[MUSIC: Interview] Yeasayer
“Sometimes I feel like I want to walk off stage and kill myself, because no-one knows what the hell any of the songs are.” These words stun me into temporary silence; I don’t know what I was expecting, but it sure as hell wasn’t this.
It’s around seven in the evening, and I’m all set to interview Ira Wolf Tuton, bass player from New York’s Yeasayer. When we spoke once before, shortly before the band came to Australia to play the hipster gathering known as Laneway Festival, he was in incredibly high spirits. He took the interview from behind the wheel of his van, driving to the store on an all-important snack run and on the look-out for police as he waxed poetic about his love of ‘80s music videos and his excitement at the boundless creativity that being in Yeasayer offers. I’m excited to speak to Ira again, but at the appointed time of the interview, an operator calls to tell me that he has suddenly become unavailable – but that singer Chris Keating has stepped in.
I have only a few minutes at my laptop to tweak my questions, hoping that Chris will be as talkative as Ira – but it soon becomes apparent that this won’t be the case. He’s speaking to me from London, where it’s early morning; Yeasayer are doing some press before some small shows later in the day. He sounds tired and a little glum, clearly not loving the pre-release ritual of talking to the press. We still manage to talk about a range of subjects that stretches from studio tech to the freedom afforded by not having a full-time drummer, but still, Keating seems down – more so than you would expect from someone who has just written ‘Reagan’s Skeleton’, a surreal song inspired by a dream the frontman had, about the former president emerging from the grave to dance like M.J. in ‘Thriller’.
I might have seen this bleak mood coming, though. Yeasayer’s new album, Fragrant World, is out later this month, and it is generally far darker and stranger than anything they’ve released before. It’s predecessor, 2010’s Odd Blood, was filled with buoyant, psychedelic songs that tested the outer limits of electro pop, RnB and indie rock, swirling the sounds all together like finger paints until they were just one bright mess of primary colours; it was difficult to listen to a song like ‘O.N.E.’ without feeling stirrings of joy from deep down inside you. With song names like ‘Devil And The Deed’, ‘Demon Road’ and ‘Damaged Goods’, Fragrant World is no less rich an album, but it’s not suited to dancing with your arms aloft so much as it is to listening on headphones in quiet contemplation.
Recorded in a couple of different studios around Brooklyn, Fragrant World represents the next step in Yeasayer’s ongoing fascination with merging the old and the new; classic analogue synths with strange bits of studio tech. “There’s some classic stuff on the album, like some of the synthesisers that were used on the early Chicago house records – the SH-101 and stuff. There’s some early analogue technology, the ARP synthesiser and stuff like that,” Keating says. “We combined those things with a lot of new software, new sampling technology and some time-stretching stuff.” On Odd Blood, some of the vocal harmonies were recorded with band members singing through a fan; Fragrant World sees them manipulated through programs like Melodyne to the point where they’re twisted and unrecognisable.
Although Yeasayer tour with drummer Cale Parks, they still don’t have a full-time drummer who records with them, which frees them up to draw rhythms from less conventional sources. This certainly accounts for a lot of the arresting, stick-in-your-head rhythms on Fragrant World. “Not having a permanent drummer allows us to work with different drummers on different songs, which is pretty fun and exciting,” says Keating. “I might hear a rhythm in my head walking down the street, or hear a sample of an interesting drumbeat then try to build something around that. I like creating structure, using sequencers and drum machines and things like that to play around and come up with different rhythms, and then seeing if a drummer can actually play those parts.”
Inevitably, our conversation leads towards the darker tone of Fragrant World, and I ask whether it’s a reflection of the band’s collective state of mind at the time. “Probably, yeah,” Keating says after a pause. “I noticed after a while that it sounded a little darker, a little more sinister. Perhaps that’s because of the subject matter we were delving into.” I press him for specifics, but again, he hesitates. “Maybe the darker tone was a conscious thing in opposition to the lighter tone of the last album,” he says. “In general, I think we try to be conscious of what’s going on.”
There are a couple of key tracks that interest me, particularly the gorgeous ‘Henrietta’, inspired by a woman from the 1950s called Henrietta Lacks. “She was a sort of medical anomaly. She had a very aggressive form of cancer and when some cells were removed from her body while she was being treated, they were found to keep multiplying, and keep living. Her genetic material and her cells were used as a basis for a lot of 20th century medical experiments – the polio vaccine that Jonas Salk came up with was the product of her cells. It’s an interesting story.”
“Oh Henrietta/we can live on together,” Keating sings, as a ghostly chorus harmonises with him. To me, it sounds like a love song sent out beyond the grave, maybe even a love song from the cancer cells to their host – but when I ask Keating how he sees it, my theories don’t hold. “It’s really neither,” he says. “It’s just a jumping-off point, to use a real-life story as a metaphor.” He’s similarly vague on the origins of ‘Reagan’s Skeleton’, another of Fragrant World’s more surreal tracks. “It’s inspired by a dream about the rotting corpse of Ronald Reagan coming out of the grave, along with all of his zombie Cabinet, and dancing around like ‘Thriller’. It’s just kind of a humorous image.”
Given Yeasayer’s trippy and super enjoyable sets at the Splendour In The Grass and Laneway festivals of years past, I’m curious to hear just how these new, darker songs will fit into their live show. But when I ask, things take a bit of a turn. “Yeah, we’ve been touring them for the last few weeks,” Keating sighs. “We’ve been playing mostly new stuff so it’s kind of a challenge, because no-one knows [the new record]. Sometimes I feel like I want to walk off stage and kill myself, because no-one knows what the hell any of the songs are. We play a few old ones, but we’re trying to get the new ones tight, even if people aren’t aware of them yet.”
It’s always a leap of faith playing unfamiliar songs to an audience who want to hear the hits, I say, before asking which of the new songs have been going down the best. “It’s hard to tell from song to song,” Keating answers. “In general it doesn’t matter that much, I guess. We’re having fun playing the new songs, even if it’s nerve-racking. Older ones feel safe, because we’ve played them so many times. It’s exciting for us to play new material.”
I ask Keating if Australian fans will get the chance to see Fragrant World played live, and he assures me it’s on the cards at some point. “It’s a long trip to make, so we want to get the most out of it as possible, maybe link it up with some touring in Asia,” he says. “It will most likely be in January. We’ll hit you guys early in the Australian summer – that’s a good time to get out of the US.”
What: Fragrant World is out this Friday on Spunk Records.