Q&A: Yeasayer On Fragrant World, Not Being A New Band, And Casting The "Brooklyn Band" Movie
Yeasayer joined the late-naughts "Brooklyn band" explosion shortly after their debut All Hour Cymbals was released in 2007. Their second record, 2010's Odd Blood, received similar acclaim, and the band even reached the summer-shed circuit thanks to gigs with the Flaming Lips and Weezer.
Next week the trio releases their third LP, Fragrant World (Secretly Canadian). A bit less hook-driven than their previous work, it's a heavily arranged record with a hodgepodge of Middle Eastern-tinged electronic sounds. Tonight, Yeasayer shows it off from the Music Hall of Williamsburg stage for a sold-out show (don't worry, it's streaming online). Among a string of 16 interviews in one day last month, Sound of the City spent about 30 minutes chatting with members Ira Wolf Tuton and Anand Wilder (singer Chris Keating hovered idly around the hotel room) about the new record, making non-traditional music, and what the Brooklyn scene means today.
There are a lot of different levels to your music, and you recorded this in various stages. Is that how you always record?
Anand Wilder: Definitely. We just keep adding and adding to the demos.
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Ira Wolf Tuton: But at a certain point, there's a practice of pulling back and finding new relationships amongst different parts. You know, you build A upon B and B upon C and C upon D and then you realize that A and D really sound great together.
Was it harder or easier to make this record than your previous ones?
Wilder: Um, I don't think so. I don't think it was harder or easier.
Tuton: You say an album is harder or easier, it just depends how you approach it, for anybody, you know?
OK. Well, on a very basic, nuts and bolts level, did the songs come to you in the same way as your previous records?
Wilder: I don't know. It was pretty similar. Just trying to get these songs, the layers right, tweaking them as long as you can before you have to say, "OK, we've got to hand this thing in and get it mastered." I would say that it probably gets easier because with every album, you know so much more. It's sort've like learning a vocabulary. Like, what does this song need? How to communicate with an engineer or a mixer or something like, "What does this need? Could you try this sort of EQ?" You get more specific with your requests, versus in the beginning when you don't even really know the difference.
Did you work with the same people mixing this record?
Wilder: No, all new.
What was the reason for that?
Wilder: Just excited to keep changing it, working with new people.
Tuton: Get new outlook, different spaces, different pieces of equipment, people with different expertise. Different skill sets.
Wilder: Also, it's a guaranteed way to not repeat yourself.
Tuton: I always think that's an enjoyable thing for us. Even outside of making the record, from the live to the videos to stage show, is continually working with people outside our box of perspectives on what we're doing. To breathe fresh and new live into the whole experience.
What do you look for when you're bringing new people in?
Tuton: Only brunettes. So you're out.
Wilder: It's all the sound. We got spec-mixes done for one song, and the mix that Dan Carey did was just above and beyond anything that anybody else had done. Looking back on that, I was just hearing on these things that I had never heard before. How is he getting this separation? This depth? You just have to trust your ears.
This record doesn't seem as poppy or hook-driven as Odd Blood. Is that a purposeful decision you made going into this Fragrant World?
Tuton: I think there is actually a lot more hooks, but they just might be a little more subverted, as opposed to it being the singular hook of the song. I think there's a lot more parts that transition into focal points of different sections. That's just the way I hear it. Either way, it's a different approach, certainly, either way that you hear it while you listen to it.
What does that approach allow you to do sonically with the record?
Wilder: I think a lot of the last album was a lot of direct messages. You could really say that, OK, this is the grand statement for that one song. Whereas this one we were trying to go for something a little bit more intangible. I think that was just exciting for us, to not be obsessing over this one phrase to make it the most catchy thing. I think it's just something that's a bit more open to interpretation.
Tuton: I also think it's something that's a bit more lasting for a listener, because you continually discover different parts to it and facets of a recording of a piece that aren't immediate upon a first, second, third listen. I think that's the exciting thing about a lot of the music I love, and why I continue to like it. Certainly, there's music I love that I love for a week and then I've got the point. But the lasting stuff is stuff that I can continually discover certain parts, or re-discover parts that I forgot, that one point was a focal point of mine that I was drawn to.
Is making less accessible music a way of combating our fast consumer culture?
Tuton: I'd certainly rather make this kind of music than that. We're in a game where we're trying to have a lasting existence, you know. We have three albums now; I'd like to think that they are testaments to a time and place, and for us, each one of them is an artistic testament. Certainly you want those to be more lasting than immediately bubble-gummy and one and done. That's just an approach. I mean, to each his own. Next record, it's all going to be super immediate, one and done, *snaps fingers*, be super successful, then we retire.
Wilder: I mean, it's not like we're trying to be completely obtuse. There's still a big goal to make songs memorable and distinct. Each song should have its own character and personality.
Your music falls on these ears as a bit chaotic. How does a sound like that affect the listener?
