There will be blood
Battling through the rolling clatter of luggage trolleys and chitter-chatter of receptionists; fighting through the vanilla pop piped through hotel lobby speakers, a question hangs heavy in the air:
“Are you familiar with the American dream?”
It’s an ideal touted far beyond Atlantic shores, and as guitarist Anand Wilder does his best to both lounge and swivel his head, owl-like, to meet my now unsure gaze, I realise it’s a lofty question that demands an even grander answer.
“Erm…yeah?” is the best I can muster. Luckily for me the initial question was neither overly serious nor rhetorical.
Thankfully it’s also an interview heavy on the former as Chris, Ira and Anand set me in whirlwind motion. A hive of animated conversation, jokes, personal digs and considered opinion, the trio have the relaxed demeanour of a band immensely enjoying the time they spend together. Following the initial pleasantries where bassist Ira takes a relatively monosyllabic lead, it quickly becomes apparent that as one speaks, the other two, just out of eyeline and earshot, listen intently, readying to take up the conversational baton or actively look to sabotage the others’ answer. It’s a refreshing alternative from the apathy that typically comes with a regimented day of repetitive promo, and it’s a positive merry-go-round that doesn’t wane from the outset.
“We’re here just for you…” Chris beams, fiddling with the mic as he looks to set it up on the silver tea pot sat in the middle of the table.
“We’re actually over here doing an edit for some of the songs for the radio,” Anand picks up “so it’s much easier just to be here in person.”
“We’re just philanderers, travelling around; tying up some loose ends…at least that answer was more than one sentence long!” Chris, still beaming, grins at Ira.
Yeasayer’s jovial mood is understandable. Armed with a mooching European itinerary and a loose mission statement to tidy up the odd track, the band, this time at least, aren’t bound by press days, promotion around an album or even a handful of live dates. There’s early next year for all of that, and with the buzz building around their brilliant sophomore album, ‘Odd Blood’, it seems they’ve also been bitten by the Brookyln buzz bug that’s kept us enthralled for most of 2009. With debut album ‘All Hour Cymbals’ causing a fair few ripples on its release a little under two years ago, their extensive touring schedule, and with a whole lotta blog love buoying the release, Yeasayer represent a further music win for the borough as another of its muso glitterati – hot on the heels of Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear et al. – garners both the blog and broadsheet inches they deserve.
A: “I think that’s the kind of music that people who write about music like, but it’s not just the music writers… you guys are probably tired of all the… the pop idea of what indie music is. Like the shit that’s being played at the Barfly with all these 19 year old kids thinking, ‘we’re going to be the next indie band!’ You guys aren’t all idiots, right? So you’ve got to be appreciative of something that’s a little bit different and hasn’t been shoved down your throat since The Strokes came out.”
I: “I think it’s more to do with the technology that’s taking over.”
A: “The blogs, man!”
I: “Yeah, it’s the people who are on the cutting edge… or people like Pitchfork… I can remember coming across Pitchfork in 2003 and not really knowing what it was but knowing that I liked the look of it. I think it’s just the nature of the people who are on the fringes; the outliers kind of discover it first.”
C: “I think all the major labels are having trouble pushing their pop starlets, and for whatever reason aren’t doing it so you have your Grizzly Bear’s, your Animal Collectives, your TV on the Radios… they’re kinda coming through and doing their weird little thing.”
A: “All those bands have been around for a while, and it’s not like Pitchfork or whoever are going to ditch those bands after supporting them for so many years. More people are reading those sites and having a Times article legitimises it even more.”
Where some are naturally reluctant to bite their tongue, as hawk-eyed, bat-eared PR’s circle to nip the broaching of remotely controversial (interesting?) subject in the bud, Yeasayer are resoundingly forthright. Having waived the ‘new band’ tag, the trio are keen to avoid the gimme questions that come with the rising star territory.
“You aren’t going to ask us about the name, are you?” Chris enquiries. No, there are far more important issues on Yeasayer’s radar, the decline of substantial music journalism and mainstream aesthetics, is predominantly one of them.
