Yeasayer “So, it’s a lullaby, but at the same time, about this murderer. We like to play with these juxtapositions.”

The slightest alteration can spill forth worlds of wild new perspective. A delicate effecting of a tone and the right subtraction or addition of a synthesized bass line, played at just the right speed, can take a band’s writings once perceived as austere and ethereal—doused with influences from the East and sanctified by hazy, beautifully howled chorales—into newly refreshed classifications of “poppy” and “80s-driven,” with an overall more rousing (and at times, danceable) vibe. It’s what enables a minimalist synth-pulsed percussive piece to create vivid imagery, like a “post-industrial wasteland”; it’s the kind of subtle vocal processing that can take you from 70s-spurred psych-rockers into 80s-loving synth-pop band.

The Brooklyn-based trio Yeasayer (Anand Wilder, Chris Keating, Ira Wolf Tuton) flourish in juxtapositions—darker sonic realms of paranoia or foreboding may be charged with the invigoration of a cheerily buzzing bass or the floor-ready rhythms of a dance anthem. After singing about germs, covering up murder, and the future we were born into on 2007’s All Hour Cymbals, the band has now ventured into love songs with Odd Blood (out in February on Secretly Canadian)—yet it is still, as Wilder put it, with a bit of “darkness.” Indeed, while their newest may be marked for its poppier leanings, it still retains their characteristic soul-shuddering harmonies, growling feedback, and explosive percussions-setting marches (but, on occasion here, also, dance beats).

Wilder sets the record straight on Yeasayer’s regard for “sunny sentiments.”


What’s the word?

We’re just in the throes of preparing our new live show; it’s good to be finally putting these new recordings into the live setting—and, actually, wait just a minute, I’m boiling water but it’s so bright in here, I can’t see the blue flame on the burner. There’s a lot of sunlight in here.

That’s monstrously bright. So, what about new members? New live show?

So, the live show, we’ve got two new drummers (Ahmed Gallab and Jason Trammell), both musicians in their own right who have their own albums out and are much more accomplished solo artists than us. One is more of a traditional kind of drummer, the other is handling a lot of backing tracks and keyboards. It’s really just freeing it up to be something other than just a traditional band where one person handles this particular task and so on. It’s a fluid kind of system now.

And what about last year? How was your 2009?

It wasn’t a heavy touring year; we did a lot of tours around festivals. At Bonnarroo, it was really exciting for us to play new tracks and have the audience get really excited about songs that we weren’t really sure where we were going with them, and that was kinda like an indication: okay, I guess we gotta go with that version.

Like focus grouping…

Exactly, our market research.

Well, I Googled the band and the first thing that popped up was, and find walleyed spherical frame that can spin around, with naked people running around and what sounds like horse-riding frogs and harmonizing angels bouncing around inside cramped rain-sticks. What’s the story with this site and this video?

With “Ambling Alp,” we knew it would be our first kinda single, our first entry into the cultural consciousness, and so we really wanted to make it as bombastic as possible. We had five radical friends who created the video entirely themselves, who had this idea of using a 360-degree camera, which nobody uses that much, and they would shoot a lot of the footage in that video for that interactive video that you’re talking about, which [are] scenes from the actual music video. It would be wrapped up in an object, and these actors would hold it and can see 360-degrees around with like five cameras that all interlock, and you can see all around, where you really feel like you’re part of that cult of naked people running up that mountainside.

“Okay, what is this? Is this a house-music jam? Is it Justin Timberlake? Is it The Beatles? I don’t get what the hell this song is!”

Yeah, it the angle-adjustment gives it a choose-your-own-adventure air…

Exactly. I think in an ideal world that would have been the music video for “Ambling Alp,” like, okay—aaand, here’s our “music video,” just, found sounds and a little ambient stuff that sort of sounds like the song, but no… Why does a video have to be the exact song? Why can’t it be a video that’s inspired by the song? I like the fact that not everyone has seen that yet.

