Yeasayer are a Baltimore-born, Brooklyn-based band who came from the same high-school as Animal Collective, and were reared in the same scene as Chairlift, MGMT, and Dirty Projectors. Their music is of no obvious genre, mixing elements of synth-pop, psychedelia, and outright experimentation. After debuting in 2007 with the shaggy, cosmic, Eastern-influenced indie-rock of 2007's All Hour Cymbals, they radically reinvented themselves with 2010's Odd Blood, a bright LP of dancefloor friendly tunes that were a "certain effort to maybe write some love songs." In 2012, Yeasayer announced their return, with a new album called Fragrant World, and a first single, "Henrietta." The album was described by the band's record label as being "weirder and darker," and proved a more divisive disc than either of Yeasayer's preceding LPs.
Interview: 11 July 2012
Are the songs on Fragrant World road-tested or studio built?
"We practiced four of these songs before we ever made the album, and ended up playing three of them —'Henrietta,' 'Devil and the Deed,' 'Demon Road'— on the road. But, then we made such drastic changes when we were making the album that they needed to be road-tested all over again. We're still road-testing. It's interesting, now, because nobody really knows any of the songs, and thus the whole test is kind of flawed; because normally you play a show where people know the songs, and you can gauge which ones people like and don't, which ones are working and not. At this point, we have people scratching their heads during songs they don't know, and getting really into songs they do know."
What did you want to do with this album?
"When we went into it we wanted to do something totally different to the last album, in terms of rhythms and vocal treatments and instrumentation. We also wanted to make each song different to the next song. The thing that excites us when we go into the studio is to try new things. We have these demos, and we could easily just go in and record them in the style of All Hour Cymbals and Odd Blood, but we get these new pieces of equipment, these things that're new to us, and so it feels like we're constantly experimenting. This time, with this computing-based sampling program called Machine, this weird synthesiser called Omnisphere, this old-school sequencer called Electribe. We have all these new gadgets, and that kind of informs the new sound of the new album."
When does that experimenting and fiddling start to cohere in a sound?
"I guess about half-way. Once you've laid out all the demos, worked out what's going to work and what's not going to work, then you can start to think of it as a whole; wonder how you're going to make some of these songs just sound a little bit more like the other ones. Then, it starts to become more of an album at that point. But you can back and forth, after that, on thinking of what you're doing as a whole work. When you're recording, a lot of times you can't even conceive of what you're doing as being an album; you're just obsessing over this one tiny sound in these two measures in this one song, trying to get that to sound exactly right. Every once in a while, you have to step outside of that, listen to the songs as a whole; hear what's working and what's not, work out where you can cut down on songs. And then when you start mixing it, then you can really start to hear what it will be like as a whole album."
You've talked about audiences scratching their heads, and the record label describes as being "weirder and darker" than Odd Blood. Is that how you feel about it? Is that something you wanted?
"Yeah. A lot of Odd Blood's intentions were to be more accessible and poppy. That meant straighter rhythms, louder vocals, simpler lyrics. This time we didn’t want to do that, we wanted to make the lyrics and vocals more obscure and effected, lower in the mix. And we also explored a lot of pretty harsh dissonance on this album. We weren’t scared of any edgy, weird, delayed saxophone solos, or vocal melodies that were very dissonant against the chords that were being played. We wanted to play with those ideas, and chopped-up beats and clippy kind of rhythms, which is something that we’d never done before."
Why did you want to make a pop album with Odd Blood? And why, this time, did you not?
"There was a misconception with the first album that we were some Genesis-loving, Yes-styled prog-rock band. We were unhappy with that description, because none of us were intending to make music that was that kind of annoying; it wasn't supposed to be prog-rock, it was supposed to be pop-music just made with interesting layers of collage and experimentation. But the vocals got so obscured that for some people that made it much more tonal, like ambient music or something. So, for the next album, we really wanted it to be as defiantly poppy as possible, to push that directness, to make sure that when people were reviewing the album we weren't called freak-folk, world-music mystics or something."
Hippies singing wacky lyrics about the apocalypse, right?
"Right! A lot of that was almost entirely to do with the fact that I had long hair at the time. And, it was funny, the song about the apocalypse ('Final Path') didn't even make the record, but yet we heard about the apocalyptic qualities of our music a lot. That was song was kind of a cheeky reference to that subject; it was about dancing during an apocalypse, the end of the world set to a disco hook."
And then when you cut your hair, it was like when Metallica cut their hair: it changed everything.
"[laughs] Yeah, it's true. I lost all my hippy credibility."
