Yeasayer Talks Fragrant World, Five-neck Guitars, And Playing Cruise Ships
On a sunny day a couple of weeks ago I had the chance to sit down for a few minutes with the guys from Yeasayer to talk about their new record, Fragrant World. Maybe it was just the nice weather or everyone’s good mood, but it was hard to get too serious about much of anything. Having interviewed these guys a few times over the past few years, I can honestly say that they are just about the nicest people in the business … and also the most prone to make endless inside jokes. If their career making super-slick, extra-beautiful indie pop ever comes to a close (here’s hoping it doesn’t), they could probably make a living doing standup comedy (but only together as a band). In any case, we still managed to talk about the making of the new record and just how much things have changed for the band since the release of Odd Blood back in 2010. I left the interview not entirely certain that we’d really gotten to the bottom of anything, but with a smile on my face nonetheless.
Stereogum: When did the cycle of touring for Odd Blood finally end? It seemed like you guys were on the road forever.
Ira Wolf Tuton: July, 2011. About a year ago, more or less.
Stereogum: Had you been writing songs while on the road?
Chris Keating: It was a slow writing process, but we had all been kind of coming up with ideas on our own. It’s hard coming off the road and trying to get yourself into the right mindset to start writing again.
Stereogum: Still, a year to write and record an album … that isn’t too bad. Some bands take a lot longer.
Anand Wilder: We were back in the studio and recording again within about a month of being home. By last September we were in the studio again.
Stereogum: That’s pretty fast after such a long tour.
Wilder: Thank you for saying so.
Stereogum: I mean, I talk to bands that tell me that they need to take several months off before they can really start working again. Everyone needs to get away from each other for a while.
Keating: We really didn’t take much time off, mostly because we were genuinely excited about being back in the studio again. We also kept getting more offers for shows during that time. Obviously, a band of our size makes most of our living from touring, so it was hard to say no. Also, often the most interesting tours happen after your regular tour cycle has ended. We got some pretty interesting offers toward the end.
Stereogum: Like weird one-off gigs?
Tuton: A few of those, but also things like … well, we were offered the chance to go to China. How do you turn that down?
Stereogum: So how was China?
Keating: We couldn’t do it! By that time there was no more room left in our schedule.
Stereogum: The last time I spoke to you was just before the release of Odd Blood. So much of our conversation was about how much life had changed for you after the endless touring you did in support of the first record. Now you’re at album No. 3, which can be a weird time for bands.
Keating: How so?
Stereogum: Well, after the dreaded sophomore slump, album No. 3 is hopefully where you kind of hit your stride … though, I’ll admit, trying to generalize those sorts of things isn’t always useful.
Wilder: Is that the case with our record? Tell us how you feel about it. Be honest.
Tuton: Someone told me that third albums are generally the most disappointing.
Keating: I think that third records most usually are said to follow second records. That, I think, is true. Unless your third record isn’t really anything new. Like, maybe your third album is a remix record.
Wilder: Right, like Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded, or something.
Stereogum: Was your song-making process for Fragrant World different from the ways in which you previously worked?
Tuton: It’s probably a similar process, but executed with different constraints.
Wilder: We usually take demos that we’ve done at home and then bring them into the studio to beef them up. I don’t think we really started anything from scratch in the studio, did we?
Keating: These days, the quality of demo you can produce at home or by yourself is pretty good, so often when we get them into the studio it’s just about trying to elaborate on them. Sometimes that original demo is completely washed away — like a pencil sketch or something — and you are often kind of oblivious as to when that happens. Like, oops now the demo is gone, but hopefully what remains is something stronger. Things change so organically that you don’t even realize when it’s happening.
Stereogum: Where did you record?
Keating: Just a few blocks away from here in Brooklyn. Mexican Summer — the record label — has a recording studio and we worked there. It’s an amazing studio with, like, 50-foot-tall ceilings. I think we were one of the first bands to work there. There is an attempt to call the studio ‘Gary’s Electric,’ but that name just won’t stick.
Tuton: It’s like Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory in there. From the street you would have no idea, then you walk in and it is insanity.
Stereogum: This neighborhood is full of invisible recording studios. I went to interview a pretty famous record producer the other day and the studio was a block away from my house. I never knew it existed.
Tuton: I always think about that. Like, when you cross into Manhattan over the Williamsburg Bridge and you see all these big buildings with no windows. What’s going on in there?
Keating: Sex slaves. Or something equally terrible.
Wilder: Restaurant equipment. Sweatshops.
Keating: We also worked at this place called Spacebar on Greenpoint Avenue.
Tuton: That place is really called Spacebar?
