grows slower than the higher grades, but it also has the unfortunate reputation of transforming into a higher grade tumor, even after treatment. In an attempt to eliminate the remainder of the mass — or at least shrink it and keep it from growing — Josh underwent radiation therapy five days a week for six weeks. During this time, he would arrive at Emory at 11 a.m. and get radiated for 6 minutes while listening to Frank Sinatra. The treatments left him bald, extremely tired and immensely depressed. He gained considerable weight and for some time he lost his creative drive. Maintaining even a semblance of coherent thought became a daily struggle, and he was forced to set aside both his feature film and his Best of Atlanta installation, which only furthered his depression. Cut off from his mind and his creativity, he felt lost for the first time in his life, a man without an identity.
Joshua Kane Yoder was born on April 23, 1983 in Canton, Ohio, a city of some 70,000 residents located 24 miles south of Akron. He arrived in the world just a minute ahead of his twin brother Graham, which technically made him the oldest in what would eventually become a family of four brothers. From their earliest days, the twins displayed a deep, inseparable bond. According to their mother, she tried to place them in separate cribs at six months, but they refused to sleep, crying inconsolably until they were reunited. “It just seemed that whatever they did, they wanted to do together,” she says, and that unyielding, infrangible camaraderie became the defining force of their relationship.
As children, Josh and Graham exhibited a unique communication that was different from other siblings. By age 4 they were collaborating on their own books, dictating stories to their parents and then drawing and painting pictures to accompany their words. Their father, a professional painter, poet and cartoonist, maintained a home studio where the boys spent a great part of their youth. It was a space that allowed for immense creative freedom, but it was also one where discipline was considered paramount. “There were two rules in the studio,” their father explains. “No screwing around and no toys.”
In an effort to provide the boys with their own creative space, their father converted the family basement into a work station. The twins were provided with everything they needed — easels, paints, brushes, canvases, clay. There they would spend hours painting and working on comic books and cartoons. Josh in particular spent an inordinate amount of time working as young boy, often spending up to 8 straight hours ensnared in the creative process. He always seemed to have ideas running through his mind and was constantly teaching himself new skills. His innate curiosity and tireless work ethic surprised even his parents. “Josh has always had a keen eye for beauty and a drive to create,” says his mother. “We tried to provide both the physical tools and encouragement to bring to life all the stories and visuals in his head but sometimes it was hard for us to keep up with him. There were always more stories to write and more pictures to paint.”
Whatever projects the brothers decided to pursue, they attacked with a fierce resolve and an eye for detail that was remarkable given their age and lack of experience. The boys received no formal art training; even their father refrained from giving them lessons, leaving them to their natural inclinations. As a result, they grew up without much thought towards boundaries and learned to trust their impulses, which often bordered on the obsessive. In their young minds, anything worth doing was worth doing with painstaking thoroughness. Graham remembers one particular project they worked on after seeing Jurassic Park at the theater. “We immediately went and wrote our own dinosaur book,” he recalls. “We even drew really violent pictures to go with it and we got materials to put it together and bind it so it looked like a legitimate paperback you’d see at a bookstore.”
However, for all their love of art and storytelling, the brothers’ interest in music was much slower to develop. This was a bit odd considering their upbringing. Although she never pursued it outside the home, their mother played guitar and violin and she often sang in the house. Their father wrote songs — mostly folk stuff in the vein of Neil Young — and he also wrote and played in a praise band that would perform at the family’s church and other events. From the beginning, the boys were surrounded by music, but unlike their early immersion into art, the fever to play didn’t immediately take hold of them.
In 1992, the Yoders moved from Canton to Woodstock, Georgia. Although they had yet to show an interest in playing music, the brothers were becoming aware of the alternative and grunge revolution happening on the airwaves. In addition to the classic rock, funk and soul records they spun at home, their parents became avid listeners of the Atlanta rock station 99x, which introduced the boys to the sounds of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Primus, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and others. Like many of the nation’s youth, especially those living in the suburbs, the music’s mix of rebellious aggression and tortured angst offered them a welcome respite from the manufactured pop that had dominated the charts for the better part of decade. By 1994, the revolution was in full swing, and Josh and Graham were ready to take up the cause.
