Yeasayer’s Chris Keating On Going Solo, Covering Paula Abdul, And What It Means To Be “Indie Rock Wealthy”

Yeasayer’s Chris Keating On Going Solo, Covering Paula Abdul, And What It Means To Be “Indie Rock Wealthy”

Brooklyn art-rockers Yeasayer have been broken up for nearly a half-decade now, and the band’s former members continue to branch out in its wake. Back in 2022, co-lead vocalist Anand Wilder released his first proper solo album under his own name, I Don’t Know My Words, and today his former co-frontman Chris Keating steps forth with his debut solo single, “Way I Know How.”

It’s the first track released from his forthcoming EP PolyDukes. The three-track release is out June 21 and was created in collaboration with producer/songwriter Elias Abid, who’s previously collaborated with artists like CHAI and Smino. It also features a cover of Paula Abdul’s deathless 1988 single “Straight Up,” and it’s both an extension of and a slight departure from what Yeasayer fans might expect from Keating solo material. Stereogum hopped on a call with him last week to discuss how PolyDukes came together, what’s changed in his life post-Yeasayer, and the glory days of 2010s indie success.

How is life in L.A.?

CHRIS KEATING: Ay ay ay. It ain’t like New York, you know what I’m saying?

I do. How long have you been there now at this point?

KEATING: A year and a half.

What was the adjustment phase like as a former New Yorker?

KEATING: I’m still trying to figure that out. I’m a hardened East Coast boy. I grew up in Baltimore, I lived in Providence, and I lived in New York for 18 years, so it’s weird.

Did you drive when you lived in New York?

KEATING: I had a car at different points, and I’d prefer not to. Sometimes it was cool for getting around Brooklyn. But I like walking. I prefer it to taking the subway. Out here, you can’t walk anywhere.

Yeah, I was the same way for a long time, and I ended up buying a car during the pandemic, but, I don’t like driving here. In LA, you have no fucking choice.

KEATING: You have no choice. I tried to live in a neighborhood in which I can at least walk around. There’s definitely days when I do not get in the car, and those are good days.

Tell me about how you and Elias came together.

KEATING: We met totally randomly at one of those weird songwriting sessions that record labels do. They’re probably totally unproductive nonsense, but a lot of talented people participate in those. I met him within the first three minutes of feeling very awkward in this session. I was totally out of place, but we just clicked. We hit it off. I liked his ideas, and I liked just hanging with him. We liked a lot of the same music, so we tried to write together.

When did you start being involved in those type of sessions?

KEATING: I’d probably been asked during Yeasayer, but we were just so in our own thing that I never really paid any attention to it. It actually came to my attention after moving to LA. I was like, “Hey, what the hell? I’ll check it out.” It’s awkward, but I like awkward. I’m OK with awkward.

It turns out that a bunch of talented people do these things. You have to think on your feet and be quick. It was cool to see all these interesting, different people working on songs. You get put into sessions with people you’ve never met. That’s a weird experience. It’s almost like speed dating.

But my actual pursuit of that kind of thing has been minimal. I’ve never just randomly pitched and successfully landed a song with a giant pop star or anything like that. The craft of writing a hook or earworm is super interesting to me, but I have no idea about that world. I’m sure there are people that do it really well professionally, like the dude from OneRepublic.

Tell me about how you and Elias mesh creatively.

KEATING: It was a cross-generational approach. He’s a dude in the prime of his life. He’s full of piss and vinegar. His multicultural background was really interesting, having been born in France. I was super interested in the idea of a bilingual, cross-generational collaboration. There was some of our interest in older music, and some of his interest in stuff that I’d never even heard of — newer production techniques. It was really unusual and cool to see how someone else works.

Tell me about the songs themselves.

KEATING: They’re just things that I wanted to make. I’ve been super interested in older film scores for a long time — Piero Piccioni, Francis Lai, Nora Orlandi. Italian B-movies and crime thrillers. I also like electronic music. I don’t know. How do you start diving into releasing things on your own? What’s the point? I don’t even know. I basically just made things that I felt like were aesthetically in line with stuff I liked. That’s kind of the plan — trying to find an interesting palette that speaks to me.

