Monday, February 08, 2010

Yeasayer Interview

So I recently had a feature on Yeasayer appear on the magazine racks, only to realize that Anand Wilder and Ira Wolf Tuton roles were swapped in my piece. Ooooft. My apologies to Mr. Wilder for the mix-up.
Anyhow, back on a sleety gray day, I climbed into Yeasayer's tour van and chatted with them about a then-recent, woefully argued New York Magazine (non)think piece about how everybody wants to be like Dave Longstreth and why articles about Brooklyn's music scene always miss what truly ties bands like Animal Collective, DP, Yeasayer, MGMT, et al. together. Not that we figured it out either, but so it goes...

You guys had a similar experience, did you not, getting grouped into some bigger Zeitgeist piece about “Brooklyn” for the NY Times, trying to tie it all together. 

Chris: It was Dragons of Zynth, Dirty Projectors, us, MGMT.

So what is the fallacy in grouping everyone together? What is the perceived connection versus the true connection?

Chris: No one has done it eloquently, unfortunately. They are talking about music being made in the same place by people who they perceive as being a giant group of buddies. But it’s never like: “These are the sonic elements or these are the aesthetics that tie these things together.” It’s vague homilies thrown around, but nothing concrete.

It’s always grouped by the most tactile thing critics can grab onto: records, but nothing beyond that.

Ira: That’s just the bane of music-writing. Music-writing has to put this collective together and create this movement. It makes it more interesting to read about.
Chris: It’s not inaccurate because all those people are friendly. But it’s not like we’re of the same mindset when it comes to making stuff. Or perhaps we are and we just don’t know. Maybe that’s up to some writer for them to sum up.

What logically connects everyone then?

Chris: All those people, depending on who we are talking about... it’s at an interesting point in time where you have these musicians who are equally interested in pop hits as they are in really left field stuff. I bet on all those peoples iPods you would find the new BeyoncĂ© single and then…the Suicide record.

Or Ethiopiques.

Chris: Yeah. I think that is mostly because of the way that information is getting around these days. So everyone is embracing pop structure but also trying to shake it up a little bit and do their own thing in their own way and not have any pressure to conform. Obviously, Dirty Projectors don’t have any pressure to conform or fit in or write a hit. They just happen to have catchy parts because they’re amazing songwriters. They don’t have a major pressuring them. Grizzly Bear have Motown style songs, but no one is telling them how to do it.
Ira: I also think that although a lot of people in the music industry perceive that they’re going through “this transition” I think for all of us, the transition has already happened. We started to exist professionally with very different expectations and different understandings of the way our music is going to get out into the ether. We’re reliant on the internet and blogs (all these bands are) but it’s not so much geared towards major record sales.
Chris: (to me) What do you think is a unifying theme to these bands? You think there is one?

For me it’s the omnivorous appetite of listening.

Chris: I’d agree with that.

I was recently in Finland and I found that the bands I was hearing were really only listening to other indie rock bands, which is one stage removed. Whereas I think the most successful and striking bands here don’t necessarily listen to other bands but rather diverse things: African music, dancehall, hip-hop, disco, weird stuff. They’re not listening to what Pitchfork is trumpeting.

Ira: A lot of these bands are still trying to maintain pop sensibilities in some way. I see it as people trying to create a new pop lexicon, no matter how much they sound alike. Being inundated with sources and trying to make sense of it now. There’s a new jump-off point.

There’s a collage aspect as well. Your saturation level is so high that you just grab at whatever is closest at hand and reconstitute it through your own set of lenses.

Chris: It’s internet culture of music. That is the driving technological force. The iPod dictates the music, just as the electric guitar did, or the drumkit did for other generations. If you’re really trying to make music and engage in a dialogue with technology, which I think music always has –whether its turntables or synthesizers or multi-tracking—now we’re dealing with the technology of the internet and MySpace and the iPod shuffle. The longform record-making album is still cool but it's an antiquated art form. I think of the two-hour film at the cinema is antiquated as well, but I still want to do it. The way technology informs music is huge. We’re witnessing over the last decade crazy technological advances that shape a lot of the music.
In terms of you approaching the pop lexicon then, how do you think of it?

Chris: I can get super-psyched about a Fabolous song (sings one) and think that’s a great melody but I don’t necessarily want to make hip-hop. But then I can relate that Fabolous melody to a weird melody in a dancehall song (a Mavado song) and then take it even further and relate it to weird 60s stuff like the Zombies and it’s based on that sort of idea. When we’re recording music, we’re listening to almost anything. “Put on James Taylor!” “Oh, no!” “But I like it.” And then put on this, put on Chaka Khan. It’s about all that culture coming to an apex and how can you put it together.

