Yeasayer’s leader Chris Keating holds a copy of a well-known daily newspaper in his hands and scrunches his face up. Inside there are stories about how mothers who choose not to breastfeed their babies will become obese, how white wine will give us all arthritis and how terrorists planned to destroy one UK city using a Renault Laguna and a packet of screws from B&Q. Some more: an evil machine at Google is monitoring every tap on your iPhone, texting at the dinner table may give your sister a brain tumour and apples, despite what the doctor says, will give you cancer.
You and I know the majority of this – maybe put that apple down – is poppycock. But we’re all guilty of swallowing it to some extent. The title of Yeasayer’s forthcoming third album, ‘Fragrant World’, may bring to mind thoughts of freshly-baked baguettes and sweet perfume, but ask the Brooklyn trio what bubbles beneath and they’ll tell you it’s a record that’s riddled with themes of “paranoia”, “fear-mongering” and “propaganda”. The stuff Chris Keating has between his fingers.
“I’m paranoid of the people who’re actually influenced by that stuff,” says Keating, putting the paper to one side and sinking into a shabby sofa in the bar at London’s Lexington venue. His two bandmates, bassist Ira Wolf-Tuton and guitarist Anand Wilder, are watching as he begins to speak faster, getting more fidgety and angry.
“They’re just trying to sell papers and it seems that somehow they convince people of this shit – that’s the scary part. It doesn’t surprise me that journalists would go to any extremes to get a story, to get a headline which sells papers, to increase advertising revenue.”
I look down at my shoes and cross off the next question on my notepad.
It seems weird that this is the same band who emerged with their debut album five years ago. With their straggly hair, castaway waistcoats and wispy beards they seemed to walk out from a bewitched universe looking like tribal-elders styled by Rolf Harris. They were mysterious, other-worldly. Their lyrics, shimmering on top of their magical brand of pop-infused world music, spoke of futures, earth and sunrises. The band before us today – less hair, still loud shirts – are more concerned with the problems of the present. More specifically the lies they feel are fed to the US public by the current right wing government opposition.
“The recent health care debacle in the United States is utter nonsense,” says Keating, reaching for an example to illustrate his point. “Somehow the right wing conservative party convinced the majority of people – middle class people – that they’re better off with an inferior healthcare system. That’s been particularly frustrating.” He says Republicans have battered President Obama’s plans for change with “hyperbolic language” and “psychotic nonsense”.
“It’s not that all these guys get together in a room and plan to fuck over poor people,” he seethes. “They just went to the same private school, go to the same clubs, smoke the same cigars, go to the same places and pretty much think similarly. I don’t think there is a unified conspiracy. You’re just dealing with the same white rich elitists that have always been in power in America. It’s still crazy.”
“It’s all to do with money,” he continues. “The more money you pump into something they can distort anything.”
It sounds like Keating’s spent the last two years watching from his “sheltered, bohemian, leftist empire of Brooklyn”, getting increasingly irked by the world around him. “There’s always a lot more going on than meets the eye,” he says sounding like Michael Moore. “It’s just chaos behind the scenes”.
The point is, Yeasayer have changed. This time around they’re more fired up, more uptight, more…well…passionate.
Far from here, at Gary’s Electric Studio in Brooklyn, was where the threesome recorded ‘Fragrant World’. It was a very different experience to that of recording their second album, ‘Odd Blood’ – they could walk from home for a start. For ‘Odd Blood’ they’d embedded themselves in the spiritual home of hippiedom, Woodstock, where they’d mixed with the local acid casualties and wizards frozen in time.
“There’s an appeal to staying at home, having your normal life and waking up in your own bed,” says Wilder. “You didn’t have to uproot your life.”
They went about recording in workmanlike fashion. Ten till eight, six days a week. “There was a much more defined schedule,” says Wolf-Tuton. “It was as conventional as our lifestyle can be”.
The result, of course, isn’t a conventional record. Yeasayer don’t do conventional.
In amongst the mellotrons, affections, omnispheres, and a bunch of other instruments which sound made-up but actually aren’t, there was a pin-board. It was a montage of magazine cuttings, scrawled phrases, symbols, photos and progress checks. On there were attached certain key words which had captured their imagination.
Not many bands return with a first single (‘Henrietta’) that’s about the exploitation of human DNA by international pharmaceutical companies. Keating says it was the “jump-off point” for lots of the album’s “concepts”. It’s a story of big business using exploitation, deception and messing with life’s fundamental rights.
