Under The Influence: YACHT Shangri-La
YACHT’s dynamic synth pop duo of Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans took an untraditional route for this installment of Under The Influence, interspersing songs with books and pieces of art that influenced their new album Shangri-La. In the band’s words:
Since YACHT’s inception in 2004, we’ve consciously avoided being a “rock band” for years; we were a constantly-morphing multimedia video performance project, largely because we were afraid of repeating ourselves. This is the guiding spirit behind YACHT’s constant change and evolution (or devolution, depending on your point of view) and why we decided, in 2010, to start playing instruments live. Counterintuitive, yes, but at that point live instrumentation was a radical change from what we’d been doing — and we always seek change. It’s also why we look for influence, inspiration, and ideas all over the spectrum of human culture; Shangri-La, as an album, was molded by books and images as much as it was by music.
Read on for a distillation of sights, sounds, and texts that inspired Shangri-La…
On Shangri-La, after some initial help from engineers at Jackpot! Studios and the Marfa Recording Company, we engineered and recorded everything ourselves. Our process has remained similar throughout the 9 years YACHT has been a band: we start with an idea as simple as a melody or rhythm and work to fully realize it as far as we can in one sitting. This usually starts with music — lyrics come second, either from an existing piece of writing we’ve made, or from something that comes out of the air to match the sonic feeling the melody or rhythm calls for. For instance, the first track on the album, “Utopia” started with our idea that the djembe part in Paul Simon’s “Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard” would sound cool if it was translated into an arpeggiated synthesizer melody, and grew from that point into a frantic and discomfiting song of joy.
SONG: Nirvana – “Very Ape”
Our recordings have always been based on fairly basic instrumentation that has been deconstructed, deeply edited, “fucked,” and/or manipulated in some way with the tools available to us at the given time. In the beginning, this was a laptop, pirated software, and field recordings of ambient and musical sound made with the laptop. The approach we took in recording Shangri-La was similar in spirit, but with added access to equipment in recording studios and a growing palette of carefully curated pawn-shopped and Craigslist’ed instruments, like analog synthesizers and old surf guitars from the 1960s. Still: we keep to an ethos that’s equal parts Nirvana and Buckminster Fuller — as loud as possible with as little as possible. In “Utopia,” the trick of confusing where the downbeat begins comes subconsciously from my (Jona) early infatuation with Nirvana’s “Very Ape.”
TEXT: Jim Jones’ final sermon
There are elements of Jim Jones’ last burst of anti-Capitalist jungle paranoia dotted all over Shangri-La, especially in “Paradise Engineering” and “Holy Roller,” which is essentially the story of Jim Jones as archetype: the gradual movement from spiritual sentiment to Kool-Aid chugging idolatry. That is to say, the danger of religious zealotry.
We often speak about how the repetitive dance music and catchy pop music are the perfect instruments for burying subversive messages — mantras, essentially — in plain sight of the dance floor. Moroder was a master of the electronic trance state; we just extrapolate.
We discovered Black Devil Disco Club last summer, when we were booked to play a show with him in New York City. At the time, we were fairly convinced that Black Devil Disco Club was a myth, a producing alias invented as a gimmick by some impresario — maybe Aphex Twin. Then we actually met Bernard Fevre, a man who is completely for real. He has a craftsman’s approach to making electronic music, like he does it with his hands — we try to keep that in mind when we work. Claire sings a track, “Stay Insane,” on his new record. A total honor.
BOOK: Octavia Butler – Parable of the Sower
Parable Of The Sower is a science fiction novel about Los Angeles that Claire read around the time that we were writing the song “Dystopia (The Earth Is On Fire).” Butler’s 2024 L.A. is an “oozing sore” of inconceivably terrible violence, cannibalism, slavery, drug addiction, and perpetual rape — people live locked up in what once were luxury gated communities. “Dystopia” doesn’t exactly take place in that world, but its narrative has a similar post-apocalyptic tone.
The B-52’s are a huge influence on YACHT, historically. Their uncanny harmonies, the groovy minimalism of their arrangements, the surrealism of their lyrics … we actually cover “Mesopotamia” live now — Claire sings the Fred Schneider’s sprechgesang parts, and Katy, our newest member, a virtuosic guitarist and the mind behind Key Losers, sings the verses.
BOOK: Mike Davis – City Of Quartz
There’s a Hanns Eisler quote about Los Angeles that we’ve always liked, from Mike Davis’ book, City Of Quartz: “If one stopped the flow of water here for three days the jackals would reappear and the sand of the desert.” The world of “Dystopia (The Earth Is On Fire),” in which we reference the idea, is one where the jackals have indeed reappeared. It’s a bleak interpretation of the modernity, but at the same time it’s so nightmarishly plausible that it shocks with familiarity, not estrangement.
PAINTING: Nicholas Poussin – “Et In Arcadia Ego”
“Et In Arcadia Ego” is a phrase that figures prominently in Nicholas Poussin’s 1637 Renaissance painting of the same name; it means, literally, “I too was there in Arcadia,” but it’s painted on a tomb, so it’s historically been interpreted as a memento mori — that is to say, even the dead in their tombs have enjoyed life. The contrast between the shade of death and the joy of Arcadia (or Shangri-La, if you will) resonates with our obsession with duality and the Utopia/Dystopia binary we explore in the album. There’s a line in our song “Love in the Dark:””Into the battle now, here we go/And Even in Arcadia, Ego! Ego! Ego!” It’s a play on the Poussin painting, ported to interpersonal love — even a perfect relationship can be tainted by the individual ego.
BOOK: Alexander Shulgin & Ann Shulgin – Pihkal: A Chemical Love Story
The rapturously paranoid opening monologue of Paradise Engineering is a one-take speech Claire made immediately after reading Alexander Shulgin’s description of the psychedelic DMT experience.
BOOK: Robert Anton Wilson – Prometheus Rising
The mordant brilliance of Robert Anton Wilson floated above us the entire time we were recording Shangri-La. We both read Prometheus Rising on breaks between studio sessions and spoke earnestly of achieving his conception of “metaprogramming” our own minds. There’s a great deal of his “maybe” logic that appeals to us, namely the idea of neurological relativism, that everyone is living their own experience of reality: “people are vegetarians or nudists or Communists or snake worshippers for the same reasons that other people are Catholics or Republicans or liberals or Nazis.” We feel that gives us the freedom to follow our own path.
YACHT’s Shangri-La is out now via DFA.