Folk Hero Schtick: Yeasayer

"There's a reason why it works..."

Throughout my interview with Yeasayer’s fidgety, restless Chris Keating, he namechecks a pefectly-formed list of influences that range from kosmische pioneers Popol Vuh, post-punk groups like Gang Of Four and Joy Division through to R&B producer Timbaland, but for now, as unlikely as it might seem, Keating is talking about The Village People. “What I think is one of the best songs of all time in terms of its subversiveness is ‘YMCA’ by The Village People. I always talk about this song. Here’s a song that’s sung all over the world by people who are completely obvious to the idea that this is about gay group sex at the ‘YMCA’. The Bill Hicks in me really appreciates that.”

It wasn’t the answer I was expecting: I’ve just asked Keating about a quality in Yeasayer’s music that leaves the listener unable to determine whether they should be jubilant or woefully depressed. “That for me is an interesting one. Things with light and dark elements are balanced. It’s so predictable with someone like Marilyn Manson.” Keating pauses and runs his hand through his floppy hair, seeming to be conscious that he doesn’t want to offend anyone. “I like Marilyn Manson actually, but that kind of music and that kind of look and dark lyrics? I prefer the idea of unpredictability. Some of my favourite music has a certain tone, but also has a dark vocal and a dark message. There’s a great country song by Eddie Noack called ‘Psycho’ from the late Sixties where he’s singing about murdering people, but the song’s all [makes cheerful pop guitar sounds].”

Yeasayer are on the cusp of releasing their third album, ‘Fragrant World’, a record that contains numerous examples of that confounding balance between the light and the dark, from the outwardly joyous but politically conscious ‘Reagan’s Skeleton’ through to the strained emotional grace of first single ‘Henrietta’. For that track, the trio of Keating, Anand Wilder and Ira Wolf Tuton took the unprecedented – and expensive – step of mailing out 200 CDr promos to members of their email news list, encouraging recipients to upload and share the track virally before its official release. “Well,” laughs Keating, nervously, “we didn’t send them express.”

‘Henrietta’ is a perfect showcase for Yeasayer’s ability to deftly twist the listener’s impression of a song, whilst simultaneously feeling like two songs bolted together end-to-end. “That one was more like a deconstructed song,” explains Keating, “and then we put the building blocks back in place. Originally it was very Cure. I really like The Cure, obviously, but it was never my intention to keep it that way. We were flipping around the studio putting new drum machine patterns over that. I really like the Roy Orbison song ‘In Dreams’ which is a linear structure, like an A, B, C, D, E, maybe even an F part. So I got the idea of writing a linearly structured song, and that’s what that is. The record label really were on at us like, ‘bring the chorus back!’ but that’s really not the point of the song. It’s supposed to be transitional.” The approach to writing ‘Henrietta’ does not mean Yeasayer are about to completely challenge the verse-chorus-verse tradition, however. “Fine, it works,” reaffirms Keating. “There’s a reason why it works. There’s a reason why you build a house a square. But if you can make a song out of a linear structure then for me that’s an interesting challenge.”

Yeasayer – Henrietta

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‘Fragrant World’ is a subtly different album from its predecessor, 2010’s ‘Odd Blood’. Less obviously ‘psychedelic’, if that’s a description that’s ever suited the band, ‘Fragrant World’ is more outwardly pop than ‘Odd Blood’ and yet somehow those pop references are twisted, remade and remodelled into something very un-pop indeed, taking in Eighties synth pop echoes and what appears to a more prominent electronic sound. Keating talks about purposefully moving from the ethereal weirdness of the band’s debut, ‘All Hour Cymbals’ to something much more purposefully anthemic on ‘Odd Blood’, but considers that second record a mixed success. “I was happy with some of the songs,” he says, “but it’s also strange that people come to your shows and only know one song.” That was much in evidence the night before at the first of two fan shows at The Lexington in Islington, where fans went wild for ‘Odd Blood’s big singles, ‘Ambling Alp’, ‘O.N.E’ and ‘Madder Red’, while new tracks like the urgent, electro-infused ‘Damaged Goods’ resulted in confused shuffling.

“I think we’re always going to get the Eighties thing,” sighs Keating when I mention some of the retro reference points I hear on ‘Fragrant World’. “To me that’s ultimately because the Eighties were a really transitional period in music, because of the technological advances that were happening toward the end of the Seventies. In the Eighties it solidified. A lot of the sampling technology, the drum machine technology, the synthesizer technology, that all came to fruition in the Eighties. And then was abandoned somewhat in the Nineties. But the stuff from the Eighties that I’m really into is Chicago house music, and more exciting things, like Cure stuff, and not Simply Red or Duran Duran and that kind of shit. I like Depeche Mode a lot.”

Unlike ‘Odd Blood’, which was recorded outside of the band’s Brooklyn base, more or less in a cabin, ‘Fragrant World’ was recorded just blocks from Keating’s home, at the studio of Daniel Lopatin, also known as musical auteur Oneohtrix Point Never. Though namedropping Lopatin seems to reinforce the idea of Brooklyn as an über-trendy creative melting point, Keating is less sure that the Brooklyn scene is a good thing. “It’s always good looking girls, new and interesting venues that change, whatever, but it gets gentrified very quickly and the rent goes up. New York has always been a cultural mecca but then when it got safer everyone from over the world moved in. You know, I don’t think too many rich French girls were moving there in the Seventies. Brooklyn is a massive borough, its the most populous borough in New York and there’s limited space, so the newcomers push out the locals.”

If Keating seems negative about his home, it’s nothing compared to the bleak thoughts that informed the album’s title and the song of the same name. “I just liked the idea of scent being linked to memory and nostalgia, a transportational scent that took you back in time,’ he explains. ‘But I was thinking about a really bleak future without that smell. I would see images of people in massively polluted cities, like if you think of some polluted world, or some tasteless food in a room where no-one smells anything anymore.”

“It’s depressing,” he admits, somewhat redundantly.

Photo Credit: Anna Palma
Words by Mat Smith

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‘Fragrant World’ is out now.

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