Q&A: Yeasayer's Chris Keating On USB-Stick Mixes, Bonding Over Weezer, And Why He Loves 'YMCA'

Q&A: Yeasayer's Chris Keating On USB-Stick Mixes, Bonding Over Weezer, And Why He Loves 'YMCA'
Jason Nocito

The past two years have been good to Brooklyn-based band Yeasayer. While they released their second album Odd Blood a little over a year ago, "Ambling Alp" and "O.N.E." shot them to stardom in the blogosphere and mainstream music circles in the fall of 2009. Their popularity was, in large part, thanks to the band turning their weirdly experimental tracks into more tightly configured, concise, uptempo pop songs with anthemic hooks. Yeasayer has been touring to support the album ever since and, just a few weeks ago, announced that they'd be heading back into the studio to record a third album. They premiered the new track "Devil and the Deed" on Conan soon after, giving a peek into what seems to be a similarly sampler-driven album with tambourine-accented hooks.

We caught up with Chris Keating to talk about Yeasayer's new album, the idea of subversive lyrics, and the new era of music consumption.

Where are you now?

We just came down from Sasquatch festival. Kind of cutting through the middle of the country before we head east. We're playing some really weird places, like Lawrence, Kansas. That will be interesting—we've never been there before. Right now we're in Denver. This place Denver is really shitty though, I know that. There are a lot of random crazy people wandering around.

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You know those are the guys that will be at your show.

Hopefully. Actually, I don't know if any of these people will. There's also this really awesome independent record store called Independent Records here. But it's all stuff that is, like, not quite Pitbull. You know that rapper guy? They sell all independent stuff that wants to be Pitbull. There are all these big advertisements for things I've never heard of. Like "Bobby Peck" and "Brass Knuckle Chain." It's all really grimy, gnarly Spanish hip-hop stuff. There's a big Kid Rock poster too. It's a weird store. Like it doesn't have any Sonic Youth records is what I was trying to say. It's interesting for a place called Independent Records. I like it.

Speaking of—your "End Blood" 7-inch came out for Record Store Day. Were the two tracks ones that were cut from Odd Blood?

Basically yeah. Well, one of them was cut but the other one was just made after. We were in the studio and we had already finished the album. Anand [Wilder] was messing around in the studio in one of those interim periods and he just came up with a song. I don't know, sometimes an album is just finished and we knew that. It's always weird cramming an album full of too much "stuff." You never want it to be like Method Man's second album where there's like 29 tracks on it or something. I guess that was including skits. But yeah, we had them sitting around and thought it would be cool to put them on a 7." Even though I don't think that 7-inchs are very cool to be honest.

Why is that?

They're just too small. I like the old ones but I don't think that new bands making 7-inches is that cool. I think new bands making 12-inches is cool. Something about them is very small and very punk rock, and that's not very cool to me. Well, being independent minded and spirited is cool to me but ascribing to dumb traditional things that punk rock bands do to be cool is not cool. Does that make sense?

Sure. And then you did it anyway.

And then we did it anyways!

I've noticed that you've been DJing lately, and your production has obvious influences from international dance music. What are you listening to and playing out?

I'm all over the place. It really depends from month to month or year to year. When we were making our last album I was listening to some dancehall stuff like Vybz Kartel and shit like that. And then also I was listening to '80s industrial stuff. I'm interested in both sides of that programmed drum aesthetic. Lately I've been listening to a lot of Indian music. There's a lot of stuff going on in the UK production wise too. It's cool to say there's a lot of exciting stuff coming out of the UK because there hasn't been for a while. You know, like Kode9 or the Burial production aesthetic. I think that's interesting. Like that dude Ramadanaman.

My listening habits have been skewed by the way that people are listening to music these days. You know, you get mp3s from friends or mixtapes from friends without the names of the songs on them. You could be really interested in something you hear and have no idea who it is. It's cool but it's also like, people passing around fucking USB sticks with different shit on it.

Is that new, though? As opposed to how you consumed music via mixtapes in the '90s, let's say?