How much did you find that making a different second album changed things? Like, both changed the way the world saw you, but also changed the way it felt to be in the band, maybe that it even liberated you in some sense?
"I felt somewhat vindicated that we were able to escape this indie-rock-hippydom kind of thing. We were doing fine, but it was plaguing us, internally. We really want to prove to people that we could write really hooky, catchy songs. I felt like there were hooky, catchy songs on All Hour Cymbals, but there were so many layers and the vocals were so low in the mix, that lots of people couldn't really hear that. Initially we were a little bit unsure of it —like the vocals on Odd Blood seemed, to us, to just be so loud in the mix!— but, in the end, we just went for it. I think doing that totally helped expand our fanbase, but it did so without sacrificing any of our weirdness or experimentation."
But, this time, you wanted that weirdness and experimentation to come the fore? Was that as response to the last album?
"I think so. We wanted to do something that we, as music listeners, would be more instinctively into. I know that's the ultimate goal of everyone, ever —'I want to make an album that I would listen to'— but, then, by the end of it, of course, you think to yourself 'I would never want to listen to this ever again, because I've listened to it five million times.' So, in some ways, that's an impossibly ambitious goal to set yourself: making an album that you will actually want to listen to. But, what that really meant was that we didn't want to shy away from weird, treated vocals that were barely discernible, or really harsh dissonance. We just kinda wanted to do whatever we wanted."
How do you react when you randomly encounter your own music out in the world?
"It only ever happens every once in a while. It's a very rare thing, and when it does happen I really just feel like a little kid. Like: 'Oh my god, that's my voice! In this bar!' And a bro in the bar will invariably say: 'Yeah, man, I love Yeasayer! This is my favourite band, dude!' That always feels good. The good thing about living in New York is that people have enough pride that they're never going to go up and say: 'hey man, are you that guy in Yeasayer?'; even if they do recognize you. Also, because I've cut my hair so many times I don't really get recognized, anyway. But, every once in a while, hearing our music in a bar, it's always a great experience."
It's the equivalent of that biopic moment where the rockband hears their song on the radio for the first time in the car together, and they start hitting the horn and dancing. A moment which probably doesn't happen anymore.
"I know, I'm never in my car with all the other members of the band, ever. And in New York, no one really listens to the radio; if I’m in my car, all I get is static. But in other cases, I know that’s not the case; radio can still be a really strong regional thing in a lot of places. When we were in Australia doing [the] Laneway [Festival], two years ago, I heard Ariel Pink on the radio. I freaked out: 'oh my god, he's on the radio here, this is amazing!' And then Bear in Heaven heard us on the radio. None of us could believe it. But I guess Australia is so wide-open, so much a place about driving, that maybe people are just listening to the radio more. Also, when I'm driving around, sometimes I don't want to actually listen to music, I'm sick of it; I just want to hear the news."
Have you ever made driving mixtapes for a roadtrip?
"Well, I'm always making mixtapes because my car only has a CD player. Now my car is just littered with CDRs, it'd be so much easier if I got a new stereo with an input for an iPod, and I could just scroll through that."
What happened to your Matewan-inspired coalminer's musical? Is that still a bubbling dream, or has it fallen by the wayside?
"It's actually finished. It's amazing. It's one of the greatest albums of all time. Secretly Canadian has purchased it, basically, but for them Yeasayer is the priority, so we're waiting for a lull in the Yeasayer cycle to put that out. Which is fine, because it's not like it's something based on the cutting edge of technology, or this very of-the-moment sound; it's very much based in the themes of Americana, and the sound of classic '70s rock, and musicals from that era. So it can just sit and wait, happily."
Is it coming out under your own name?
"I think it'll be under the name of me and the other composer. I just wanted the project to be the name of the musical, Coal Into Diamonds, but Secretly Canadian wouldn't just go for the random title; they need to cash in on my indie-rock celebrity."
So, at the start, you mentioned being in that period where the album is done, but people don’t know it yet. How does it feel with the release imminent? What hopes do you have for Fragrant World?
"I want us to become a household name! That's my ambition! No, I actually figured out what my ambition is, because people ask you that all the time. My ambition is that when we cross the border of all these countries that we tour through, that the people working there at least know the name of our band, if not the music. When some suspicious customs official asks: 'So, you're a musician, what kind of music do you play?'; I want to be able to just say 'I’m in Yeasayer,' and have them be like security at a festival, and not think that I'm a terrorist, and just let me walk right through, so I can just get on my Eurostar train and go from Paris to London."