INTERVIEW

In a brave new world, this Brooklyn four aren’t afraid in the slightest

Photography by Mic Wernej

In a brave new world, this Brooklyn four aren’t afraid in the slightest

There was a time when the future was seen as a utopia where everything was shiny, people travelled in flying cars and everybody regularly conversed by videophone. By and large, people looked forward to it. Nowadays, however, the future has never been less fashionable. We’re all afraid of the future, because we have no idea what lies in store for us all, but we’re pretty sure it’s gonna be bad. But it doesn’t have to be. We’re told every day that the music industry is about to go the way of the Dodo; that any second all of us music-lovers are going to be unplugged from the Matrix and reborn naked, bald and slimy into a horrible dystopian future where EMI can’t throw 80 million quid at Robbie Williams. Like I said, it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad…

Yeasayer could well be the most futuristic sounding band you will hear right now. The problem with most bands that try to sound futuristic is that more often than not, they just end up sounding like the 80s. Yeasayer go about things a whole different way: embracing technology, utilising classic musicianship and taking inspiration from the rhythms of the world, and using them all to create something exhilaratingly, electrifyingly new. Their vocal duties are shared – often through gospel harmonies or chanting, with no ‘lead singer’ per se – whilst Middle Eastern, African and South American rhythms underpin the multi-layered instrumentation and subtle use of electronics and sampling. They sound quite unlike anything else you’ve ever heard – and you don’t get much more futuristic than that.

A Brooklyn four-piece – whose album, ‘All Hour Cymbals’, could quite easily be the best release of the last 12 months – Yeasayer have been together for 3 years. Its founding members, Chris and Anan, have been friends since childhood, and have played in bands together since their teens. Mostly, these bands were influenced by The Cars or Pavement, although on one occasion – seemingly at odds with the forward-thinking music they purvey now – they were part of a barbershop quartet. “”We did, for a laugh, have a barbershop quartet””, remembers Chris. “”We competed in a competition and, er, failed! We were 15 and it was actually a way to get credit for a class””. Though their efforts failed on that occasion, it was when Chris and Anan returned from college and formed Yeasayer that they found their two remaining members (Anan’s cousin Ira on bass and Luke on drums), a style that would bring them acclaim and, in this uncertain future for the music industry, success on their own terms.

Those terms are being defined by liberation from the pressures of signing to big labels and selling thousands of records: “”I think the major label’s fucked themselves,”” says Chris. “”I don’t really think the Internet has screwed over musicians at all. I think if anything it’s helping small musicians get to a good place. It’s hard times for the material business: selling magazines, selling records, selling anything. But out of that I think it’ll grow something new. I’m excited about the next 10 years. A lot of friends in bands are making some of the best music that’s been made in the past ten years right now, and they’re getting some recognition. They’re not selling tons of records and they’re not making money. And they probably won’t, and we probably won’t! But I think being ‘successful’ has changed, from selling 100,000 records to being able to support yourself. For us to get to Europe and for bands from here to get to the States: That’s success now””.

Pointing to bands such as Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, MGMT and Grizzly Bear, Chris highlights what a rich and varied musical landscape there is among these Pitchfork-endorsed, US indie bands, enjoying this new definition of musical success. But nearly all of these innovative, futuristic bands are from North America – why isn’t this inventiveness as apparent in the UK’s indie bands? For Chris, it’s ironically because it’s easier for UK bands to get on the radio and sign big deals: “”What I think it is, is that you guys still have a pretty good culture of small bands getting on the radio and getting exposure. Indie bands can move up pretty quickly, whereas in the States radio is shut off to indie bands. It’s cock-rock, it’s right-wing talk shows or hip hop, pop and Britney Spears. And it’s 24-7. It’s not like at 8 o’clock you have XFM! So as a result of that there hasn’t been that experimental side that grew out of that here. You guys have a lot of that middle-of-road stuff, but in a way it’s awesome – I love coming over here and doing sessions. You don’t get any radio in America!””

So, for all the general sense of foreboding surrounding the music business, maybe it won’t be the disaster we all fear. At least for those of us who don’t work at the major labels. Even this very magazine you’re holding right now is testament to how good things actually are, given that there’s so much exciting new leftfield music for us to cover. And when you’ve got bands like Yeasayer, supporting themselves with the modest yet meaningful rewards of their unfettered creativity, you’ve got to be at least a little bit excited about tomorrow.

——–

Originally published in issue 1 (vol. 2) of Loud And Quiet. May 2008

« Previous Interview
Next Interview »