Wilder: I don't know. With a chaotic sound, you're challenging the listener but you're also trying to give them something that they hadn't heard before. Everybody's heard a guitar playing a riff, but if it's a weird backwards flute playing a riff, that's just a little bit more interesting--especially if it's, you know, in a different context than you'd hear a backwards flute.
Tuton: I don't really hear chaos. It's heavy arrangements. I think it's more just trying to approach that in a creative, non-traditional way that could be more engaging than the expected, comfortable way that you're used to hearing, like, well, here's the guitar solo section. Here's the vamp. I think we can play with so many layers and switches and all those dynamics are fun.
Wilder: I always think that we could be way more chaotic.
Tuton: I actually think we're pretty heavily arranged. Pretty tight.
How do you define that line of arrangement?
Wilder: Sometimes you get too carried away with the technology and getting the sounds to sound so crazy and ridiculous that you realize that, accidentally, let's say you're mixing a few elements, you might realize that the song is served much better if it's stripped down and simplified. It comes back to trusting your ears and saying, "Oh, we worked so hard at making this one sound crazy, but really, all you need to hear is the vocal and the bass and the drumbeat and it's fine." And it actually makes the song as a whole much more dynamic. Sometimes it helps if you step back and listen to the whole song, maybe listen to a couple songs in a row, and give yourself some perspective on where you've gone a little overboard.
What does that let you do lyrically?
Wilder: I think the sound of the words is probably more important than the lyrics. I think the lyrics probably play a secondary role to experimentation to making sounds in the studio. But it's always fun to make interesting words and catchy words and phrases that people are going to latch onto.
Has the sound of the words always been the priority, versus what they actually are?
Wilder: I think so. I don't think the words are nearly as important as the melody, yeah. And a melody is only interesting over interesting chord progressions, that kind of thing.
This is your third record, so you're not really a new band anymore.
Both: Oh, no! [laughter]
What's the transition been like?
Tuton: From the outside perspective, it's these snapshots. But for us, it's a much more gradual experience. I think we, practically, make a lot of mistakes and have. Not just in recording records, but in touring and being a professional entity, and to date, I think we try and be pretty aware of that and correct those mistakes as fast as possible and learn from them. It's just kind of the philosophy. And I think that we, you know, in the past probably through our second record afforded making a lot of mistakes that we hadn't made previously, so we learned a lot more.
What kind of mistakes?
Tuton: Uh, you know, even little things on how you want to tour. What's reasonable. What's doable. How do you want to continue to do this for a long period of time. How can you have some sustainability, just in terms of your own mental health, and the functionality of the whole process. You know, that leads into who you want to work with in the future and how you want to record the next record. We've done the living in the country thing, we've toured the country for two years, now we want to be at home in the studio. All of our things are informed by the past, what's preceded it; we're not really flying blind.
How has keeping the same three-person core affected the band?
Wilder: Well, we kept it open to the outside. Not collaboration necessarily, but we got a lot of outside people to come in and that's always exciting, when it's like, "Let's get this drummer to come in for a day." And then all of us play the role of conductor, and maybe we'll just take a few measures from [the session], but that's a really exciting thing. We did a little bit on the first album, when it was more of just a bedroom record when we were just doing everything at home in between our day jobs, you're pretty much doing it all yourself. But it was cool to be in Brooklyn, where you have your regular social life or whatever, and you cross paths with a lot of interesting musicians. You have an idea [like] let's get friends just down the street to come play guitar. I can twist some knobs and you can play guitar. That was exciting. But it's also good to suck back into the trio that's been playing together for the last six years or so, just trying to have faith in each other's opinions and ideas.
Tuton: Once we get those external ideas, there's always seems to be a necessity and benefit of us three going through and editing, working that out, the arrangements, all that. We trust each other.
How's it been seeing the Brooklyn scene that you guys were part of, like with the Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, and the like, blow up into what it is now?
Tuton: Our Brooklyn scene was largely created on the road, doing shows and talking to someone who was from the same place that you were from, and developing a relationship through that. And then maybe seeing them when you were back home. But, you know, it's always exciting to see people you know working hard and reaping a reward from that. But it's also, sometimes, like, yeah, HEALTH [from Los Angelos], the Brooklyn scene! But it's like, no, wait, they're just friends of mine. I don't see it in the same way as someone on the external side of it may see it. It's much more just nice to see friends of yours, who you respect in one way or another [do well]. And having a comfort zone when you go out on the road, running into people that you know and having a like-mindedness. On tour, it can be very lonely so that feeling can be very comforting, to run into random friends in the middle of a field in Germany or something.
I'm excited for the movie. [Laughs]. I'm excited for Brendan Fraser to get the role of his life playing Dave Longstreth.
Wilder: Willem Dafoe as Delicate Steve! *adopts William Dafoe voice*, "We've got to mix this record!"
Yeasayer play at Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight with Daedalus.
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