You said an interesting thing there that I want to revisit: “What’s the point?” I think that’s a sentiment that’s coursing through a lot of artists, musicians, and people who work in the music industry these days. How old are you, by the way?

KEATING: I am 42.

Word. I’m 36, so we’re both millennials in that regard. And that is quite a millennial sentiment to hold these days.

KEATING: Yeah. It’s also about when music acts as content. Which I just really hate. We probably both grew up in the days of going to the store and sifting through records.

Hell yeah.

KEATING: And not knowing a lot of information. So I think that’s more what I mean. It’s just stuff that gets put into the digital ether. But, at the same time…I don’t know. I like it when music comes out. I like listening to new music. What’s the point as a solo artist, versus the other career that I’d had in a previous life?

Well, how long were you knocking around the idea of becoming a solo artist? Yeasayer broke up in 2019 — right before the pandemic.

KEATING: I actually talked to a conspiracy theorist-type crazy guy once, and he was like, “Did you guys know something was going to happen? Is that why you broke up? You’re friends with Beck — did he know?” I was like, “Well, I don’t know if I’m friends with Beck.”

I have songs that I’ve recorded on my own over the last 10 years, but what was holding me back was that a lot of the material would get turned into a Yeasayer song or something. We were on tour all the time and making albums, so it felt almost selfish to focus on a solo project.

Also, I’m a little scatterbrained. I don’t know if I could conceive of doing two things at once. I write and make stuff all the time. For every song I submitted to be approved as a band track, there were probably 10 other things that i thought might’ve been cool, but we had to all work on it together.

Walk me through what the last five years of your life has been like since Yeasayer broke up.

KEATING: We were looking at some touring things that would’ve gotten canceled anyway — international shows for 2020 — and we had all just burned out on the whole road cycle. That had been our lives, and once you have kids, it’s hard to maintain that pace and feel like you’re any kind of human being. Within four months, the band broke up, there was a pandemic, and I separated from my wife. It was not exactly the best time. There was a lot of personal re-evaluation and turmoil that probably is still going on to this day, and it informs working on music. Some level of isolation and depression ensued for all of us.

What was your pandemic experience like?

KEATING: I was isolated in upstate New York in a house that needed renovating. I spent a year renovating it completely myself — I went from being a musician to a hardcore laboring dude, mostly by myself, completely losing my mind. It was super weird. I was in the middle of nowhere, traveling down to the city to try to see friends — but that was that time when we were like, “Is it okay to hang out? What are we doing?” I’d be getting hotels in NYC, crazy fancy hotels, that I could never afford, for $60. I’d be walking around midtown Manhattan with no people around — just sirens and delivery people. It was kind of interesting, but also bleak.

Any introspection around that time that caused personal revelations?

KEATING: I was so entrenched in live music — touring, festivals, seeing people play — that I just didn’t appreciate it. When it’s taken away, you’re like, “Oh my God, this has been a major part of my life since I was a teenager.” During that pandemic time, I was reflecting on how I didn’t know what I had until it was gone. When things started to open up, I went to this distanced mask-only string quartet, and I was crying because of the experience of just seeing live music again. I basically went to anything I could see, and it was beautiful.

Tell me about your relationship with touring in the Yeasayer days.

KEATING: I loved it for a long time, and then I started to resent it. The lifestyle is not exactly healthy — the lack of sleep, the alcohol. Even if you’re not a crazy partier, there’s a party every night. I loved playing the shows, but I’d walk off stage every night feeling very self-critical. But seeing new cities was always awesome, whether it was a tiny little place in Europe or Cleveland. I knew I began to get jaded when we were going back to Paris again—I never thought I’d play in Paris for the first time — and I remember being like, “OK, there’s Paris.”

