Interview: Yeasayer's Chris Keating
Yeasayer play the Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight and tomorrow. Both shows are sold out.
"Some people think we're like a prog band or something and I'm like, 'No, we've always been making pop music.'"
Chris Keating, the man with the moustache and the panda bear.
After fourteen months and countless miles of touring in support of their All Hour Cymbals debut, Brooklyn's Yeasayer, a pop band oft-accused of being a prog band, will start a sabbatical long overdue following two sold-out shows this Friday and Saturday at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
We talked to co-founder Chris Keating about what he's experienced on his year plus journey, and how it might result in shorter songs and a slightly less apocalyptic sound for his band's next album. --Rob Trucks
Let me ask you a couple of short answer questions first to get us started. Tell me one thing that you've never ever done before in your life.
Well, I'd have to say, Go to church.
Well, not really. You know, I'm half-Jewish and half-Catholic and I kind of just avoided the whole thing. I feel like that might not be true because I think I maybe went on a Christmas once to check out some singing. I've been in church. I've been in church for a lot of different kind of musical events, but I've never kind of gone on a Sunday morning in a traditional way.
Okay. Tell me something you've done once and one time only.
Gotten a tattoo.
Then you've got to tell me what the tattoo is and where it's located.
It's on my forearm, and it's a Maryland blue crab. I kind of just wanted one to remind me of home because I grew up in Baltimore, kind of on the Chesapeake Bay, and we ate crabs growing up and the supply in the Chesapeake Bay has kind of been slowly diminished and I just felt like . . . Actually I had an ex-girlfriend who did tattoos and when we broke up she said she'd give me one as a kind of a memento to remember her by.
That's a good story. Have you ever regretted it?
No, no, no. I sort of feel like you're supposed to . . . Like, they're stupid. Tattoos are really dumb. So like I went into it with the idea of it as something that you're kind of supposed to not regret, but supposed to think is kind of silly, you know.
All right. Tell me the name of a book you've read at least twice.
A book I've read at least twice would probably be Herzog on Herzog, Werner Herzog's autobiography. You know, they do those directors series. It's not really an autobiography but it's kind of like a series of interviews that's part autobiography. I've read that a number of times.
And that's a good lead-in to the last of the short answers: tell me the name of a movie that you've seen at least three times.
Short Eyes. I think Robert Young is the director. It's based on the Miguel Pinero play about prisoners in Sing Sing. Basically the movie was put on as a play starring real prisoners. They put it on in prison, before they made the movie. And then when Miguel Pinyo got out, they ended up making a movie of it starring some of the real inmates. And also Curtis Mayfield's in it and Freddy Fender's in it. It's like when I first saw this movie it was just amazing, like kind of brutal realism but also kind of magical realism because they all break down and have a singing number at one point. It's an incredible film.
You're in La Jolla tonight, which is about as far away as you can be from home and still be in the continental U.S.
Yeah, we're really close to Mexico.
And you're done for the year after you play the two shows at the Music Hall.
Yeah, that's it. That's wrap. Basically we finish those two shows, I go down to Brazil for a wedding, and then as soon as the new year starts we're going to start working on a new record for about four months.
Do the two Music Hall shows carry any kind of homecoming connotations for you?
They definitely have a homecoming feel. At this point we've played, not all over the world, but we've been back and forth to Europe several times and we played in Australia. We played all over the States. And the Williamsburg Music Hall is one of my favorite venues I've ever played in and, you know, Brooklyn is definitely our home. I have family there and I have friends there and it's been our kind of spiritual center. So yeah, it does have a homecoming feel. And it's kind of Christmas time thing so we're doing like a little Christmas party the day before the second show. I really don't know if it was appropriate to play two shows there, you know, but it seemed like maybe . . . And we'd already sold the one out. I don't know. It's good. I would've maybe rather had just one big bang show, but it's also we have a lot friends that we wanted to have open up and play with and stuff, so it's still good.
Do you have any kind of guess as to what you will feel like when you leave the stage after the second night, knowing that that's going to be it for a while?
