We chat with Yeasayer
Yeasayer are getting ready to return to Australian audiences for their second Laneway Festival appearance in three years, but for Anand Wilder – musician, artist, husband, father. American – he is simply relieved that Mitt Romney’s not running the country.
“I hope that was just a little blip on our history and we can just forget about him,” sighs the multi-instrumentalist of the result of November’s presidential election. “I hope we can actually get something done, for real, in the next four years… let’s do something productive,” he adds, “get some free health insurance.”
While talking politics might seem odd for a band better known for their electronically fertile, boho art-pop than their fiercely Democratic views, it’s pertinent considering that their latest record, Fragrant World, is an album shaded by the fears and the disappointments of a nation in flux.
An album whose titles alone reference devils, demons, blood, bones, and – most overtly – ‘Reagan’s Skeleton’. A fantasy narrative where Ronald literally rises from the grave, gleaming crimson “in the moonlight/Don’t fear the red eyes/fear the satellite overhead.”
“I think like any kind of inspiration, what you get [from] the political climate is always good fodder for words and ideas,” says the 30-year-old musician about the influence on Fragrant World’s darker mood.
“This election just ended, but when you look back at it, it was like ‘oh my god’ it’s been two years of having to listen to the most absurd shit out of these Republican candidates who were far worse than Mitt Romney,” says Wilder.
“Because there are tons of people in America who support these ideas, this very conservative, backward ways of thinking,” he catches himself from unspooling into a further tangent, “it is kind of disconcerting, and a bit scary, certainly worth a song or two.”
Tunes the band will be gifting Australian audiences this month for Laneway, and considering Yeasayer are back for a second helping so soon after their first taste, it’s fair to say they’re fans of the festival.
“Laneway is just… you can’t get better than that festival,” gushes the Brooklynite, calling it “summer camp: beautiful weather …flying on rock n roll planes with 50 other bands, you’re partying with all your friends that are in bands… the promoters are great. Everything.”
Best of all, he lists, is getting days off to “hang out, go to the beach. We had a BBQ in Melbourne at the apartments we were staying at, where we just cooked up some food that we bought at the grocery store. You never get to do that on tour!”
Their Australian dates will also mark the unofficial closing to their Fragrant World tour, having played “probably 60 shows” in America and Europe through summer.
A schedule that’s honed their setlist into a festival-savvy show in which “we can dangle a little bait in front of people,” teases Wilder. “We like to play the game, make it fun.”
“We kind of figured it out, we hit it ‘em with a song that nobody knows, it’s not even on Fragrant World,” he continues, “that makes us feel good, and then we segue right into ‘Madder Red’ and it’s just like ‘Yes! Thank you’.”
When quizzed whether a festival set has its own demands, Wilder confirms the band’s generous attitudes. “There’s a certain expectation yeah. We’re not in the business of being completely obtuse and giving the finger to our fans who provide us with a living.”
“We don’t pander, but we’ll give you the hits. Let’s put it that way,” he declares.
The ‘hits’ however means something a bit different in the world of Yeasayer. Their second album, 2010’s Odd World contained the lion’s share of them, ‘O.N.E.’, ‘Ambling Alp’, and ‘Mondegreen’ making for a deliriously colourful kaleidoscope of vibrant sounds and textures, wound tightly into pop nuggets with traditional structures but unconventional methods.
Their sophomore was also a huge stylistic leap from their 2007 debut All Hour Cymbals, a lo-fi milieu of Brooklynite bohemia, exotic ‘world’ music anachronisms, and again, distinct pop fervour in ’2080′ and ‘Sunrise’.
“We’re not total avant-garde jazz heads or anything like that,” says Wilder, “but we love pop music that’s weird, that’s daring.”
Fragrant World certainly fits that bill, finding Yesayer again operating by their own eclectic logic, but its edges harder and its tone more serious, but no less possessed of alluring grooves – such as the digi-funk of ‘Blue Paper’ or “dub sci-fi” of lead single ‘Henrietta’.