Wilder: It’s also a great place. The guy who runs the studio has the ability to convert MIDI signals to analog signal. You can write a synth line on a crappy program that sounds terrible and then run it through this beautiful machine that will make it sound beautiful.
Stereogum: I don’t understand any of what you’re talking about, but it does sound cool.
Keating: It is cool. We only barely understand it.
Stereogum: Going in to make the record, did you have a pretty clear idea of things you wanted to do differently or how the aesthetic of this record would be different?
Keating: I think we knew it would be a little more somber than the last one. It’s also a much more layered record and not quite as immediate as the last one. You need to listen to it multiple times before you really start to get it. Most of my favorite albums were that way — you had to live with them for a while in order to really unpack everything that was happening.
Stereogum: How does that idea reveal itself as you are making the record? Is it just a matter of letting the songs go where they want without as much regard to them needing to be overly poppy?
Keating: Well, you always start with the core of the song — a melody — that you could play on an acoustic guitar, but in the studio we were often building up these kind of uneasy environments to surround the songs.
Tuton: In the studio — listening to the songs over these incredible sound systems — you become excruciatingly aware of tonality. If the tone of something veered too closely to a random pop song or to something on our previous records, we’d immediately steer it in a different direction. It’s easy to swerve back into your comfort zone without even realizing it, so we were very conscious of trying to stay away from that and take this into some different sonic direction.
Wilder: We also got a lot of new toys since we made the last record, so that changes things as well. You want to try and abandon your old bag of tricks and try out new gear, which means using new plug-ins and new computer programs and new outboard equipment that you’ve never used before.
Keating: But maybe you keep the same guitar that you’ve been playing since high school.
Wilder: So what? What are you gonna do, get a new guitar? Do people do that?
Stereogum: I saw Cheap Trick play last night and Rick Nielsen busted out his famous five-neck guitar. We were discussing whether or not he has more than one of them or if he’s been toting around that same one since the ’70s.
Wilder: Are all five necks different? Is one of them 12-string? Why does there need to be five? Are they all tuned differently? WHY?
Keating: That guitar must weigh a ton. I’m sure he gets sick of it.
Tuton: He must have more than one of them. I bet guitar shops are lining up to build those things for him.
Keating: He has to have more than one. What if it got broken? If someone tripped and fell and broke one of the necks? What then?
Tuton: Please insert an editor’s note and find out just how many five-neck guitars he actually has.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: According to the Internet, Rick Nielsen has three of them.]
Stereogum: ANYWAY. Does getting new gear also affect your live setup? Will you be changing the way that you play for this upcoming tour?
Keating: Well, we’ve never been that faithful to the original recordings when we play live anyway. There are certain riffs that we try to keep the same, but the exciting thing about playing live is transforming it into something different with a different energy, usually in an attempt to make it more direct in some way.
Wilder: Since our very first shows we’ve used samplers and drum machines. We’ve tried to always let the live show and the recording process influence each other. We’ll add a new member for the live setup, plus we’ll have some new gear to try out, which will change things.
Tuton: And we’ll have new outfits. New haircuts. That will also influence the way we play.
Stereogum: This record feels a lot darker thematically than your previous ones.
Keating: “Henrietta” was kind of the jumping off point for me, conceptually. It really influenced a lot of the other songs. I hate to generalize the songs, but I was really exploring ideas having to do with physicality and the way a human being can come to represent a specific idea.
Wilder: Like Batman.
Keating: Has everyone seen the new Batman movie?
[Long discussion of The Dark Knight Rises]
Stereogum: ANYWAY! What about touring? I assume you guys are about to go on the road forever?
Keating: Touring, touring, touring.
Wilder: We’re playing on a cruise ship at some point.
Stereogum: Oh yeah, the Coachella cruise! I keep forgetting that is happening.
Keating: I know! Can you believe that is real? When they first asked us we just couldn’t believe it was a real thing. So we were like, “Yeah, sure we’ll play on a boat!” But not thinking it was ever really gonna happen. But guess what? It’s happening.
Stereogum: There are already tons of these music-cruise packages happening. There’s a pop cruise with aging boy bands, there are country cruises with middle-aged country stars performing every night. There are tons of cruises with old hair metal bands. My boyfriend really wants to go on the KISS cruise.
Wilder: What? That could either be awesome. Or awful.
Stereogum: The Coachella Cruise sounds fun, actually. At the very least it will be interesting.
Keating: Someone asked me why we agreed to do it and I had to ask them, “You’ve never been on tour, have you?”
Tuton: Yeah, try getting on a bus … and then living there.
Wilder: Try getting in a van … and then living there.
Keating: Suddenly the idea of playing on a boat with a swimming pool — while staring out at the Caribbean — doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Yeasayer’s Fragrant World is out now on Secretly Canadian.