You know, I never thought that we'd be touring for this long on this record, because we've been non-stop . . . I mean, since before it came out we've been on the road. And in the last 13 months we've seen a big change obviously. We were just thinking about how last September, you know, 14 months ago, whatever it was, we were playing shows in Pittsburgh and Cleveland to literally about three people. We played to four people in Pittsburgh. They said that eight people were there in Cleveland, but I think that included the other two bands that we played with. I really don't think anyone was there. And we've been all over the country. We've toured just endlessly. Now we have pretty good crowds, and I think we've made a name for ourselves. You know, obviously we're not huge or anything, but it feels really good to have put in a year of really solid, hard work and seeing a drastic change. I mean, like even a year ago we were like the first of three bands opening up for Vampire Weekend at Music Hall. That was like a year ago in September. And, you know, no one really cared, I don't think, and now it kind of feels good that we sort of have built something.
But as soon as we're done . . . I mean, I'm dying to work on a new record. That's what I like doing. I want to get in the studio. That's the place I feel comfortable. We're going to be building a studio, and it's kind of like this whole touring thing, it gets out of hand, you know. It's a crazy life.
Well, since you're looking forward to the new record, let's talk about that. You said that you're planning to spend four months on it, but it's been over a year since the last record so I've got to believe that at least part of the new one is already written.
Yeah, but it's so hard to say because I personally have about 15 or 20 song ideas. I don't know that they're full songs, because the way we work is very much like everyone has different ideas and we throw them all together when we meet up. And we've been working a little and I've heard some of the other guys' stuff and we've been slowly collaborating, but since we've been touring so much it's been like very individual. So I have some stuff that I feel like is really good and has been written over the past year, but then who knows? Who knows what'll happen to that? Because our kind of process is all about, you know, maybe putting together three minds and ideally pulling out something that would be unexpected, you know. So we'll see. I have an idea for the way I want it to go and some things that we weren't able to do on the last record that I definitely want to cover, but we'll see. It's so hard to say what's written until you actually have it done.
But that sounds like you're not playing any post-Cymbals material on the tour now.
We are. We are. We've been playing four songs, generally, every night that aren't on the record, one of which will be coming out on a compilation that's like an AIDS benefit compilation. And then the three other songs. I don't know that those songs will necessarily be on our next record just because we've been playing them live. And certainly they won't be in that form. Like a couple of them are very like . . . They're still song ideas that we change around every night. So we're playing new stuff and that's like the stuff that gets us real excited to play, because it's all challenging and weird and you mess it up and you forget it. You know, there's still a lot of room for it to breathe and we don't know what its life is, these new songs, but I don't know that they'll be on the next record. I just really don't know what happens. When you go into the studio it's like a completely different thing.
There may be a dozen songs that you end up liking better than those three.
Yeah. It's totally possible. Exactly. I mean, I have 20 songs personally. I think Anand has ten I've heard and that are completely written and he's recorded demos and they're sounding really cool. Who knows what's going to end up on the actual record? It's going to be what we think is the best record.
Any chance that it'll be a double album?
I don't think so, although I think it'd be funny because I was talking to friends of mine, the MGMT guys, and they were talking about how they want to do a double record on their next . . . And we were like, Let's just have dueling double albums. I mean, obviously they're going to win album sales-wise. No, I like that idea. I like the idea of doing a record, and then doing another record like immediately after that could be more experimental. Not necessarily outtakes, but some of the stuff that like we didn't feel should be included on the album. I don't know. Double albums are weird. They're kind of dumb, you know. You can always edit . . . Even the White Album you're like, All right, I can probably take out six of these songs and make it one album of really great material.
Anand [Wilder] did an interview with Pitchfork back around the first of the year and he said that one of his goals for the next record was that no song should be more than three and a half minutes long. Are you two on the same page there?
I think it's an incredible challenge to do what, you know, Tom Petty's able to do and write a song that covers a wide range of emotions, goes through kind of beautiful elements that have really memorable parts and then you look at the time and it's like two minutes and twenty seconds, you know. I would love to be able to do that, and I think that's a good challenge about the format that we've chosen to work in. There is a time restriction, you know. It's an 80-minute max time restriction and I like the three and a half minute, three-minute song format.
Like I think there's some Brian Eno songs that are about three minutes that I really feel like should be about 12 minutes, because I could keep listening to this riff over and over and over again. I really like that David Bowie Low record where he has the whole pop side which is, you know, two and a half to three minute songs and the other side is six-to-eight minute songs that are very different, the whole night and day concept. I really like that.