Yeasayer’s peak coincided with a time in indie music where there was a lot more press visibility in terms of success, as well as a bit more corporate cash flying around when it came to the music industry. What was that experience like for you?

KEATING: We made completely idiosyncratic, weird, unlistenable, crazy stuff that maybe bordered on pop at moments. The closest analogue to that time in music was probably post-1991 Seattle—maybe NYC in the early 2000s with the Strokes and Interpol, that’s a similar thing. I never looked at us as famous, or even successful. We were really just hitting the road and playing music, and probably being a little up our own asses at different points. “Let’s make an album that sounds totally different than the last one!” Apparently, that does not lead to monetary gains.

But we had a cool scene, and a whole bunch of interesting, talented musicians came out of that. I mean, I remember Tame Impala opened up for us. [Laughs] We were like, “This band’s pretty cool.” Mumford And Sons opened up for us in London! There was all this funny stuff, as well as a community I probably should’ve appreciated more. But when you’re in it, you’re just trying to make music, and you’re second-guessing everything you do.

We recorded our first album with two really crappy microphones, the worst gear ever, and a $5,000 mixing budget. We signed a record deal for a couple of bagels. No joke! The first label took us out for coffee and bagels, and we were like, “Great, that sounds cool.” I didn’t think anyone was gonna hear it, and then people started coming to shows and hearing the music. But it started as DIY with broken gear. That was probably part of the charm.

What was the money like, in terms of making a living?

KEATING: It became a professional gig. The touring started ramping up, show offers came in, and they got better and better. I don’t have objectivity, but I think we were well-regarded as a live band, especially by people that maybe didn’t even particularly like our albums. We had good record advances and budgets to do what we wanted, but we always financed our own touring and we never spent lavishly. I remember once playing a show and getting paid $12, and we had to split that four ways. If you know that, you appreciate anything you get. We were able to live as musicians.

I still get royalties and stuff like that — I wish they were more, sure. But I’m not a wealthy person by any means. I was always explaining to people that had never heard of the band — family members, whoever — I’d be like, “No, I do this as a job,” and they’d be like, “That’s weird, I haven’t heard of you.” I’d be like, “Yeah, I don’t know what to tell you.” “Have you played festivals?” “Yeah, we played Bonnaroo, Coachella, Glastonbury, every festival in the world.” “That’s weird, are you rich and famous?” “Nope.” I used to tell people that we were “indie rock wealthy,” which basically means you’re making more than $30,000.

What are things like amongst you and your former members post-breakup?

KEATING: Look, I grew up with Anand. We’d been friends since we were 10. We grew up in Baltimore together, I know his family, we are very much almost familial. I mean, I talked to him this morning. But the crazy thing about band dynamics is it becomes more stressful than a marriage, because you’re living together when you’re on tour, and when you get off tour you’re going in the studio to be part of the band, and then you have to be creative together, and then you have financial entanglements. You’re running a business together and making these financial decisions, so everything gets annoying the way it does in a relationship.

Did you watch Get Back?

KEATING: Oh my God, yes. It was Christmas for me when that came out. I’m such a Beatles freak, and that was such an amazing and accurate portrayal of creativity in the studio.

Yeah, as someone who’s never really been in a band, it really drove home for me that being in a band is hard.

KEATING: What was amazing about that documentary was that, like, OK, it’s the Beatles, they’re some of the greatest to ever do it. You’re watching them sit down and try to write. and you’re like, “They’re not gonna come up with anything, they’re just goofing around.” That’s what it’s like! Even though it turns out wonderfully, they’re just making jokes. You can also sense the tension of people who know each other so well — there’s some argument or joke that someone’s upset about from three years ago. I love that part where George leaves. You feel for him so much, and you’re like, “God, it must be so hard to be in a band with John and Paul.”

The other thing that comes to mind is the Radiohead documentary Meeting People Is Easy. I remember seeing it when it came out and watching it again later after touring for a long time — how cold they seem in these big, empty venues because you know they don’t keep them warm. They’re insular and a little depressed about having to do press. Obviously, they’re different characters — they’re not goofballs the way the Beatles are, they’re not hams.

