For all the 140 character talk about music being a subjective force, some bands are remarkably good at their job. Instead of descending into the what-the-hell-is-this-exactly doldrums, these bands just exclusively release solid material, almost if they have the process down to an exact science. Even more shocking is the fact that these bands are somehow able to maintain a semblance of quality and keep their music original, never relying on external tastemakers or stale recipes to produce past results. For what hardly feels like a decade, Yeasayer has been one of those bands. Just a few weeks removed from officially releasing Amen & Goodbye, many loyal fans have no problem using 140 characters or other means to say it is the best offering in their universally esteemed catalogue.
Such species of band is a rare breed, and even rarer are the myriad sounds the band repeatedly mold into dynamic sonic moments. When the opportunity presents itself, it’s always nice to pick these sorts of people's’ brains. Living by the most badass string of epithets possible in music, multi-instrumentalist and lead singer (duties he shares with bandmate Chris Keating) Anand Wilder recently caught up with DiS to talk about the new record, his songwriting process, Phife Dawg, and other subjects creative, smart, and musically talented people care about.
How much attention do you pay to criticism, or reviews in particular?
Honestly, more than I would like to. I always tell myself I shouldn’t read reviews, but I usually end up looking at them in the end. Even I know you can’t pay attention to all or even most of them, but it’s tempting to know what people are saying about you. I can read 50 really positive reviews then one slightly negative one that ruins my day makes me regret reading any at all.
It’s interesting how you guys are able to create such dynamic and variegated music when both you and Chris share songwriting credits. Is that ever a source of contention, and what is your songwriting process like?
No, it’s a deeply collaborative process and we never get in a squabbles about what artistic direction we want to take. As far as the songwriting process I think Chris is a little quicker to change his lyrics around. I’ll usually write the song and change lyrics around later after we put the melody together, but it ends up being different for every song.
Songs like “Half Asleep” or “Prophecy Gun” for instance were instrumentals that Ira sent me that I cut up and turned into a proper song. “Dead Sea Scrolls” is Chris’ baby. “I Am Chemistry” is something Chris had the bulk of already imagined, and I wrote the middle part and guitar line which he expanded upon. “Divine Simulacrum” is something I made after reading Solaris in my science book club, I just came up with the phrase.
Compared past Yeasayer material, Amen & Goodbye seems to be an amalgam of your past work in a sense.
Yeah, I would definitely say so. Right now we are at a great a place creatively. We’re not afraid of mixing it up a little, not scared of using acoustic guitars and taking chances that might not always be popular with some people. I feel that there’s a lot of clarity on the album. The goal is to always make it legible in a sense, no matter how expansive the sound is. For me, the instrumentals are that lull that pulls you in. I can picture some fans getting high and tripping, but I can’t expect everyone to hear things in the same way., which is one of the great things about it.
Speaking of taking chances, every album seems to be markedly different than the last. Is that a conscious effort on your part?
I think it’s a little bit of both a natural progression and a conscious effort, actually. We definitely try not to repeat ourselves, for better or for worse. It seems like critics throughout the ages pretend to really like bold creativity and experimentation, but really, I’ve found that everyone secretly wants you do the same thing over and over again.
For lack of a better word, to me Amen & Goodbye sounds a lot more “pop” than Fragrant World. It reminds me more of All Hour Cymbals if I had to compare it.
I don’t know, I feel like if you took the songs from our last album that people thought were poppy, like “Demon Road,” “Longevity,” and “Henrietta” for instance, I think the ratio is somewhat similar. Maybe part of it is people coming so soon off of Odd Blood and bringing their own specific expectations, Odd Blood being such a drastic shift from saccharine indie pop. In that context it seems less poppy. Really it’s still the same verse-chorus-verse structure. We like trying to make lyrics that are hummable and lyrics that are memorable as well. Some people are calling “I Am Chemistry” our first pop song in a long time which is really surprising to me.It's built on this semi-complicated 6-part structure.
It seems like a lot of people first came to know you by way of “Ambling Alp,” do you feel that that’s your “Satisfaction?”
It’s different for us because the Rolling Stones have many more songs than that. For us on a much smaller scale, we have 5 or 6 songs that have truly permeated the culture, not culture at large but our little weirdo subculture, looping in different fans that like our different phases. We’re lucky that it’s not people just waiting for us to play “Somebody I Used To Know.” Obviously I prefer to have a bunch of songs that people want to hear.
Already it seems like “Silly Me” from Amen & Goodbye is on it’s way to becoming a fan favorite.
Really? I hadn’t noticed, that’s great to hear. It’s always great if we’re reaching new people in addition to our loyal and long-term supporters. That was a song that in its initial demo wasn’t even in the form that’s in now. It had that vibe of catchy and poppy and tricky over time thing that made me excited, it’s deceptively simple in its way.
Not to bring up your sore spot again, but what type of feedback are you receiving?
A lot of the reviews I’ve seen so far are people hating on the interludes. I think I tweeted “what’s wrong with people these days.” People are complaining that they are unnecessary. That’s something I really don’t understand. Listening to music to begin with is not a necessary thing to do period. I think if we hadn’t given song titles to them wouldn’t feel cheated or whatever. It’s like come on you guys. I’m all for people having their own opinion but that one strikes me as really odd.