Ira: There’s a lot of music today, especially dancehall and R&B, there’s some real forward production. There’s this Ne-Yo thing, where is voiceover is whatever, but the production is very forward thinking. The same with dancehall stuff that’s going on right now. Those forms of music get written off as not as progressive whereas what we’re doing gets written as being really progressive just because we’re supposed to just be white guys banging on guitars. What people hear when they hear us…the genre-fication of dancehall.

It’s tough to keep up and keep processing that stuff.

Ira: I find those sources and those production techniques, those genres are really embracing what we were discussing earlier, the advances of recording techniques and exploring electronic tones and accepting the digitalization of music.

Chris: They don’t play with song structure as much as we do, although we get mis-labeled as being more proggy than we actually are. Underneath all the bullshit, we’re still verse-chorus verse-chorus.

Ira: I took the “prog” label that our songs should be shorter.

Chris: We’re not in 7/4.
What changed in your approach to making Odd Blood?

Ira: That’s what it was. Making everything more concise and shorter. Making our transitions tighter, tightening up our arrangements, having our tones be more pointed.

Chris: Listening to different stuff and wanting to explore more territory. We were thinking about it. Wow, Tusk. Everyone was listening to that record. A lot of chimeringue stuff, African stuff. Nigeria! Zimbabwe! South African psychedelia. And then the early 2000s stuff, band after band after band that was ripping off Joy Division. Anglophile 70s obsessiveness. We went “Kinda want to write some pretty music now.” That was cool, but we want harmonies. I remember seeing Grizzly Bear and loving their harmonies. DP and the way Dave’s playing guitars. Or seeing SpankRock and loving his beats and his performance. We still felt like we could occupy some niche.

Ira: We recorded that first album waaaaay before it first came out.

Chris: Todd P. wasn’t booking us. It wasn’t like noisy rock for warehouse spots. Dan Deacon didn’t like us, so we couldn’t play warehouse shows in Baltimore. We had nowhere to play. We can’t keep playing Death by Audio. Because they never asked us. No one was beating on our door. On the new record, we were finding new things to be excited about and didn’t need to harp on the same ideas. A lot of bands perfect their thing. On the new record, I thought about my favorite stuff: trip-hop, DJ Shadow, Portishead, dancehall, Vybez Cartel. Let’s get excited again and still do pop and singing and push every sound into a weird direction.

Ira: We’d get the same questions about influences and say: Cyndi Lauper, Black Moon. Just embracing the short form.

Lyrically, what were you thinking about?

Chris: “Ambling Alp” is about a boxer. It’s a jock jam, machismo 40s boxing culture. My grandfather was a boxer and I was intrigued by boxing names. I’d watch documentaries about Joe Louis, historical champions. One song is about Ira being annoyed by family reunions. It’s about uncomfortable social context, intersocial politics thrown into a jarring beat. We made more of a body record. We wanted to activate subs. It’ll bang the shit out of subs in your car. Let’s run everything through a sub-generator. Let’s put more bass!

Ira: I was so psyched when I took home our first master. My stereo works well, but every time, it couldn’t get past the first bass drop. It’d just start skipping.

Chris: The first song is about ‘shadow life,’ a scientific theory about life that is evolving that is totally foreign to how we understand life to evolve on earth, with oxygen and water. There’s life they found in arsenic pools, weird bacteria in poisonous lakes. Or The Brood. A lot of stuff is influenced by movies.

Did you see Where the Wild Things Are?

Chris: I didn’t like it. I thought the soundtrack was horrendous, painful. It was like walking into Urban Outfitters. It was beautifully shot. I was bored. I thought it was adventurous, but it was numbingly childlike. I was surprised they let him make that. That was the first time I went to an auteur vision and thought “Maybe the studio should’ve stepped in.”

What would Odd Blood be as a movie?

Chris: It’d be the sequel to Blade Runner.

Really? It seems brighter than that.

Ira: Rutger Hauer is dead.

Chris: And Harrison Ford lives happily ever after with Sean Young! Sounds bright to me.

True. How different is the studio experience this time around? 

Ira: It was very different.

Chris: The first was in my basement, moldy and gross. This time we recorded in upstate New York, rented a house and just built a temporary studio. The Black Crowes were doing around the corner from us. Beach House recorded up there. The house belonged to the drummer for Peter Gabriel. He was also the drummer for Tears for Fears.

Ira: We just kept discovering gold and platinum records throughout the house.

Chris: In the basement he had all his old 70s-80s gears, great Prophecy synths, all his drums and mics.

Is it more live?

Chris: We’re always post. Play and jam it out. Tweak and decay that shit. 

Ira: Pile it up and strip it away.

Chris: It's're building a house and knocking it down over and over again until it's the right house. Maybe that's a problem?