Words by Phelps
Band photos by Jason Frank Rothberg
Ambling Alp and O.N.E. by Radical Friend
Album art by Ben Phelan
Brooklyn’s Yeasayer have followed up 2007’s lauded All Hours Cymbals with an undeniably catchy unabashed pop freak-out. Oddblood finds Ira Wolf Tuton, Anand Wilder, and Chris Keating indulging in the spoils afforded by their successful debut including immersion in drummer Jerry Marotta’s (Hall and Oates, Tears for Fears, Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello) gear-heavy upstate NY studio. Beginning with the RnR in 2007 and the Cat backstage along with 6th and I in 2008, the band returns to a city that just can’t get enough for their sold out U.S. tour opener Saturday at the 930 Club. We caught up with Ira this week to discuss the new record, their visuals philosophy, and the state of the arts.
Ira’s secretary (hmm not so sure) : Hello?
BYT: Hi, I was calling for Ira?
Ira’s secretary: Yea, can you hold on for one second?
BYT: Hey Ira, this is Josh from Washington, DC, how are you?
Ira: Hey Josh, how you doin? I’m good.
BYT: Good, good. Thanks for taking the time for what feels like early, I guess it’s 11 but it feels early to me.
Ira: No, it’s OK, feels early to me too. How was uh, was my secretary nice to you?
BYT: Yea, for sure (laughing,) she said I was a couple minutes late though.
Ira: Oh, well yea, she’s a ball breaker!
BYT: Hah. So, you’ve got the new record, Oddblood. It seemed like some of the last record had more abstract themes and on this one there’s some straight up love jams (Ira laughs) which may be appealing to more people. I know there’s a lot of media breaking their neck to talk about whether it’s too poppy although many reviews are positive. Was this end result a product of you guys having more shit to play with this time around? What exactly was the catalyst for the progression?
Ira: I mean, we wanted the record to – it wasn’t a mistake to make the record sound the way it did, become more poppy and engage in shorter songs and more concise arrangements even though there’s still some pretty heavily layered stuff. You know, we definitely had a lot more know-how between the first record and this one. Basically we had know-how, we didn’t really know what we were doing at all when we were recording the first record. I think the whole last few years has been very much trial by fire. We’ve learned more and more different equipment we’ve wanted to acquire, different equipment we’ve wanted to use, listened to certain records and heard certain tones and explored what that was. Listened to other artists, explored who produced it, who programmed those beats and looked into other works they’ve done. Kinda did our research and in the end we definitely had a lot more resources at our disposal and we also had the luxury of doing it full time which was a big, big change and a big plus. We kinda went for recording a pop record and trying to make some pop songs in our way.
BYT: Well you guys just got back from a big European tour, were you doing a lot of the newer material? Have you been playing it for about a year?
Ira: Well, not really. We’ve been playing some of the stuff, since, I guess the first time we debuted some of the new material was at Bonnaroo? But a lot of the material we hadn’t played live until the first shows, first couple shows in New York that previewed the European tour and the tours to come. But yea, we’re pretty much playing everything from the new album and revamping some of the old stuff.
BYT: I was at that Bonnaroo show, it was a lot different than in front of a couple hundred people at the Black Cat here. With your stage setup and the access to the bigger stages, intricate lighting, is that something where you’re kind of going for it on these tours?
Ira: I mean, as much as possible as we grow and hopefully continue to grow. It gives us a chance to put more resources into not only what we’re doing musically but also into our stage show and what we’re doing visually. We’re having a little bit more space on stage and wherewithal, we can include more people and more brains and artists that can collaborate with us. So yea that’s very important, for us not to just focus on the musical aspect, especially in a live setting, because I don’t really get a kick out of just watching five sweaty dudes do their thing. There’s only so long that can keep your attention. Especially with these kids today! (laughing)
BYT: (laughing) Well, at Bonnaroo you probably didn’t have to worry about it!
Ira: No, not so much. (laughing) They didn’t need that much help. That’s one thing, at Bonnaroo you don’t have that much to worry about.
BYT: Yea, people can probably just go sit under a tree and think they’re having the most awesome time.
Ira: Yea, yea, you could get up there with a kazoo and people would get their minds blown.
BYT: I was just watching the video for O.N.E. on Vimeo and it seemed like there a lot of people involved, a crazy treatment, and just so much shit happening. Glowing bass, all sorts of things. Are these collaborators contemporaries of yours in Brooklyn, do you enlist friends for these?
Ira: No, I mean they’ve become friends of ours but that’s Kirby and Julia. They call themselves Radical Friend and we found them through a video they did for, well the first thing I saw, Chris showed me a video they did for Black Moth Super Rainbow. It was interactive, you could scroll across the screen and it would change the time of day during the video. So, right away that was something that turned us on, it was like, wow, these people are really trying to engage with the kind of technologies that are at their disposal right now and also trying to engage in the way that people are absorbing media and can absorb media. That led to their idea with a 3D camera, the Ambling Alp video, they did that and the O.N.E. video. The Ambling Alp video, they kind of just ran with it. That was their concept, there was some back and forth input from us.