Oh, we’ll spread the word, now. Okay, then, let’s get into the meat and potatoes of Odd Blood and distinguish the experience, in writing—and then in recording—from your previous, All Hour Cymbals

The writing aspect was fairly similar. With this album we didn’t have as many jam-outs to create songs. The last album we pretty much had five days in the studio and then did overdubs at home, in our basement in Brooklyn for four months, while we all worked day jobs and then had five days to mix the whole album—we had all these demos that were much higher quality than anything from All Hour Cymbals and rented a house in Woodstock, NY for four months, employed an engineer to help us eschew sounds that we envisioned and then toured, which helped us realize what the songs were missing, and then took it to a pretty nice studio in Manhattan, added even more overdubs, and were able to take home early mixes, come back, recall mixes, change things around, add different vocals, change levels, change panning. It was much more deliberate process, back and forth, until we had something that we couldn’t really think of anything that we found wrong, sonically, anymore. Except, by the end of the process, we were probably so sick and tired of all the songs.

Let’s talk aesthetics, then. I listened to old songs like “Wait for the Summer” and “Germs” last night and noticed that the vocals are almost sleepy at points, very hazed, and then on “Ambling Alp” and “Madder Rose,” vocals are right up front. It’s almost like, now, you’re in the room with us, sharing coffee and nodding, whereas before it was like you were beckoning from a distance towards this ethereal gaping cave mouth of mystery.

Yeah. I think that was a definite intention for us and maybe it went against our aesthetic instincts, where our instincts before were to say ‘Oh, turn that vocal level down,’ just to be a little more shy about your own vocal performance. That was something we were pushing on the last album–hazy group vocals–[else] we thought the album would be too clean and it would sound too much like an NPR band. We’d send it out through my crappy PA, record the vocals back onto 4-track, and then throw em back into the computer. We were trying to get really good vocal takes and, yeah, you really feel like we’re singing into your ear, and that might sound corny, might sound a little too poppy for some people’s aesthetic. But for us, we wanted to take that risk in order to do something different from the last album.

There is that risk. Once you get cleaner, more palatable, everyone drops the ‘Hey, they’re getting poppy’ thing. But, yes, this is music that fits better in our kitchens, in our bedrooms, in our cars , dreamy fuzzy synth ballads, like “I Remember,” with its lover-ly lyrics.

Yeah, completely. I think that was another intention, to write some love songs! I think I kinda failed. I think all my love songs are kinda dark and paranoid. I think Chris hits the mark on “I Remember,” but, even if they aren’t necessarily traditional love songs, they do have lovers in them–a lovers sense, even if they’re confessional songs or break-up songs or whatever…

Can you qualify that? Was it something that happened to you as people, to cause this… brightening up?

I think the whole brightening up is sorta superficial and more caused by the polished side of the recording. I think lyrically, yeah, there’s “Ambling Alp,” which is very kind of positive and “… stick up for yourself…” but, then, there’s other songs about serial killers and other songs about alcoholism, then there’s songs like “Madder Red,” which is kind of a turning-away-kind-of song, about resignation, being kind of a weak man. I think “Mondegreen” and “Strange Reunions” are these dark, paranoid-sounding songs; we just masked them with a very up-tempo beat. I don’t see any more lyrical up-beat-ness in this one. I think “2080,” as a song, had its ups and downs. Its bleak but, “… it’s a new year, I’m glad to be here…” I think we’re constantly playing with this juxtaposition, and we’re never gonna put out a song that really dedicates itself to one particularly sunny sentiment. There’s always some darkness in there.

Lyrics aside and back to music, or at least both together – have the early readings of Odd Blood surprised you? People paring it down to this guitar-based pop thing or bringing up the 80s influence, namedropping Tears for Fears or Erasure

I’m not hurt by it. I love Tears for Fears. I think it has to do with Chris’ vocals or even my vocals; the way we processed the vocals on “Madder Red” sounds a lot like a Depeche Mode song or something. But, for me, the 80s was a time when people were still singing and using a lot of processing, and it was the pinnacle of that weird experimentation, with Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel and Tears for Fears. Anytime I think we’ve tried to do that within a pop-song format, it’s gonna be likened to music from the 80s. Whereas if you do something that’s more ‘rockin,’ guitar-based, it might be called ’70s, ya know. I don’t know, I think we are all just as equally influenced by stuff from the 90s and from the 00s, 80s, 70s, all over. Somehow, once you throw that vocal on top of it, it’ll get that 80s reference, no matter what, even if we’re ripping off some Beck song from the 90s.

“We wanted to take that risk in order to do something different from the last album.”

Can you get reflective about the band? What is it you share, as a unit – what you’ve learned from your experience and collaboration together? What do you give each other and what does this music, that you do, give to each of you?

Wow… that’s a heavy question.

