YEASAYER – Interview

Der fragmentarische Sound zwischen psychedelisch und poppig, getragen von musikalischen Zitaten aus allen Genres und Zeiten, war schon immer Yeasayers Ding. Auf ihrem vierten Album ‘Amen & Goodbye‘ bringen Chris Keating, Ira Wolf Tuton und Anand Wilder diese hybride Mischung nochmals auf eine neue Ebene – musikalisch, bildlich und textlich. Für letztere war Sänger Chris Keating mitverantwortlich und auch wenn er behauptet, seine Fähigkeit bestünde vor allem darin, 35 Wörter für einen Song zusammen zu kriegen: Genau darin ist er ein Meister. Ein Meister der Metaphern und Verweise, sei es auf religiöser oder wissenschaftlicher Ebene – das neue Album ‘Amen & Goodbye’ strotzt nur so davon. An einem verschneiten Nachmittag im Prenzlauer Berg sprachen wir mit ihm über die Inspirationen für diese Texte. Zwar gestand er, dass er am liebsten über die Visuals des Albums redet und es gab dank der Zusammenarbeit mit dem Bildhauer David Altmejd auch viel über die Gemeinsamkeiten zwischen dessen Kunst und Yeasayers Musik zu sagen – am Ende ließ er uns aber auch an vielen anderem teilhaben. Zum Beispiel an seinem Sichtweise auf religiösen Fanatismus, den Gedanken zu der Ästhetik von Tape Recordings, Unfälle mit glücklichem Ausgang oder die Gründe für den fatalistisch anmutenden Albumtitel.

Yeasayer - Interview

When listening to your new album – especially with regard to the lyrics, looking at the cover or reading your thoughts about it, one gets easily swamped with all the references and metaphors. It seems as if they capture some kind of struggle between science and religion is that right?
Probably – or maybe not a struggle, more like a progression or a dialogue between these opposing ideologies. I feel like so much of the news we read about in the United States – and probably in other countries it’s the same – there is this clash of culture, for example, when you’re thinking about religious extremism on any side. You know, in our country we have this: You can’t run for president without talking about Jesus. But I don’t get the sense that anyone really believes in it – or maybe many people do, I don’t know. I’m just interested in that discussion. I’m not religious.

But still – you seem to be very firm with all these religious references that are used in your songs…
My parents weren’t religious, I wasn’t raised with any religion, but I’m in interested in it. Because it’s something that really matters to a lot of people. For example, when a lot of people have this thing – it’s like…I don’t know, maybe it’s a bad example (laughs), but I was going to say “When people love baseball” but I don’t understand why, or people love soccer or football and I don’t get it – but I try to understand it, you know. Then I’m like: “Why do you like that? Why are you so obsessed?” I try to read about it and have some kind of interest. Because you can’t escape it, it’s like it’s everywhere. There are people who believe so strongly that they’re willing to die or kill. Or they’re willing to tell other people what they can or can’t do. It’s just inescapable and that is fascinating to me. And scary, but I think there’s also some probably really beautiful aspects of it, but to me it’s a question I don’t understand.

It’s similar with the song ‘I Am Chemistry’: You’re naming lots of toxic chemical elements. You really got to know about their functions to sing about them. Did you have to take out your old schoolbooks and look up the periodic table for that song?
You know, when I’m writing songs like that, I just take notes on stuff. I could be reading something in a magazine and I’d be like “Oh that’s interesting!” and I’ll take a note. I pick up little things here and there. I might be reading a book with a reference to a religious text and I might not be familiar with it, but then I go and write that down.

So you’re the main songwriter?

Well, I mean I write like half of the songs. I wrote “I am chemistry” particularly.
And if you’re a songwriter, if it’s your major profession, it’s like you’re a writer or a poet – you’re just constantly thinking of good phrases, right? You’re like: “These words might be interesting – write those down – get back to it later”. You don’t have to know that much! I’m not a scholar! (laughs) I couldn’t write a book. I can write like 35 words for a song.

And you seem to have certain main topics in your songs. If you listen to the songs on ‘Amen & Goodbye’ you get the impression that the main topic is a mixture of science, religion – and love. Do you also sense this tendency? Or which other thematically directions stand out for you?
Yeah, it’s kind of like the classic trappings of pop-song-writing. But the main reference is philosophy. And there are quotes from different humanists and aphorists that I like. For example there’s a quote by Jonathan Swift. But in general there’s a strong tendency towards references like birth and death and how religion solves these kinds of things for some people.

