PROGRESS REPORT: Portland’s cosmic dancers to release Shangri-La this summer.
After being on the phone with YACHT — the dynamic twosome of Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans — one thing quickly becomes clear: these two people are, in all likelihood, having a lot more fun than most people on a regular basis. Goofy inside-jokes aside, it’s clear that Bechtolt and Evans are living in some kind of funky dream world of their own creation, a place in which the day-to-day business of living and their own freewheelin’ creative process are inextricably connected. It’s not altogether surprising considering that the band’s bio describe YACHT as “kind of a band, but mostly a genre-and-media-spanning life project.”
“We’re feeling more excited and creatively inspired than ever before,” says Bechtolt. “Tthe band has expanded in ways that we couldn’t have predicted but are incredibly happy about.”
YACHT’s critcally-lauded 2009 album See Mystery Lights represented a kind of rebirth for the band. It was not only the first YACHT album recorded officially as a duo (previous releases were mostly a solo outlet for Bechtolt), but it also displayed the kind of funky, freaky, laser-guided synth-pop virtuosity that made them a perfect fit for the DFA label. Recorded in the band’s “spiritual home” of Marfa, Texas (home of many art weirdos, lots of Donald Judd sculptures, and world famous “mystery lights” in the sky that are believed to be alien in origin), Lights was a giant artistic leap forward for the band. So, how exactly do you follow up the vaguely culty, new-age dance party vibe of a record like Lights? If you are YACHT, you simply follow your muse.
“Since the last record came out we toured all over the world,” says Bechtolt. “We even went to places like China and South Korea, places that a lot of bands don’t get to go to. It was really fun and crazy. We also decided that we wanted the shows to become more physical, so we played as a five piece band for much of our tour. I don’t think we’ll ever go back to being just the two of us again. We played the last show of that tour with the Chemical Brothers at the Hollywood Bowl, then we just got busy working on new music.”
Given the band’s fascination with Texas, it would only make sense that they would return to Marfa to work on the new album, albeit under slightly better circumstances.
“Last time we basically just recorded in an old rental house in the middle of the desert,” says Evans. “This time we actually worked in a studio — the Marfa Recording Company — which was much nicer. It’s a brand new studio and we were one of the first bands to record there. It’s built in this old cavalry base. Half of the base is home to The Chinati Foundation, which is where they house all of this priceless 1970s art from New York. The other half of the base is made up of all these haunted old buildings, one of which contains this beautiful mural that was made by German prisoners of war that were held there during World War II. You know, you could throw a baseball out the window and hit a million dollar piece of sculpture, but there would also be, like, baby deer running around and tumbleweeds passing by. While we were there recording it just happened to be the time when the entire landscape is overrun by millions of copulating grasshoppers, so it was this very surreal and vaguely biblical place to make music. It was like we were trapped in a sea of locusts. We were surrounded by death and life and procreation.”
After touring for nearly two years, the band was eager to flex their creative muscles, choosing to enter the studio with absolutely nothing prepared ahead of time. They also wanted to record in what Bechtolt refers to as a “Western American Utopian Triangle” — meaning that they booked studio time not only in Marfa, but also in their hometown of Portland and in Los Angeles. Rather than work with a production team, in each city the duo would hire an engineer to help set up things in the studio and then promptly leave them alone to write, produce, record, and engineer everything themselves.
“We’d never worked in a recording studio before. Not ever,” says Bechtolt. “So usually we’d have someone help us set up the gear and show us where all the important buttons were to push and then they’d just give us the keys and go away. We’d spend the next week just hanging out there 24/7 and working. We really didn’t know what we wanted to do, but we ended up writing 8 songs in that first week. Then we basically did the same thing in Marfa and LA. We were totally surprised by how much material we came up with.”
“It was interesting experience just creating things on the spot,” says Evans. “We didn’t want some engineer person lurking around and stressing us out and we really didn’t want any external forces influencing us. Each part of the record was really affected by the place in which it was recorded. Had we just rented a studio in Portland and recorded the entire thing in one place, it would be a much much different kind of record. As it is, this album is very much a document of what was going on with us — both personally and creatively — during those specific times and in those specific places.”
The resulting album Shangri-La is undoubtedly tightest record the band has ever released — ten tracks of spaced-out synth pop that treads even funkier, more disco-fied territory than ever before. The twosome’s cosmic fascinations are front and center on tracks like “Paradise Engineering” and “Beam Me Up” and Evans’ distinct sing-speak delivery provides a forceful backbone to many of the dance tracks. However, it’s the wistful chorus of “Shangri-La” that really shows off what a great singer she has become. YACHT have always had a knack for concocting a good groove, but early listens of Shangri-La prove that they have learned how write an excellent pop song as well.
The band will hit the road in April for what looks to be another never-ending global dance attack (again with a full band in tow), but in the meantime both members will busy themselves with an array of side projects. “I’m going to Carnegie Mellon to write a book with a bunch of designers and scientists and artists about the intersection of science and art,” says Evans, who happens to be a well-known science writer outside of her work in YACHT. “It’s called a ‘book-sprint.’ You throw all these people together in a room to talk and, somehow, write a book. I don’t know what’s gonna happen or how it will turn out, but it’s happening.”
While Evans is busy with science, Bechtolt will be putting the finishing touches on Shangri-La and overseeing the ever-expanding YACHT multi-media universe. Still, it’s the album that he’s most excited about. “This record really feels like a cohesive set of songs,” says Bechtolt. “For the first time ever, this feels like a real album, rather than just a collection of unrelated tracks. Also, we have all kinds of outside creative projects that are related to the album, but I can’t talk about them yet. It’s gonna be a surprise.”
Shangri-La is out this summer via DFA. Until then, check out “Dystopia (The Earth Is On Fire)”: