The Perpetual Metamorphosis of Yeasayer
  • MONDAY, AUGUST 20, 2012

  • Posted by: Joe Puglisi

Yeasayer is a perpetual metamorphosis machine. The Brooklyn band rose to prominence in 2007 with their psychedelic art-pop occupied All Hour Cymbals, an album that buried hooks beneath chants, claps, and a variety of instrumental explorations. And then instead of seeking successors and heirs to their tunes, they manufactured a bloody regime change -- Odd Blood, more electro-babble than tribal outburst, but still with the same underlying attention to undeniable hooks. So with their third outing, the band sought to strip and rebuild their sonic empire once more, turning to a sort of "demented R&B" album, according to early accounts of their recording process. Fragrant World is as close to this descriptor as possible, again twisting the flavor of their previous work into something completely different, and at the same time, undeniably their own. We spoke with Ira Wolf Turton, bass player and original trio memeber along with lead singer Chris Keating and guitarist/vocalist Anand Wilder. Here's what he had to say about recording/ideating Fragrant World, "Reagan's Skeleton," and the elusive Chris Keating Mick Jagger comparison. How did you guys approach this record? How did you want to make it different than Odd Blood? Ira: The number one thing for us when we go into recording anything, is to make sure not to repeat aesthetic stuff. And also to be able to continue wanting to do this, it's important to challenge yourself with different ideas. Sometimes that can be producing it in a different way, different stylistic stuff, and also different gear that we're not really familiar with, but we know what it could do. So, all of that informs a very different approach. There are certain genres we hadn't really touched on in the last record, and we are trying to create our own aesthetic. But it's all a process of regurgitation. That's the nature of making music, building on something that came before. We're very aware of that. So I think for us it's a matter of molding different stylistic things into a novel arrangement and production sound. And that's also where we find the excitement in doing the whole thing. You guys have a different sound from any other band I've heard in recent years. If you had to, how would you describe that sound? I don't particularly like describing it, but if I'm on an airplane and I'm sitting next to somebody and they ask, "Are you in a band?" "Yeah" "What's the name of it?" "Yeasayer." "Yeaslayer?" And I say, "No, Yeasayer." "Yeagayer?" And I say, "No, Yeasayer." So, obviously... they've never heard of us. [Laughs] And then they ask me what kind of music we play, I say "experimental pop music." We are using refrains and traditional song structures in a linear way. In the future, I'd like to maybe explore more longform stuff, through soundtracks and stuff. But, within Yeasayer we're definitely working with hooks, choruses and verses. Hooks are very important to us in terms of identifying them, bringing them out and informing the rest of the song and arrangement. We produce in this layered way, sometimes it's hard to back away from that.
A lot of them seem to be built on a particularly interesting phrase. So how do you guys create a song? How does it start? Well, they all come from a demo from one of us. And then another one of us will kind of get turned on by it for one reason or another, however complete it is. A lot of the songs on this one were more completed than in the past records. And then we kind of block out a period of time when we go about producing and arranging that material. We're in the business of making albums so we'll pick, you know, 15-18 of those songs and keep them all at the same pace of each other so we don't start loving or hating one more than the others. We'll kind of bounce around between all of them and then through that process we'll realize, "Oh, these two songs sound pretty much exactly the same. So let's pick the one we like more." Do you ever combine them? Sometimes, yeah. Are there songs like that on this new album? "Blue Paper" really started as one song but that last output really came out of something else. Man, I'm so far distanced from it that it's hard to remember. [Laughs] I can say that with a song like "Henrietta," that end part was originally just the chorus. Then we realized that it was a much more powerful arrangement to turn that into a linear thing and that be a whole new section. So that's kind of an experimentation, to that effect, in terms of how you go about arranging things, and how you try to be aware of the ultimate value of each section and each part. Sometimes you can get wrapped up, but that's the goal.
