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Interview: Yeasayer

By ; January 13, 2010 at 12:00 AM 

Yeasayer, riding a wave of publicity on the eve of the release of their second album, are poised to earn an even bigger following with the fantastic and accessible Odd Blood (Album Review). Singer, guitarist and songwriter Anand Wilder tells onethirtybpm all about the recording of the album, from their influences to its sequencing, explains their visual style, and comments on the album’s early internet leak in an eye-opening interview.

onethirtybpm: So, you guys have sort of blown up since 2007, how does it feel to have achieved this so organically? Do you anticipate winning even more fans with Odd Blood?

Anand: Oh yeah, I mean the idea of blowing up is probably an overstatement. For me, it’s been very organic, you know, so I don’t think the idea of some sort of grassroots build-up and ‘blowing up’ are at odds, because I don’t think [either] one is a misnomer, you know. We put out an album in 2007, and for that month we played for twenty people, and then it was a slow build and we’d play for 100 people, and we still can’t sell out a show in New Haven, CT.

onethirtybpm: I think considering the circumstances, you got pretty big and you didn’t have a lot of support or promotion behind you either at first, right?

Anand: Yeah, I mean, I guess I don’t know.. from the inside, I don’t know what it compares to, and I’ve never been in any other professional band, but I’m definitely grateful for the amount of success we’ve achieved, for sure. I had no idea what to expect; I thought, you know, I was just happy to put out an album that we were really proud of and that people, you know – that we didn’t compromise anything. We weren’t trying to become the biggest band in the world, we were just trying to make some interesting music. The fact that people ‘got it’ or were into it was really exciting for us. But yeah, I hope that for this next album, Odd Blood, that our fanbase will keep expanding slowly – I don’t really want any kind of huge explosion in our fanbase because I think that’s when, you know, the bubble gets big and it bursts and then you have serious backlashes. But the idea that there’s already a backlash against Yeasayer for being this big is ridiculous.

onethirtybpm: Yeah, I think that’s fair enough. Odd Blood was the first 2010 album that really excited me – I was hooked from the very listen. Did you mean to create a more accessible, streamlined album? I have to say this album grabbed me a lot faster than All Hour Cymbals.

Anand: Yeah, I mean, that was definitely part of our goal for this album – we didn’t want to repeat ourselves, and we wanted to make more love songs, more clear-sounding instrumental tracks, you know. It would be less reverb, less haze, a little more direct – and that was definitely a goal of ours. We probably couldn’t have accomplished that with our last album without 10 times as much money because we were into layering a lot of things with the last album. This one, we tried to strip away, but I think it’s still a very, like, multi-layered album, but we had a little more time, a little bit more resources to kind of execute our vision in a more ‘poppy’ way. And yeah, I think there is an immediacy with it because the vocals are higher, the drums really kick, the bass – we really spent a lot of time getting good bass on every song. So I think this one sounds more like a real professional recording than the last one, which was more kind of home recordings, and it had its charm as well, but we wanted to make something completely different than the last one while still retaining, you know, that kind of Yeasayer core.

onethirtybpm: I definitely get that feeling, especially with the drums and the bass – everything is really clear and crisp. How long did the album take to record?

Anand: We went up to Woodstock in February of 2009, and we finished mixing in September.

onethirtybpm: Wow.

Anand: But a lot of those recordings, just like the first album, began as demos from 2007, so really, like a three-year process.

onethirtybpm: Well it sounds like it.

Anand: In earnest, you know, only a few months in Woodstock and then we took a couple months off to tour, and we toured with our new drummers, came back and re-recorded in the mixing studio. So yeah it was a long process, but it could have been a lot longer I guess. [laughs]

onethirtybpm: How do you construct your songs? The music is so unpredictable, and like you said, so layered, it sounds like it’s just saturated with sounds – I can’t imagine how someone would go about building that step-by-step. Did you have a method or anything special to build all those sounds into one song?

Anand: It definitely depends on the song, but in general most of the songs are conceived of using computer-based software. Pro Tools, Logic, Garageband, Reason, that kind of thing, so it’s not – even the songs that are very like, maybe sound like someone jamming or guitar or something, probably began as something else on Pro Tools or on Logic, then [were] cut up, mixed around, flipped backwards, you know, and then song structure was kind of arranged in the computer. So, none of us are really smart enough to write songs in a traditional kind of way. You know, piano, acoustic guitar – we can but we’re not very good at it, so we sort of try to use the technology to sort of help us co-write the songs.

onethirtybpm: With certain songs like “Ambling Alp,” it sounds almost inhuman with all the different sounds and vocals, like it would be impossible to replicate, but I was really impressed by the way you guys were able to do the songs on stage so faithfully.

