Yeasayer needs dancers (but not in a stripper way)
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In the recently released music video for "O.N.E.," Brooklyn-based trio Yeasayer performs behind a chain link fence in a warehouse full of pretty young things writhing on a dance floor, draped in curtains of lasers and fake fog—a neon-colored aesthetic brimming with the kind of futuristic creative energy Lady Gaga would trade her bloody hair bow for. It’s a suitable leap forward for a group whose visibility has been steadily on the rise since 2007's splashy debut All Hour Cymbals and an attention-getting performance at that year's SXSW festival. In the years since, singer Chris Keating, guitarist Anand Wilder, bassist Ira Wolf Tuton, and drummer Ahmed Gallab have moved out of playing Brooklyn warehouses like the one pictured in the video to headlining an international tour behind their well-received second full-length, Odd Blood, which trades the swampy prog wanderings of Cymbals for pure synth-pop bliss. Before Yeasayer's Wednesday show at the Majestic Theatre, Tuton talked to The A.V. Club about the sudden need for more backup dancers, the “X factor” of Uganda, and his love for Patrick Swayze's Road House.
The A.V. Club: Having been on the road while the album came out, have you felt a perceptible difference in audience reception?
Ira Wolf Tuton: You never know really what to expect, and people tell you where your band is without having any kind of reference point. Being in a band is all a matter of perspective depending on who's looking at it from what angle: You're at a different stage in your career, a different level of success, a different level of importance. For us, we live pretty insular lives. We're not reading our press; we're not really talking about ourselves. We're pretty much just putting our heads together and trying to make albums and letting the labels and all the other institutions deal with the politics. But we've also been a little bit surprised how quickly people have seemed to know this album when we've been playing shows and having people sing along to songs. I don't know if that's because of the leaking early on, or if they're just really easy songs to sing along to. [Laughs.]
AVC: What was the recording process like?
IWT: We blocked off three months to rent a house upstate, in an area right around Woodstock. There was no idea, though, of "we have to go to Woodstock" as a place. The reason so many musicians go to Woodstock is that it's so close. It's just on that level where it's far enough away from New York where you're kind of in the middle of nowhere, but it's close enough that you can easily get back to New York. That's why, I think, it's become such an artistic and musician-friendly community, more so than any underlying spiritual streams that might flow. We're not really connected to that. We just want to get back to the city easily. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did recording Odd Blood feel as compared to All Hour Cymbals?
IWT: Having the luxury to do it full-time was a big difference. We lived in the space we recorded. We rented a house from Peter Gabriel's old drummer—which was totally by chance—and it ended up that he had a full studio of all kinds of gear in his basement, some of which you can't even purchase anymore. We just went about building our own studio there, and then brought all of our demos together to turn them into complete pieces. At the end of the three months, we took a little time to do some shows, hashed out ideas, and reworked a few things, and then the album was born.
AVC: Was there a conversation about really ratcheting up the dance-factor?
IWT: There definitely was. That was definitely a goal, knowing that we didn't want to record the same album. We're all fans of dancing. I don't know if we're very good at dancing. We love watching other people dance from afar—but not in a stripper way. We find that to be just uncomfortable.
AVC: How did the idea for the "O.N.E." video come about?
IWT: The first video that we did was for "Ambling Alp," which was a little bit more experimental. The Radical Friend guys took a little bit more of the reigns in terms of the conceptual end of it, and it definitely took some people by surprise. It was a little amorphous thematically, and a lot of people thought it was just very weird. For "O.N.E.," we wanted to just embrace the old form of videos—like, '90s one-hit wonders and even like Milli Vanilli videos. We wanted to try and update that a little bit. I feel like the video art form has gotten watered down more and more, and I don't think people are really taking advantage of it to the full extent of what you can do, especially now that there are so many different technologies. It's the same as music, where there are all these different technologies in terms of recording techniques that you're able to use now without needing a multimillion dollar budget. We just wanted to make a video that referenced all the videos that we grew up living and loving. We want dancers. [Laughs.] I want to see more and more dancers.
AVC: The chain-link fence you’re performing behind was very reminiscent of Patrick Swayze's Road House. Have you seen that movie?
IWT: [Laughs.] Have I seen Patrick Swayze’s Road House? That is the stupidest question anyone has asked! I saw that movie at my friend's birthday party when we were probably 12 or something. "Get out of here, you peckerhead." That has one of the dopest sex scenes I'd ever seen at that point in my life. I just remember that Patrick Swayze wasn't wearing any jeans. He got all dirty and sweaty against a fireplace. Oh man, so raw. Of course, for a little boy, you know, tearing that dude's throat out—you can't get any better than that.
IWT: That was in between the end of touring off the first record and beginning to record the second one. It was kind of a nice spot of being able to get away from our own projects and get out of our headspace a little bit, so we could come back to what we were doing a little bit more fresh. I think very highly of her as a songwriter and as an artist, so it was really fun to work with her.
AVC: Any more collaborations in the works?
IWT: I don't really know what collaborations are down the road. It's partially dependant on who comes to us and asks us to get involved and whatever's involved and if it's the right time. That specific project happened to be at the perfect time and we wanted to get away from our music for a little bit. And I think that's important to do, so you don't lose your perspective.
AVC: The band is due to travel to Uganda later this year to perform as part of a benefit for a nonprofit group for refugees. How did that come about?
IWT: We were approached by Pitchfork and La Blogotheque, who had been trying to come up with different ideas about how to raise awareness about the refugee situation in Uganda and children soldiers. I think people are detuned and desensitized to hearing about these kinds of things coming out of the African continent, which is really depressing. Especially because there's a lot of positivity in Africa as well, but obviously these kinds of things overshadow that. For us, it's really just an amazing opportunity to be involved that I don't know if we'd ever really have again. You know, we're not the most famous band in the world, but we'll try our best to be involved. We'll see what happens.
AVC: Have you been to that part of the world before?
IWT: I've been to the African continent once. To Tunisia, which is different culturally and environmentally from the rest of the continent. But I'm very excited. It'll be a different kind of experience, and I look forward to different kinds of experiences. Especially with people who are devoted to trying to help other people that have a lot less resources.
AVC: Do you know what kind of performance you’ll be doing?
IWT: We have no idea. And that's also why I'm excited about it. There's a total X factor. I have no idea what it's going to be like and what we're going to do. I look forward to not knowing.
AVC: Chris Keating, specifically, has talked about the band’s shared love of pop music. Who do you share in terms of influences?
IWT: I can try and speak for the band in that we love as broad a spectrum as possible. We kind of came of musical age when rap and hip-hop started becoming much more in the mainstream—like Wu-Tang [Clan], which is such a weird band, when you really think about it, to become a mainstream pop success. At the same time, I have two older sisters, so I remember dancing to [Madonna’s] "Material Girl" and loving that song, however old I was when that came out. Then there's Terence Trent D'Arby and so many other acts from that generation. The other thing about our generation is that we grew up in a radio era, where we're kind of the last generation that can sing pop songs from the '50s onward. Like, I know the words to "Runaround Sue" and "Rock Around The Clock." That's the music that my dad was partying to. [Laughs.] I know that music not because my dad was playing it for me, but because it was on the radio. Then, you know, 10 years later, that's not on the radio and, suddenly, U2 is on the oldies station. That's very strange to me. We grew up in a pop world, where pop music was these six decades of music. Like, when I was in third grade, I knew the whole Beatles catalog. If anything, I think it kind of lends itself to being the kind of music fan and musician where you continue to pull from as many things as possible, while trying to create something new out of everything else before. But the only way to do that is to pull from many sources so you don't end up becoming retroist. That's the challenge.