Brooklyn’s Yeasayer returns this week with Fragrant World, the band’s third studio album and follow-up to 2010′s Odd Blood. Recently, Consequence of Sound’s Len Comaratta caught up with guitarist, keyboardist, and vocalist Anand Wilder to discuss the latest album, the online blogosphere, a hypothetical alley way fight with Animal Collective, and more.
You said, “On the first album, we were picking these grand themes, and on Odd Blood, we weren’t afraid to talk about feelings and what makes us sad.” So, what’s going on with your latest album?
Oh, I think it’s kind of all over the place; there’s some grand themes, there’s political songs, story songs, there’s some personal songs, love songs, some anxiety songs. It’s kind of just a mixed bag, I would say. I don’t know if there’s any kind of cohesion to the lyrical content. It’s all reflective of being at similar places in our lives.
Odd Blood was described as beginning almost as a jump-off from where All Hour Cymbals left off. There could be an argument that “Grizelda” [final track on Odd Blood] could work as an interesting intro to the opener, “Fingers Never Bleed” on Fragrant World.Is there a conscious link between albums two and three the way there was for albums 1 and 2?
You always think about your albums in terms of the start and the finish and then the next one, so yeah, I think it would be fair to say that. It’s not like one song was written after the other or anything like that. But I think maybe they’re kind of… the percussive elements are kind of similar in the final song of Odd Blood and “Fingers Never Bleed”.
Do you think that you keep that in mind when sequencing the album?
No, I think you want to keep each album a distinct thing and make sure that it works as a sequence when you’re listening to it, but those kind of links between the last album and the next are always convenient and nice to think about.
When reading about who the song “Grizelda” was actually written about, for some reason, probably because of that Oliver Stone movie, I kept picturing Selma Hayek.
I haven’t seen it. Is Savages based on a real story?
I don’t think it’s based on a real story, but the Selma Hayek character is obviously some really vicious drug lord, and so when I was reading about Grizelda and how there was no violence really in the Miami drug trade until she showed up, I thought to myself that it’d be interesting to see if Oliver Stone would call up Yeasayer to use your music.
I know. I’m still waiting for my call from him.
Some of the songs on this new album you’ve been playing for over a year. Why so long for the actual album?
The album’s been finished for about four or five, six months now, and it’s just the bureaucracy of a record label. If it was just up to the band, we’d probably just record a song and put it out, but there’s definitely an apparatus in place that says you have to give this much lead time and you need to give singles to radio stations within this much time. I wish I could say it was completely my decision, but it’s definitely a team effort.
I understand the hurdles and obstacles that groups have to go through in order to get their music out, but sometimes it just seems to be counterproductive.
Yeah, I mean, you never know because if the album came out three months ago versus now, we never have that kind of data to compare it. It’s not too long. Obviously, I wish that the album had been out before we were touring the last few weeks, because it’s always better to play songs to people that know the songs. It’s also interesting to be able to play songs for people that have never heard them before to see how they react and to see how immediate the songs are.
Do you think when you play the songs earlier like that, testing the audience’s reaction, that it causes you to rearrange the songs possibly for later performances?
Definitely, and you can often just feel the energy of the crowd, and you can say, “Ok, we need to rework this song; it’s not exactly working.” And sometimes you can use people’s knowledge of the album as kind of a crutch.
With each album, the global sounds so often mentioned when discussing your first record have seemed to take a lesser role in the overall architecture of your music. Is that the case, or are you just getting more creative with how you incorporate the sounds?
Yeah, I think we’re just getting more creative. The first album we were very consciously trying to take a lot of influences from West African music and Indian music, and then we wanted to get away from that, but we still use a lot of interesting scale modes to create riffs. That always lends a bit of an exotic flavor to some of the sounds. So, I don’t think we’re completely away from it because we’re not just making bar band music, or we’re not trying to ape the Ramones or some kind of Americana. There’s always, whenever you try to do something that’s not blues-based… it’s always going to have a bit of a foreign flavor to it.
You and Chris [Keating] are the principle lyricists of the band, but do all of you write the music?
Yeah, pretty much. Really, on whatever song, whoever is singing, it’s generally that person’s writing and composition as well, and the band produces the whole thing, a lot of replacement of sounds.
So, you guys are hands-on in the studio for the production of the album? Would you consider yourselves producers of the album?
