The second track on Yeasayer’s third album, Fragrant World, is called “Longevity,” and on it the Brooklyn-based psych-pop band commands the listener to, “Live for the moment/Never count on longevity.” It’s a fitting request coming from a band that has withstood the hype-storm generated by a buzzy debut (2008′s All Hour Cymbals), an occasionally beguiling follow-up (2010′s Odd Blood) and, more recently, some controversial comments on R&B. At one point in our conversation singer Chris Keating observed, “I just assume that any day we’ll have to go back to doing what we were doing before the band.”
Yet when I meet them at a stylish hotel in Williamsburg, they seem at ease. Both Keating and guitarist/vocalist Anand Wilder are eager to talk about their new album, joking with each other and going off on silly tangents. Over the course of our conversation the guys touch on their love of hip-hop, their fear of zombies and a certain porn actress who may or may not make a cameo in one of their songs.
Yeasayer – “Henrietta” by Secretly Canadian
Did you have any initial plans going into the recording process for Fragrant World?
Anad: You know on the last album we were consciously trying to make it poppy, and this one we wanted to indulge our more experimental or abstract notions and just run with any idea and not worry about it being commercial or appealing in any way or accessible. That’s not to say we don’t write pop songs—cause that’s what we do—but with this one we were trying to experiment as much as possible.
What song on the album do you think reflects the newer approach?
Chris: I don’t know if there’s one song that shows that. I think in general that was a guiding principle in everything we did. I don’t know if there was one song particularly indicative of that. I think a lot of the songs went through interesting revisions, and in general the mood was a little more somber. But on every song we experimented and tried around different things and different versions of the songs, so it’s tough to say or pinpoint one.
The album is full of blood and bone imagery. Why do you guys always come back to that lyrically?
Chris: Is there blood in there?
Anad: Blood is the last album. Is there blood on this one?
Yeah, the first song “Fingers Never Bleed.”
Anad: Oh yeah! “Blood trickles down…”
Chris: The act of making music is a very physical process and trying to come to terms with the disembodiment of electronic music and trying to incorporate physicality into it and dealing with things like that. On this album in particular there was kind of conceptually some songs, starting with “Henreitta,” that for me were talking about physicality and humanity transcending and becoming something in the ether. Humanity becoming a commodity.
Then you have a song like “Reagan’s Skeleton,” which envisions this zombie apocalypse. Are you interested in zombies?
Chris: Not in particular.
Anad: I hate zombies.
Chris: I’m not that into zombies.
Anad: That’s when the Game Of Thrones took a turn for the worst. What’s up with all those zombies?
Chris: I’m more into Thriller. I like those zombies. Dancing zombies: awesome. Scary zombies: not so scary. Ronald Reagan: pretty scary. It’s about Ronald Reagan coming back from the dead and being a zombie. I’m just not that into zombies.
Anad: I thought it was about Bill Reagan, your great uncle?
Chris: Faye Reagan, the porn star. That was the only time I saw Jason [Trammell] get excited. I was like, “We should get Faye Reagan to be there.” And he was like, “I’ll definitely do that!” Then the next day he said, “I reached out to Faye Reagan’s people.” And I was like, “OK, I think we have more important stuff…”
That could be the sequel. Call it “Faye Reagan’s Skeleton” or something.
Chris: I do talk about a red head in the song. She is a red head, so she could be in that scenario.
Also, at the beginning of “Reagan’s Skeleton” there’s this intense synth sound that sounds like it could be on the new El-P album. Do you guys listen to hip-hop a lot?
Anad: Totally. It’s a big influence on our process.
Chris: It’s in our foundation. Ever since our first show we had a sampler on stage as an instrument, and that draws its lineage from hip-hop.
Anad: Also, the way we use singing over loops draws from that the same way hip-hop productions are all about setting up the beat and rapping over it. It’s kinda the same thing for us when we set up a beat and sing over it.
Chris: I know we grew up in a generation where some of the very first stuff I was into was the cheesier hip-hop from the early ’90s like Wreckx-N-Effect, and then slowly getting into cooler things and finding out about A Tribe Called Quest, and always being into Beastie Boys and then slowly getting into the mainstream stuff in the late ’90s like Jay-Z and a lot of the production that was going on in those records was sonically more adventurous than anything being done in any other genre. And still there’s a big focus on pushing the boundaries of production in hip-hop. You go through waves. Now it seems like it’s in a very minimalist 808 phase, but you know in the early 2000s and late ’90s in particular, you had people like El-P and J Dilla that were really pushing it. That was really adventurous and exciting stuff. Dr. Octagonecologyst is still one of the best records of all time, I think.