When they did finally start playing guitar, their dedication was both immediate and all-consuming. Their father taught them the C, D and G chords, and it was as if an entirely new universe had been opened to them. From there their interest only exploded. Soon they were discovering new music on MTV’s seminal 120 Minutes, devouring guitar magazines and writing their own songs in a makeshift band. They remained attached to Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and much of the classic rock they grew up with, but Nirvana and Primus became their primary influences. The brothers wrote together often, but according to Graham, Josh was an exceptionally prodigious songwriter. “He could write five songs a day, have lyrics for all of them and tab out all the riffs in a tab book. It was really inspiring watching him work like that. He was always writing. Obsessed weird little dude.”
In the earliest days of their writing partnership, Josh played guitar and Graham handled bass. But then one fateful night the video for Primus’ “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” came on 120 Minutes and Josh’s world was forever changed. Almost immediately, Graham made the transition to guitar and bass playing became his brother’s consuming passion. For Josh, being skilled was not enough; he wanted to be a virtuoso — the next Les Claypool. He practiced incessantly, so much so, in fact, that by the time he was 13, he was winning organized competitions against far more seasoned players. “I wanted to be best player in the world,” he admits with a laugh.
For their parents, the brothers’ rapidly emerging talent was almost as shocking as their determination and clarity of vision. “When Josh and Graham were in the 8th grade,” their father reminisces, “they came to me and said, ‘Dad, we want to make a living writing and recording songs and playing music live. We want you to be our manager.'” While many parents facing such a request would ignore or simply placate their children, their father took them up on their offer, managing his sons until they were 18.
At 14, the boys played their first ever show at the Strand in Marietta. It was a formative experience, one they would look to repeat whenever possible. Over the next couple of years, they would continue to hone their skills — both on and off the stage — while developing an extensive catalog of original material. By the time they completed high school, their band, now known as Liquid Jungle, had developed a considerable following and were performing regularly at the Brandy House, a long defunct club that was at the time a central hub of Atlanta’s jam band scene.
Musically, the brothers, along with their childhood friend and bandmate Andres Miller, continued to explore the relationship between guitar and bass, experimenting with the different ways the instruments could interact outside the normal rock conventions. Parliament-Funkadelic, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone became cornerstones to their songwriting, as did more experimental artists like Frank Zappa and King Crimson. Improvisation increasingly played a role in their live sets, which could last up to two hours.
For a time in the early 2000s, Liquid Jungle embraced their identity as a jam band, reveling in the freedom and anything goes vibe the scene seemed to offer. However, it soon became apparent they didn’t share the same priorities. “The jam bands thought we were too hard and edgy and the pop rock bands thought we were too weird,” says Josh, articulating the central dilemma the group would struggle against for some time.
Liquid Jungle would spend the next several years trying to shake their jam band origins and searching for their place in the Atlanta scene. They released a few small recordings, none of which they promoted very heavily. For a time, they found a home at Vinyl in Midtown where they would often draw crowds of up to 200 people. Still, the young band felt alienated, especially from the bands and clubs in East Atlanta, which seemed to make up so much of the city’s hip inner circle and loomed as a symbolic barrier to the band’s growth.
In 2005, they started touring consistently, usually in two weeks stints that would take them through the Southeast or up the East Coast. Over time, small pockets of appreciation began to grow — Athens, Savannah, Nashville, New York City — and the group started receiving the validation they often felt was missing from their hometown. This, of course, only fueled their determination to get back on the road. “We just wanted to tour like crazy,” recalls Josh. “We were obsessed with it.” By 2007 and 2008, the band was playing upwards of a hundred shows a year and had made it out to California for the first time. In Atlanta, they had started to play almost exclusively at the Drunken Unicorn, which gave them access to a wider, more urban audience. Their 2007 release, Tiny Heaven, also helped garner some traction. But despite a semblance of success, the band felt that some changes were in order. First and foremost, they were desperately sick of their name.
Jungol first started appearing on show flyers in late 2007/early 2008 and while the group’s overall aesthetic remained much the same, the name change did signal a shift to a simpler ideology. “I wanted to find a new way to tell stories though music,” notes Josh, and the band began to abandon some of its more chaotic elements and complex time changes in favor of a more streamlined approach. Sonically, their songs rang with a similar intensity and well-layered dynamism, but the poppier components began to shine through with greater clarity. The band’s first release under the new name, 2009’s Places EP, acknowledged this new line of thinking in its opening lyrics: “This is how I feel / I’ll make it simple.” Critics took notice of the band’s evolution and responded with mostly praise.
Reinvigorated, Jungol escalated their touring and quickly began work on their follow-up LP. The band had been gradually moving into more electronic territory, and for the new record they wanted to re-envision certain aspects of their rock sound with synths, loops and samples of field recordings. Josh and Graham had always prioritized progress and evolution in their songwriting, and this was to be their most expansive leap yet.
