Anand Wilder On His New Solo Album, Yeasayer’s Demise, And That Lawsuit Against The Weeknd
Anand Wilder is showing me his mountain dulcimer. “You know what this is?” He holds up the three-stringed instrument, strumming it and letting its tinny, diatonic sound — memorably used on the Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane,” Led Zeppelin’s “That’s The Way,” and Wilder’s new solo debut, I Don’t Know My Words — reach me through Zoom. He grins amidst the clutter of his home studio in Brooklyn. A wooden piano, a keyboard, and assorted microphones fill up the space behind him.
Wilder has spent a lot of time in this room lately. Like many people, his world grew significantly smaller during the past two years, though for Wilder, the biggest change came before the coronavirus began its death march across the globe: In late 2019, his band Yeasayer called it a day. Yeasayer surged to prominence during the Brooklyn indie boom of the late 2000s, impressing critics with the sun-baked neo-psychedelia of their 2007 debut, All Hour Cymbals, before dialing into mind-warping synths and festival-sized hooks on 2010’s Odd Blood. Throw on “Sunrise” or “Ambling Alp” and, for a certain kind of indie-loving millennial, the sensory memories of 2009 come rushing back instantly.
The way Wilder tells it, the magic wore off sometime after 2012’s Fragrant World. By the time Yeasayer released their fifth and final album in 2019, the group’s commercial prospects were dwindling and band relations were strained. Wilder wanted to do something different. And his solo album, I Don’t Know My Words (out next year on Last Gang Records), is a long ways away from Yeasayer’s technicolor electro-pop. Performed entirely by Wilder — drawing on a largely acoustic palette of instruments including cello, 12-string guitar, and, yes, that dulcimer — it’s a hushed and often lovely homage to English folk, brooding psychedelia, and hints of Indian raga, imbued with the intimacy of the space where it was recorded.
It’s a lockdown album in more ways than one. For one thing, Wilder began recording during those traumatic spring months of 2020, when New York became a blur of ambulance sirens and refrigerated morgue trucks. He was quarantined in Brooklyn, caring for his two daughters by day and recording at night. For another, tracks like “Sick Hotel” and “Hart Island” (named after the potter’s field where thousands of unclaimed bodies were buried in mass graves last year) reflect the harrowing fear and dread brought upon by living in the epicenter of a pandemic.
Yet Wilder is launching his solo career with a much lighter tune, “Delirium Passes,” a rapturous shot of kaleidoscopic psych-folk. The tune is accompanied by a trippy video, which was inspired by James Joyce’s story “The Boarding House” and which features Ben Sinclair of High Maintenance fame. Below, check out the video and read our interview with Wilder.
During the years you were in Yeasayer, were you squirreling away solo songs that weren’t quite right for the band? Or was it more like everything you wrote during that time was a Yeasayer song?
WILDER: Some of these songs on this album are old songs that I would present and maybe be met with a bit of snark or something. I never wanted to shove songs down my bandmates’ throats. If I got any sense they didn’t like it — or that it wasn’t marketable, or wasn’t going to be good live — I would just say, “Okay, let’s move on to something else.”
What kinds of songs produced that reaction in your bandmates?
WILDER: You never know! It’s been really interesting because a song on here that was just dismissed out of hand, not even worked on at all, the record label wants to put out as the next single. So it’s really validating for me, because I’m like, “I’m glad I kept that. I’m glad I didn’t force anybody to work on that.”
It sounds like the situation in Yeasayer was pretty democratic in that you all had to like a song in order to agree to record it?
WILDER: Democratic, but all bands have power dynamics and hierarchies. You have to be able to accept those hierarchies and play your different roles, because we’ve put so many years of effort and touring into building this brand. And that keeps you going because that’s the initial thing: How can you get this song, this message, out to as many people as possible? Towards the end, it just wasn’t worth it anymore.
What do you mean?
WILDER: I didn’t like who I became around my bandmates.
Was there a lot of tension in the group? Creative issues?
WILDER: Of course. It’s a marriage. So there’s always that, but when I was around my bandmates, you’d have some moments of joy and creativity, but it was a lot of anxiety and fight-or-flight feelings that I don’t have in my normal life, you know?
Was the breakup of Yeasayer a shock, or was it something that you saw coming from a mile away?
