Optimism and Confidence: Side One, Track One

(Here is an interview i did for T-Squat with the band Yeasayer a while back)

Yeasayer are quite simply one of the most exciting bands in the music industry today. With the benefit of self-producing their albums, and taking on all the lessons that come with it, the band have truly found their niche after years of experimentation. Quite aptly, that niche sits squarely in the experimental realm, and the group is truly not afraid to use whatever it takes to create a rhythm or a sound. Yet the band also possess that magic quality that many other groups yearn for, the ability to write catchy pop songs. The combination of this makes for some of the most tuneful, rhythmic and downright exhilarating music that has been heard in recent memory.

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In fact, for those unaware, the word ‘yeasayer’ literally means a person with an optimistic and confident outlook. If they were handing out awards for completely germane band names, I’m assuming Yeasayer would probably be tied with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Now having released their third album, Fragrant World sees the band maturing, exploring some more of the shadier parts of the Yeasayer universe. Song titles like Damaged Goods, No Bones and Demon Road may sound like working titles for a Wes Craven film, but Yeasayer still manages to inject these darker themes with their trademark optimism and joy, living up to their moniker.

Singer/Guitarist Anand Wilder presents as a man who is living up to the expectations he placed upon himself and his band members when naming one’s band after complete optimism. But Wilder spoke excitedly and about meeting heroes, dealing with fan backlash, their new album, a love of pop music and the very real possibility that David Bowie is god.

I guess we could all use a little ‘Yeasayer’ in our life…

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What have you been up to lately?

Not much, i’ve been sleeping all day. Had a pretty huge high last night playing with John Cale. We did this kind of very quick rehearsal leading up to this performance with John Cale where it was like John Cale a bunch of artists that he curated covering different Nico songs. It was pretty wild. I was like singing, not harmonies, he was singing an octave below me and he was looking at me for cues on how to do the phrasing and stuff and I was telling him to be more intuitive. And it was like ‘this guy founded The Velvet Underground and now I am on stage with him.’

So that’s what you’re night was like last night…

Yeh and it was one of the most nerve-racking performances because you basically run on stage, sing your song for three minutes and go off stage and you are done. You don’t have a whole set to go ‘oh well we fucked up that last song but we will get the next one’. I was definitely like heart racing beforehand, but then you know, it’s like ‘I am a professional musician, this is my job’.

Speaking of live sets, with so much complex instrumentation going into the production of your albums, do you guys ever have trouble translating the songs into a live performance, or do you mainly focus on adaptation?

We mostly just adapt the songs. It’s actually kind of interesting to work on these songs live because you actually end up reducing them to their key elements or figuring out holes that need to be filled. And we are also not purists in any way, so we are also totally game to use samples from the recording. But you know, for example we don’t need that exact snare sound, we can just use something else, or play a live drum or something. And for us the live show is about something that is more direct and immediate, while the record rewards multiple listens.

You guys are now relative veterans in the music industry with three albums. Do you feel this status gives you less or more creative freedom, having fully established a dedicated fan-base?

I think it gives us more creative freedom, but I think some of our fans would disagree (laughs). I think people have expectation of what their brand of Yeasayer is, but I think the true Yeasayer fan would be disappointed if we didn’t try and do something different for every song and every album. But I sometimes feel like, because with Odd Blood, because we had so many, not pop hits, but they were you know, on the indie mainstream. We might have reached out to more casual fans, because of a few songs like Ambling Alp or Madder Red or O.N.E or whatever, and now I think with Fragrant World we might have gained some new fans but we have emboldened the core group of fans that gets it, you know.

You guys I sense matured a little bit on Fragrant World and have kind of brought out some darker themes in your lyrics, or at least song titles. Fragrant world still sounds light, but I sense it is that it is a shade darker thematically.

Yeh I think it is a little bit darker. And I think it we messed with the inclusion of particular songs, we had like two other songs, the song Fragrant World and this song Don’t Come Close, they were on the record and they were just really sad and miserable. So we really made an effort to lighten it up and added Reagan’s Skeleton kind of last minute as a bit of an uplift you know. But if you take certain songs, like Demon Road or Folk Hero Shtick they are kind of heart-warming songs. And we have always played around with dark and light, even songs like 2080 and Wait for the Summer, they had uplifting instrumentation but the lyrics were pessimistic.