Over the Sun and Under the Radar was released in April of 2010 and immediately resonated with fans and critics alike. At the time, it sounded like nothing else that was happening in Atlanta. Writing for my then blog, Latest Disgrace, I said of the record: “This is pop, catchy and hook-heavy, masquerading as artful, angular prog, and it’s simply brilliant. Few Atlanta records this year sounded this polished… or thrilling.” For an album that emphasized vocal melodies and more concise songwriting, OTSAUTH remained a fully immersive experience, the kind of rare record that rewarded patient listeners with a surfeit of new sounds and avenues to explore.
For Jungol, the album was the key that unlocked many of the doors that had previously remained closed to them. With their headlining release show at the Earl, the band finally got their opportunity to play in East Atlanta, and they responded with a riveting sold-out performance. With some of the members performing in eerie, creepy masks, it was also the first time the group incorporated theatrical flair into one of their shows, and while it certainly didn’t match up with the elaborate performances they would provide in the future, it was nonetheless an indicator of what was to come.
Over the next year and a half, the group continued to tour as much as possible, expanding both their regional fan base and their presence within the city. But despite the unqualified success of the new record, life in Jungol was beginning to take its toll on Josh. Not only did he serve as a principal songwriter, but he also handled all the booking, PR and administrative duties. The day-to-day grind became exhausting and as Josh readily admits, he was not very good at delegating responsibility. But more critically, he was yearning to turn his attention to other mediums.
While Josh hadn’t exactly turned his back on producing visual art — he still occasionally painted and worked on choreographing the band’s stage shows — he felt it no longer played a central role in his life. His passion for the road was diminishing and in 2012 he approached the other members about abandoning touring altogether. “Very simply, I wanted to stop touring because I wanted to pursue other things,” he says, “like visual art and filmmaking and simply allowing myself the space and time to explore. That time was granted. So I stopped booking tours. I stopped doing normal PR. I stopped certain administrative duties for Jungol, and I also stopped writing as many songs. And in turn my creative lust was able to shift in a big way.”
The process of becoming untethered from Jungol was a cathartic one for Josh. Almost immediately he began work on Go Softly, a new project that would take take his love of visual art and storytelling and turn it into a short film. For six months, he developed and storyboarded various concepts, many of them based on his dreams. He wanted something loose and abstract, something that lacked a traditional narrative but that still centered around characters. Inspired by the audiovisual work of iamamiwhoami and the Knife, as well as the sculptural installations of artist Matthew Barney, Josh set out to develop a defining aesthetic that was surreal yet alluring. As much as anything else, the process drove the story. “It all started from the idea of taking found materials — cheap stuff — and turning it into something fantastical and beautiful. It was a lot of experimenting with liquid latex, building costumes out of paper bag material. It was a huge fucking experiment.”
Despite having no prior film experience, Josh wrote, directed, edited and produced the project with the help of a small collective of friends. Musically, the group had parted ways with longtime drummer Jason Monseur who was replaced by Mark Garretson. Instead of touring, the band worked on the film and their upcoming album, Ghost Knocks. The brothers had moved into Miller’s house in Marietta, and for almost two years they remained secluded, working on both projects simultaneously. Josh taught himself how to edit in Premiere and fell in love with the process and the amount of creative control it provided him. For months on end he worked feverishly, bringing his cinematic vision to life. As he edited, Graham and Miller would be in the practice space working on new Jungol material or songs for Graham’s ambient side project, Dark Room. Oftentimes, those songs would influence and shape what Josh was editing and he would incorporate them into the film. It was a pretty intense few years. As Graham notes, “It was a real creative time for us. We’d never done anything like it before. It was exciting. And since we weren’t touring, we didn’t want to keep playing the same Jungol rock show for Atlanta and have that be the only thing to put out there. That seemed boring to us.”
Go Softly was unveiled over the course of a few months in 2013 as a series of separate vignettes cut to specific tracks. This process allowed Jungol to promote each piece as a standalone video while simultaneously generating interest in the short film. In the end, their hard work paid off. Go Softly earned them a 2013 Creative Loafing award for Best Experimental Act and the film was featured at the 2014 Atlanta Film Festival.
