For those unfamiliar with Brooklyn, there exists an illusion of artists and musicians ruling the area. With bands like Yeasayer springing up, it’s no wonder, even though the artists themselves may still be at a loss to explain it.
“I don’t think people realise that there’s like 4 million people in Brooklyn – it’s like the most populated borough of the biggest city in America. We don’t live in Williamsburg – we’re not very cool. Or we’re so cool that we can’t even live there,” explains frontman Chris Keating.
“I get a little sick of the Brooklyn thing: ‘So what’s in the water in Brooklyn?,’ laments guitarist Anand Wilder.
We don’t live in Williamsburg – we’re not very cool.
Self described as ‘Middle Eastern Psych Pop Snap Gospel’, it can be difficult to capture this band’s sound, as they know full well. Most of the major blogs had no trouble however, drawing quick comparisons to Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel and the Talking Heads.
“There are things that I wish people would compare us to and they don’t,” says Wilder.
“Like you know, Mozart, Bach,” adds Keating.
With their mythic experimental rock, chock full of ritualistic elements, tribal sounds and chants, they’ve been accused of painting the apocalypse as a rosy picture.
Although Keating and Wilder originally hail from Baltimore, this outfit truly became Yeasayer in New York. Keating fled to the city after graduating from art school and convinced his friend and guitarist Wilder to join him in performing. As they aimed for a more professional outfit, friends Ira Wolf Tuton, bassist, and Luke Fasano, drummer, joined their live performances. As Tuton is quick to note during the interview (as he towel-dries and dresses) he ‘brings the professional’.
“The first few shows that we played, actually pretty much the first year that we were playing, we were playing a lot of songs that Chris and I had written for this musical I had wrote with a couple of friends about coal miners in Pennsylvania. Then we kinda whittled them out of our live set because it didn’t make sense,” says Wilder. (For the record, the musical has never actually been produced.)
Collectively the guys decided to write broader pop tunes. The results? Probably as broad as a pop tune can stretch. They described their first single 2080 as ‘otherworldly,’ ‘dystopian,’ and ‘hopeful’. Each member of the band contributes vocals for melodies and chants which are further layered with numerous instruments, such as the synths and the clarinet on 2080.
Getting involved in music was an all or nothing venture for these guys. As Wilder says of their new album All Hour Cymbals, ” We didn’t know if people were gonna like it. Maybe people were gonna laugh at us and say it was pretentious or melodramatic, but a lot of people seem to like it.”
It’s been only a few years since their initial performances, with South by Southwest (SXSW), last year, being one that, arguably, put them on the map. The Austin, Texas festival may not be a favourite of most unsigned bands, who go there with high hopes and often leave with less, but it can be a starting point. For Yeasayer, the exposure lit a small but persistent spark on various blogs.
“I think it was the beginning of ‘Oh there’s a band called Yeasayer that exists,’ but it wasn’t like because of that we could go to like Pittsburgh and play in front of people,” notes Tuton.
“When a band does play it who comes out of there and has success in the year after SXSW, people think oh they made it at SXSW! It’s like no they didn’t – no one does,” mutters Keating.
Despite many favorable reviews, the band still had to play to small crowds until the release of their first single 2080 finally gave them the attention they deserved. By the time of the 2007 CMJ (College Music Journal) festival, enough people had taken notice to turn up and support them live.
Something about a three minute pop song sometimes will just shut you down, make you feel adulated or excited or make you want to dance or cry…
“CMJ was way better. At that point there were blogs, people had already leaked the album, we had a single out. At SXSW we had nothing to sell. But by CMJ we were playing show after show. There was tons of press for our performances and it was kind of like this competition between all of the super buzz bands, and… I think we won,” Wilder jokes.
Recently in Austin for SXSW, Yeasayer is hopeful that the second round will produce more immediate results. “I think there’s an exciting thing going on in the music industry right now with the collapse of the old way and a birth of a new way. Some uncertainty makes it exciting to be a young person making music,” muses Keating.
Not that it all comes easy. When asked if they ever suffer from writer’s block, Keating and Wilder claim to be victims.
“That’s the struggle just thinking that you completely have no talent and can’t do anything. I think about it all the time. I’m racked with self-doubt. But you have to keep working at it and hope that you have something to offer someone,” says Wilder.
“You have a burst of inspiration and then it stops, adds Keating. “You have to come back to it and almost jackhammer through a wall every time. It’s in layers and you just keep building and building. Every night I’ll work until I have no idea what I’m doing anymore and think it’s terrible. Then I’ll come back to it a week later and think it was actually pretty good or that certain parts were not good but then I can keep working,” he says.
Why put themselves through such a process then? For Keating it seems to be a labour of love: “In terms of all of the arts that I’ve ever been interested in, music has the most emotional impact on me. Something about a three minute pop song sometimes will just shut you down, make you feel adulated or excited or make you want to dance or cry… and it’s just three minutes long. You don’t have to intellectualise it, but you can. It’s also accessible.”
Until creating music and serving to the masses losses its appeal, these guys pledge to continue, and explore new paths.
“I’d like to see us taking a musical project in the direction of theatre or doing soundtracks for movies, says Keating. “As soon as it stops being fun and interesting we’ll stop. I’ll go back to working in props. I’ll become a stockbroker.”
Another short tour in the UK will follow a more expansive line-up of US dates this spring. Yeasayer will also grace many a festival stage including Lollapalooza, Roskilde and Glastonbury.
They joke that Uganda may be their next stop, as one of their songs was used, without permission, in a famine relief ad staring actor Ryan Gosling.
“He’s our only hope,” Keating playfully cries.
All kidding aside, there’s plenty of hope for these guys. With their potent concoction of fierce tenacity in the face of doom and somber veneration for age-old musical elements, they’ve produced the soundtrack for the adventure seeker who keeps going despite the world crumbling around him.