In the '90s you'd write the shit down on a piece of paper and then you'd look at it a lot. There would be probably eight songs on a side and now it's like, "Hey, here's a hundred-song mix!" I always liked that mixtape culture. But back then it was like—I don't even remember what I was listening to in the '90s—but it was probably like "Listen to this Veruca Salt single!" or something.

It's also the nature of having something scribed onto a thing that you can only see when you're looking at a specific digital device. You have to go over to the iPod and push on the thing and look at it. There's no piece of paper for you to look at as you're digesting music. People should be writing tracks on a piece of paper and then wrapping it around a USB stick before they give them out. In a way, it's making it harder for people to know what they're listening to these days. There's also so much access to all this crazy music these days which is awesome.

I was listening to some songs that I was really into the other day by this band that doesn't even have a record out. They're called Purity Ring—they're kind of this new band. They sound like this high-quality, intensely weird, dancey project with this saccharine female vocals on it.

Where are they from?

I don't know. The internet! They came from the sky! That's the problem—I don't remember how I got it. I think there was some unreleased 7-inch converted to mp3s but I could be making this up.

All that matters is that you're listening to them. Right?

Yeah, at least I'm listening to them. Well, I don't think that music listening will ever stop. Just the music buying. That will end in the year 2013.

That's why there's a holiday devoted to people buying records on one day out of the year.

Oh yeah, that's what Record Store Day is. Or is that Hanukkah? I guess Record Store Day is Hanukkah for indie rockers. It should be seven days long is what I think. It should be a week where you have to buy music and there should be a whole mythology behind it. That would be cool.

 

Yeasayer, "O.N.E."

The past few years have brought a lot of attention to bands that are strongly influenced by tropical dance music— Yeasayer is one, but there's also Tanlines, Delorean, Lemonade, and so on. Do you see yourself as part of a "movement" or do you think people are just more open to more types of music these days?

I think that white kids are more willing to embrace the electronic hip-hop aesthetic these days, you know? Like these days it's totally accepted. When you think back to maybe '93, you had these people in their 20s that were buying Nirvana albums that weren't necessarily buying the first Busta Rhymes records. And nowadays it seems like it's whatever. Of course I'm going to get the Lil Wayne mixtape and I'm going to get the "insert band" album too. I don't know—Fleet Foxes—the band that sounds like a band.

And now you see that every indie white kid band has an MPC or a sampler. I'm all for it but, you know, that's been a mainstay in hip-hop production for going on 30 years at this point. I don't know if it's a movement. I am excited about the whole thing where people can produce their own records on their laptop. You see everyone chopping up their own shit and making it glitchy and weird and, like, trying to activate sub-bass... just making it a whole different vibe from when my older sister was listening to the same kind of stuff in San Francisco in like 1995. Short form: I'm excited about this.

Yeah, I mean, you've always been self-produced, right? Where are you recording the new album?

Well, we're definitely producing it ourselves, but we might enlist some help from some of our friends. I won't say until they definitely commit to it but different people—like the ones you've been mentioning—to help us work on the record. Right now we're recording in a little practice space in Brooklyn and then we're moving down the street to a studio in Greenpoint where we'll be for the whole month of September.

Two of your New York stops on your tour are with Weezer and Flaming Lips. What's that going to be like for you?

We're playing some weird festival thing with what would be my 12-year-old wet dream lineup. Well, add Pavement and Run-DMC to that and it would be.

You were listening to Pavement when you were 12?

OK, maybe 13.

Are you excited play with these guys? Ambivalent?

About those shows? I can't say I know any Weezer stuff past Pinkerton, so I don't know much. I'm excited but we've kind of stopped being an opening band because, well, it sucks. Being an opening band you get dicked around. I can take the dicking around for these two shows, I guess.

I have a childhood friend who is a major Weezer fan. I'm mostly excited for him to go and see whatever song it is that he wants to see from the side of the stage or wherever. He's from Baltimore, too. I think this will be a big moment for us having fun together in the same way we did when we were 12.

I know you work on your unreleased songs while touring too. You've said that you like playing new songs at shows to experiment with and fine-tune them.