Definitely. That’s what we’re doing. You write the songs, but you’re also producing them from the very beginning. An exciting aspect of making music is making all the sounds.
I found this quote on Le Blogotheque, which is the website that does the Take Away Show you guys participated in back in 2008. It said, “That evening, we talked Yeasayer into going wild, but they went even further: they dragged us. Yeasayer are fun.” Watching one of the videos, there seemed to be some reluctance and confusion by a couple of you regarding actually doing that performance. What can you tell me about that night?
With those kind of live, impromptu things, they can either go really well or they can be really sloppy. That was kind of a zeitgeist thing back in 2008; a lot of people were doing those. I didn’t really want us to do something that was just kind of thrown together. I really wanted to get to a piano…
Yeah, there’s a conversation with one of you about trying to find a piano.
Yeah, the quest to get to the piano. So, we did a couple things on the way, and we finally got a piano. It had a real kind of story to it; it had a real narrative. They were very good at editing, so they could make the night seem a lot more romantic, maybe, than it actually was.
Watching the first video, it’s almost like they grabbed you right after a show.
Yeah, and that’s always a stressful thing when you’re, “Oh, god, we have to do this.” I can’t even imagine doing that now.
I think it was Chris who actually said that he had heard that this was a good thing and that people watch this and that’s why you were willing to do it and if you were going to do it, you were going to do it right. I thought that was interesting. But as you said, the creative editing definitely made the whole trek on the metro and the arrival at the apartment seem like one seamless flow.
Right. And it was an interesting one, too, because I think that a lot of other Blogotheques are just like one song, and there’s like four songs, I think.
Each video was you doing two songs.
We actually even took some of the inspiration from that. When we actually recorded the song “Tightrope”, we were like, “Let’s do that piano, some of those piano chords that I played on the Blogotheque thing.” Yeah, I actually got some inspiration from that.
Would you ever do that again?
The Blogotheque thing?
Yeah. Now that you know what to expect.
Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t know if the songs call for it or if we want to kind of keep that as a sacred kind of thing. We did an acoustic version of “O.N.E.” on a trip to an Australian radio station.
An acoustic version of “O.N.E.”?
Yeah… like a country version of “O.N.E.”
Interesting. I’ve read that you don’t even consider that song a dance song, but it has kind of a dance feel to it. Do you not consider it a dance song because of the contents of it?
No, I would say that’s a dance song. Sure! Yeah, that’s a dance song. It could be a country song; it could be whatever. But yeah, we definitely did more a kind of country-fried version on the “Triple J”, which you could check out. That’s probably the closest thing we did to a stripped-down performance since the Blogotheque.
I’ve read that you guys self-describe your music as “Middle Eastern-psych-pop-snap-gospel.” I understand all of that except… what is snap? Every time I hear “snap,” you’re insulting somebody.
Yeah. [Laughs.] I don’t know. That label was just kind of choosing all these different, random styles just to kind of show that we mash these things together. I have no idea what snap is either
It’s one thing when you’re reading constantly that Yeasayer was the most blogged about band in 2010 blah blah blah. I found this interview where you all were talking to The Guardian, and you were like, yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re the most blogged about band, but we really don’t give a shit. Somebody could like us, but they could like a lot of things. They can not like us; they can not like a lot of things. But you did give credit, though, saying you thought that the blogs did help boost your career. In an honest opinion, did the blogs just speed things up? You probably would have “made it” without the blogs, don’t you think?
I don’t know; I have no idea. I’m not someone who reads a lot of blogs, so I don’t really know how great the sphere of influence is with the blogs compared to Rolling Stone magazine or whatever. I know that Pitchfork has so many readers, Stereogum, whatever. But I think in this kind of contemporary, fragmented society where every teenager has his own five favorite blogs, you can never discount the importance of all these blogs. I have no idea. I know that our career probably wouldn’t have flourished without the internet simply because being an independently released band you just don’t get the same amount of radio play as if you were on Interscope or something like that. So, yeah, for us, posting a song on a blog has been just as important, or it’s been the replacement for getting radio play. For me, when I was 12 years old, I found out about everything just by listening to radio stations in Baltimore. WHFS.
I was going to say HFS, which is now a Spanish-speaking station.
I don’t know how 12-year-olds get their music today.