I: “Is Pitchfork bigger than the NME over here?”
L&Q: Probably more so for the muso crowd, yeah.
C: “I can see that, but it’s like how many records did the guy from American Idol sell?”
I: “Half a million?”
C: “12 million.”
C: “The NME just started writing shorter and shorter articles and I think lost credibility.”
I: “…more and more pop, p-p-p-p-p-p-pop, more cute guys on the cover, more cute girls on the cover…”
A: “Perhaps Pitchfork has the capabilities because it’s web based, but it has articles the NME doesn’t print, articles Rolling Stone doesn’t print.”
C: “All NME have ever done is talk about what we dress like. That’s not why you’re reading a music magazine but maybe I’m wrong.”
A: “It’s the same as Rolling Stone in America – all these kind of institutions we really bought into when we were 12/13 years old, and then to cope with the Internet, instead of getting edgier, they went corporate.”
C: “Rolling Stone’s like reading news week!”
I: “I have the NME I bought from Camden in the 80’s and it’s huge…”
C: “…there was some great stuff, some really weird shit in there, now it’s like Rolling Stone has Jonas Brothers on the front cover. Or Miley Cyrus…”
I: “Yeah, it’s gone like a trashy tabloid and all these random articles…”
C: “…ones that don’t have any real content, but I can go read any trashy publication for that shit. It’s sad, but being in the States, perhaps it’s done a little better, like some magazines would put Wayne Coyne on the front cover, but there still aren’t enough ‘big’ indie bands on the front covers or anything.”
With that sense of disillusionment, you’d perhaps expect the band to give the media, writers and reviews equally short shrift, but for all the frustration directed at certain factions of the music press, the band still holds a respect and appreciation for those behind the written/spoken word who treat their music right. Or wrong. Just as long as they do it properly.
“Do I read the reviews?” Chris pauses. “Begrudgingly, yeah. I just brush it off. If it’s a good one I’m like ‘they don’t know what they’re talking about’ or if they didn’t like it, ‘they don’t know what they’re talking about.’ I don’t really care what any reviewer thinks to be honest.”
I: “Why would they be so cruel?!”
A: “We’re most excited when friends of ours that are musicians come up after a show and say, ‘ I don’t know about that one track but that weird one you guys did, that was fucking awesome’ and you’re like ‘Yes! You get it!’ I think you look for that with critics too, I mean these guys are specialists and they have an air of expertise.”
I: “I’m interested in what other people’s opinions are in what we’re doing. I want to see how this appeals to people or how it doesn’t. I know what I like and what the three of us put together. It’s not going to make me go sit in my bedroom and bite my nails and slit my wrists if it’s not constructive.”
C: “The NME thing really bothers me because they don’t seem to do their research. I mean, if you’re going to misquote a lyric, you can avoid that by doing your research. If you’re going to knock, do it right. If you really investigate it and want to trash it, fine, but don’t say ‘his moustache looks so stupid when he sings.’”
A: “I actually wrote a complimentary email to a guy who wrote a really negative review of us because it was really well written. I mean, he trashed it, but he’d taken the time to research his shit and it was done constructively.”
C: “We’re working in the same world.”
A: “Everyone’s a critic… and everyone’s a musician too, right?”
Not that Yeasayer should be overly concerned about the building reaction to ‘Odd Blood’, because to our ears, it’s already set an ingenious marker for 2010. Having stuck to their firm ideal putting out an alternative to the indie fodder we’re typically subjected to, it’s an album vibrant and alive with skewed pop sensibilities, the off-beat world music rhythms that could even justify the numerous, lazy Paul Simon comparisons (white boys doing African music, right?) and Yeasayer’s unerring determination to avoid the identikit. ‘Ambling Alp’ carries all the brass stabs and soaring falsettos that helped make TV on the Radio so vital, there’s the itchy junkyard jitterbugging of ‘Rome’ that’d have Mystery Jets green with envy, and ‘O.N.E’, which towers over the whole album in the shape of (believe it or not) Cut Copy, its skittering calypso rhythm, gyrating Prince melodies and tumbling breakdowns already pencilling it in as the single of 2010. And yes, I’m aware we’re not even there yet. Who knows, it might even make sense of their self-coined tag ‘middle-eastern-psych-pop-snap-gospel’ that’s become a staple in anything Yeasayer-related; from features to Wikipedia entries, to, probably, HMV record sections.
