Next Steps: Yeasayer's Ecstatic Evolution

Next Steps: Yeasayer's Ecstatic Evolution

Brooklyn art-rock group on their daring new album...

Anand Wilder from Yeasayer is pondering the fickle nature of the band’s fans. “I think it was 2010 or 2011, on the ‘Odd Blood’ tour,” he recalls. “We played our second show in Amsterdam on the same tour and our support for those shows, Hush Hush, was at the merch table. Some guy came up to him and ripped off his Yeasayer t-shirt and said, ‘What are they, a boy band now?’”

All that had happened was that the band of Wilder, Chris Keating and Ira Wolf Tuton had invested in a new monitoring system that meant they could hear everything better, but it had the effect of making the sound more polished – clearly too polished for one fan.

Wilder’s point is that across the band’s four albums – starting with 2007’s ‘All Hour Cymbals’ and continuing through ‘Odd Blood’ (2010), ‘Fragrant World’ (2013) and ‘Amen And Goodbye’ (2016) – this is a group that has elected, wilfully, to make its entire back catalogue semi-inconsistent. Just about the only constant connection running through the back catalogue is that very lack of connection, plus the distinctive twin voices of Wilder and Keating. It means they get a hard time in the press, and means they attract fans for one album who can’t get their heads around the next one.

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Which brings us to their fifth album, ‘Erotic Reruns’, an album that is characteristically Yeasayer only because it sounds so different from anything else they’ve done before; a collection of nine short songs with a rare combination of both immediate and enduring qualities, and lyrical themes inspired by love, personal recollection and a certain Mr. Trump.

First of all, let’s tackle this constant need to evolve the Yeasayer sound with each successive record. “That’s always been a goal of ours since the second album,” says Anand Wilder. “With a first album, you’re just hoping that you’ll be able to put something out into the world that people will listen to, but then with the second album you have the choice of whether you’re just going to repeat yourself or try to go in a different direction. Since then we’ve always tried to do something different every time. A lot of the bands that I get frustrated with have a cool, sexy vibe, and they’ve got one song that perfectly encapsulates that, but then the rest of their songs are kind of pale imitations of that. You realise that they don’t really have the songs. Because of that, we try to make each song live in its own distinct world.”

What that means for ‘Erotic Reruns’ is a departure from the slightly surreal emotional psychedelia of ‘Amen And Goodbye’, and in its place something just as unexpected. “We had this idea of AM radio songs,” says Wilder. “Really middle of the road-type things. When we were making the songs we had the idea that each one would be its own little lost gem from the 1970s. You know, the bubblegum hit, or as if each one was a one hit wonder by a band.”

That idea, thankfully, didn’t manifest itself in a dated, nausea-inducing production style or a prevailing mood of pleasant background forgettability. Instead, Wilder, Keating and Wolf Tuton took on board some sagely advice from a recently-departed denizen of that era. “We were following the Tom Petty credo of ‘don’t bore us, get to the chorus’,” laughs Wilder. “One of the precepts was to make everything under four minutes and to cut out long intros. A lot of our earlier songs, like ‘Ambling Alp’ or ‘2080’, are much more groove-based songs, whereas these songs just fly by really, really quickly.”

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True to that guiding principle, none of the songs on ‘Erotic Reruns’ take long to get going: no long builds, no lengthy middle eights or bridges, and no excessive chorus repeats. Songs like Keating’s ‘Ecstatic Baby’ or Wilder’s ‘Kiss You Tonight’ arrive quickly and are gone just as quickly, leaving the listener a little similar to the shadow of a cartoon character that has become momentarily separated from its swiftly-departed owner. The rule also had an effect of leaving these songs relatively simple, without multiple layers of complex sounds, studio processing and electronics.

“You know, we’re simple guys and we just try to make things complicated,” reflects Wilder. “For the most part, since the very beginning, we’ve had verses and choruses and maybe a bridge that we go to, but then we’ve cluttered those songs up with a lot of strange sounds and noises. This time we were trying to make all the noises fit the songs.”

Another major change this time around is that the band are self-releasing their album, rather than relying on record labels. “We were professionalised very early in our careers,” says Wilder. “Where a lot of other bands put out things on their own for many, many years, and then got the big break with the record label, we were the other way around. We put out one album pretty much on our own, but then for the next album there was basically a bidding war. We were really fortunate to have a record label giving us tons of money to make elaborate music videos and to spend a lot of time in a proper studio.