Bolstered by their experience with film, the group decided to start incorporating multimedia performance art into their live shows. In June of 2014, the group was asked to play a closing set at the end of Deer Bear Wolf’s Natural Selection variety show at the Goat Farm. Instead of performing a standard rock show, Josh and Miller developed FOOFARAW, which was far unlike anything the band had attempted before. It included theater, live puppet building, video projection, spoken word, stretch box choreography, and, for the third act, a Jungol set performed behind screens. Many of FOOFARAW’s visual cues were derived from Go Softly, placing elements of fantasy and abstract stories into an environment for a live audience to witness. For Josh, the experience was both immensely stressful — all the props and sets were concepted and built over two weeks without any budget — and richly rewarding. “I got to write, develop, direct, create choreography, work a giant paper bag puppet, and then jump backstage to perform a Jungol set, backlit from behind a stretch screen,” he exclaims. “It was a dream!”
The success of FOOFARAW led to new requests and further opportunities to develop performance pieces. The band’s release show for Ghost Knocks featured a mid-set performance art interlude written and directed by Josh called A Violent Birth. In addition, the Goat Farm asked the band to submit a concept for Scoutmob’s annual Halloween party. In response, Jungol delivered the idea for Bird Mountain, a 20 foot long by 12 foot high mountain shaped as two conjoined bird heads that turned into a 15 foot singing puppet. When their proposal was accepted, it led to a metamorphosis of sorts within the band. Instead of practice, the group would get together and plan out their stage show and brainstorm about how to build the installations. They would work painstakingly on various bird masks and spend hours building different types wings for each character. Learning how to troubleshoot potential problems became as critical as the key changes and chord structures in their songs. “This was sort of a natural evolution of the group,” says Josh. “We approached these projects the same way we had always approached our music — simply striving to do something we’ve never done before and giving it 100 percent. It’s not the normal rock band route and I’m more than happy about that.”
Unsurprisingly, his brother agrees.
“It’s like jumping off a high dive and not knowing what you’re diving into exactly. You’re trusting there’s a deep body of water beneath you. We definitely plan the installations and performance pieces out the best we can and put everything we have into them. But I still get serious butterflies right before the performances like I used to when we started playing shows when we were 14. And that’s part of the reason it’s so much fun. We’ve been playing concerts and recording albums our whole lives. I love doing that stuff. It’s who I am, and I’ll keep doing it the rest of my life. But we’d never built a 15 foot mountain bird that turned into a singing puppet before. It was really nerve-racking, but so much fun. Doing these new projects are so healthy creatively for us and I feel like it’s a natural progression with the art and music we’ve always been making.”
In January 2015, Jungol collaborated with electronic duo Ill Poacher and Mammal Gallery director Chris Yonker to deliver a unique night of music and immersive theater called The Heart. The idea was to transport the audience throughout the gallery using visual cues. The journey started upstairs where Ill Poacher performed amidst soothing lights and sculptures. After their set, the audience was guided through a giant monster mouth and through a surreal esophagus that continued to narrow until it spilled the audience into the main stage. There they were greeted by an immense heart built of yarn and chicken wire that was attached to the ceiling and filled with glowing lights. Josh appeared naked, huddled in the audience surrounded by three naked women. They were all covered in blood. By the end of the set, the naked women had made their way to the stage where the band was performing and ripped his heart out. The performance was meant to be disturbing, but for Josh it was also immensely cathartic. “This was a big step for me,” he reveals. “I always wanted to push myself in new ways and Matthew Barnes had inspired me about the physicality of performance art. This was a step in a new direction — putting myself in a truly uncomfortable situation… We freaked some people out that night.”
As exhausted as he was after the performance, Josh was unable to rest. A week after the Mammal Gallery performance, he and his father were commissioned to build a giant installation for the Jewish Film Fest based on the classic Mel Brooks comedy Spaceballs. Because the installation was to be housed inside Mammal Gallery, they couldn’t build any of it in advance. Working at a feverish pace, the father and son team created sand dunes and built a life-sized Winnebago, Yogurt and Dark Helmet, all in four days. “That month, I went insane,” he says now with a laugh. “My hands were so bloody.”
By the end of January, however, things had begun to settle down. After almost a full year of writing, developing, building and executing performance pieces and installations, Josh was able to turn his full attention towards pre-production of his first movie, Lizard Brain. For the next two months, he focused on casting, scouting locations and editing his script. He still continued to write music here and there, but he didn’t feel compelled to create anything new for the band.