C: “It was a running joke when we wrote it down.”
A: “It was apt at the time and conveyed the idea we were experimenting with a lot of different styles of music and using a middle eastern scale and working with gospel and all these ambient sounds…”
I: “… and no one ever picks up on the word ‘snap’ which was Jermaine Dupri’s word for his style of Atlanta hip hop. I don’t care about the labels of anything, I don’t know what rock ‘n’ roll means anymore, I don’t know what any of it means anymore.”
A: “I’d rather be that than electro pop”
C: “I always get pretty mad looking at the indie section. Look at all the major labels – it’s the exact opposite! I take that stuff pretty seriously, the whole independent record culture that evolved and you have Rough Trade and those kind of labels and the stuff going on the West Coast in America. Those labels started out of love and the songs came out of love.”
A: “It’s human nature to put things into categories and little boxes. Society and segregation or apartheid type of stuff. This type of music must only be played on this radio station at a certain time and be in this section of the store. I think we all have that in our brains. I can remember listening to Arthur Russell for the first time and thinking what is this? Do I like it? I don’t know. Is this disco? I think indie means guitar, drums…”
I: “…whiny vocal…”
A: “…white boys singing.”
C: “I always find genres funny. House. I’m trying to picture what that is. And then I hear deep house and it’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard. Or Miami freestyle…”
I: “…New Orleans bounce…”
L &Q: “…Acid jazz, tech house…”
C: “…Felix Da Housecat…”
I: “…house parties, house of Solomon… I could go on all day.”
In a climate where the behemoths of the industry are bleating about illegal downloads, advance album leaks and file-sharing, and watching their corporate grip gradually sliding off the monopoly, splits – both bitter and amicable – have become increasingly common place over the last year. It would be easy to blame ‘the way things are’ or that the industry’s reaction to the download curve ball came too late, but it’s hard to remember that while all labels are looking to make money, they’re not all hungry Limburger’s looking to exploit a band’s endeavour in the short term.
C: “I’d be fine with a major label if I knew they weren’t forcing stuff down our throat or if they didn’t stop us making a weird video. I just don’t want them to be involved where they don’t need to be.”
I: “The fact is we’re control freaks. Chris does pretty much all of the artwork and we have our own way. That’s why we signed with the labels we signed with… it’s helped us facilitate the way we do things.”
C: “Like we showed the artwork [to Mute] and they were like ‘that’s pretty ugly’ but let us run with it anyway. And that’s to their credit, because the only problems we had was that our initial idea was too expensive for us to do. They said it was kind of goofy and kind of ugly and I was like ‘yeah.’”
I: “but it’s also like whether you agree with us or not, we want to get your opinion. It’s not like we want to live in this little bubble and it’s also not like they’re sat in the studio either.”
C: “If people start hating us and the label turns against us, well, right now, we’re in the honeymoon period. We’re 10 dates in and we’re fucking, it’s awesome, and you know, 20 dates in, it’s the best time, we’re going to go on vacation, I’m buying everything…69ing for the first time…”
I: “…I think so far it’s just expanded opportunities for us. Like now we’re working on the radio edit, and I guess there might be some purist band that would refuse to do that, and we all love radio, well some version of radio, we all grew up with it, but with the last album we didn’t even have that opportunity.”