“But you know, as time goes on, we’re not the shiny new toy anymore,” he continues. “I don’t think we were a disappointment exactly, but we weren’t able to reach the kind of potential that these record labels thought they could get with us. With our first album, we were able to sell something like 100,000 records on our own, so labels think, ‘Oh, well if you did this on your own, with our might and know-how we’ll be able to multiply that by a thousand,’ and it just doesn’t work like that. Labels just can’t afford to offer the same amount of advance money that they offered in the past, so we figured, if we’re not really getting paid to make a record, then we might as well go into personal debt to make it, but then end up on the other side owning more of our own creation.”

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During our conversation, Anand Wilder mentions John Lennon a couple of times – once while wondering whether Lennon ever had to make a trip to Home Depot like he was doing while we were talking, and once as a major inspiration for his vocal style. The way that Lennon and Paul McCartney each wrote songs for The Beatles serves as a convenient parallel to the songwriting dynamic that exists between Wilder and Chris Keating when writing for Yeasayer. Both write independently, Wilder from his base in Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, and Keating in upstate New York in Saugerties, and then they come together with Ira Wolf Tuton to thrash out which songs will get progressed.

“A big set of demos is presented to the band,” explains Wilder. “And then you can either force your songs down everybody’s throats, if you’re really confident about them, or you say, ‘Okay, how about this one? Let me try to fit my song over this beat you’re making right now.’ The hardest thing is presenting something and then having someone criticise your favourite part of the song. For example, there’s a section in one of my songs on the album, ‘Let Me Listen In On You’, that I really had to fight for. That song went from a much heavier thing, with this Middle Eastern kind of feel to the demo, and then we toned it down and made it a little more dreamy, kind of Cocteau Twins-y, but things were always getting cut out. There’s a part where I sing ‘Do you need a translator?’ which Chris and Ira wanted to cut, and I had to really fight to keep that in.

“It’s a constant struggle, always, but it wouldn’t be as successful if we weren’t fighting about it,” he adds. “The worst thing would be if you were like, ‘Yeah, just tell me what to play, I don’t care.’ We need that tension. Each one of the the three of us has their own area of expertise, and their own set of listening ears, and so everybody hears something slightly different. What you end up with is something that none of you could have come up with on your own. It’s the power of all working together, but it’s also insanely frustrating and a constant compromise.”

The album was recorded in upstate New York, with the trio supported in the studio by Daniel Neiman, Noah Hecht, Nathan and Luke Schram, Walter Fancourt, Jonathan Garin and Grady Owens, adding various elements such as modular synths, drums, horns, strings and backing vocals. Another departure from previous Yeasayer albums was that ‘Erotic Reruns’ was largely recorded live. Some of the album’s intentional rough edges can be attributed to that approach.

“With this album we tried not to just add overdubs onto demos, but to really start again from scratch, all of us sitting in a room and playing things live. When you’re doing stuff live, you have a lot of bleed. We’d eliminate some of that bleed from different mics and it just wouldn’t sound the same – we wanted to have that atmosphere with the glass falling over in the corner, or a piano that you’ve since decided not to use but it’s coming through on the recording of the guitar track. All of the songs really started in the form that you hear them on the album, as live recordings of the three of us playing together.”

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Anand Wilder and Chris Keating have very different approaches to lyric writing, and that’s immediately apparent on ‘Erotic Reruns’. Keating’s songs like ‘Crack A Smile’ and ’24-Hour Hateful Live!’ are direct assaults on Donald Trump’s emerging political legacy, while other tracks he contributed like ‘Fluttering In The Floodlights’ and ‘Ecstatic Baby’ are openly about what it’s like falling in love – those first moments where everything is framed like a scene from a Hollywood movie, where the excitement is at its highest and your head is permanently in the clouds.

Wilder’s songs, on the other hand, are neither as direct not as impressionistic. “I’m not very creative,” he says, with customary self-deprecation. “My lyrics are entirely personal. I’m an observer. I just steal things from people around me.”

Two of the four songs that Wilder contributed to the album were directly influenced by his family, with the record’s strong opening song, ‘People I Loved’, a song with a regretful tone set to relatively upbeat music, inspired by a conversation with his six year old daughter Uma after the passing of his grandfather. “The first line is, ‘What did you love about him?’, which was my daughter asking me that after my grandpa died. I’m trying to figure out the answer throughout the rest of the song.

“He was this guy who would always challenge your ideas, which was good because you’d have to figure out what you really believed so you could fight back,” reflects Wilder. “At the same time, it was frustrating for me, because he could slip in these little comments, especially about my profession, and he could just cut you down to size. That’s why there’s lines in that song like ‘Never missed a chance to make you feel small.’ It’s all autobiographical. It means I can look back on it and say, ‘Okay, at least I was documenting my life in a very public manner, and these were the feelings I was having in 2018.’ Usually those very authentic feelings do turn into good songs, because they’re simple statements that are very conversational, and hopefully people can relate to them.”