Ira: (laughing) Nudity! One word! Yea. With O.N.E., we wanted to do something that in vague terms referenced the videos of our youth, kind of an update of the classic nineties video form. But yea, it really is just finding people and other artists, that – well they’re really young and kind of starting out in some ways. The same way that we are, I kind of feel like we’re just starting out. I don’t know if we’re young, but, it’s nice to be involved with people like that who can re-contextualize and reinterpret what you’re doing. I find that exciting, the same with our lighting guy Ben Phelan who does all our lights. From tour to tour, we’ll create different lighting sculptures for different moods. It’s really fun being involved with him and seeing how he reinterprets what we do. He did the artwork on the album too.
BYT: I know you’ve played a couple shows at museums, when you do that is he able to get in there and do things with you too? Like the Guggenheim or L.A. County Museum of Art?
Ira: He was with us at the Guggenehim but the L.A. thing, I believe, we were just playing in front of dioramas. I think that was the visual aspect of it.
BYT: How does all that come about? I was talking to Lizzi from Gang Gang Dance last week about the same thing. Are you entrenched in this just by geographic location in New York, or Brooklyn, the arts communities there? Do they find you or is this something you seek out?
Ira: I mean, for us it’s definitely nice to play something that’s a little more non-traditional. A lot of times, a museum is not setup to be a live music venue so it won’t necessarily be the greatest play to play sonically, but, it’s nice to keep your brain firing by being in a different space and not just a large bar. That can be stimulating in and of itself. I feel like what’s happening now is that with a lot of arts groups, in a very practical sense, they’re losing their patrons. A lot of their patrons are growing older and older and I think the tactile museums are having a harder time bringing in young kids.
Ira: I think they see it as, you know, whether they like the music or not – hopefully it’s not just a savvy business plan, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a savvy business plan – I think they’re trying to ally themselves with certain bands they might deem as leaning both arty but also appealing to a younger crowd and getting some kids in the doors. I think a lot of arts organizations are having a really hard time around the country, I know my uncle works in that world. As much as we can have the conversation about the big record industry failing, there’s also other conversations about things like orchestras, you know? The bigs will probably always be OK and be maintained in places like New York, and being in Philadelphia where I’m from, they’ve had a bunch of kind of ups and downs… I think they’re doing pretty good right now but it’s been very difficult because a lot of their patrons, to be frank, are dying.
BYT: Yea, I was in Philadelphia for a Cezzane exhibit and I saw a lot of outreach to younger patrons, affordable memberships to get people in the door.
Ira: Yea, I think it’s one or the other and you need to, it’s, well some people see it as a double edged sword but these groups need to be open to evolving. I think some of them might see it as a sacrifice to engage in newer things or more cutting edge things. The Guggenheim, that’s what they’re trying to be, they’re trying to be a museum of modern out. That being said, it’s still Kandinsky on the walls, not a contemporary of ours.
BYT: You mentioned you finally got to be the band full time, were you in any sort of related field beforehand whether art or music?
Ira: I was a carpenter for a very long time. I actually, being in New York, you get to do a lot of different, or you find yourselves in a lot of strange house and situations. Non-traditional design and construction, which I really like. I wasn’t working for sculptures but I found myself in artist’s houses doing more non-traditional construction and more challenging things outside of the bubble which I really liked.
BYT: So, DC’s the tour opener. You played 930 Club before?
Ira: I haven’t and I’ve never been there but I’ve had a lot of people tell me how awesome 930 Club is, and I feel like I’ve heard that in my head for such a long time. It’s a legendary place. But growing up in Philly, whenever I’d go anywhere I’d go north.
BYT: Sure, and you had the TLA and all.
Ira: Yea, the TLA and the Trocadero. That’s kinda what I grew up in. Having been in bands and growing up in Philadelphia, I’ve played almost everywhere you could play in Philadelphia for one reason or another. But not Washington, I’ve only played a handful of places there so looking forward to the 930 Club.
BYT: Cool, us too. Guess we’ll catch you on Saturday.
Ira: Yea, Saturday. Wow, Saturday, holy shit. (laughing)
BYT: Hah, yea, are you guys rehearsing?
Ira: Well, nah, we just came off six weeks in Europe and we had a show over the weekend. Right now we’re just taking our personal time off, everybody’s kinda getting recalibrated, spending time at home. You know, hanging out with my secretary?
BYT: (laughing) Yea!
Ira: You know, just chilling out before we go out again.
BYT: Cool man, see yall this weekend.
Ira: Alright man, take it easy.