Yeasayer might just do it. They might just be the weirdest little Brooklyn band to break out of the Pitchfork ghetto in 2010. While All Hour Cymbals, Yeasayer’s first opus of worldly, often pessimistic pop tunes, was met by the endless jawing of the blogosphere, which promptly grouped the band in with Gang Gang Dance and other seemingly multi-ethnist groups taking cues from Talking Heads records. But with Odd Blood, Yeasayer’s new album out on Secretly Canadian this week, the band—keyboardist Chris Keating, guitarist Anand Wilder, and bassist Ira Wolf Tuton—is ahead of the pack. Thanks to its memorable lyrics and actually hummable tunes, it almost seems possible that they could join Modest Mouse and Death Cab in the rare stratum of post-indie superstardom. They’ve got poppy chops for days, as evidenced by “Ambling Alp,” the lead-off single from the LP, and with “Madder Rose,” they’ve already written more hooks than most of their peers ever will. For better or worse, though, Yeasayer is also not afraid to be confounding. The album kicks off with “The Children,” a downright disturbing collage of strange sounds and stranger voices, the likes of which Tom Waits’ nightmares might produce if he was more into synths.
I had the pleasure of talking to Keating, who is often perceived as the band’s frontman, though in truth Yeasayer’s performances and recordings are incredibly collaborative. He was refreshingly unpretentious about the band’s origins and aspirations.
Greetings Chris. I’m calling from the beautiful land of Columbus, Ohio.
Chris Keating: You know a friend of ours, Ahmed (Gallab, of Sinkane, who plays drums with Yeasayer on tour) is always big-upping Columbus. He’s got all these statistics, like it’s the sixth largest industrial city in the midwest region. I guess it’s a pretty great place.
We like to think so. How did you end up being in a big pop band, specifically this one?
CK: I still don’t think I’m in a big band. I played in high school in some bands, and I always made music, mostly electronic stuff. But I was studying to be a fine artist, studying graphic design, and then I ended up at the RISD fine arts school in Providence, and I started doing music again once I got there. It was mostly experimental, electronic kind of stuff. I never really thought I’d do another band again. I didn’t really want to.
But then you and Anand got together?
CK: He’s been my friend since fourth grade. We played in one band in high school. He was living in Philadelphia, and after I came to New York, we started playing together. He’s a smart musician, better than most people, better than anyone I know, and he’s really good to collaborate with. So, when we started collaborating again, it really started working out.
And is that when Yeasayer was born?
CK: Well, we started messing around. He’d been working on this rock opera, which he started in summer 2004. I had done some music by myself, and we just figured we could bridge the gap between that electronic music and rock opera. At the time, all that White Stripes stuff was popular. The White Stripes are great, but it was all just ’70s-influenced garage rock and was all getting boring. We really just wanted to do something that wasn’t being done.
In some interview you said, ”We just want to rip off so many things that it becomes original.” Are you getting close?
CK: The intention is to jump from idea to idea, lots of textures in the songs, mixing things together. I’m constantly trying to figure out new ways to incorporate stuff that we like—new music, new sounds, new ideas. So, it doesn’t matter if it comes from Enya or it’s Phil Collins or no wave, we just have to do something that no one else is doing.
Is there an influence for which you haven’t yet found a place?
CK: I’d like to encompass some rapping, or just that idea of lyrical expression without melody. That’d be hard to do well. You don’t want to be 311. But I’m really influenced by the production techniques. It’s not a traditional rock background with the organic elements of instrumentation. When you hear the sounds, no one’s going to ask Just Blaze, “What instrument is that?” It doesn’t matter—it’s a texture, and it could be anything. It’s funny that when you have a band, it’s all about who’s playing the guitar. But maybe we put it in a sequencer, and then that gets played by a computer.
You write most of the music on a computer?
CK: Yeah, we had one computer in the basement, and we’d all go down and work on it whenever. So sometimes I’d go down and there’d be a new layer. Now we’ve all got laptops and our studio computer, and it’s a great portable recording tool. So, I’ll sample whatever record I’m into or record vocal ideas on the computer and then bring it to a band. The way information can flow now, we can email musical ideas to each other. With the laptops, it’s great because we all have different personal recording devices full of sounds.
Is the band’s songwriting more intuition or intellect?
CK: It’s pretty labored over. For me, I’m not good at playing any one instrument, so I have to rely on other sensibilities. Anand is technically very good and so is Ira. Usually, though, we don’t all know what the others are doing, and we kind of throw it together and find out what it might be.
One of the soundbites about Odd Blood is bound to be that it’s more optimistic. Are you feeling less apocalyptic now?