From Fragrant World, I particularly enjoyed Folk Hero Shtick, both the incredible production effects and the unique and even strangely meditative feel to the song. Do you guys enjoy finding different ways for people process music as songwriters?

Yeh totally, every song has a mission statement or a purpose you know. Like Reagan’s Skeleton you know, it’s like, ‘ ok this is a dance song’, this is a song to make people dance. Or with Folk Hero Shtick it’s like, this is more of like a trip out, weird, sonic landscape and it has a lot of changes, and we wanted to make it sound like a Beck song from Mellow Gold. A lot of bands out there have one mood, and they just write a bunch of songs around that same kind of mood. And for me that just gets boring, especially during live songs. So for us, if you see the show once, we want people to be like ‘oh I really like that song with the wowee guitar line’ and its like ‘oh of course that’s Demon Road‘ you know, there will be some kind of distinctive riff or distinctive lyric and that is the part that is so challenging about writing new songs, how can you make this song different and what is the mission statement of this song.

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It has been well publicized, but you guys now travel with a ‘crystalline stage environment’ designed by The Creator’s Project. It’s pretty amazing, I saw it when you guys played on Fallon. How important is the marriage between sound and visuals to you?

I think it is of the utmost importance. I think that is what pop music is, the marriage between sound and visuals. Every great song that I can think of, like when you think of early Beatles, like those weird black and white Ed Sullivan programs with those weird suits, to Cyndi Lauper in that crazy dress made out of newspaper shreddings. And that’s what separates pop music from dorky jazz guys with ponytails. There is like an aesthetic that goes into It that is very considered that is supposed to spark basic adolescence you know.

After listening to Yeasayer for quite a while, at first it actually took me by surprise that there is not just one singer, in fact if I am not mistaken you and Chris share vocal duties somewhat. How important is this vocal interplay in representing the lively, experimental and controlled chaotic nature of your sound?

I was actually just reading an article that said ‘I don’t like either of their voices very much’, but I was like ‘actually Yeasayer is the combination of all three of our voices, that’s the point.’ My voice has serious limitations, I can’t belt it out like Chris can at all, I think his voice is way more versatile than mine. but at the same time some of the more tentative songs I can maybe pull off a little bit better. But I rely on those two guys, who are amazing singers, to be like ‘if I can’t do it, they can come in’ or vice versa, it’s this real kind of co-operation, especially in a live setting. Because if you are at home in the studio you can just overdub your voice like a thousand times, but on stage you need to sing and play at the same time, it is kind of a mental workout.

While I have read that none of the members of Yeasayer are religious; your songs, your name, especially the song Longevity, bring to mind a lot of the themes and practices that build the foundations of many eastern religions, such as living in the present, states of consciousness and shared humanity. Is this intentional or is this even correct?

I dunno! I mean, all religions are really good fodder for thinking about existence and mortality you know? And those kind of metaphors and poems and fables and parables are really great for the context of a song…you know, you are not going to write a song about waking up and going to work or some boring shit. So it’s ok what is the statement I am going to make; being in love with you makes my brain go boioioiong, and it is like a religious experience or something. And I think a lot of pop music is creating sentiment and marrying words to a melody is a human, intangible thing, you could not get a computer to write a song that moves you to tears. If you get the right beautiful melody and the right lyrical sentiment then it can be a religious experience. I think pop music is religion for people who have trouble buying into organized religion or even the concept of god. And I think we even deify pop-stars, I think there is a religious impulse in all of mankind. If you don’t believe in god in a cloudy cloud then you probably believe that David Bowie is god.

You guys have a very energetic and frenetic live show. How do you keep up the energy when touring?

It is just a discipline. When I come home and I am off tour, I end up drinking a lot more, cos I’m like ‘oh I don’t have to preserve my voice every single night’. So I’m just at home drinking, and its funny because you would think that the rockstar lifestyle is like partying all night long, but its hard, for me at least, to maintain that. And Australia is hard because you are taking a plane every day, and you just get fatigued, and it is hard, because you want the show in Perth to be as good as the show in Melbourne.

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