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Interview: Yeasayer
June 18, 2012 | 12:00PM

by Ross Bonaime

Yeasayer has a pretty big summer ahead of them. After releasing two critically acclaimed albums, All Hour Cymbals and Odd Blood, the band will release their third album Fragrant World on August 20th. Yeasayer will also be spending their summer touring North America in support of Fragrant World, kicking off their tour tomorrow at The National in Richmond, VA and will come back again to the area again for the penultimate show of their tour on November 14th at the 9:30 Club. I talked to Chris Keating of Yeasayer about the new album, remaking their own songs and of about how time has changed his perception of The Wonder Years.

For people who aren’t familiar with Yeasayer, how would you describe your sound? Cause it’s a pretty unusual sound to describe. I heard it described as “a combination of organic and electric,” which seemed pretty close.

I actually like, I hate describing it, I mean I think that’s accurate, you know combining organic and inorganic sound, I like that idea, that’s pretty accurate. I don’t really know about trying to sell it in a genre or anything like that.

So along those lines, what types of bands, past or present, would you say influenced the sound of Yeasayer?

There’s a ton of stuff. The original idea was to not like rule anything out, you know? So like everything from like A Tribe Called Quest to Suicide to just Tricky, and just like things from that era. I mean there’s a point where I was listening to a lot of Young Jeezy. But I think like you find  great things in all different types of music. I mean I could probably find great things in like a John Mayer song if I was forced to.

Yeah if you were forced to.

I think I have, like that one line of that one song.

Yeah you have to really search in there.

Yeah you’ve got to really look, but I think you can find it. I think a real fan can find little nuggets, I mean 90% of it might be terrible, but you can find that one little thing. I don’t know, there’s some things that never leave me, you know? Brian Eno solo records are on repeat in my house.

Do you think growing up in Baltimore influenced the sound of Yeasayer or do you think it was mostly when the band reunited in Brooklyn?

Yeah I think Baltimore is like a weird, creative place. I don’t know, it’s hard to say because I didn’t have any experience growing up anywhere else. There were a lot of people around me growing up that were creative, like just different people who were doing music projects all the time, so when I was a teenager it seemed like a cool thing to do and pursing that, you know what I mean? So I don’t know, that could have been Baltimore or that could have been anywhere, I don’t really know what any other place is like to grow up.

Well especially lately it seems like Baltimore has been this big haven for bands coming out.

Yeah it’s coincidental that some of the dudes in Animal Collective were a few years ahead of me in high school, like Alex from Beach House, someone in my band used to jam with him when they were in high school.

Recently on your Facebook page, you guys said that when you guys are on tour you’re going to be playing new songs from the new album, but also that you would be remaking some of your old songs. What will that entail?

I think that like we are all pretty enamored with the concept of like a remix or just like a reworking. Kind of like the way that idea of how that came about, like extended dub mixes and things like that were on the record. So when we think about playing a song live  that we’ve played a thousand times, we were just like, “what could we do to make an obvious change but still preserve the integrity of the song, and to give the song new life not just for us but also for like the audience?” We’ve been combining old songs together, like doing mashups of some work, combining hooks together or flipping them, changing the beat, really kind of changing around the way the song is made. So like I’m really psyched to do it, because there’s a completely new sound to it.

Yeah, and you guys seem very interested in doing mashups and remixes, like the Florence and the Machine remix you guys did, I know The Hood Internet has covered a bunch of your songs.

Yeah I like that stuff, it’s just fun to live in such a kind of close pop culture, it’s like I like listening to iPods on random and crazy combinations of songs coming together, like who knew a Fabolous song would work after a Willie Nelson song? It’s an interesting culture.

I know for a bunch of your tour dates Delicate Steve is opening for you guys, which is a pretty perfect combination.

Yeah they actually just played at Anand [Wilder]’s wedding, they were the band at his wedding last summer. Like three years ago, Steve dropped off a mixtape with Anaan, like a demo tape or something and I was like “check this out,” and then we did a show together and then we all became friends and I don’t know, they’ve only opened for us the one show that one time in New York years ago. But, I like their music a lot, and there’s like a great community of musicians up where we live, you run into people all the time and you meet new people.

With your newest single “Henrietta,” you guys released it in secret, sending it to people through your mailing list. Why did you guys decide to go more secretive than just release it everywhere?