Anand: Yeah, thanks. I mean, that was definitely one of the kind of themes we were going for with this album, I think the last album – whether intentionally or not – was kind of perceived as a campfire hippy jam-out, you know, with so many group vocals and everything. But with this one we really wanted to create a oneness with the machine, you know, and if that meant a little bit of sterility and a little coldness, that was okay and we were gonna try to push that. And yeah, I think you do get that with “Ambling Alp” – that’s definitely not a band playing, that’s like sampled sounds here, there – you don’t know where the guitar comes in and the synth, and you don’t know where the synth bass starts and the regular bass begins. So yeah, I think we were definitely trying to take the idea of a collage aesthetic which we developed in the first album, take it to the extreme – not try to replay everything in a live setting, because that would lose the kind of charm of using the computer as your co-writer.

onethirtybpm: I think you succeeded with your mission of becoming ‘one with the machine‘ – that’s a good way of putting it. So what kind of things were you listening to while you were recording? I know you guys had a recording blog and put album covers up sometimes, but what were some of the records in particular that ruled your world at the time?

Anand: Let’s see, we were listening to – I have to give away all of the things we ripped off, but – when we were trying to create dance music, we were listening to a lot of stuff throughout the kind of ages, you know, so anything from Sly & The Family Stone, the kind of arrangements he was working with, to Chaka Khan and her stuff in the ’80s, particularly the song “Ain’t Nobody,” and also moving into the ’90s with The Real McCoy and that kind of like – I don’t know what that style of music is – but that kind of house-y, Haddaway type music, and seeing what about these songs made you wanna freak out in the club, you know. Then going into this past decade, the 2000s, we were listening to a lot of dancehall music, and very popular mainstream stuff like Movado and Serani and trying to figure out how we could rip these artists off in an interesting way and then add our own little touches and kind of combine all these different influences and try to create something that is pretty original.

onethirtybpm: I think those influences you mentioned are all pretty detectable, especially the ’80s influences, but I was a bit surprised to hear about the dancehall connections, but that’s cool, I like Movado as well.


Anand: Yeah, I think some of those guys just like, you know, some of the beats we use, some of the programming we did on Odd Blood was really just like, okay, we need to… that’s where the bass goes, that’ll be where the kick goes [imitates repetitive kick drum] you know, and now there’s a weird shaky sound, and I think we could have even gone crazier and had more strange sounds, but you know, we only had..

onethirtybpm: There’s only so much time.

Anand: Yeah.

onethirtybpm: Especially with “Ambling Alp,” is there an Animal Collective influence? With their latest album, they have the same sort of ebullient, dizzy sound as you guys, even though I’d say yours is a bit more laboured and professional – what do you think, are they influence on you at all?

Anand: I mean, I guess they’re an influence as much as any other band is – I think any comparison to them is overstated and oversimplified. I think their work is amazing, I think they’re one of the most idiosyncratic bands that are out there, and I don’t really see the connection between their stuff and ours. I find our music can be far more poppy, you know, but I don’t know, I think they’re a great band and they consistently put out really great recordings, but I don’t think we’re really going for exactly the same thing. I think when you have a band that’s working in the indie-rock kind of paradigm, that doesn’t necessarily play guitars all the time and doesn’t necessarily play hi-hats and snare drums all the time, you’re gonna be sort of lumped together. Obviously they came before us, it’s never gonna be that they were influenced by us, you know, so it’s flattering to say – I’d rather be compared to them than to have someone say that we sound like, uh, some band that I hate.

onethirtybpm: One last question on this note: what kind of things are you listening to right now, in January?

Anand: Let’s see, let me check my iTunes, see what I’m listening to. Oh, God, I’m listening to Paul Lansky, I’m listening to Sinead O’Connor, I’m listening to Willie Nelson, and I’m listening to Joni Mitchell, and I’m listening to Dr. Octagon. [laughs]

onethirtybpm: Interesting. Eclectic. So, the album took you guys quite a while to record and it was finished a few months ago, so have you started working on any new material yet or are you just taking a hiatus from writing right now?

Anand: No, I mean, we’ve been finished for a while but we haven’t really had a break. It’s been interview after interview, we did a press junket in the UK and Europe, and then in December I took a vacation, I went to India for two and a half weeks with my girlfriend, and that was really valuable for me to just kind of get away, to travel without working…

onethirtybpm: It must be really nuts for you guys right now with the album just about to come out.