It’s worth noting that Yeasayer, like a lot of the NY bands championed over the last few years, haven’t seen their star rapidly ascent. While it’s not an archaic expectation for bands to pay their dues to toll roads and toilet venues, it’s one that, for a short time at least, became increasingly redundant as most working bands’ nightmares became an A & R wet dream, and the boom/bust and instant gratification of music in the UK, at least, shifted to those bands fishing for that big fat record deal and Topman endorsement.
A: “Ask how many people in America have heard of the majority of the UK indie bands. No one gives a shit about The Kooks in America…even if we don’t keep growing and we get less popular, I just want to be in a position to keep doing this. All my favourite musicians have had their peaks and their lows.”
C: “I think there are certain bands over here that are always going to be big here. If I was to look back over the history of all my favourite bands from the UK that were huge in America, it would take me forever. It just so happens there’s a weird climate going on right now of 18 year old kids who can barely play guitar, can’t write songs, have nothing to say, but are elevated by their major labels or NME or Q or whoever and 25 bands later they’re all in the gutter. They’re not doing anything that interesting. They’re writing songs for 14/15 year old girls, and 14/15 year old girls become 17/18 year old girls by the time the next albums comes out and are now like ‘Oooh, Lady Gaga.’”
The two year gap between Yeasayer’s debut and forthcoming second album might be an ice age in majors grand album rollouts, but it also underlines the kind of relationship that should burgeon between a band and a label looking out for their best interests.
C: “When we got the record, there was no hoopla around the first one, it just kinda came out and it was just tour tour tour tour and we made it to Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the States, playing with bigger bands, in bigger venues, and at the same time negotiating with labels, we worked so hard that it gave us a better overall understanding of how it works and what would be the right move for us.”
I: “I think we had the luxury of being managed well and having the support that enabled us to tour. We might have been scooped up by some major label but I think it’s better if someone comes in early and gets you for almost nothing, there’s more of an investment…”
C: “…and you look at that advance money… that’s a loan. The record label’s a bank and they’re trying to use you to make money. You’re actually losing money on your record. We played a lot of shows and the third time we played Cleveland; we actually played to more than four people!”
So as venues, labels and management change, surely the ambition should run concurrently? Bigger venues, bigger crowds, growing fanbase…you would think expectations would inflate with the level of success; aspirations would become more ostentatious; the band more demanding…
C: “I thought it’d be cool if we sold 5000 copies.”
A: “I didn’t think we’d even sell 5000, but I think it’d be cool to get it out as much as the first one.”
C: “The idea is obviously to play big shows but I see a certain point where I don’t want to play in front of a crowd of more than, I don’t know, 3000 people because I don’t need to play to anymore. But it’s always; if you play a bigger room, better sound, reach more people.”
A: “Would we ever headline a stadium show?
C: “Which stadium?”
I: “I’d rather hold onto my morals.”
C: “We’re still playing to maybe 1000 people.”
A: If we sold the same amount as our last album, that’d be great. I don’t even know why anyone should buy the record, you could just download it, I want you to buy the record… please buy the record!”
I: “I like CDs…”
C: “…I like looking at things, the things I’ve bought on iTunes or illegally downloaded aren’t the same, plus I hate having to wait, and trying five different torrents to get, say, The Ray Charles Discography, is frustrating for anybody. I’m joking about that by the way.”
In a year where landfill indie was tempered by some truly memorable albums; majors started to feel the recessionary pinch; a sense of sovereignty was given back to bands/musos/fans/users, there are some bands whose sole intention isn’t to fill stadiums or shift millions of units or sell out. Ok, so they’re not exactly raging against the machine, more giving it a rigorous rap on the knuckles, but for these acts, the ethos has remained remarkably intact. “I just think it’s really funny when people see us play live and they’re like ‘man, you’re so much better than last time’” Ira starts, “and my reaction is always ‘I fucking hope so’. I mean, you saw us two years ago, so if you can’t say that, what the fuck have I been doing with my life. I’m working for it, man; we’re working really fucking hard on these records”
Are Yeasayer familiar with the American dream?
A: “We’re livin’ it,”
C: “I can see myself wearing a bandana”
A: “On the front cover of NME.”
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