Your songs never lack in symbols and themes, which are often times religious even though you guys are not religious. Do you guys set out to accomplish a certain feel or theme, or does it happen organically?
I would say that all music is spiritual music in a sense. Music can move your spirit in many different ways depending on your mindstate at the time and the mood you're in, and there aren’t too many experiences you can have in this world that is quite like being exposed for the first time to music that makes you feel a certain way. Sometimes you’re very moved by music, and sometimes it’s just in the background. I guess for me I have gotten my human religious spirit in art, music, and film. I think it’s that kind of emotion and ecstasy and power to makes you do things like dance and cry that makes art so worthwhile.
With such thematically dense content overall, I imagine there are times when even you are surprised to hear your material after the recording process and extract meaning that you didn’t necessarily intended at the time.
It’s definitely a great experience. It’s always nice to have some distance from something, especially in the context of an album. When I’m in the middle of the recording process I’m not always consciously aware of everything that happens, so sometimes when I step away a lot of things are illuminated that weren't before, like, “Oh this actually has some cohesion with other things that are happening on the album.” In my opinion that’s really the beauty of poetry, I don’t think Shakespeare intended all the different meanings in his works that he is credited for. When you step back you can very quickly make a lot of those connections that were hidden previously. I also love it when fans have totally different but equally interesting interpretations than I do.
Speaking of interpretations, there always seems to be someone that always thinks that lyrics in your songs are drug references, which has got to be pretty irritating. But instead of dismissing this line of thinking altogether, one of the things I’ve always admired about you guys is you all don’t go around denouncing or necessarily promoting them either drugs.
I’m not like a drug pusher, but I do think that certain psychedelic drugs enhance your opinion of sound and color. If you want to enhance your experience of that I think it’s a perfect brain experimentation. I’ve had experiences where I’m high and where I’ve gotten emotional, or have had this sudden impulse to move and dance. I took my daughter to a show the other day and she had her headphones on, we took them off for 2 seconds, and she couldn’t not move. She was shaking and could only stand the volume for about 30 seconds.
There is this visceral reaction to the energy of loud music, and that is the loudest music she had ever heard. The reason I get so disappointed from seeing classical music, aside from it seems kind of elitist at times, is that it never gets really loud. We went to see the Nutcracker, we were close but not in front of the orchestra, and we could barely hear the “loud” moments, we were so disappointed. You watch these dances and you naturally want to dance, but everyone is just sitting there. It’s just total nonsense, coming out of this traditional Victorian period. I love classical music but it can be very stuffy.
Frequently when people talk about Yeasayer you all are lumped together with bands like MGMT or Neon Indian for example. How do you feel about being “attached” to other bands in this way?
I don’t mind at all, especially since we are big fans of most all of those bands that we typically get slotted with. We came out in this era that was defined in 2008 where it seemed like Brooklyn indie music was taking over. I’ve noticed that it changes from time to time what bands critics decide to compare us to though. We used to get compared to Dirty Projectors a lot, I don’t think people say that anymore. Tame Impala opened for us once and just rose right up. We hardly get compared to them anymore either. I’d say it’s a combination of geography and time when it comes down to it.
Do you feel like artists have a lot more freedom in the digital age?
I think there is artistic freedom in that you can put something out on soundcloud, and if you have the right circle of friends and if some blogger hypes up your track, you can emerge from the unknown more easily than you could 5 or 6 years ago. At the same time there is this devaluing of the product. Sometimes people just want to listen to one or two songs rather than the entire album, it’s a tricky thing. We’re living in an age where people are making things very easy for our consumer society. It’s like a Wal-Martification of our society, why would you pay for something you can stream or download for free?
Since you guys are going on tour in May, what are some concerts you’d love to attend yourself?
I would have loved to see David Bowie. I agree with most people who say there was this weird subconscious collective opinion that he was going to live forever, and I never got around to it. I did get to see Bob Dylan though, and I once played right before Paul McCartney at Outside Lands. Without a doubt one of the greatest moments of my life being such a huge Beatles band. Earth, Wind, and Fire are going on tour next month so I’d love to see them at some point if I can.
I imagine you were heavily influenced by Bowie.
No doubt. An incredible life and an incredible human being. It still doesn’t seem real in a way to be honest. I was also pretty sad about Phife Dawg passing away as well. A Tribe Called Quest is one of the first hip hop groups or artists I first started listening to. His flow was absolutely amazing, and his lyrics were so simple and funny and varied. I’m really bummed out that he’s no longer with us.
Do you have any post-Amen & Goodbye projects already lined up?
I do have a side project called Seltzer Boys with Austin Fisher of the band Suckers, Steve Marion of Delicate Steve, as well as producer Al Carlson, who also engineered Fragrant World I might add. We released a few simple songs that always have guitar solos and awesome basslines. I’ve found that it is very difficult to sit down and complete a project with recording and touring with Yeasayer. Right now Yeasayer is my primary focus, with family being next. It really should be the other way around (laughs). Hopefully that day will come up eventually.
Amen & Goodbye is out now.