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Interview: Chris Keating of Yeasayer

"I don’t need to be on MTV, in Rolling Stone, in the NME. I don't really care."

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Yeasayer

Yeasayer (Chris Keating, center)

Guy Aroch

Yeasayer are a genre-defying outfit founded by keyboardist/vocalist Chris Keating, guitarist Anand Wilder, and bassist Ira Wolf Tuton. The trio grew up in Baltimore, attending the same school as Animal Collective, and came together as Yeasayer in Brooklyn in 2005. Since, they've delivered two impressive LPs: 2007's All Hour Cymbals and 2010's Odd Blood.

Interview: 20 January 2010

The lyrics on Odd Blood are much more straight-forward than on All Hour Cymbals. It feels like a radical change, as listener, to go from dystopian futurism to “making love” and “my baby.” Was that the intent?
“I don’t know why people picked up so much on the apocalyptic side [of All Hour Cymbals]; it was there, but so was a lot of positivity, and a lot of songs about weather. But, you just try to challenge yourself, and write things in new ways. After we’d done that first record, we thought ‘what haven’t we written about?’ We tried to branch out and do something different. In our case, that was doing something more traditional, so there was a certain effort to maybe write some love songs. To us, it seemed exotic to go that route.”

Who is Ambling Alp?
“Man, you gotta look it up! You got Wikipedia! Nah, Ambling Alp was the nickname of a 1930s/’40s Italian boxer. I was always interested in writing a song that had boxing mythology in it, that was, in some ways, about Joe Louis. Max Schmeling was a German boxer who was fighting for Germany in the ’30s, and so as a result became a champion of Hitler. Joe Louis defeated him in 1938, and that became this moment of legend in boxing mythology, that this black guy was able to beat this Nazi boxer, thereby demoralizing the Nazi regime.”

Are you interested in boxing as sport, or just as folklore?
“I’m not particularly interested in it as anything other than mythology. My grandfather was a professional boxer, so that era —from the Depression through to Muhammad Ali— is interesting to me. It’s pretty fascinating: there were so many amazing characters, and it was so closely entwined with 20th century history. But I have no interest in contemporary boxing.”

Was it hard transposing boxing mythology into pop-song?
“Not at all. The hardest part is coming up with the idea. Like, ‘oh, I want to write about this.’ Once you have that, you can just roll with it.”

When did you first start writing songs?
“I began playing in bands in high-school, writing songs about girls I liked, or girls who didn’t like me. And, slowly, I just started trying to write things more sophisticated. I still think I’m working at it, to tell you the truth. I still don’t really know how to write a song, it’s not something that comes very easily. It still requires a lot of work.”

But, you do think you’re getting better, right?
“I hope so. But it’s hard for me to be objective about such a subjective thing. I think I actually view melody, and the need for a hook, in much the same way as I did when I was 16, or when I was 9, even. I grew up listening to the Beatles and the Beach Boys and Michael Jackson, and all those records have very strong choruses and very strong hooks. I still like childlike melodies, big refrains and hooks. I don’t think I’ve actually gotten any more sophisticated.”

Is there a childlike quality to Yeasayer?
“I don’t really like using the word ‘childlike’ because it suggests a false, forced naïveté. But, any time you’re dealing with pure emotions, like love or fear or anger, and you’re trying to express it in a song, it becomes childlike. Because there’s no filter on it. It becomes very direct. So, in that way, yes. But not in terms of, like, ‘I want to go back to being a kid, the pure joy of riding my bike around the playground!’ I don’t romanticize being a kid like that. I didn’t really like it.”

Why didn’t you like it?
“I had divorced parents, so I had to be shuttled back and forth. I didn’t like that complete lack of control, didn’t like being told what to do, what to study, school itself. I was always excited to be independent. I think all kids are, that’s no big revelation, but people seem to forget that feeling when they’re nostalgically remembering childhood. I don’t.”

Isn’t that exactly why people romanticize their youth: the complete lack of responsibility?
“No, I think people just get stuck on their 'first' times. There’s nothing better than your first blowjob, your first kiss, the first time you drove a car. You’re always running back to those. Especially now, people from my high-school, 10 years out, they’ve got kind of bloated and fat, they’re wearing dumpy clothes and working a job they hate. The jocks from my school, they don’t look so good anymore.”

Were you your high-school’s ‘most likely to be a rock’n’roll superstar’?
“God no. I never thought I’d be doing this, and neither did anyone else. I thought I’d be doing graphic design, fine art, something visual. I was always better at that than music stuff. I never thought I could do music as a profession; I still don’t know how I pay the rent. But, once we started doing this, and saw people from our hometown making a living playing weird, cool music, we said 'let’s go for it!'”

How inspiring was the very existence, not to mention the crazy success, of Animal Collective?
“Yeah, those guys went to my high-school! They were about five years older, but I knew who they were, and that they were making music. And they were making really weird music at first, and working shitty jobs, and it seemed like they were doing pretty good, well enough at least to feed themselves and continue making whatever they wanted. It was totally inspiring to see that people like that can do it on their own terms.”

Do you think a band like theirs —or, indeed, yours— could only be so successful now, in this era?
“Probably. With the collapse of the major-label system and the changing dynamic in the way people access music, you don't have to worry about selling a million records. You can still reach an audience through just simply making music, and playing a lot of shows. Being able to tour much more easily throughout the world, now, you build up your fanbase that way. I don’t need to be on MTV, I don’t need to be in Rolling Stone, I don’t need to be in the NME. I don’t really care.”

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