It’s one of those things. I’m obviously older; I grew up in the ’80s, and I feel that I was so much more informed with what was going on before the Internet. And now that I have the Internet and I have all of this access, there’s just so much coming at me that I just don’t know how to filter it to find what I want.
Right. And I think that that’s kind of a beautiful thing because you’re not just having some radio programmer telling you exactly that you should be listening to this song by the Breeders, this song by Beck, or whatever it was like in the ’90s. I think it’s more fragmented, and you’re also able to independently come across a song by Frank Ocean on the same page as a song by Elite Gymnastics or something. And you can kind of honestly just listen to something and say, “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” It’s not “I like that, but why is it on that radio station?” or whatever the old debate is. So, it kind of forces you to have to think independently and be proactive in searching out new music. I like the old way of just having a favorite radio station I can put it on and know exactly that it’s going to play some good music that I’m going to like. But I don’t know if that exists anymore.
Even college radio is stifled compared to what it once was. In this day and age of rapid turnover, it seems one of the best ways to ensure survival and perhaps even longevity is to actually do things slowly with focus and purpose. Which you can say Yeasayer certainly does. Chris even said something about how R.E.M. is a model for you guys with the slow boil and how the band progressed slowly in the early ’80s before blowing up.
I can easily see Yeasayer doing that because when you listen to the first album and all the critics are loving you, you could have easily ridden that to a blockbuster success if you had wanted to.
Ridden the first album to blockbuster…?
Well, I mean, after the fact. After everyone was loving you, you could have easily ridden that hype into a totally different realm, but you seemed to not do that. You wanted to still do things your own way.
Yeah, I don’t know what we would have done. I guess we could have just repeated the formula. But I don’t know that repeating the formula of the first record would have given us more success. I think we got pretty much everything we had hoped for except for maybe a few BBC/Radio 1 singles.
There’s a consistency between the three albums, but there’s an evolution too.
Totally, I think that it would be really boring if we were doing the same thing over and over again. That’s the challenge – to keep moving forward.
I was talking with Serj Tankian recently, and he said the same thing; artists that do the same thing over and over again, there’s no point.
Definitely. And I think there are a lot of artists who do the same thing over and over again and have a lot of success with that.
That’s probably why they do it over and over again. They get blinded by the success?
Right. Or it’s just that’s their thing that they do… over and over again. And they don’t know how to do anything else or don’t want to do anything. There’s also the flip side of that where someone is just constantly following trends in a superficial pandering way, which is also kind of ugly. So, you hope to be able to kind of take inspiration from current trends but also be able to apply your own unique stamp to it.
You certainly don’t want to be derivative. Chris said once that the hardest thing about writing a song is getting the initial idea. Is there a routine you go through when working on a song or album?
Right now I’m trying to write a song. For me the hardest thing is just sitting in front of the computer and getting started. After that, it just comes; you just have to put the work in. I don’t think there’s necessarily a set routine. It excites me to be able to approach songs in a different manner. This one is going to start with a guitar riff; this next one is going to start with this weird sound of pouring cornflakes into a bowl or something. It’s good to keep yourself on your toes and find different ways of being creative.
So, the coverage of Yeasayer invariably draws comparisons to fellow Brooklynites and Maryland natives, Animal Collective. I’m sure that you are both friends and have a mutual respect. Let’s be honest. In a back alley, do you think you could take them?
In a fight?! [Laughs.]
I kept seeing stuff like Yeasayer’s first album was getting praised as album of the year the way Animal Collective’s was, and there is a sonic comparison. There’s four members in that band, four members in your band. You guys are both from New York and from Maryland. But honestly, in a fight, I think you guys can take them.
Yeah, I don’t know. I think Ira would probably just break it up. He’s really into breaking up fights. I have no idea. Those guys seem so mellow.
[Laughs.] I was talking with the general manager of my radio station [WUVT-FM] and mentioned that question. He said that you would respond that Animal Collective was too pacifist to fight.
Yeah, too pacifist. I would be more into playing them in some kind of sport, like basketball or something.
Have you seen Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? When they have the band versus the DJs. You can have two bands rivaling each other at a concert.
I’m always looking forward to someone organizing indie rock bands playing basketball or some kind of sport against each other, because I think it would be really funny.
Who would be your fifth member on a basketball team?
Probably just our manager unless we can get Reggie Miller.