But that is a goal of ours and it is more about us trying to self-edit. I think we didn't do a very good job of that on our last record. It was somewhat indulgent just because we didn't know what we were doing and it was just us playing and kind of going crazy for seven months doing it. But we've learned so much.
I understand what you're saying. Sometimes you create exercises or set goals just to kind of shake something different off of the tree. But, of course, no one's going to hold you to those goals, and if you end up with a great five-minute song, then Fine.
Right. You know, the things you're creating, they're going to start taking over for themselves. They gain their own momentum. I don't know. I'm sure we'll end up with kind of a twelve minute crazy jam, but I think we look at ourselves . . . Like some people think we're like a prog band or something and I'm like, 'No, we've always been making pop music.' You know, we're not that good with writing these super-long, lofty songs. And I like repetition and I like repetition certainly in like hip-hop and electronic music, but that's the only way I could see us stretching it out. But I really want to try to make a pop record that hasn't been made before and, you know, for the next album that's our goal.
For the last album you recorded for four or five days in a studio in Baltimore and then you did four months of overdubs at the house in Brooklyn. And now you've budgeted four months time-wise to do the next record. Are you planning a similar thing where you spend four or five days in a studio and then go back to the house for several months of overdubs?
I think it'll actually be exactly the opposite. Basically what we wanted was . . . We kind of thought that a studio would solve our problems, and I hate studios. I feel uncomfortable. Even the studio that we went into, it was a really cool studio. This guy J. Robbins, great, sweet guy, and really fun to work with, I feel uncomfortable because I'm not like . . . You know, me personally, I like to have my hands on all the stuff. I want to make the edits in the computer and I don't mind doing all the dirty work and turning the knobs and plugging things in and being like involved. And I want it to be a home kind of environment, you know. If we work for half an hour one day and then it's not working, let's bail. You know, let's go to a movie or let's relax and let's go outside. I don't want those time restrictions. So instead I think we're going to get a house that we're looking at, you know, within proximity of New York. We're looking an hour away and we're going to bring all our gear up there and we're going to kind of build it out a little and soundproof a couple of rooms, just temporarily for the four months, and then when we're done with those four months see what we have and still allow a little time maybe to go into a professional studio. Because we're not engineers, really. We're not professional engineers anyway. And to fix some the problems in a professional studio at the end as opposed to the beginning I think is really the way to go for us.
Are you planning on having anyone other than the four members of Yeasayer in the house upstate for those months that you're recording?
Probably. I mean, I think it just depends. I think the first month will be just us together like working on it. No outside distractions. But, you know, this last year I've made a lot of great friends, and in New York I've got some amazing musician friends who would add great things to it. You know, different people who play percussion and some of the guys from Man Man and, you know, some amazing vocalists. I would love to have them in and I want them involved in that process. Like, even if it's just to come in and play a little part or, you know, to lend an ear or lend a vocal line, kind of what we were doing on the last record. And also getting some engineer friends I have who work on great records, who do great work and who know what's up. You know, they'll come in and they'll tell us where we're fucking things up and I'll respect that.
You've been on tour for the better part of 14 months. Is there a place that you wish you had played that you haven't played yet?
Well, we've never played in Japan, which would've been amazing. And, you know, there were some obvious places in the U.S. we never played. We never really played in Tennessee. You know, we never played Memphis or Nashville. We never made it down to Florida. I mean, I would love to . . . There was a time when we thought maybe we were going to play this show in India. We got this one offer to play this show in Istanbul that we couldn't do just because logistically, you know, the shows have to pay you enough money at least just to get there. I'm willing to take a loss. I don't need to make money on the show as long as I get to a new place and play to a new audience. But, you know, it was awesome. We got to Finland and Helsinki was amazing. Playing in New Zealand was amazing. I would like to play everywhere. I'll play to ten people in an exotic location, no problem. I don't care. I'd love to play Tel Aviv or something.
Most bands, when they're first starting out, spend at least some time trying to envision, if not dreaming about, what their future might be like after they go on tour, after their first record comes out. How well has this past year, post-Cymbals, matched up against your pre-release expectations?
