Interview: Yeasayer

Interview with Yeasayer



Singing into sand? Plugging samplers into TVs? It’s all in a day’s work for experimental Brooklyn band Yeasayer. Multi-instrumentalist Anand Wilder spoke to us about the making of the madcap, psych-pop on their latest album, Fragrant World.

Questions and answers

Hi Anand, how’s the tour going?

It’s going well! I’m really excited to play the new stuff with the audience knowing a few more of the songs. We leaked the album about a week and a half ago, and NPR’s been streaming it, so it’s exciting to see how it comes over now our fans know it.

It was also exciting before people knew the songs, to see what their immediate reactions were. But I’m over that now: it’s more fun to play songs to people that recognise them!

Did you always intend to leak the album before the official release date?

No, we just heard that the album was gonna be leaked so we decided to do it on our own terms, with curated visuals accompanying the songs.

So Odd Blood was a bit of a breakthrough for you. Did you feel any pressure when it came to recording Fragrant World?

Not really. There’s just pressure amongst ourselves to make good work and to keep pushing boundaries. But there’s not any pressure for us to repeat ourselves; that’s never been our artistic goal.

So what were you setting out to achieve with the new album?

Just to try to make good music and to do something new to us. Ultimately, you want to make something that doesn’t sound like anyone else out there and a lot of the way you do that is by taking disparate influences and putting them together, and trying to apply sounds that are new to us. That’s the Yeasayer way of experimenting.

It is really eclectic. Did you have any specific musical reference points for the album?

We were listening to a lot of contemporary English electronic music. And I think we took a lot from that, playing with interesting, kinda abstract rhythms. A lot of the time with electronic music, I find the sounds really compelling but they are lacking in some kind of song structure. So we were really trying to apply interesting songs to more abstract rhythms and sounds and textures.

It’s hugely melodic, though. Are you trying to subvert the mainstream with experimental pop? Do you have ambitions to be a huge band?

Erm, yeah. I mean I have reservations about being a huge band. I wouldn’t wanna be as big as Coldplay or something, where you become some kind of tabloid celebrity and the image becomes more important than the music. I’d rather be financially comfortable but still able to retain my anonymity and be able to be experimental and not feel like there’s pressure to repeat some kind of ridiculous, mainstream success, y’know?

Who do you think has achieved that balance?

My musical role models are David Bowie, Brian Eno, Neil Young, Paul McCartney... These guys who just last a long time and keep changing things up and putting out amazing stuff.

So how long did the album take to write and record?

Well, we are constantly writing demos, throughout the touring season. And then we recorded it in Brooklyn for two months in fall 2011 – literally enhancing and rerecording demos – and then we mixed the album in February of 2012. But it’s hard to say how long the actual process takes because there’s so much prep-work involved before we go into the studio.

What kind of prep-work do you do?

Just composing songs at home on the computer. Saying, “Ok, here’s an idea for a song”, and then recording as best I can at home with my rudimentary recording equipment, and sending it around to the other guys to see what’s sounding cool. And then going into the studio with 20-25 demos and going, “Ok, which one do we wanna work on today? Let’s spend two hours on it.” Or, “Let’s spend three days straight on one song.”

You’re renowned for using experimental techniques and objects to make music: like on Odd Blood you plugged samplers into a TV…

Yeah, we’ll use anything to create sound. I mean, on Odd Blood there was a time when we were singing into sand. It’s fun to take any kind of sound – like a jangling of keys – and put it into a keyboard and pitch it up a couple of octaves, and turn it into a hi-hat sound. We’re always trying to create interesting, unique sounds to make the sonic environment compelling for the listener.

So what’s the strangest sound you created for Fragrant World?

Probably the weirdest thing was taking Ira’s voice and turning it into a synth. That was pretty cool... Also twiddling the knob of a Super Shifter on a guitar while Steve was playing – that sounded really neat. Playing a Celesta through tape echo and then speeding it up and slowing it down? I don’t know, there are so many different things...

What’s the significance of the title?

It was the title of a song that we actually didn’t end up putting on the album, because it didn’t fit the mood or something. But we liked the ring of the phrase “Fragrant World” and it’s kinda interesting to think about: that’s the one realm that we’re not really able to do much experimenting in. I mean, we can do a lot of stuff with sound and visuals but we’re not doing much with smell... yet. (Laughs)

We have to ask: what is that on the album cover?!

The artwork was done by Ryan Waller and he was playing around with the concepts of dance and language, developing in human history as one expression, so it’s this idea of eurhythmia . And we’re always interested in synaesthesia. So I think it’s an image of a shrouded woman doing a particular dance, or pose. We wanted to do something that was photographic in nature and was much starker in contrast to Odd Blood, which had this bubbly, 3D, computer-y, futuristic artwork.

Ok, what’s been the highlight of being in Yeasayer so far?

Probably the Polish audiences. (Laughs) Because it was so unexpected and just such a thrill to be able to play someplace so far-flung and to have rabid fans that seem to know your music better than you know it.

And what would you like to achieve ultimately with the band?

Ultimately, longevity. To just be able to keep making music, stay together, and travel around the world. I don’t know, my goals for Yeasayer are multi-faceted... But really, to keep making culturally-relevant music.

Finally, aside from Fragrant World, what’s the best album of 2012 so far?

Hmm, let me see… I’d have to big-up the Delicate Steve album, Positive Force.

I mean, a lot of my thoughts about the songs will end up being about the process. It’s hard to divorce yourself from the memories of making the song and to just sit and let the sounds wash over you. You’re constantly thinking, “Wait, what was that sound?” or, “Hey do you remember the day we recorded that we got in a fight?!”