Interview: Yeasayer deconstruct their latest record, grapple with religion, and keep kids off the street
In the mid- to late-2000s, Yeasayer were one of many alternative rock outfits that veered effortlessly between the lines of psychedelic rock and pop. At the time, associated acts included MGMT and Tame Impala, among others, but almost a decade later, most of those bands have moved elsewhere. MGMT has gone full-on psychedelic, and Tame Impala’s latest release was experimental rock at its finest. Yet Yeasayer still straddles that hybrid-like middle-ground, maintaining a pop accessibility that its contemporaries have long foregone.
The always-fresh Yeasayer sound comes from the unique backgrounds of its core members Chris Keating, Ira Wolf Tuton, and Anand Wilder. Not ones to stop creating, when not recording for Yeasayer, the band is remixing music for other artists or, in co-lead vocalist Wilder’s case, co-writing a musical called Break Line. “There’s a certain joy that comes from socializing, but there’s also a certain sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a song,” says Wilder. “You wouldn’t be able to achieve that if you were just barbecuing with your friends all day long, every day of the week.”
On the band’s latest release on Mute, Amen & Goodbye, which dropped in April, Yeasayer sound sharper than ever. Songs like “Silly Me” are unashamedly pop-oriented, but sit comfortably between more experimental alternative cuts like “I Am Chemistry” and the harmonies of “Dead Sea Scrolls.”
Yeasayer play the Paradise Rock Club in Boston this Friday, May 13, with fellow Brooklynites Young Magic. We caught up with Wilder over the phone about deconstructing their latest record, grappling with religion, and becoming an avocado aficionado.
Cory Lamz: Where your last album left off, you’ve said it was a deliberate steering away from your poppier sound from your previous record. How would you describe Amen & Goodbye then?
Anand Wilder: Well, I don’t know that the last one was steering away from poppy sound, maybe veering away from the sugary, saccharine of a pop record. I always think of all of our music as pretty much within the pop format of folk, strong sense of melody and lyrics that you want to sing along with, and has a groove that you can bob your head to. So I guess in that respect, all of our albums are similarly working within a pop music format.
I think more specifically with this album we wanted to get away from some of the electronics of the last album, a lot of the sampling, tweaking of synthesizers. We did some of that for sure with this album — like run an acoustic guitar through a tape machine backward and use a lot of mic techniques, like getting a closed mic on an amp and a far mic, kind of going back to some of the techniques of albums we really loved by The Beatles, David Bowie, Prince and try to replicate some of those techniques. Ultimately, we ended up deconstructing the whole album and putting it back together again.
When you say “deconstructing,” can you talk about that a little bit more?
What happened was, we recorded some stuff in upstate New York, and we did that via tape machine, and then we took them back and transferred them digitally. Then we employed the help of Joey Waronker, who is a notable drummer [he played as a session musician for Beck and R.E.M.] and we don’t have a core drummer in our band. When we were recording the album, it was really good to have Joey Waronker in there, so we could just play some of our tracks that we recorded and he would lay down some really funky percussion using a very strange-looking kit that he brought with him from L.A. It had a wooden box dangles in it, and a tiny little cymbal that he would hit that sounded like a huge thunderclap just coming out of this tiny little cymbal. He had this really nice sense of timing and where he put his fills. He added this other, distinct sense of musicianship and timing that we were lacking in the record.
We had a lot of different guest people come on, too. We had Steve Marion from Delicate Steve. He played the lead guitar lines on the album. We had Joe McGinty who used to be in Psychedelic Furs, and he played a lot of the piano parts. Suzzy Roche, from The Roches, sang some of the vocal parts. We brought a lot of people in, and so the record became this giant collaborative effort. Over the three and a half years that we recorded the album, the songs would be transformed from these home demoes into these orchestrated, intricately arranged pieces.
It’s interesting that you say “orchestrated” and talk about such a collaborative approach. I’m wondering, was that inspired at all by your experience with Break Line?