Yeasayer’s bubbling, animated music would have Jack Nicholson’s Joker wondering in awe, “where do they get those wonderful toys?”
For Yeasayer, keeping their minds and music ticking is about staying abreast of new technology “buy new pedals, buy new computer software” as Wilder lists, “keep trying to push the envelope and that’s the way you get new sounds.”
No surprise then to learn, that for Wilder and his bandmates – Chris Keating and Ira ‘Wolf’ Tuton – inspiration comes in the discoveries made with tinkering with new technology. “Buy new pedals, buy new computer software” as Wilder lists, “keep trying to push the envelope and that’s the way you get new sounds.”
It’s also what Wilder keeps an eye out for when experiencing other’s music. “When I go out and see the band – that’s when I’m blown away or that’s when I’m like ‘eh, it’s just a guy in a laptop, that’s not interesting to me’ or whatever.”
“You can be like ‘oh, let me check out what kind of guitar pedals you guys are using?’ or how they’re integrating electronic drums into the set, you know?” Wilder adds. “That’s another exciting thing about Laneway, I don’t even know who half the bands playing the festival are! So I’m excited to check ‘em all out.”
The search for the new may also come from the trio’s desire to stay relevant. Just as Fragrant World is as concerned about a society that’s going to the dogs, there’s also the worry about ensuring some kind of legacy, and one that’s meaningful.
One number pleas to “live in the moment/never count on longevity,” (‘Longevity’), while another pays tribute to Henrietta Lacks, the African-American woman whose death helped cancer research with the development of the immortal HeLa cell line (‘Oh, Henrietta/we can live on forever”).
While closing track ‘Glass of the Microscope’ plays Chicken Little, crying “in truth we’re doomed”, but it’s yearning melody has an optimistic effect juxtaposing its doom mongering lyric.
When these ideas are pointed out to Wilder, he replies “Definitely. I always want to stay relevant, otherwise there’s no point. No one wants to be an ‘oldies’ act.”
“Like in the 90s you’d have some small band that no one has ever heard of and then some weird, little, quirky rock song becomes a giant radio hit,” he illustrates, “and I just don’t feel like that happens any more.”
“I kind of see we’re in this position where we aren’t really a one hit wonder. At our shows there are maybe six songs that people get really excited about,” he explains jovially. “To me I’m like ‘that’s great, if we can do that for the rest of our lives, even if we don’t make another hit, that’s still better than playing your entire set and everybody’s waiting for that one song.”
“Obviously, you want to stay relevant, you want to have all the songs on your record be hits,” he gives a heaving groan before noting, “but we’re not willing to make the compromise and dumb it down.”
The dreaded ‘selling out’ tag lurks in the Fragrant Wolrd cut ‘Folk Hero Shtick’ which openly criticises its titular protagonist (who remains anonymous, but is targeted at a real musician), for stringing along an audience on false pretences: “The Emperor’s standing naked/now much longer can he fake it?”
It’s as much a self-targeted cautionary tale than anything else, to not settle and concede. “I think stuff that’s pushed today is very safe and dull. I don’t think we’re willing to do that,” reasons Wilder.
“We’ve got to make this stuff ourselves, we have to stand behind it and perform it around the world and not feel like total schmoes,” he explains. “So it’s more comfortable for us to be weird. Weird with a little bit of melody to keep people singing along.”
There should be plenty of that when Yeasayer – makers of weird, daring pop music – rolls once more into town.
Fragrant World is out now through Mute, read the Tone Deaf review here. Yeasayer play Laneway Festival this February, details and set times here and tickets are available from lanewayfestival.com.au, they also play two sideshows in Sydney and Melbourne, see below for dates.
Yeasayer Australian Tour 2013
Thursday 31 January 2013 – Metro Theatre, Sydney.
Tickets on sale via Penny Drop and Ticketek.
Wednesday 6 February 2013 – Hi Fi, Melbourne.
Tickets on sale online via Hi Fi.