CK: Well, first of all, I think that’s been really overstated about the first record. It’s hard to say what a lot of your intention is when it’s in abstract metaphors, so you let your subconscious do a lot of it. But it’s not all about the end of the world or whatever. We have this sort of lyrical concept that the band name came from this idea of an absurd motivational speaker with positivity that’s so saccharine and over-hyped that it’s sinister. It’s like Tom Cruise and his fucking smile and his whole trip, or the vibe that preachers have when you know they must be fucking dogs in their shed.
Has your worldview changed now? Are the new songs a direct expression of your real life?
CK: It was a lot more personal on the new record. We set out stuff we didn’t want to do, and we tried to push it more, even if we didn’t talk about it. But if John McCain was elected President, it would have been a lot different. Since we were writing around the election when we started, we were all in much different places. Also we’re all in happy relationships now. Before, I don’t think we were. We were all negative about the state of the world and our interpersonal and romantic relationships.
Talking about the album, people are dropping names like Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, and other synthetic ’80s acts. Was that something you were going for?
CK: I got really into Front 242. I’ve been wanting to go for an ’80s futuristic thing with R&B and ambient music. I’d like to make a double-disc album, with one side really dance heavy, like that Baltimore club sound—Major Lazer, dubstep, dance hall. And then another side that’s full on Vangelis or Eno, like 48 minutes, all one track.
Secretly Canadian is a great label. Did they have something specific that you were looking for?
CK: When we did the old record with We Are Free, which is basically just our manager’s label, it was a good way to start off. So now, obviously, we wanted enough money to make a record and enough to do what we wanted. And to really get complete freedom. Both those labels were great, and the heads of Secretly Canadian were coming to our shows before anyone was at our shows, before we even had a album. So they were really supportive, and it already felt like a familial relationship with them.
So are you enjoying touring or is it just boring for you?
CK: I do like it, but it’s always a grind. You try every night to make the show special, but it’s very repetitive. And you get to a point where you’re getting better and better as a band, and you peak, and then you’re trying to live up to that last good show. But sometimes it’s really great, like if an audience is awesome. But if you know you’re going into a place with really bad sound or you’ve had a bad night before...
Do you have road hobbies? RJD2 makes a point of trying to find the best espresso in every city he visits. Nick from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs made a hobby of taking pictures of the crowd. It seems like artists need a way to compensate for the monotony of touring.
CK: I always try to find local things, weird things, like what is the best, most interesting place to go eat. I listen to a lot of audiobooks and work on music, but there are so many hours of doing nothing. We’ve actually been trying to institute an exercise regime.
So we should expect you all to look really ripped next time you’re in town?
CK: You know that Perfect Pushup thing on TV? Seriously, we got that. We’ve all got a yoga mat and the Perfect Pushup, because you get atrophied sitting around backstage and in a van all the time. I can almost feel my bones breaking apart from sitting in awkward positions all day.
Listening to the records, watching the videos, looking at the artwork and so on, one almost expects you to be a 21st century version of Yes—all costumes and grandeur. But in-person and onstage, you’re pretty down-to-earth and straightforward.
CK: We try to walk that line, because you don’t want it to be too theatrical or over-the-top. We try to figure out how far we can go without losing the relationship with the audience. Partially, it depends on how big the venue is, and you don’t want to wear costumes or remove yourself totally. So it’s like how can you put on a good show and still be a band? We’re coming from a background of indie rock and underground hip-hop, and there’s just no flair there because they’re just speaking right to us in the crowd.
If you had an unlimited budget what would the show be like?
CK: I don’t look forward to playing in huge places. We have a simple goal that we’d like to be able to play for 1,000 people in any city, or at least 500, which is pretty doable. But any bigger becomes very impersonal. That’s about the limit, the size of Webster Hall (in New York), which holds about 1,500 people. I love going to shows there, but any place bigger than that and you can’t see the people and you’re listening to the delayed sound of a miked speaker. But if we had the money, I’d like to do a really weird tour, something like Kanye West. I mean, he’s losing money on his show every night, but he’s trying do something really unusual and see how far he can go with it.
In another interview on our site, Matt from the Fiery Furnaces was asked if he had any advice for up-and-coming bands. He said, and I’m paraphrasing a bit here, “They should not listen to anyone else. Remember our job is not to please, but to displease. That’s rock music. It’s not pleasing. Maybe it agitates you despite yourself, but it’s not pleasing. It might be exciting, but it doesn’t make you happy inside.” What do you think? Is pleasing people part of the job?
CK: I don’t know if I agree with that. Maybe. I think he’s disregarding a lot of the pleasure that can come from the displeasure. You’re not trying to be that antagonistic; you’re trying to revel in the idea of antagonism. As brutal as Iggy Pop or Suicide were, people enjoyed that. Ultimately, it was pleasure. Bands that really displeased me, I never bought or listened to. But with those guys you wanted to go back to the show. You can have angst or anger and still have a pleasurable experience. This punk rock way of looking at it, where you’re trying to actually piss people off, you’re not really doing that if anyone comes back to the show a second time.