Anand: Yeah, basically we tour and we, you know, see the world, supposedly, but we’re really seeing the same kind of microcosm. Every country we see inside of a club and the stage, you know, so it’s nice, it’s a nice way to travel ‘cause you meet really amazing people and you’re looked after really well and people are really nice to you, but at the same time you’re constantly revisiting these very kind of stale, boring, Northern European cities without that much excitement. So for me to go a place like India and not have any work to do, just be kind of learning constantly, getting kind of inspired and taking photographs, speaking to really wonderful people – completely out of the context of my band – was refreshing for me.

onethirtybpm: You said you had a UK press junket, and you’re doing a European tour later this year. Would you say you’re more popular in Europe, or at least more popular than you’d think you’d be? I’m surprised to hear that you did a conference in the UK.

Anand: I don’t really know, it’s hard for me to comprehend that, I think the only way you can really tell that is from record sales, and I’m not really that attuned to the differences in record sales. I’m sure we’ve sold more records in America than in Europe, but I’m very happy with the way things are going in Europe, I’m happy that we’re not some band that’s really well known in America and no one in Europe gives a shit about us. I think there are bands that are like huge in England, that nobody has even heard of in the United States. From my perspective, I feel that the interest in Yeasayer is pretty even across the board. Just kind of all this dedicated following that hopefully will grow with the release of this next album.

onethirtybpm: Can you explain the album cover?

Anand: The album cover was designed by artist Ben Phelan, and he has been with Yeasayer, collaborating with Yeasayer since 2005, and he was our lighting director for a while, conceived of all our stage props – any lighting design, it’s all been Ben collaborating with Chris [Keating]. For this album cover…Chris had done the last one, it was kind of organic-seeming and collage-y, and we wanted to kind of continue with that. There’s definitely a similarity between this cover and the last cover in that it’s a bust of a human, but in this one he sort of created an alternate strange world, and he created a digital 3D sculpture that combines Chris’, Ira’s, and my own faces together. I think that’s my chin, I think that’s Ira’s eye, that’s Chris’ face. Ben had this whole story about who this particular person is, I think he’s – but you have to ask him about it if you really want to get into details – from what I gather, it’s a very old man in the future whose body is kind of deteriorating, but he’s using technology to keep himself together. He’s sort of falling apart and he’s got these nano robots inside him that are cleaning his blood and piecing his skin back together but are kind of failing and so he just won’t die, you know, keeping him going. That’s just what I interpret it as, that’s my interpretation. I think it’s open to interpretation, I think Ben has an idea of what it is, my interpretation has obviously been coloured by what I’ve heard about his intentions, but I think if you want to get a true statement of purpose you have to go the artist himself.

onethirtybpm: I definitely get a sense of decay from the album cover. What about the “Ambling Alp” video? That’s quite a video.

Anand: The “Ambling Alp” video… we had seen seen Radical Friend (that’s the name of the artist who created the video), we had seen their video for Black Moth Super Rainbow and it was an interactive video. Chris got in touch with them and we had a conversation about what kind of their ideas they were going for with this music video and they sort of took it, wrote up a treatment, and we said ‘do whatever you want, if you want to have naked people that’s fine, if you want to go out in the desert, great’ – we wanted to make it as big and explosive of a production as possible. And I think they really achieved it, I think it got us a lot of interest, so much so there’s probably a backlash against the rest of the album after that. But we’re trying to set the bar pretty high, especially for the visual side of things, and hopefully we can keep following it up with more and more exciting visual complements.

onethirtybpm: It’s an astounding, really expensive-looking video for an independent band. I was really impressed.

Anand: Yeah, thanks. It was definitely something where we said ‘okay, we could spend $200 or we could spend a lot more and make something that we’re all really proud of’ and to us, it’s like, you know, there’s always going to be people out there who want a DIY, lo-fi kind of band out of Yeasayer, which we’re not and never intended to be – we were just working with whatever resources we had. Some people would rather have us take the money we get from the record label and put it in our pockets, but we’d rather spend it making the best possible art we can.

onethirtybpm: Your drummer [Luke Fasano] recently left the band. Was that before or after the recording of Odd Blood and did it effect the finished product in any way?

Anand: No, it didn’t effect the end product in any way. He left the band before the recording of the second album, and then we got these two new drummers working with us for the live setting, and they played on the album. They played on all the ‘hits,’ they played on the “O.N.E.” song, and “Ambling Alp,” and “Rome,” and a couple other songs I think. We’re really excited by these new guys and I think they’re taking us in a much funkier direction, and everything’s going really well with the way that we recorded, working better than it ever has before.

onethirtybpm: Was the album conceived with any sort of concept or narrative? Especially the run from “Madder Red” to “O.N.E.” it seems as if there’s sort of a story arc, with the lyrics. Was that intentional or just coincidence?