Another of Wilder’s songs, ‘Kiss You Tonight’, a brilliant piece of wry, glam-influenced pop placed near the middle of the album, wedged between some of the more overtly political pieces, arose out of a jam session with his daughter. “Uma’s version is way better than mine,” he laughs. “She came up with this line, ‘Even though I hate you I’ll kiss you tonight.’ And I was like, ‘Woah! Is that already a song?’ She says it was about these boys in class that were always trying to kiss her.”

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At the centre of that song is a humorous verse that seems to sum up many strained relationships, particularly when faced with the dilemma of deciding on somewhere to eat – ‘The only destination you can agree on has been closed for twenty years’ – but which is actually about Wilder’s mother. “She’s such a snob about food. My mom’s probably the best cook that I know, a true creative artist in the kitchen – not just making the typical Indian things very well, but applying that knowledge to create new things. But we can go to any restaurant in New York and we have to guess how long’s it gonna be before she says something like, ‘Well, it’s not as good as that place,’ or, ‘It’s not as good as the pad thai at the other place,’ And I’m like, ‘Mom, that place has been closed forever! You can’t compare it to that place!’”

‘Erotic Reruns’ was written in 2018 in the wake of Trump’s election, and that event looms large across the album, finding its way into Wilder’s songs in slightly more subtle ways than in Keating’s bitter, overtly political songs. “I’m a little less comfortable with the direct approach,” admits Wilder. “I tried being direct but it didn’t feel right, so mine are a little bit more surreal and absurd. One of mine, ‘Blue Skies Dandelions’, doesn’t come off as particularly political, but it was me voicing this sort of frustration with the whole Trump era. And then ‘People I Loved’ is about my grandpa on one level, but it’s also about mortality and the idea of fighting authoritarian tendencies within yourself. When someone like Donald Trump gets elected in America, you can get really angry or you can change the way you behave so you’re completely not like that person yourself.

“My other song on the album, ‘Let Me Listen In On You’, is just a general critique of surveillance. I was picturing Jeff Sessions as a schizophrenic hobo, one of those guys who’s in a position of power who rants and raves about immigration but is then stripped of all that power in a ‘Trading Places’ kind of way. How would he act? Would he still be on the street trying to convince people about the danger of immigration and the danger of marijuana?”

One of the things about Yeasayer that works so well is the interplay between Wilder and Keating and how complementary their lyrical and singing styles are. On this particular album, Keating was shooting for a more concise, poppy style compared to some of the more elaborate things he’s written before, although a scan through his lyrics reveals a command of complex language that’s certainly atypical for pop writing. “He’s definitely more of like a quick poet,” says Wilder. “He has this very different voice. I could never really pull off a song like ‘Fluttering In The Floodlights’ because I don’t have that kind of Michael Jackson-esque control over my voice – I have to look more toward the Tracy Chapman model of singing.”

‘Fluttering In The Floodlights’, the slick electronic pop track that closes out the album, was a rare example of a song that arose out of a jam session. “I had a sequence, this really good, funky groove that I’d written on a Korg Minilogue while we were upstate. It was just one of the jams that we were working on, and Chris was like, ‘I’m going to take this home,’ and cranked out some lyrics really, really quickly.”

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‘Erotic Reruns’ is an album that flows and hangs together well, considering its disparate personal, political, romantic and universal concerns and a delivery that can be both direct and oblique interchangeably, all of which is blended together in the form of nine precise, intelligently-executed songs. Wilder mentions that the band spent more time than usual on the sequencing of the tracks, starting and ending bold and strong, yet with a slightly more contemplative middle.

In the context of band’s back catalogue it stands out as containing some of the Yeasayer’s best material, the product of a newly-won independence and a return to the writing methods of their earliest songs. Nevertheless, Wilder isn’t expecting positive reviews from the critical press, or, for that matter, Dutch shirt-shedding fans prone to getting upset about changes in direction. “We get some hate in this band,” he says, a little perplexed. “I don’t know why. If I don’t like something, maybe I’ll make fun of it, but I don’t understand why you would want to spend so much time writing mean stuff.”

Yeasayer have learned to shoulder that bad press. It never knocks them off course, and it has certainly never made them want to conform to whatever box the music industry has lazily concluded they belong in. This is what Yeasayer do way, way better than most bands who somehow manage to attract unwarranted praise and accolades for similar levels of musical capriciousness. ‘Erotic Reruns’ is simply the latest in a series of deftly orchestrated stylistic switches in direction that have become the norm for this unit, and it undoubtedly won’t be their last. Those detractors are just going to have to deal with that.

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'Erotic Reruns' is out now.

Words: Mat Smith

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