I don’t know, I think #1, it’s hard to do something secretive in the oversharing, Instagraming culture that we live in, so I liked the idea of a musical object you send to people, I don’t know. I’ve become wary of the publicity machine that surrounds bands and so I liked the idea that we just made the CD and sent it 200 people. Like we did it ourselves, in fact the original 200 CDs we made, we had them in the envelopes without sending them out, and we tried playing one of them and realized none of them would work. We had to do it all over again. I like that idea where it’s like, if you want to share it, I was actually interested to see if like no one would share it at all. I thought that would be really cool. But I guess that doesn’t happen anymore. Like ten seconds after the first dude got the first envelope, I think he was in Belgium or the Netherlands or something, that guy was sharing it, and there it goes.

You guys seem to be one of the last bands doing something unique with your music videos, I was wondering if that’s a conscious choice you guys are going for and if you guys have anything in store for “Henrietta” or other tracks on the new album?

We’re working on some different ideas, yeah. I think the music video was in a lull for a really long time and then you know with higher bandwidth and YouTube and all this stuff, they’ve enabled bands, and I don’t know if they’ve made them exciting again, but I do see them now. It seems like the market is oversaturated, so I don’t know, we try to make interesting videos. I mean we have something in store, I don’t want to like say yet, but we’re visuals for every song on the record. They’re not necessarily like full on, narrative videos, but they are going to be different pieces of visual accompaniment, so I don’t know, you’ll have to keep your eyes and ears open and see what happens.

Yeasayer’s albums have kind of become more accessible, in a good way, are you guys going for that? I also heard the new album, “Fragrant World,” you guys called it “a demented R & B record.” So are you guys going for a poppier sound or is that something that just organically came through?

I think it’s just sounds sort of interesting to allow different kinds of music, I think there’s something really beautiful to a simply written Tom Petty song, like a song that has three chords and is three minutes long and is like a beautifully written song. But at the same time, I don’t know, we didn’t set out to make this record as poppy as the last one. But I don’t know, it’s always hard to say what people gravitate towards and what they come along to. I think that our first album has a kind of different challenge to it, and we wanted to get away from that and the last album had a different sound to it. We just want to try new stuff. I don’t know, like I think the first song we put out, “Henrietta,” is not necessarily the most accessible song on the record, like there’s a weird structure to it. We like playing with rhythm structure and still maintaining a certain level of accessibility.

Yeah in each of your songs there always seems to be something catchy to grab on to that almost makes it sound like it could be on the radio.

Yeah, I mean there you go. There’s something great about that. Like I really appreciate when R.E.M. really started making catchy stuff, like on Automatic For the People, Out of Time era, but I also like R.E.M.’s really early records. I look at the kind of music that I like, and I don’t know, an artist that can develop, I really appreciate that.

What is your songwriting process, because there’s so much going on in those songs, how do you guys combine all of your forces together to make a song?

I don’t know, we just kind of throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. A lot of that just depends on the song, some songs are written by one person and some are kind of written by groups, some songs marinate over a long period of time and other happen very quickly. I don’t know if there’s a set process, I wish there was.

I know with a lot of your songs like “2080,” “Ambling Alp” and “Henrietta” again, you focus on specific people and time periods. What usually draws you to tackling an already existing story and making it a song?

I enjoy reading historical books and learning about history and I didn’t want it to become like a thing that we did, but you know every once in a while you come across an interesting stories that are true and similar to the way “A Day in the Life” from The Beatles, the fact that that was based on newspaper clippings makes it sort of more powerful. You don’t need to know that story, but I like drawing inspiration from things that are from different biographies I’ve read or stories I’ve heard or whatever, it just brings it to life and makes it powerful when you’re actually writing about it.

One last question, on Yeasayer’s Twitter account a few weeks ago, the question came up of who was hotter: Winnie Cooper or Kevin’s sister from The Wonder Years, and I wanted to know if a answer had been made yet within the group?

I don’t know man, that’s just one of those questions that’s like, can God make a candy bar so big that he can’t eat. Winnie Cooper, aaaah, I don’t know. Probably Winnie, it depends on your age. I think when I was a little kid, I had a crush on Winnie, but now that I’m older, the sister’s pretty fly.

Yeah, it’s the unanswerable question.

If you find an answer to that question, let me know.

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