As in the album cover which shows a very detailed collage with countless references. What would you say is the main connection between your music and this imagery?
Well, I started seeing David’s artwork like ten years ago in galleries and I just thought that it visually looked like music that I wanted and I was trying to make. So I just kept seeing things that he was doing and I noticed that he is doing sculpturally what I would want to do with a song. Like deconstructing characters, building them back up, sort of alienate landscapes, unidentifiable future civilizations or historical civilizations, different references to characters – you know, you get the ability to construct your own narratives, which I think is very important when listening to music or looking at art. You can make up your own story, there’s no answer. So – I got in touch with him and we were in agreement about some ideas. He agreed to do the artwork and it seemed like it was going to work perfectly – the imagery with the music we were making. And I played him some music and he started making these sculptures and I gave him a list of characters that I thought would be interesting to include in the cover and he just ran with it!

Did he make up any more?

Yeah! (laughs) In fact he misinterpreted some! He’s not a native English-speaker, he’s French-Canadian, so I think some of the things he was like “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” so he went for something else!

So we have your music, the album cover, the videos like the teaser-snippets or the music video for ‘I Am Chemistry’ – all these elements seem to melt into a synthesis of different art forms and embrace the classicism of the album as a total artwork. Is there any more to come? You might be performing the choreography of the ‘I am chemistry’-video on tour?
I don’t know! (laughs) I really like it though – it’s funny. My friend who made the video, he does stop-motion-animation and he has this cool technique. And we basically thought that in the video he should incorporate the sculptures from the album cover. It just starts to build a world through that. And we allowed him the freedom to build his world on top of the world that we were trying to build, you know. And it’s like every single person adds their own perspective. So he had this idea of actually being on another planet and of someone who keeps giving birth over and over again to a demented, mutated version of them.

So we’ve talked about lyrics, topics and visual aspects – but not about music. So…

I like the visuals better! I like talking about visuals!

Okay, so that is your favorite subject of discussion?
Well, that’s what I studied for. I went to school for visual arts. I didn’t study music. I started doing music pretty much at school. I played a little in high school bands, you know, like punk bands.

What kind of art did you do during your studies?
Mainly I was into painting, print making and design. And film – I ended up doing a film major, so I made films for my last couple years at school.

Well, how do we get from film making to tape recordings? Because I read that you recorded your album onto tape. And that it has a less digital character than your previous albums. So about that: Tape recording is one thing, but your sound doesn’t actually seem to be less electronically.
No, the tape recording was more like an aesthetic starting point because that just makes it a different way of work – it has nothing to do with sound. It’s more like: you’re recording eight different channels at once to a tape machine. And you’re layering them all at once; you can’t really go back and make changes. So the idea was to capture it that way and then that got kind of messed up or…we just decided that we would take those recordings and we’ll sample them as if they were someone else’s band.

So you wouldn’t say its character is less digital with regard to the used instruments, for example?

Well I mean, we used analogue instruments and processed them…

But you did that before, didn’t you?
Yeah! (laughs) But you know – I’m always looking for new sounds. I always wanted to have something that sounds interesting and cool. Because I like new, interesting electronic music, but I also like classics – like songs from the 1960s and 70s, I love David Bowie records, I love The Beatles and I like Sly & the Family stone… And I like that emotion – sometimes contemporary electronic music can be devoid of feeling or emotion for me, because it’s all about the sound and not about expressing an individual. So I try to mix those worlds.

By saying the recording process got kind of “messed up”, you just hinted at that incident when some of your tape recordings got wet through a storm: How unfortunate was that after all?
It wasn’t even that unfortunate. I mean, when you make art, when you make paintings – accidents are good. Sometimes accidents turn out to be the best things. Sometimes.

So in the end, that incident produced a more digital nature again, right? Or did you plan so sample your recordings all along?
It’s a hybrid of everything, you know. For example, we would like to do beats on a drum machine. But then the guy who produced our album – Joey Waronker – he is an amazing drummer and he is really good at copying digital drum machine sounds. He always used chopsticks or pieces of metal or of plastic, like weird crazy shit, and he would make it sound like drum machines.

And how long did these parts of the recording process take all together?

We spent like six weeks or two months on this farm upstate and then we spent two months in the studio, and then took four months break to listen to stuff, and then went back to the studio… I don’t know – back and forth like that. And well, I think we made a good album, something that sounds unique. So we needed some time to do that.

So before saying “Goodbye”, maybe you can explain why you named your album ‘Amen & Goodbye’? Is it meant to sound like closing words?
Yeah, why not? I think you feel every album is your last album. We might not have anything else to say. I might not have anything else I want to do after this, you know – to write about. Maybe I run out of ideas, maybe I won’t have anything interesting to say. So maybe that’s one reason for the album title, but also there’s that religious iconography and subtext. One song is dedicated to a friend who died, so this title kind of wrapped it up in a way.

Well, and it’s also an interesting combination – that religious word and a really daily phrase.

Yes! It could have been like ‘Amen & See you later’ or ‘Amen & Ciao’! (laughs)

Okay then – Ciao and thank you very much!