In April, Josh went to see his roommate perform at Vinyl for the 500 Songs for Kids benefit. He remembers it being a lovely and relaxing evening. When he returned home, he sat down on his bed and tried to speak to his girlfriend, but everything was suddenly wrong. “I went into this painful vocal stutter which immediately turned into a full body seizure,” he recalls. “My right hand and arm seized up, followed by my left side, and then my legs. It scared the shit out of me. It was so sudden and so scary and I didn’t know if it was a heart attack or something else. I leaned against my wall trying to take control and then it totally went away after about two and a half minutes. Fortunately, I didn’t lose consciousness and, oddly enough, my body wasn’t in pain. But I was beyond freaked out.”
Three months after his first seizure, he would be diagnosed with brain cancer sending shockwaves and fear and grief through his family. “It is every parent’s worse nightmare,” his father says. “The worst thoughts come to your mind and fear steps in. As a dad I love to fix problems for my boys, but this is something I can’t fix or control. I asked God to take it from him and give it to me like any parent would, but it doesn’t work that way.”
“Up to the point of diagnosis and throughout the surgery I believed his tumor was going to be benign,” says Graham. “I really convinced myself it wasn’t cancer. This one positive thought that carried me through ended up setting me up for disappointment. I started learning more about his specific case and then it all made more sense, although the knowledge didn’t make me feel any better about his disease. I always try to be strong around him, but that first month after finding out what he was dealing with was actually cancer was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with.”
When I meet Josh for the first time, the signs of his trauma are obvious. The half-shaved head and scar hit you first — how could they not? But then you see look at his eyes, and you begin to feel the strength and resolve. There’s some exhaustion lurking there, of course, but that tiredness is fleeting. Whatever doubts and fears he may have, he doesn’t wear them on his face. Dressed smartly in a gray t-shirt and black jeans, he looks every bit the confident man I’ve seen perform on stages all over the city.
He greets meet with a firm handshake and invites me warmly into his brother’s home where he’s been staying as of late. We speak for a couple of hours, tracing the history of his band and artistic development. He complains that he’s rambling and losing track of his thoughts, but if he is, I can’t tell. He’s smart, witty and articulate. If anything, he sounds like a man who is understandably overburdened with his thoughts. Finally, I ask him about the depression he felt after the surgery. He appears to hesitate, but then dives right into his answer.
“Thinking was the worst part. I thought at least I could be creative and think through ideas, come up with new movie ideas and so on, but I couldn’t even do that. I wasn’t prepared for that and I would get caught in these frustrated cycles of expectation and then mentally hit a brick wall. It got me thinking to when I decided I didn’t want to tour anymore and I wanted to start creating and telling stories in different ways. And through that transition I found I had to tear away at everything I thought about myself and look past the appearance of myself through my own expectations, as well as others. What I realized was that I’m not defined by what I make. It’s an extension of me but I exist beyond those things. That wasn’t easy to do. Going through that was the only way I could get back to basics and dive into the world of filmmaking, puppet making, visual art, performance art or whatever else I wanted to do. So after surgery and the loss of my ability to critically think and be creative at the smallest degree inside my own head, I realized I had teared away even further. But at the lowest and most helpless moment I knew I was still in there. It wasn’t the creativity or the articulation of ideas, it wasn’t that skinny guy with long hair anymore, but it was still me, defined only my own breath and the beating of my heart.”
On Sunday night there will be a benefit show for Josh at the Earl. Although his medical bills are paid through this year, 2016 will bring a whole new set of financial challenges. Jungol is headlining the event, and for the first time ever, Josh will not be on the stage to perform with them. He still isn’t able to play piano and sing — he starts to seize up whenever he tries — and rhythmically he still doesn’t feel fully comfortable on guitar. Although he takes daily anti-seizure medication, he shakes a lot. Still, he’s looking forward to whatever surprises and special guests his bandmates have in store.
As for the future, Josh has been working on some screenplays and he hopes to start production on a new short film in the next few months. Jungol will be releasing both new and unreleased music next year for which they’re very excited. Later this month, he will learn the results of his radiation therapy when he undergoes a second MRI. After that he will start chemotherapy, which will last a period of six months. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but Josh isn’t looking to the future. There’s too much life to live.
“Right now I’ve been feeling like myself again and getting to a peaceful and productive place where I can start to grapple with the reality of living with brain cancer. So if the tumor goes away after treatment doctors say that there’s still a high chance that it will come back at some point and when it does it’s always more aggressive. But I’m not dwelling on life expectancy or any of that stuff. I’ve got a lot of work to do and more stories to tell.”