Experimental pop catalysts Yeasayer are pulling from many sources to create the perfect compound.
<Albums> All Hour Cymbals, Odd Blood, Fragrant World
<Place of residence> Brooklyn, New York
<Voice droid> Chris Keating
<Keyboard control> Anand Wilder
<Bass bot> Ira Wolf Tuton
Keating grew up in Baltimore, but it “wasn’t like The Wire”. Wilder and Tuton both grew up in Philadelphia, which has the largest inner-city park in the US. Tuton remembers bits that were like The Wire where you bought “dime bags”.
The three specimens moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 2006 to make music and Yeasayer was born. Strokes wannabes had been dominating the Big Apple since the early 2000s, but Yeasayer found common ground with new genre-bending bands like Vampire Weekend and Animal Collective. A scene began to emerge.
“I think one of the challenges with writing songs is that you want to write about something personal, but you want to put a contemporary twist on it,” says Wilder, sitting in the lobby of the Hoxton Hotel, London. “You can’t just write ‘Love Me Do’ over and over again. But I think it’s good to re-contextualise simple affirmations of love or whatever. Sometimes you just need to put your own weird brain anxiety on it.”
Yeasayer have a knack for teaching an old story new tricks. On the last album, Keating wrote ballad ‘Ambling Alp’ using boxing mythology of the 1930s (specifically, the fight between African American Joe Louis and German Max Schmeling, which took place in the context of the Nazi regime) to tell a broader story about standing up to fascism, or personal demons. In Fragrant World there’s a song called ‘Henrietta’, which refers to Henrietta Lacks, a woman from Baltimore who unwittingly had her cancerous cells cultured by a doctor to create an immortal cell line for medical research. So, are they trying to connect to something universal through their music? “I don’t know,” says Wilder, “everybody experiences music subjectively. One of the disadvantages of playing our music is I’ll never be able to sit down and misunderstand the lyrics. I like not knowing what lyrics are. It’s so much more fascinating. I think it’s exciting for other people to have some kind of mystery. […] To let the story wash over them.”
The three specimens are in London after playing Latitude Festival. They’re tired but used to the slog of life on the road. After so many years roaming, do they feel estranged from the post-recession, African guitar-sampling arty Brooklyn rock scene they came out of (see: Battles, MGMT, Gang Gang Dance, Grizzly Bear)? “Yeah definitely,” says Wilder, “it’s kinda strange. But no one ever looks at you in Brooklyn like, ‘What are you doing here?’ So many people come to Brooklyn with a suitcase and a dream […]. Everybody’s interested in everyone else.”
The buzz around Yeasayer started early on. In 2010, aggregator siteHype Machine named them “the most blogged artist of the year”. Their first two albums were specifically praised for their array of cultural influences. But does it get tough to keep finding new inspirations? “I’m a news junkie,” affirms Tuton. “I read a lot of news magazines, mostly liberal rags like Harper’s Magazine – I find that they have a lot of in-between-the-lines stories. There’s a recent story about the decline of the great plains that I found really interesting and another good article about the Odyssey exploration ship.” Wilder chips in: “I’ve been reading a lot on this tour. I just finished a book by Jeffery Eugenides called The Marriage Plot, which was good.”
Yeasayer’s lyrics may describe a dystopian reality but their sound seems to say, ‘Fuck it let’s party.’ So, is music the honey to distract yourself from the world’s crap? “I think so, but I think that what that honey is can be so many different things,” says Wilder, “it can be a heroin addiction, it can be alcohol. Finding the constant motivation to make music is something a little bit different from that. Ultimately, my greatest satisfaction in life is writing a song, finishing a song, bringing it to the band. But the idea of just going for something sweet… I don’t know? […] I think you do only have this one life, and thinking about that can be a good feeling or really depressing.”
So, what legacy do Yeasayer wanna leave? “I don’t know,” says Wilder, “you get to a certain point where you’ve worked on it for so long you need some detachment. I’m curious to play to people and see how they are moved by it.” Tuton agrees: “The live show is when you want to have a single emotion expressed; this kind of communal build-up of energy.”