Anand: I think we definitely compiled the songs into an order to make some lyrical sense, but I also think that a lot of the songs may have been conceived at different points in time, and no matter how detached they seem from reality a lot of the lyrics are very personal, so there’s always going to be a kind of story you can create, a little mini movie you can see, and think ‘oh, well this song is about breaking up with someone, oh this song is about trying to win someone over, oh this song is about really being in love, you know, or this song is that relationship turning into a paranoid mess’ and so, I think you could see a story arc. Ideally, I think it would be great to release a long-form music video that was just the entire album that was just kind of a soundtrack to a movie, but I think that would just be ridiculously expensive and probably seen as something that was really pretentious.

onethirtybpm: That would definitely get some backlash.

Anand: Yeah, totally, but for me that’s the easy way to kind of see the songs and think, ‘Oh, here the character is running, and here he’s talking to his father about something, and that’s a flashback to his youth before the world exploded’ or something, and when you wanna really go with that it does become a little pretentious. But it’s an easy way for me to think about it and then hope that someone’s listening to our music on acid so they’ll get those connections. [laughs]

onethirtybpm: When I listen to the album I definitely get a sense of two distinct sides, like, starting from tracks 1-5 and then 6-10. Would you agree with this, was this intentional?

Anand: Yeah, I think the first side of the album is.. you know, we played around with album order a lot, we thought about “Love Me Girl” on the first side, which just didn’t work. As weird as “The Children” is as a song, it’s pretty anthemic, I think, and it really stood up well next to “Ambling Alp,” and then after “Ambling Alp,” which is such a powerful song, we needed something that was also kind of a mountainous anthem, and so then we threw “Madder Red” on there, and from then we thought ‘oh, “I Remember,” that’s also a pretty big sounding song’ but in a completely different way, it’s sort of a love ballad, and then you go to “O.N.E.” which is like this pop anthem, and then with “Love Me Girl” on the second side, that was our first kind of instance of a really long, unbearable intro, and that was kind of introducing a new side of experimentation and weirdness and paranoia. These strange characters – in “Rome,” and “Mondegreen” being this kind of paranoid guy sitting in his apartment thinking that everyone is talking about him or something, and that’s an interpretation of it, and “Grizelda” being about this mass murderer and “Strange Reunions” being this paranoid, stay-away-from-me kind of song. Yeah, I think that the mood definitely shifts on the other side but I think that’s also a matter an interpretation of thinking about the record. It’s easy to think about it in terms of two sides, thinking about it like an album, like an LP, you know. We’re not sophisticated enough to think of it in terms as one flowing CD, that’ll be the next album.

onethirtybpm: I think it works in both ways – it does have two distinct paths but it flows really well and feels like it was sequenced really deliberately. The second half feels more insular, and like you said paranoid even.

Anand: Yeah, that was definitely a conscious decision by us to kind of stack the front side with these hits. I feel like if you had a record player, you might listen to the hits at first, and then you might get tired of them and start to explore the second side and then that second side becomes your favourite.

onethirtybpm: The album leaked quite early, and you posted a cryptic response on your Twitter and Facebook pages. Was it disappointing to you personally, and how do you feel about that and album leaks in general?

Anand: I think it’s annoying that someone feels that they have the right to put your work online for free, but after that point, you know, it may be disappointing if it causes a lack of record sales, but I don’t think that is ever really the case. If anything, it generates interest and augments your record sales. So I can’t really be too disappointed, I mean, maybe it would have been better if it leaked a week before the album came out. But who knows, maybe it’s better, maybe we’ll play a show before our album came out, and people will know all the songs, our new songs, and we won’t feel like idiots playing songs that no one’s ever heard of. That’s exciting for us and I think people do follow through and buy the album, and I think the reason we put so much effort into the artwork was to give people motivation to go out and buy the CD or the LP. But, you know, I’m not going to pretend like the version that people have out there is anything less than the best. Sure, maybe it’s an MP3, but how many people listen to CDs anyway? People probably [rip] the CDs into iTunes and listen to the songs on MP3 through computer speakers, so that’s beyond my control. I just hope that it will create a bigger fanbase and make more people aware of us. I think the last album leaked as well, but maybe only 20 people downloaded it [laughs]. It’s just exciting that a lot of people are – that there’s enough interest that it is leaking and people are listening to it.

onethirtybpm: Thanks for talking to me, and sorry for all the phone troubles – thanks for persevering.

Anand: Yeah, no problem. Talk to you soon.





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