Well, it's definitely exceeded my expectations. I thought that we would just take it as far it could go. I always thought that. But I never really expected that we would be having a lot of the reaction that we had. I had a good goal in my mind that was like, "Oh, it would be so cool if we could sell 5000 records, like worldwide." You know, I was just like, "I just want to get to Europe once, you know. I would love to do a tour. I would love to sell like maybe 5000 records, and, you know, ideally if I can quit my job working for people I didn't particularly like that much, that would be great. You know, at least while I'm on the road." And so we've far exceeded those expectations and I think we're going to make new goals for ourselves. You know, our goals were pretty humble to start off with. It was kind of just to be able to make art and not compromise anything. You know, I don't want anyone telling us what to do and I want it all to kind of be a family affair, and that's kind of been what it's been over the last year.
So what are your goals for this next record?You can't quit a job that you've already quit, so that's gone. Is it more record sales? Is it crossing Tennessee and Japan off of the to-do list? What's left for round two?
I mean, I think it's so funny how low and small-budgeted the whole first project was. Not that we need a giant budget, but there were all these kinds of things that we couldn't do. We couldn't really make a video. We made a video. But I mean, I went to school for film and stuff, and I have all these friends who could do things. All I have to do is give them, I mean, a little bit of money and just a little more time and we could be making all kinds of projects. We're trying to expand. Like I want to make our live show a different experience. I don't want it be just like going to see a band. On this last tour I had a friend who's building these light sculptures for us and who's doing these weird, customized sculpture light shows on the stage. And just little things like that I feel help make the experience different and keep kind of challenging ourselves to do different things. That's my only real goal. You know, like I mean, they're pretty small goals. I would like to sell more records, but not if it means that I have to do something I wouldn't ordinarily do. I'd like to reach as many people as possible, but I don't ever want to have to edit something down for the sake of it getting on the radio if I don't feel like it needs it, you know.
So what surprised you the most, whether it was pleasant or not so, in the past 14 months?
You mean just in general?
Well, it could be in the larger sense, or it could be the night that five frat boys stood up on a table and got their ya-yas out.
We did have a naked guy get up onstage at a college and dance with us. It was kind of amazing. And I was giving him hugs and being, you know, super friendly with a naked man. To me it's been really amazing over the last year to kind of watch the country transform. You know, I've always been very happy about living in the U.S., but, you know . . . And watching the country kind of . . . This whole crazy shit that's going on in the United States right now. Especially having traveled overseas a lot for touring. People constantly talking about, Oh, what's going on in your country? What's the deal? What's the deal with Barack Obama? And then finally to see it all come to fruition, it felt like a big cycle that kind of has happened with a new president. That's been an amazing ride. You know, to experience what's going on here internationally, and be able to look out from the U.S. and then be able to look from an outsider's perspective and read international newspapers and all this kind of thing has been an amazing thing.
And then there's the time when the naked guy gets up. And I, one time, cut my hand, and I was bleeding all over the stage and I almost passed out in Chicago.
I used to do this really stupid thing. Our drummer has this cymbal. He's kept the same cymbal since he was about 12, and he's 30 now or something, so it's 18 years of playing this one crash cymbal, so it kind of spits out metal.
That sounds like a tetanus shot waiting to happen.
Yeah, it is. And I used to slap it with my hand, and a couple of times, I think in Atlanta and Chicago, my hand really got actually impaled on it. I was just kind of getting into it. I wasn't really thinking, you know. And so that happened, bleeding on that one tour . . . Especially the MGMT tour there was a lot of blood. And it's kind of unexpected for a band like us when we're just kind of wimpy guys singing this kind of sentimental music. But I like that. And we also had a naked guy in upstate New York at a college in Hamilton. And I think we had a semi-naked guy in New Zealand. We had this kind of stage invasion where these bouncers were grabbing people and throwing them off. And we said, It's cool, and then they just kind of stayed on stage and somewhat smashed up all our stuff. But it felt great.
I don't want to ask you about regrets, but what about the past 14 months would you change if you could?
Our press photos [laughs]. You know, we didn't have any press photos and we didn't really believe in them, and so we were just like, "Fuck it. We don't want to do that." And then obviously what ended up being our press photo was some really goofy thing that someone took one day, you know, at the house. I don't know. We tried to fight the system as much as we can and I guess it didn't really work out in all areas.
How could he regret this?
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