No wonder, then, that the mistrust of huge money-making corporations has made their way into their daily business as a band. ‘Odd Blood’ was written-up by many as being the trio’s stab at the pop mainstream. Indeed it led them to play on daytime Radio 1 and festival bills with pop’s biggest manufactured acts. It left them feeling satisfied but also empty.
“The success and failures were similar with the last album,” says Keating, once again assuming the role of spokesperson. “Playing to bigger audiences is a good thing but for us it can seem a little impersonal. Getting on the radio is cool, and that is a success, but you have to do some weird stuff to enter into that world that we’re not that comfortable with.”
“Like editing your songs down to fit some arbitrary radio format. Playing some radio festivals or things like that aren’t things you’d want to go to. We had a little glimpse of that world. It doesn’t sound very fun,” explains Keating.
“In America, there’s no chance we’d get played on the real mainstream radio but in Europe there’s more of a radio market. You’re playing an old school game it seems like. I don’t see why it exists. With all the access to information, a new generation of listening populous who can get things from the Internet direct from the band, what do you need all this faff for?”
One of Chris’s favourite comics is American Louis CK. According to the singer, he’s one of the first comedians to cut out corporations like Live Nation and Ticketmaster by selling tickets to his gigs direct to people through his website. That way fans aren’t saddled with £7.50 transaction fees or £1.50 e-ticket printouts.
“It’s a real revolution because there’s all these intermediaries who just get involved who’ve built up over the last 50 years just to take money from fans and take money from the band,” he says. “The service they provide is fucking bullshit.”
It’s a big part of the reason why the day we speak to Yeasayer they’re playing the first of two small shows at the 200-capacity club in north London. The second show they announced with 18 hours notice, and saw people queue up first-come-first-served to pay with cash (no booking fee).
“I would be totally comfortable if, at some point, we could just book all of our own stuff,” says Keating. “You don’t make as much money but it’s fun to get little glimpses of reality.”
“We purposely try to avoid, with our own work, the major label system and it’s worked out pretty well. When you get a glimpse of that big pop world, that big R&B world, that big dance world, there are assistants and middlemen and all these people.”
Ira jumps in: “More things are going to consolidate, in terms of using outside people. That’s more of a realistic future within the climate. But if we took control of all this other shit, we wouldn’t be able to make music and play shows.”
Watching the band reassemble ‘Fragrant World’ on stage the following night is a reminder of just how special Yeasayer are, their sound based on inventive production, bustling with new ideas and fresh grooves. They said before working on new material this time they were listening to a lot of UK electronic artists, like Gold Panda. When you look around and see the pop mainstream plundering the leftfield (if there still is a such a thing) for ideas it’s surprising Yeasayer haven’t been sucked in. When we see Bon Iver on Kanye West’s album, Diplo producing Usher’s latest track or Skream writing Kelis’ new single, it’s a lucrative world they could be members of.
“Some stuff comes up,” says Keating, cagily. “Some of it’s cool, some of it’s not. A lot of it is like, ‘Oh, that might be a lot of time that we put into that project when we can actually work on our own stuff’.”
Ira joins in: “It starts to make you think, ‘Is this worth it? Down the road what is this going to be? Is this going to be a fun collaboration or is this a way for this person not to do anything?’.”
It’s true: when you craft your songs as meticulously as Yeasayer the temptation may not be there to flog them out and dilute a sound they’ve made all their own.
“We messed around with a dude, a big R&B guy who had a big single,” admits Keating. “It’s kind of strange. We’re not really musicians for hire, particularly. It would be cool if someone went, ‘Guys, I want you to produce this whole album’. It’s more like, ‘Do you want come in and mess around with some ideas? Have some meetings? It just seems a bit vague’.”
“If Kanye West wanted for us to work on one of his songs, well, then we would probably make time,” concedes Keating. “If Kanye wants to sample one of our songs, go ahead! We definitely would. We’re a big fan of all that stuff, but I don’t want to seek it out. If Kanye calls up or Jay-Z wants us to work on something that sounds cool.”
“At any given time there’s four or five people who write all the songs that are on the radio. It’s a surreal idea,” booms Tuton-Wolf, probably in a nod to the generic cycle of hits produced for Rihanna, Nicki Minaj et al. “Yeah no shit, they’re all about drinking alcohol in the morning. Obviously one person wrote those songs.”
But like the daily news and the information they see being fed to people, Yeasayer have their reservations about getting too close. Our meeting ends with businesslike handshakes and cold pleasantries. Yeasayer may not trust journalists, they may not trust governments, they may not trust the mainstream world of pop music, but it’s just them being protective. If you had ideas as original as theirs you’d be shielding them too.