WILDER: It was something that we’d sort of been avoiding for many years. One band member had expressed wanting to quit many years ago, and I felt like I was propping up this castle that was crumbling from within and without. We were definitely not at the peak of our commercial powers. And when you’re a professional band, you’re working in that capitalist system, where you’re either growing or you’re declining, and we were definitely declining. And you have to make that decision whether you’re going to keep going because you really value that collaboration and that camaraderie. Or you say, “Okay, let’s go our separate ways. Nobody’s knocking on our doors.”
Yeasayer became quite successful very quickly. Your first album, All Hour Cymbals, really took off. What effect do you think achieving success so quickly had on the band’s trajectory?
WILDER: When you’re in it, it just all feels natural, right? You start off and you truly believe in your ideas. You think you’re doing something that’s completely innovative and revolutionary. And then any success just feels validating. You’re like, “Of course, we go from the 100-person venue to the 500-person venue and keep growing.” And then you sell out the bigger venues, and it all feels very natural.
You’re just in this storm; it’s hard to really have any perspective. You start off in your own van and then you eventually get to the bus, and then that starts to decline, and you’re like: “Well, we can’t really afford the bus anymore.” Or: “Oh, I thought we would always be playing that one festival in Australia, but we’re just not going to play that anymore.”
I’m sure there are bands out there that really still love each other, where you totally need that person to even write a song. We were never like that. We always had separate songwriters, and then we would combine and get some ideas here and there. Being professionalized so early, it makes it so you definitely don’t develop any other profession.
A lack of marketable skills outside of music.
WILDER: Yeah, you’re unemployable. And you see all these other friends and they’re moving on. Any other job, you work at it and you move up — you get promotions, and you work towards your retirement. With a band, you’re hot when you’re young and if you can’t keep cranking out the hits, you’re just seen as this failure.
When Yeasayer started out, there were a lot of very uncool aspects of your music: You incorporated world music influences and hippie harmonies and things that weren’t really embraced in the music scene of the mid-2000s. Then all of a sudden, things shifted and the Strokes fell out of fashion and Dirty Projectors blew up and I feel like Yeasayer was at the forefront of this shift in musical fashion. Was that disorienting?
WILDER: No, I don’t think so. That was always something people would say to us at the beginning: “Wow, you guys are so uncool!” We were definitely reacting to moving to New York and not wanting to do a Strokes-y thing. I really liked what TV On The Radio was doing in the early 2000s, and bands like White Magic and Animal Collective. Once we did that hippie harmony thing, [we were like], “Alright, how can we switch it up? Now let’s do something more synth-oriented.”
Do you have a most treasured memory from the whole Yeasayer experience?
WILDER: That’s a difficult question. If I want to go to a happy place, it’s even before we were playing any proper shows in New York, just getting together in an apartment after doing a job and working on music and just being excited about that. It’s just… that feeling. Professionally, looking back, there are these moments of like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe we opened up for Beck.” Someone that I just idolized as a child.
Was he a chill person to meet?
WILDER: Such a good guy. I wish I had been more fawning to tell him how much I liked him.
Once you’re in the cycle of being a successful band, it just becomes: “Okay, then you record the album, do the press, do the tour” — it actually becomes quite monotonous, doing the same thing. Playing the same kind of venues. There’s no one memory that stands out. [But] I definitely treasure the early years, when everything was very momentous and you’re getting that first TV show.
Was recording the last Yeasayer album kind of a slog? Was that when you knew Yeasayer was reaching its end?
WILDER: Yeah. I knew it was the end. It was through different conversations that it became clear no one was that interested in it, and by the end, we didn’t have a record label. I was the, not ringleader, but the cheerleader, to say: “Come on, we can do this ourselves. We’ve got all this equipment that we bought over the years. All we need to do is get together and record stuff.” I needed to do that to prove that we could make another record all on our own. And I probably needed to prove to myself that I could make a record on my own. But I did learn from that that for my solo project, I really wanted to be on a record label.
At the end, we had a show that was canceled in Mexico that we were looking forward to and the managers were asking me, “When are you guys going to make some new stuff?” And the idea of making new stuff was so nauseating and anxiety-filling for me that I just called the other guys and said, “Let’s just end it.”
A sad but inevitable moment, it sounds like.
WILDER: I don’t know that it’s inevitable. I just came to the conclusion that it wasn’t worth it for me anymore. And it was very liberating.
You publicly announced the end of Yeasayer in December 2019 and three months later, the world shut down. Live music as we knew it shut down for over a year.
WILDER: That was another thing I was so glad about. Everyone started doing Zoom live performances. I was so glad I didn’t have to be like, “Come on, guys. Let’s do one of these Zoom performances!”