We can come back to that…


I was gonna ask, in the meantime, about a couple of fascinating tracks, “The Children” and “Love Me Girl,” which look like openers of Side A and Side B in the arrangement—both featuring that weird buzzy vocal thing, with one definitely this funky creature and the other a creepy, introductory-feeling march…

Yeah. “The Children” was kinda this bold decision of ours to put out one of our less-accessible, weirder kind of songs that we were excited about beginning the record with, to say, “Okay, anyone who expected All Hour Cymbals part two – this is actually where we’re going. You want harmonized vocals? We’re gonna give you harmonized vocals – but they’re with a computer processor; they’re not from the mic around the campfire.” It has a really beautiful melody. I think people will hear that eventually–but, superficially, it’s a weird-sounding, post-industrial prison camp wasteland song. Then, “Love Me Girl” was an old song that I wrote and it had this pretty long intro. We thought it could define this second side, as something new and make it that much more powerful when the song drops and then, when it comes in, yeah, it’s kinda like a Justin Timberlake-sounding song; I was imagining Justin Timberlake when I was writing that.

And to pinpoint those two side-starters – it seems clear, with the poppy on one side and the funky/weird on the other, that you were setting out to make a good two-sided player.

I think the first side we were thinking, maybe more traditional, formulaic pop and “The Children” is anthemic. Even though it’s very weird, to me it’s very anthemic. Then you have “Ambling Alp,” which is a well-structured anthem, then “Madder Red” has a pretty solid structure, solid beat, you know, it goes somewhere, then we fade out into “I Remember,” this plaintive love song, and then “O.N.E.” is this dance anthem. So the second side is: “Okay, let’s put all these weird songs that we can’t really put our finger on; they’re just these paranoid strange weird little snippets.” I think, “Love Me Girl,” is, already like… “Okay, what is this? Is this a house-music jam? Is it Justin Timberlake? Is it The Beatles? I don’t get what the hell this song is!” Then “Rome” is this strange story about this power-hungry general in Rome, and then “Strange Reunions” sounds like an All Hour Cymbals outtake—it’s weird, switching beats, you can’t even wrap your head around. I still can’t sing to that song because those rhythms are so strange. Then “Mondegreen” is this oppressive kind of beat that just kills you, about this paranoid guy who thinks everybody’s talking about him. Then, finally, it ends with this lullaby (“Grizelda”) about Grizelda Blanco, this mass murder in the heyday of the cocaine drug wars in Miami. So it’s a lullaby, but at the same time, about this murderer. We like to play with these juxtapositions.

Wanted to sneak back to that flowery question we skipped—and explain that one only gets reverential enough to ask it because you dabble in the realm of very sanctimonious feeling music, that just feels apt for sharing with people, even if it’s dark and foreboding—it feels very human—hence I wanted to ask about those humans you collaborate with.

It’s just hard to reflect when you’re with these people all the time. At the same time, I went to India with my girlfriend, and when I came back, it was a really wonderful trip, very reflective and got a lot of perspective. It was the first time I’ve enjoyed traveling in a couple years, when traveling wasn’t work. But, you come back and you just wanna hibernate. But, then I called Chris and we had this conversation and it was like: “Oh, right!! This guy’s one of my best friends! I’ve known this guy since first grade and we’ve been best friends ever since,” like, “Oh, that’s right, there is this common ground that exists between the three of us.” It’s a really intense relationship, and it may be temporary—you never know how long it’s gonna last—you just have to make the most of it and hope that a collaboration is more fruitful then a solo venture. It’s a really strange job. I’m dependent on four other people to do my job, and I have to be around them 24 hours a day to accomplish that—and [chuckle] you can understand why people go solo. But, that’s a really negative side. I don’t feel that right now. I guess everyone could feel that when they’re at their lowest. But, it’s something you can understand—as much as I understand why… I think Roxy Music is better with Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno, but I can also understand why Eno didn’t want to tour and wanted to do his own shit… and I love his solo stuff.

After you figure out the live presentation, what’s next?

We’re playing the Natural History Museum in L.A., then we come back to play a couple shows back in NY. After that, pretty much around Valentine’s Day, we head off to Europe for a five-week tour, and then we come back to do the US. Summer… is still open, but I have the feeling it’s gonna be occupied by… European festivals.

As it often is…

Yeah. Oh, I’m getting another call.

[Photo: Jason Frank Rothenberg]

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