It breaks up the monotony of our songs. We don't get nervous anymore when we play old songs, but when we play new songs it's exciting. We'll add things or change it up a bit, or say "No, don't play that tonight." and it's super fun. Crowds never want to hear new songs, you know? It's just the way it goes. Even if you were to go to an Animal Collective concert and they played eight brand new songs—the people couldn't be more bored out of their minds. So we don't base it around the crowd reaction as much as playing together and the synthesis of what we hear.

Even if we make one tiny, tiny, tiny change live—on a record it translates to quite a lot. Like, not playing one note or saying "that sound on that synthesizer is too mellow, let's make it more aggressive." That really, really goes a long way once you get into recording. That stuff doesn't stick out when you're playing it live to an audience but it does to us. For everyone else, they wouldn't be able to tell the difference since they haven't heard it before.

Some of your tracks, while they have this dance aesthetic to them, they're lyrically dark. There's one that's about addiction, or alcoholism, or even the breezier stuff, like falling in love. How do you spin those stories into an up-tempo dance track? I feel like a lot of your fans just relate to you as these super happy, up-tempo guys.

I think that's the power of music, that you're dealing with these rivalries. There's a shamanistic quality where if you play a certain beat, the people will dance to it no matter what you're saying behind it. That's kind of cool. I think that's also just the music that I like. There's just really subversive things in music that are being said that can be interpreted very simply. The Beatles were very good at writing bizarre, weird, almost tormented things—things about revolution or heroin addiction—but wrapping it up in an accessible package.

I think one of my favorite songs of all time is "YMCA" by the Village People. The content is sinister, but it's subversive in a way that the song is played in every middle school dance and played all throughout the super-conservative belt. And it's ultimately about having gay group sex. You listen to the lyrics and it's there—it's pretty out in the open what they're talking about but most people choose not to hear that or don't care to think about it. I'm sure it gets played at Glenn Beck's daughter's or some conservative asshole's sweet sixteen party. While they're all screaming "Yeah! 'YMCA'!" they're really dancing to a song about crazy dude on dude group sex. I've always loved that idea—to write a song that's subversive but can also make anyone dance.

I just saw so many crackheads again. Maybe they're meth-heads. That's the thing people are on these days, right?

Is it?

Yeah, I think that's it. It's everywhere. What else is there?

I thought it was pills?

Yeah, Molly, but that's fun though. Except they make you lose your teeth right? They like rot your teeth. Yeah, you grind them down. But that's part of the fun though!

I wanted to ask you what "Devil and the Deed" is about.

No, don't do that. It's about doing meth and losing your teeth while having an orgy at the YMCA. That's going to be my answer for everything now.

Tell me about the direction you're going with the new album, then.

I'm very excited about the new album. I think it's like a whole new thing for us. You know, a third album, it's like... we can do this and then we can all commit suicide because there's nowhere left to go. We're not "cool" anymore because we've basically become part of this "indie rock establishment." So I can acknowledge that we're not cool anymore which makes us think we can do, really, whatever we want.

We've been writing songs. It's always hard to verbalize an aesthetic vision, especially because we're very much at the ground floor with trying to build this building of an album. I think we're very reactionary. A lot of the things we did on the last record, we'll probably react against that. I have no interest in repeating the same ideas or formulas over and over again... even though I feel like for most bands these days, that's a recipe for success. In short, it's not going to be like the other two albums at all.

So this is going to be a rap album.

I would love to make a rap album, but I don't think any of us can rap actually.

Didn't Anand produce something for Das Racist recently?

Yeah he produced some stuff for Das Racist that will be on their album. I sent GZA some beats recently that they said they might use. They probably won't. I think that incorporating rap into rock or electronic music is a good idea in theory but would fall super flat. I don't think we're going to get UGK to collab with us anytime soon. We've been talking to Spank Rock for a while so maybe we can do something with him. That would be the ultimate Baltimore thing right there.

So yeah, that's what the new album is about. It's gonna be six tracks that's just atmosphere field recordings. You know, just the noise of the traffic driving by with free jazz on top. And rapping.

Yeasayer play at Terminal 5 with Smith Westerns and Hush Hush tonight.


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