What are the ideal listening conditions for Fragrant World? I think the best thing about music is that a personal thing. We were just at a festival in Germany at Melt Festival. There was a lot of electronic music, a lot of four-to-the-floor, and that's communal music. People love the idea of going to that festival and staying up until ungodly hours on ungodly drugs with this communal dance feeling. And I can understand that, but I kind of value music on a personal level. The kind of music I love relates to me in some kind of personal way, and I'm able to control how I listen to it. I think that exists more and more with the Internet. You curate your own pop culture and media on the internet. Not even so much with what goes in, but now more with what goes out. Individuals are curating these movements from their bedrooms, which is an interesting idea. It's kind of a flip. But, to each his own. You know, my girlfriend had listened to the record for a really long time on her shitty car stereo, and she really liked the songs. And then, probably a month or two later, she listened to it on her headphones, and her mind was blown because she didn't even realize what was in the record. She was listening to a different record because of all of the interstitial nuances she missed on her CR-V stereo. And I think that's kind of exciting to experience the same thing in different ways and in different environments. That's cool, both experiences are as valid as the other. So, how are you guys preparing to transfer those nuances from the recording to the live setting? We've been working a lot on it already. And it's good that it exists, because that's kind of been the next exciting challenge. But you kind of have to hone those things down. You have to have a little more focus. You can't play with layers and density in the same sense. Sometimes you have to simplify. Sometimes you have to speed the BPMs up. The set-list has to be in a different order than the track order because you're trying to harness a very different kind of energy, which is that collective energy. That's why you have to approach the two in a very different way. But I take a lot of joy and excitement in that. Having worked on this material for such a long time and knowing it backwards and forwards, and all the arrangements and where everything comes from, then getting to re-translate and refresh it is an exciting thing. What are some of the moments you're most proud of on the album? Overall I'm really excited that we got to a different aesthetic. That's the A-1 goal is to move forward with different ideas and challenges, and I think we achieved that overall. And I think some songs were arranged to fit that more than others, and that's exciting. But, I think of it as a whole. Now, my brain is so much into a live thing, which is kind of challenged in a totally different way in terms of thinking about the music, and how my parts fit, and different gear that I want to be using. So it's in a very different place. But overarching, I feel that joy that we finished, that we accomplished something new, and that we moved in a direction.
I've felt that way about everything you guys have always done. It comes together as a very cohesive record. How do you pick out a single when there's so much, and it's so cohesive? It's hard for us to do. So, sometimes we bring in our friends who are musicians, and also we'll bring in the suits. A lot of that world is very foreign to us. They'll say, "This one is obviously more marketable!" I'll say, "I don't fuckin' know, why?" "Oh because it's got a four-to-the-floor beat." So, the decision making in that, what song is a single, starts with what we think and then we definitely take into account what other people think, because that involves a lot of other people as well. I think a lot of other bands want to act like their more obtuse, but we're really not trying to be obtuse about any of this. The reality is we exist and we release singles, and some songs have to be singles, and whether I like that or not, that's the nature of the game we exist in. I don't really know why singles exist, but they apparently are important to a lot of people. The "Reagan's Skeleton" thing, is that supposed to be Ronald Reagan? No, Joshua Reagan. [Laughs] No, yeah, the one and only Big Ron, greatest actor ever with a chimpanzee. Even better than Clint Eastwood. Where did that come from? Was that just something somebody said? That's from Chris [Keating]'s brain, so you'd have to ask him. I've heard him say that he was kind of thinking of a funny idea of reconfiguring Reagan into this thriller world. But it's definitely coming from a rewriting of history, as there always is in American politics. It's funny to step back and take a good remembrance of what the 80s were like for a lot of people. [Laughs] Not just for Reagan's friends.
That's great. I have to ask: does Chris ever get the Mick Jagger comparison? I've always been curious about that, in his vocal styling and stage presence. I've only heard that once, and it was before our band even existed. It was at a karaoke bar in [New York City's] East Village. I think I did a Sam Cooke song and he went up and did a Rolling Stones song, and it was in the bottom of a Chinese Restaurant where all these models and cool people went to hang out. And we weren't models or cool people. You know, that New York honeymoon. And I remember him getting up on stage and some ditzy chick saying, [In a Valley girl accent]: "You have to not only sing like them but look like them." [Laughs] That was the only time I thought about that. And that was before Yeasayer even existed, so go figure. ----------- Fragrant World is out tomorrow. For more of the band's history, watch our full length concert.
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