CultureCritic talks to Yeasayer's Ira Tuton Wolf...
What informed the sound of the new album and how do you see your sound progressing in the near future?
I think one of the most important things for us as we move forward as a band and continue to write together and produce records is not to look back. Our first record will always be there as a testament to that time and that style. But the last thing on earth I want to do is remake it. There are a lot of other influences that we have that we want to touch on. And there are lot of different challenges that we want to embrace. That said, you want to make a cohesive record, so there are only so many bases you can cover on each project. A lot of people hear a debut record and that is what they will define a band to be, which is understandable. But we're trying to shift constantly and we're trying to challenge ourselves. And we have to play this music for some time after we record it. I don't want to play the same stuff; I want to have some varied materials. As much as to have the crowd get into it, we also have to enjoy it and be able to psychologically have a lasting career.
Whereas the last album featured choral vocals throughout, Odd Blood has far more of a lead vocal-orientated feel. Was this something you deliberately set out to do?
Yes, it was definitely intentional. We kind of hammered the choral tradition home on our first record and we were referencing a lot of things, like Missa Luba and Sacred Harp singers and different kinds of choral vocal groups. On the new one we're engaging ourselves in far more of a traditional pop formula with the vocals up front. And at times they're really up front. But that was our intention - to not only have the vocals gain a lot more clarity, but also to gain a lot more clarity in the percussion and the drumming and a lot of the other tones that were going on. We also wanted to play with different kinds of compression, gain a lot of separation and also be a lot more concise with our ideas. I feel like Ambling Alp made sense as a single because it's kind of a bridge from the old material to the new material. There are some elements in it that translate between the two records - more so than other songs. We get that out there and out of the way, then there's the rest of the record to get to.
Talking more specifically about things that inspired you between the two records: you've spoken previously about how you'd never listened to Peter Gabriel's albums, but have since people started making reference to him in relation to your first album. Is there a chicken-and-egg scenario at play where your new record is being influenced by music that people said your last one sounded like?
There's definitely that, I think there's always that. There has to be an element of keeping your ears open to anything new that you haven't necessarily explored before. That said, I grew up listening to the Peter Gabriel hits. Everyone knows Sledgehammer, you know? But, I also know Robert Palmer and I also know Chaka Khan and I also know Wu-Tang and I also know Mavado. While recording the record we were bouncing ideas off of each other. If we had a track up on the computer or in a session and one of us said, ‘that's like Ain't Nobody by Chaka Khan!', we'd bring up Chaka Khan and listen to the song and think about what we were subconsciously referencing and why that song works. And it's like ‘Oh, that's kinda like that Steve Winwood song!' It's like ‘Yeah, those drums shouldn't be like that, they should be more like a Serani song.' We're constantly showing each other things that we share collectively. For instance, Chris brought up Front 242 and we were like, ‘hey, that's cool.' What we're doing is taking material from the past 40 or 50 decades and recreating it and ripping it off in our own way to try and make something new.
In contemporary pop and indie, it's not necessarily a prerequisite that you need to be able to sing in a conventional way. How was it for Yeasayer, being a group that sings properly? Have you ever felt yourselves struggling to reach what you want to achieve, or did it all come easily to you?
I think you work with what you have, and you learn how to do that. I think all three of us bring different talents to the table. In a lot of ways I feel like what you're saying about vocal styling and vocal limitations applies to any band. A lot of the time it's not necessarily a question of limitations, but [more to do with] stylistic choice. Vocal stylings have changed decade to decade, and that's not because our anatomy has changed, that's because what's cool has changed. When Kurt Cobain started singing, Def Leppard wasn't cool any more; when Belle & Sebastian started singing, everybody wanted to sound like them. I think we're just trying to embrace our instrument while trying to be honest and definitely trying to hone individuality.
The video for Ambling Alp is really fantastic. Where did you film it?
There's a desert, the Black Sand Desert, about four hours East of LA. It's a little known place - not only to you, but it's also little known to a lot of people in America and in LA. It has an otherworldly character. The video was done by Radical Friend, this couple in LA who are really just starting off. They're real young and have a pretty impressive, really creative résumé. It was a pretty enjoyable experience to see them reinterpret something that we already had pretty firm definitions of in our own minds. It is largely their vision of how they heard the song.
Speaking of imagery specifically, you have a really unique aesthetic that seems to bring together ancient mythological and futuristic imagery. Are there shared cultural obsessions that you have within the group?
I think we are all pretty big movie buffs, whether it's classic or contemporary. There are a lot of futurist ideas being bounced around. That's pretty much it.
How do you feel like you fit in with the Brooklyn music scene? Do you feel you have a particular kinship with any other bands?
Ironically, most of the friends that we've made with other Brooklyn groups we've made on the road at festivals and touring. And then we get back to New York and friendships develop. Then, come festival season and while touring, it's nice when you're thousands of miles from home and run into the same people. You can reference the same things and talk about your mutual friends and the restaurants you like to go to. No matter what, there has to be some kind of level of effect that we all have on one another, no matter how subconscious it is. Pretty much all my friends now are in bands and a lot of them are professional. They put out records that I listen to and I develop opinions about their music. On our first record we were kind of in a bubble, and we didn't really know anybody. We were just doing our own thing. I think the nature of Brooklyn and one of the reasons most people move here is that you have tonnes of people that are being creative. But it's both supportive and competitive. Certain people thrive in that kind of environment, and those people become friends with one another. It's our home.
Are there any records from the past year that you've particularly enjoyed?
I like the Dirty Projectors record, I like the Suckers EP and I like the Animal Collective record Merriweather Post Pavillion - that's a very good record.
You have a concert coming up at Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. How did that come about, and what's the most unusual concert you've ever played?
I don't really know how that came about, I'm somewhat separated from that process. The reason why we work with the booking agent that we do is because he understands the kind of shows that we want to play and we made it very clear to him that we don't always want to play the next large, smoky bar where the priority for the club is just to sell alcohol. We want to play in places where we can really create a unique environment, make something and entertain people. We've always jumped at the opportunity to play non-traditional venues, whether it worked or didn't. We played the Guggenheim and it didn't work because that place isn't made for live music. But it was a surreal experience and for me, that's a good thing. I remember when we played in this weird warehouse gallery in the middle of nowhere in Pittsburgh when nobody had heard of us. We played in front of, I think, five people - the sound guy and the band we were touring with. But I think in the Natural History Museum we will be playing in the diorama room. Surrounded by water buffalo.
Is there a particular response you hope to provoke in the audience at a Yeasayer concert? It's pretty ecstatic sounding stuff.
I just like it when people come to shows because they want to be taken over and they want to enjoy themselves. And they want to go to a different place for a little bit. There are certain towns that you go to around the world where it seems like the only reason people go to shows is to cross their arms and silently judge for an hour and a half. You can do that at home, why buy a ticket to do that? It's not something that I get bitter about, but we are trying to have a collective experience [with the audience] and it's really about enjoyment. I want to embrace the crowd and I want to be embraced by the crowd. That's pretty much it.
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