But when Thom Yorke can’t get into his own afterparty…I’ve never related more, because I’ve literally had that happen to me. I’ve literally been like, “Oh, there’s an afterparty,” and then I show up and I don’t have a phone to call anyone, and they’re like, “Sorry, good night,” and I’m like, “OK, fuck it,” and I leave. I don’t like have a posse or anything, so I go back to the hotel and I don’t know who to call.

This is not, in any way, a self-aggrandizing story — and I hope it doesn’t feel as much, because it’s meant in just the most self-deprecating way — we had played Coachella, and my ex-wife came up to me after our set and said, Jay-Z is here on the side of the stage.” I was like, “Wow.” I pushed her out of the way and ran over to Jay-Z, and I talked to him about music. I thought it was a very lovely conversation. He introduced me to his wife, and I was like, “This is amazing. Look at you guys. We are all going to be friends. This is so cool.” He was just so affable, and I’m like, “Look at this, look at me. I have made it. These are my peers.”

He talked about some party that they were going to, and he was like, “You should come. And I was like, “Definitely. I’m definitely going to go to that party.” Of course, I don’t have Jay-Z’s number. I don’t have any information about this party. I remember asking my manager and booking agent later in the evening, “You know, uh, Jay-Z invited me to this party.” They were like, “What are you talking about? There’s no way that you can go there.” And I was like, “Yeah, but, he said I should go,” and they were like, “We don’t have any way to figure that out.”

I’m small potatoes, but for this brief moment I got to pretend like I was a famous person. Ultimately, these worlds will never meet. It doesn’t matter how much you want it. I’m not a pop star, and I’m not an all-time genius top-selling artist. What was I even thinking, that that was a possibility?

Basically, I have a photograph of me and Jay, and a photograph of me and Beyoncé. Any time my daughter thinks I’m embarrassing or not cool, I can be like, “Hey, remember this? You didn’t see who that is? That’s me and Beyoncé,” and she’ll be like, “OK, fine.”

Do you feel like Yeasayer faced any misconceptions from people?

KEATING: It’s hard for me to know what the conceptions were. I feel like I have a tendency to spout my mouth off and talk shit. In the days of Twitter, you’re getting in trouble for saying something, and then you want to debate people on Twitter about nonsense. I think, at some point, people thought we were these freak-folk, Devendra-esque hippie guys, and then we put out our second record and we were sellouts where a label told us to do something.

I wish a label told me to do anything. Anything that we did that was stupid, self-indulgent, or overly poppy, that just came from us bullshitting. At the end of the day, you’re exactly like the documentary — you’re just musicians sitting around in a room, being like, “Hey, wait, this is a song that sounds cool.” Sometimes I’ll listen back to songs I’ve re-recorded or made, and I’ll be like, “Were we on a lot of drugs? What the hell was this decision?” I was having dinner with Anand once, and he just points up and I was like, “Oh, this music sounds pretty cool,” and he’ll be like, “Yeah, you wrote that song,” and I was like, “Oh, that’s cool, this sounds like something I would like.”

Let’s talk about the Paula Abdul cover.

KEATING: I remember singing along to this song when I was six years old while being driven to school. My dad was like, “You know this song?” It was the first song that I knew that my parents didn’t. I covered her whole first album — all 10 songs, even the filler, which I turned into these other completely weird versions. But “Straight Up” is a jam. That is an awesome song. I wanted to recontextualize it, change the chords around and make it more moody.

There’s also the “opposites attract” element with that video with the cat. That was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I was like, “She’s talking to a rapping cat!” As a kid, it was kind of sexy in that Cool World, Roger Rabbit way. You see Jessica Rabbit and you’re like, “I’m super turned on by Jessica Rabbit, who’s a cartoon.” You’re just coming into your sexuality, so cartoons are turning you on.

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

more from New Music