That’s some fortuitous timing to end an indie-rock band right before the pandemic. Did you write most of these solo songs during the early part of the pandemic?
WILDER: I’d say it’s about 60/40, written all during the pandemic or a little bit before.
Did you play every instrument on this record?
WILDER: I did.
You recorded it all yourself in your home studio, right? What was the most challenging part for you?
WILDER: Getting drums to sound good. I was going for a much more intimate thing. A lot of the vocals were recorded really late at night. I recorded this whole album: I make dinner, get kids to sleep, and then come down and start working. So a lot of stuff is very quiet.
You have two kids now, right? You were quarantining with them while you made this record?
WILDER: Oh, yeah. They’re all over the record. You just can’t help but pick up little sounds of screaming kids.
When you say your kids are all over the record, do you mean playing instruments on the record? Or they’re just like screaming in the background?
WILDER: Just screaming. You’ll hear it. It’s like in “Hey Jude” — you don’t know Paul McCartney says “fucking hell” until someone points it out.
A lot of fireworks were going on last summer, during the pandemic. In the beginning of one of the songs, I captured this [imitates explosion noise] and I really liked that. And then someone was screaming outside on the pavement, and it just cut through the mix in a nice way. I love those kinds of accidents. I really don’t like music where everything is like, “Okay, perfect studio. Everything’s perfect.”
Tell me about “Delirium Passes.” Why did you choose this as the song to introduce yourself as a solo artist?
WILDER: Well, this song was the one that the record label thought was the catchiest one. It’s really as simple as that.
It’s a good track!
WILDER: It’s simple. It’s got a good little hook. The thing I’m most buzzing about right now is the music video.
What can you tell me about the music video?
WILDER: The line “delirium passes” I got from this James Joyce short story. I just read literature and write down little phrases.
This friend of mine, Derek Howard — we had collaborated on this score for an art piece that he had done here in the studio. He was like, “Hey, if you ever want to do a music video, I’ve got some film.” Then we got together and I was like, “I’ve got this short story that I got this line from. Why don’t we just make a short film based on this short story, and we’ll make that the video?” That was the jumping off point. I asked a good friend of mine to be in it, Jesse Jenkins, and then I asked Ben Sinclair to be in it, from High Maintenance. I had met him at a Sean Nicholas Savage concert just before COVID. I have him playing these two different parts. We shot it all on film. Shooting on film is just crazy, because you’re just like, “Okay, I think we got it,” and you don’t see it!
I think it perfectly suits the tone of the album. It’s not trying to be sexy or edgy in any way. It’s edgy in that it’s very odd in a Monty Python meets a creepy Big Red or Folgers commercial from the ’80s. I was so excited about that. I’m trying to just maintain that excitement right now.
You said the song title is from a James Joyce story?
WILDER: Yeah, it’s funny. I haven’t talked to my lawyer about it yet, but I’m like, is there licensing for recreating a piece of literature?
I think James Joyce’s stuff is in the public domain now, because he’s been dead so long, right? I know Kate Bush had a dispute with James Joyce’s estate in the ’80s, because she wanted to quote from Ulysses in “The Sensual World” and James Joyce’s estate wouldn’t let her. So, you have something in common with Kate Bush.
WILDER: Kate Bush is such a huge inspiration. Once we saw some of the film, I was like, “Oh, it feels like a very ’80s music video,” like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” where it’s clearly shot on film. It’s a romantic story, but you’re not quite sure what the fuck is going on!
What were you listening to when you were making this record?
WILDER: I was listening to a lot of Fairport Convention and that kind of stuff. Poly Styrene — her solo album Translucence. As far as contemporary stuff, I really love Aldous Harding and Cate Le Bon.
I realized I was listening to a lot of stuff that was very relaxing. I’m not that into dance music. I can get into it, but I had many years in Yeasayer to become “Anand Wilder from Yeasayer, the DJ who plays parties” or something. It never was something I was that good at, and it stressed me out, you know?
It’s interesting listening to your solo music because I listened to Yeasayer for years and I never really had a sense of “These are the songs you brought to the band. These are the songs Chris brought to the band.” But when I listened to your solo album, it was like, “Oh! This is the more brooding, downtempo aspect of Yeasayer.”
WILDER: Even the biggest Yeasayer song, “O.N.E.,” started off as something a lot more jangly and campfire — and then it was like, “Nope! We’ve got to make this [makes synthy noises] now!” Which was good. It was a very popular song.
You were leaning into a very big, hook-filled sound for a while.
WILDER: That was a lot of realizing you’re playing these festivals, and you need to go big or go home.