Oh yeah! Yeah, I feel like, as a personality or a musician or whatever, one of my strengths is… I think I’ve been able to maintain relationships with people whose talents I really respect. And we [as the band Yeasayer] are pretty open to that. We have our limited skill set, and we try our best, but ultimately if you need someone to play a great piano part well, then you need to get someone who is a great piano player. I like the role of facilitator. It’s great. We have a lot of ideas and reference points that we can say to someone who is doing the piano, “Oh, make it sound more like Nicky Hopkins, the session pianist who played on a lot of Rolling Stones and Beatles records.” And that usually excites someone, and they’re like, “Okay, I understand that reference point.” It’s mixed to the record. It doesn’t sound like you’re ripping that person off because it’s mashed with all of these other different reference points.
With Break Line, yeah it was definitely an exercise in extreme collaboration. With that I was relying on people to sing the vocal parts, whereas with this one [Amen & Goodbye] we pretty much handled all of the leads.
Let’s shift gears for a second. I came on to your music through your remixes…
Oh really? Cool.
Yeah. How is the process of creating original songs different than creating remixes for you?
How is it different? I guess, with a remix, it depends on what your goal is. A lot of the times you want to make something that may be more dancey. For me, I like to strip everything away and make something weird: chop up the vocals and create this whole new song. But really there are some techniques that apply to both remixes and creating new songs. You’d probably be better off approaching songs as remixes. The way I wrote a bunch of songs on this album, like “Half Asleep” and “Cold Night,” was getting these instrumental pieces from Ira [Wolf Tuton] that didn’t have any vocals on them and treating them like a remix, cutting them up and creating a song structure out of it. It’s not quite the same.
You are beholden to the artist — they can say, “I like this,” or “I’m not into this.” For me, it’s a lot easier to be creative if I can start with something that someone else has given me, rather than have a blank canvas and be told, “Write a song. Now.” I can be working on a song and have full lyrics and melody, and not even know or be concerned with what the chord progression is because I just received it. Whereas if I’m writing my own song, I’m stressing about whether it should be a 7th or c-minor there. Just receiving an instrumental piece, you’re just deciding what parts go next to what other parts. It’s liberating. That’s the liberating force of collaboration.
That’s the positive. The negative side is feeling like you have to make artistic compromises to please other people. Hopefully it leans to the other side, where you don’t have the burden of responsibility of being the sole creator, and your collaborators are improving the final product.
On Amen & Goodbye, it feels like there’s a bit more of a religious element than on previous albums. Would you say that that’s true?
Yeah, that’s definitely something we were touching on. It was either a critique or creating our own… Making sense of sources that we’ve read or dabbled in and maybe trying to make our own religious manifesto.
In doing that, where do you stand now? Like, in taking in all of these inspirations and trying to make sense of it all, where do you come out of it?
Where do I come out? The same place I started: confused. Living in denial of my own mortality. You make all of these efforts, and you only wind up where you started, still struggling and still confused. But it’s still fun to try to make sense of it while you’re still around.
Your Boston show is on Friday the 13th. Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Yeah, we do have a positive, pre-show huddle where we touch other and stand around in a circle and pump each other up. It’s nice to make a little connection before you go on stage… You tend to be so scattered when on stage. But nothing more than that, nothing too cult-y.
Do you have more traditional superstitions, like black cats or walking under ladders?
No. I have too many realistic concerns for that. My biggest fear is traffic, especially now with my three-year-old daughter. Walking under a ladder is manageable.
I’m terrified of flying, and I hate flying. I had to get over it because of my job, but it causes me very high levels of anxiety during periods of turbulence.
Yeah, with flying and traffic you’re really limited on how you can get around…
Traffic is my number one fear while living in New York with a three-year-old daughter — generally, as a pedestrian, but also getting in and out of cars. Mostly I just want to keep my kid out of the road — that’s my biggest fear.
Finally, what’s next after the tour?
I’m thinking of going into the import business. I want to see what plants I can import from all over the world. I’m thinking about importing avocados. I like a good avocado. I think that would be a good next step: importer/exporter.
YEASAYER + YOUNG MAGIC :: Friday, May 13 at the Paradise Rock Club, 967 Commonwealth Ave. in Boston, MA :: 8 p.m., 18-plus, $25 :: Advance tickets