Interview: Yeasayer

 
 

Yeasayer’s Ira Tuton Wolf talks to Stephen Connolly about musical direction and artistic credibility

Ever want to get into the whole experimental music vibe without ever having to actually listen to stuff that’s unpleasant or weird, while still getting the glowing gratification of having something that might be termed ‘progressive’ in your headphones? In other words, not having to do any of that tedious experimentation yourself? Yeasayer can help. They’re entirely willing to take on the task of experimentation, and will gladly summarise their findings in a four-and-a-half minute abstract for your perusal. And you both get to feel like the cool ones.

Genre classification, as ever in these troubled (not to mention pretentious) times, is a difficult, often thankless task. The group, however, around the time of the 2007 release of their debut album All Hour Cymbals, rather sportingly attempted to label their music as “Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel”, while reports from the studio around the time of recording promised their latest album to be “like a demented R&B record” and ‘‘like an Aaliyah album if you played it backwards and slowed it down.”

“I guess,” Ira Wolf Tuton, the bands Philadelphia-born bassist muses, “If I find myself sat next to a 75 year-old man on an aeroplane and he asks what we do I’ll say pop, perhaps experimental pop music, and I’d probably say the same if it were a 16-year-old guy. That’s the way I view it. We still adhere a lot to pop formats but try to produce and write it in a more creative and hopefully more informed way.”

Two years ago we saw the release of Yeasayer’s most famous album, Odd Blood , the merit of which remains the sole instance of universal agreement among the human race since the canal-based homicidal capers Coronation Street’s Richard Charles Hillman earned him a name for being a ‘dangerous bastard’. It earned them the curious honour of being the most-blogged artists of 2010. The inevitable weight of expectation to match Odd Blood’s impact with this year’s Fragrant World appears to be lightly borne though; Tuton is effacingly charming and laid back, contradicting the preconceived image of a neurotic asthmatic hunched over a stylophone one may have. He doesn’t even seem to care when the first thing he hears in our interview is his name pronounced utterly incorrectly: “Yeah, my parents probably care more than I do.”

Much has been written of late in connection with the group’s new and innovative stage design, contrived in collaboration with visual art software programmer and University of California Professor Casey Reas, it consists of a complex array of origami-like, crystalline sculptures onto which various pulsating visuals synced with the music are projected. “Implementing that was more complicated than anything we’ve done in the past-structurally, in terms of programming and in terms of honing the material to match the visuals. We were shipped the set that day before we began the tour, so we had one rehearsal…the first three weeks were trial by fire.”

Concerning the necessity of visuals to compliment the Yeasayer live experience, Tuton is under no illusions. “They’re pretty important for any show. People tend to overlook that and rely on the effect of four sweaty attractive guys. We’re four sweaty guys… I dunno if we’re attractive, so we’ve got to rely on something behind us. [Live music] is something so different from listening to an album; I don’t really understand not taking advantage of it.”

Attendees of the group’s shows over the past year and a half will have recognised many of the album’s new songs, as they evaded release until August. When asked why, you can almost hear him shake his head over the phone. “You’re talking to the wrong guy, that’s the industry for you, all the planning and stuff on their end. We wrote this album ready to go a while ago. If we have free time we’re generally working on music.”

Exposing as not-as-yet-inoculated audiences to unreleased material is situation that musicians avoid, for reasonably obvious reasons. Yeasayer fans however seem to be more accommodating. “We definitely appear to have a core fan base that follow us and have followed us, and that isn’t surprised if we make a left turn and go in a different direction, and that’s exciting.”

The August unveiling of the record attracted a spectrum of criticism from the press, ranging from enthusiastic to slanderous, the complaints in the many instances relating to the decision to curb the group’s trademark eccentric approach to production, and the darker lyrical content. Followers were equally undecided: “I think those won over by the last record were very confused when we brought out this one. They expected some of that same stylistic direction and it’s a polarising record. It’s a little strange to me, but at least it elicits a strong reaction.”

Many comments were also made about the arrangements on the album. Some remarked that the group had adopted a more minimalistic style and failed, while others blamed the density of the arrangements for weighing the songs down, at once proving that music journalists invariably are paid too much, and justifying the repetition of a question we asked Animal Collective in the previous edition: is it a struggle to keep things simple in a group like Yeasayer? “Always, certainly. But that is one of the most difficult things to pull off: creating something that is meaningful and substantial, and not regurgitory within a simplistic framework. It’s always one of those things to work towards.” Sadly our question about marrying experimentation with accessibility was left unanswered as Tuton’s dog suddenly intervenes and he shouts: “My dog’s gone crazy, holy shit!”

“At this stage,” he concludes when asked about the band’s incentive to proceed, “Three albums in, the goal is to progress individually in some way. You can always change direction from where you are going right now, and that isn’t an easy thing sometimes but such is life.”

Yeasayer play the Village on December 1st. Tickets are priced €25.

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