Listening to your solo song “Sick Hotel,” I was wondering if that song is about COVID.
WILDER: Yeah, of course. There was a story about patients getting discharged from the hospital because their symptoms weren’t strong enough. And they’re getting put up in these hotels and just dying.
It wasn’t written from your personal experience?
WILDER: No, I didn’t die. It is written from my personal experience, in that I’m 99.9% sure that I had COVID in the time right when people were getting it, and it was kind of dismissed like, “Oh, you’re just being anxious right now.” And it was like, “No, my chest is crushed.” I was lying down at night, feeling like I couldn’t breathe and I lost my sense of smell and taste. I incorporated little bits of my own experience, but for that song I was trying to imagine someone who had been discharged and was just sitting in a hotel watching these blowhard politicians pontificate.
It’s a powerful song. I was listening to it and wondering if you had a really severe experience with Covid.
WILDER: I had a mild experience. I know so many people that have had severe experiences. I know some friends whose parents have died. When I wrote that, it was this time of being like, fuck, we’re all just so frightened and so anxious about it. But at the beginning it was also like, “Don’t worry, if you’re healthy, you’re going to be okay!”
“Porcelain Doll” is another song that struck me. I got the sense that it’s a very personal song for you.
WILDER: It is very personal. I was watching a TV show — one of these contemporary shows, trying to have a very diverse cast. But it still felt like they were relying on these old Hollywood stereotypes about foreigners with funny accents. I’ve had a real problem with this current liberal movement, where people are talking about white privilege. I find it to be very smug and condescending when someone will come up to me at a bar and say, like, “Oh, sorry about colonialism.” Don’t assume that I have gone through some great struggle in my life just because my skin is brown.
Are you optimistic about being able to tour this record? How do you feel about the current touring situation?
WILDER: I don’t know. It’s pretty wild. I saw that Pixies just canceled their tour, right?
WILDER: Pixies canceled, Band Of Horses are going to tour but they’re requiring vaccinations. I want to do something that’s much more small-scale. I want to tour this record. It’s part of the process of professional validation for me. But it’s not something that I’m like, “I gotta get out on tour right now!”
Sounds like you’re waiting to see what the situation will be?
WILDER: I don’t really mind. I’m very busy taking care of my family. My wife is a midwife, so she’s on call all the time. Anytime I go out on tour we have to hire somebody to take care of our kids. So it’s a bit of a hassle. I want to do it, and of course she supports me doing it. It’s my profession. But it’s not something that we’re relying on.
Going back to the subject of Yeasayer, are you able to talk about what happened with that lawsuit against the Weeknd last year? [Note: In early 2020, it was reported that Yeasayer had filed suit again Kendrick Lamar and the Weeknd for allegedly using a modified sample of a choral performance in Yeasayer’s 2007 track “Sunrise” on their song “Pray For Me” from the Black Panther soundtrack.]
WILDER: It’s funny because that was presented in the press as like, “Band breaks up and then sues the Weeknd!” It was actually something that had been in the process for a year or two that just happened to come out. That’s probably our biggest piece of publicity of all time [laughs].
Was there an uncleared Yeasayer sample on that Weeknd/Kendrick Lamar track?
WILDER: I think it was probably inspired by it, but it was enough for lawyers to take on the case. I wish it hadn’t gotten so public. I guess I regret it. Hindsight is 20/20. But at the time, everyone’s like, “They used your song!”
Did you voluntarily drop the lawsuit?
WILDER: Yeah. They presented us with some counter-evidence, and I wasn’t convinced anymore that it was a sample. I think it was probably a case of, maybe they had used it and then replaced it with something.
The band was already broken up. I’m the guy who was taking care of all the band banking accounts or coordinating with our old managers or lawyers. It was just one of these things where I was like, “I don’t want to keep pushing this,” even though the musicologist on our side is like, “No, we can keep going. Let’s go.” It just wasn’t worth it to me.
Is there bad blood between you guys and the Weeknd now?
WILDER: I wonder if The Weeknd even knows who we are? If it was a sample, then that’s really all an artist has — their work. You have to defend it; you have to defend yourself. Once I was convinced that it probably wasn’t a sample, then there was no point. I wasn’t going to do a lawsuit based on something I didn’t believe in, you know?
That makes a lot of sense. Anything else about the solo project that you haven’t had a chance to mention?
WILDER: I’m just buzzing right now from that music video! It’s so fun. I want to just keep going.
I Don’t Know My Words is out next year on Last Gang.