A potent cocktail of electronic mist and bubbles, addictive tribal beats and sublime songcraft, garnished with Middle Eastern flavors, fat and luscious harmonies and a woozy, transluscent atmosphere, Yeasayer’s All Hour Cymbals was one of the most pleasant aural surprises of 2007.
After shows at SXSW, Coachella and the Austin City Limits Festival, the Brooklyn–based trio went from “buzz band” to one of the Internet’s most talked–about post–electronica hybrids.
Yeasayer comes to the Trustees Theater this week, in support of the second album, Odd Blood. It’s a nearly 180 degree twist–and–shout – although the samples, synthesizers and thundering beats are still prevalent, Odd Blood focuses strongly on more conventional pop songcraft, with hooks (and ladders) and a relatively more conventional lead vocal style.
All of which, singer/songwriter and keyboard operator Chris Keating says in the following interview, were perfectly natural progressions.
The band members are Keating, Anand Wilder (guitar) and Ira Wolf Tuton (bass).
Yeasayer has released innovative videos for several Odd Blood songs, including the dance/pop “O.N.E.” and Keating’s “Ambling Alp,” which (although you wouldn’t know it from the video) was written about the Italian world champion heavyweight boxer Primo Carnera.
The latest, “Madder Red,” features Forgetting Sarah Marshall star Kristen Bell – it’s kind of a love note to an ailing family pet, which looks like a one–eyed potato with arms. Drooling, no less.
As with all things Yeasayer, that one’s open to interpretation.
All week, I’ve had “Madder Red” in my head. But I have to ask you what the potato video means.
Chris Keating: We called him Bobble. Basically, we liked the work of this director, a Swedish guy. I tend to make these lists of people it’d be cool to work with if it ever comes up. There’s a sort of wordless chorus, and he was like “It’d be cool if there was a thing singing that.” So we started from there and ran with it. We decided to get an actor and try to play up the dramatic aspects of the songs. Sort of make it a melodrama.
The whole idea was to get an actor who was recognizable and real. Originally, we were thinking someone who hadn’t worked in a while, so it was a little more feasible that they might have this demented pet. Because you haven’t seen them in 10 years. But Kristen was able to do it and it worked out even better: You wonder what’s this chick – who’s a respected individual as opposed to some of the other people we were thinking of – doing with this bizarre pet? That made it even weirder.
On Odd Blood, the band takes a different direction towards a more standard pop–song structure. You’ve said that you’re a sucker for a good pop melody ...was new approach calculated, or did it happen organically?
Chris Keating: To be honest, that’s how we’ve always approached making music. I look at pop songwriting structure as being under four and a half minutes – there’s melody, there’s going to be a chorus, hopefully a memorable chorus, and a memorable theme. And that, to me, is the sum of what pop music is.
On the first record, we incorporated a lot of low–fi tendencies, and slightly more abstract textures. We’re all fans of big low end and dance music. I like some of the stuff I hear on the radio – probably 10 percent of it, but that 10 percent I really like. Not in any ironic way – it’s a real interest, and always has been, of mine.
So on Odd Blood we tried to engage that. We’re not fully gonna go down some Lady Gaga or Phoenix direction, we’re still going to try and include all the textures and some of the slightly more bizarre elements that we like to hear – kind of ear candy – but reference that other material.
Once you get to a certain level of recognition or success, is it a gamble to say “We’re going to do something different”? Don’t you feel pressure to put out another record that’s kinda like the one people liked?
Chris Keating: I don’t really care. It doesn’t really matter to me. The musicians and artists that I’ve always respected have made drastic changes in the way that they work. And then eventually things come back around, or they’ll reference early material. Those are the people that I really, really think are great. That’s what we aspire to do when we map out the timeline for the band: What will we do with the next record? We could do an ambient record. We could do instrumental things.
I don’t really care if it sells or not. The newest record sold slightly more than the first one. Although we’re playing to more people, it doesn’t really mean anything to me. We want to experiment in genres and ideas and songwriting that we like, and then, whatever. No one buys CDs anyway, it doesn’t really matter. I’m just going to make what I think is interesting and put it out there. Fuck it, we’re not rich, we’re not gonna get rich, it doesn’t really matter.
It helps, doesn’t it, that the major label system is in the gutter now? “Independent” doesn’t necessarily mean “insignificant.”
Chris Keating: I look at those charts, and a lot of people who have success in that world are actually on independent labels, and are doing things their own way. They don’t have an A&R person telling them they’re supposed to write this kind of poppy song ... they’re just doing it. I like that: Coming from an organic place, arriving at those melodies and those ideas. You know, reaching more people is always a good thing, but confusing people is also a good thing.
Taking “Ambling Alp” as an example, what’s the songwriting process like? Can you envision the electronic wash and the textures as you’re writing it? Does it all come at the same time?
Chris Keating: I think one of the strengths we have going for us is that we don’t really have a set method of working. We struggle with all of it, and we’re constantly trying to figure out how to do a song, and doing it 12 times over to do an album. I personally don’t play any instruments very well. I’m just not that proficient with any instrument; I’ve never been very good at it. So the textures and the soundscapes are the way I envision the song being. I work with the samplers and electronics trying to get the synth textures, and I’ve been doing that for 12 years. That’s sort of the way I approached music when I first started doing it.
So when we all get together, I can picture that, and someone else has their lick in mind. And then I come and take it, and if there’s something that seems interesting to write about, I’ll write about it. It’s like this collision of elements.
“O.N.E.” has this incredible dance groove. When that one bubbled up, however it bubbled up, did you say “I want this to be a dance track”?
Chris Keating: That actually was a demo that Anand had, with a much more laid–back swing to it. It was a really cool song, but for some reason the vibe was way slower. I started incorporating some of the more dance–y elements to it. We worked on that for four months, constantly working on new versions, and it was really frustrating.
That’s a great track.
Chris Keating: Yeah, it really came out well. Eventually it was worth the laborious process that it went through. The song was written, and it wasn’t like we changed too much in that. We went in with different tempos and drumbeats, and different sounds. Since we were producing it ourselves, there was no one who really put their foot down. And we aren’t in an expensive studio – we record in a comfortable home environment. Eventually it’s like “OK, anybody want to listen to this any more? We gotta make some decisions.”
Let’s come back to something we talked about earlier. If this album were to sell a million, would you feel the pressure to make another one that sounded pretty similar? Or is the artistic drive too strong for that?
Chris Keating: I guess there would be some kind of strong pressure for somewhere to repeat whatever success you had. But I think at the same time I’d be a really nice opportunity to super mind–fuck people.
I think of what Beck did, or what Radiohead did. There are few and far between examples of people having a very, very big hit record and then following it up with a number of much stranger records. Records that I think are more impacting in terms of the way they shift culture.
I think that would be an exciting opportunity, to be like “Hey, all you teenagers who liked that record, check out this new one.” And just kind of mind–fuck ‘em a little bit.
That’s the way we would approach making music anyway: “Oh, that’s catchy ... but what’s that part?”
Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.
When: At 8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 3
Opening: Washed Out
Tickets: $22 advance, $25 day of show