So when you guys start a song is it always about the beat?
Anad: Not always. It depends on the song.
What’s a song on the album that started in an unexpected way?
Anad: “Devil And The Deed” started with a cello chord moving back and chopping it up. Chris can talk to you more about the start of his songs.
Chris: It can come from a variety of places, like just one synth tone dictating what beat should go around it. “Longevity” in particular started out with this arpeggioed little sound and then taking some drums and really slowing them down so it sounds really sludgy underneath it and then having a drummer play on top of that and chopping up his playing and then have someone else play on top of that. That was cool, but it’s hard to recreate live.
The album also has a song like “Folk Hero Schtick,” which is really gritty in comparison.
Anad: Sometimes you got to switch it up. Make it interesting. I think one of our guiding tenants has always been that cohesion on an album is overrated, and it’s more fun to be able to go all over the place.
Chris: Drawing influence from later-period Beatles records and Sandinista by the Clash, like, “What the hell is going on?” I’ve always taken inspiration from that. And I feel like we can push that further. Like, why didn’t we do one of those songs that’s a 12-minute ambient soundtrack in the middle of the album? We should have gone there.
Or go for the double or triple album.
Chris: We’ve thought about that, but there are potential hazards like repeating yourself and being boring in an album format.
Anad: I was going back and listening to Mellow Gold, the Beck album, a lot when we were working on the album, and it still stands up really well. The production is constantly shifting in the same song—new bars, new sounds—it really keeps your attention.
You guys got to tour with Beck right?
Anad: For like five days
Did you meet him?
Anad: Yeah, he’s awesome. He’s just a super nice guy.
Chris: You find sometimes with people who are really famous and are these legends, you hear, “Ah, he’s a jerk.” I don’t know if I necessarily heard that about Beck, but he was really not a jerk. He was really nice and very accommodating. Totally cool. He was into talking about all kinds of interesting music and art. We hung out with him and spent his birthday with him in Paris, which was pretty fun.
Anad: I read a cool thing about him recently about how he was pissed off when he got labeled as “slacker music” in the early ’90s when “Loser” came out. He was like, “Fuck it. I’m not a slacker.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, slackers don’t make an album every year.”
Chris: Definitely not a slacker. He’s not some druggie or a drop-out. He’s a hard-working musician.
I was thinking about the idea of being a working musician and doing this as a career because you have to live in the moment but at the same time have a larger plan. What has kept the band moving?
Chris: I just assume that any day we would have to go back to doing what we were doing before the band. I’m always like, “This is the last time we get to do this.” I’m surprised when people show up for shows. I think never taking it for granted is important, and also you have to make sure you don’t get bored of a certain sound, so you try to make things that are interesting but that can be detrimental too because bands who repeat themselves sonically over and over can do very well. I can think of many bands. When you take risks it’s potentially hazardous, like MGMT did with their second record where they were doing this specific thing and they pissed off a lot of 13-year-old girls. That was pretty ballsy. They just wanted to make whatever record they wanted to make. When people do that it can work out really well like in the case of Beck or like David Bowie, but even Bowie went through some ups or downs. It’s easy to reflect and say, “People loved him when he got rid of Ziggy Stardust! So cool! Plastic soul!” I don’t think that there were many audiences that were really happy about that, and he had to resell the idea.
How many songs did you record for the album?
Anad: About 20 or so.
Chris: 20 or 30. And you don’t necessarily record them all the way. You mess around with them and see.
Do you guys write songs with the goal of getting people dancing and moving at shows?
Anad: Sometimes. I think it’s all about getting a good melody and trying to write a good song.
Chris: Yeah, you’re trying to convey something. If you’re a pure electronic musician or a DJ or a dance musician, that’s maybe what you’re thinking in the studio. Like, “This tempo is great for ass-shaking.” We are more coming at it from a songwriting perspective where you want to say something and convey an idea, and then you incorporate some of the ideas and production techniques and the sounds of that world of dance music, but it’s not the first thing [we think about.] Then when we are playing live it’s nice to have movement. I don’t like going to shows were everyone is dead still the whole time.