Yeasayer Interview: "One Man's Subtlety Is Another One's Sexiness"

They've just released their third album, and it's a change of direction to their previous effort. Here they tell me why they've decided to mix it up, and which former Eastern Bloc country goes bonkers for them...
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In 2010 Yeasayer released Odd Blood and it saw them expand on the twisted psychadelia of their debut  All Hour Cymbals, infusing their new record with an armoury of lyrical hooks and melodies that saw the like of ‘Ambling Alp’ and ‘O.N.E’ widely playlisted. Odd Blood was as popular with the critics it was with the listeners, featuring across the board in the end-of-year lists, whilst blog-aggregator Hype Machine revealed them to be have been the most blogged about artist of 2010.  2 years on it still sounds totally fresh, the lyrics still resonate, the melodies are still don’t want to let go of your knackers.

So the question with their newest album Fragrant World (released on the 20th August) was whether they were going to use the sheeny sensibilities of Odd Blood to deliver a hulking pop behemoth?  For a band so taken with experimentation and psychadelia we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that the answer to that is no. At first it’s a little unsettling, as those used to the simplicity of lines like ‘stick up for yourself son, never mind what everybody else done’ (as found on'Ambling Alp') might find themselves scrabbling for a worm to tickle their ear with.

But repeated listens reveal the depth of the record, and that underneath it is as indebted to Prince and R n’ B textures as to anything else. Tunes like 'Reagan’s Skeleton' and 'The Devil And The Deed' are as danceable as anything else they’ve ever produced, while 'Fingers Never Bleed' is the skittery sort of number Timberlake might produce were he to move to Siberia and get into MCat.

Here band member, and owner of the coolest name in rock, Ira Wolf Tuton tells us all about why they dropped some of the gloss on the new album, their plans for the upcoming tour and why he's lost his trendy hairstyle...

How does it feel to have your album now out in the world?
I’m very excited, it’s such a long process from when you start recording an album, finish the record, then have to have to wait for it to come out… you get to a point where it’s just like “hurry up.”

When did you finish recording it?
We finished the original recording around March or something, April maybe.

So quite a while then?
We’ve been busy since then; we’ve had live rehearsals for quite some time, had tours here and there so we haven’t just been sitting on our hands waiting for something to happen.  But still, you know, even playing live shows you’re playing these songs in front of people that have never heard them before.

How is the new stuff going down?  Are you feeling comfortable with it yet?
Yeah, the exciting part is that there’s still some real challenges, and a level of concentration that is necessary because of a lot of the arrangements are not only still fresh but still changing.

Are the new new shows weighted towards new stuff or an even split with the old?
A bit of the old, some of it is rearranged to do it in a different way that lends itself to our new set-up, while some of it is faithful to the old material.  We’re certainly focusing on the new material, though.

You had a big touring cycle off Odd Blood, so to have a whole new load of instruments must be exciting for you?
Yeah, we certainly approach the live show as a dynamic beast, so we’re constantly tweaking and rearranging stuff, working out ssues with tonality, length and tempo.  Recently when we down in Nashville I got a new synth, and we’re now trying to incorporate that into the tour.

So will there be a big difference between a show at the start of the tour to the end?
Erm, well visually it will be different but, I don’t know, for us I think yes…but it really depends on who the listener is as to whether they’d really notice the changes, and whether they think they are positive.  Kind of like a haircut- the best haircut is a haircut you don’t really notice.

But if you spend a lot of money on a haircut surely you want someone to say you’ve got a nice new haircut.
Well this is coming from me, who’s had a lot of really dumb haircuts.

Do you spend a lot of money on your haircut or do you do it yourself?
Well now I do it myself, I just shave my head. I’ve always tried to have a haircut I didn’t have to worry about, so a while back I grew really long hair then realised I had to look after it even more.  So the I just shaved the sides and left the top long, but then this became this crazy London/New York  style thing which kinda bugged me out.  So now I just shave my head.

You have finally achieved what you set out to do.
What I should have done 20 years ago.

In regards to Fragrant World, it’s a little bit different to Odd Blood, is that something you’d go along with?
Yeah, I hope so.

Presumably from your side that’s deliberate.  I’ve spent a lot of time with it now and I think it’s actually very funky and dancefloor-friendly,  even though there isn't such an  obvious single on there; something that someone who doesn’t know you will immediately grab onto...
Yeah I think so, there’s not something so obviously accessible.  With Odd Blood we went for a lot more high end sheen and the vocals were a lot higher which was obviously referencing a certain type of pop music.  And you know, that was something we were not trying to do now.  It’s a different aesthetic, but still the same band.

So with Odd Blood, was there ever a time when there was a decision between you that you wanted to make a few tracks that would take you to mainstream radio airplay?
No, however that happened I don’t really know.  It just happened after when the powers at be heard it.  It was never our mission at all, you know, coming after our first album [All Hour Cymbals] which was just a wall of sound, we wanted to really make a left hand turn that would sound really good coming out of a club's speakers.  You know, the radio world is a strange one because it’s very different in the UK to the US.

How so?
Well the UK radio still exists, kind of, so that a band like us can still get on mainstream radio whilst mainstream radio in America is so corporate-ised; really you only hear a handful of popstars, and even those popstars only have their songs written by a handful of people.  Like in the US we would get on the radio but only on public radio.  And you guys don’t really have that.  Then public radio is a totally different beast to college radio, and then you’ve got satellite radio.  So it’s a little bit different, so I think at first it was a little bit foreign for us, coming over there and getting on some BBC1 playlist.

From your point of view this then takes your audience to another level?
Yeah, it’s great.

It did seem to me that Fragrant World has 'Henrietta' as a centrepoint, and after that it becomes more funk based.  Is this deliberate on your part, in the any sense of you taking us on a journey, or is it just a factor of what you guys put together in the studio?
I think we tend to approach every song separately, and really try and focus on what specific tonality’s are important- what specific kick will work,  bass drums will work, what vocal treatment will work...That’s all done within the physical umbrella of the space, of the space and time when it’s recorded. Then, after we get that done there is cetainly a long deliberation of putting different songs into different orders, whilst me might create individual sections to go into other songs so we can create something that creates a bigger, you know, ‘whole.’  But certainly the goal at the off-point is that we have 15 or 16 songs which we are going to work on and keep on the same level, then when we get down the road we can say that Song A and Song C maybe explore the same sonic ideas so we really only need one of them on the record,?  But it’s not to the point of creating a concept album.  Maybe some day.

From listening to you there, it seems like the rhythm of songs on this album are perhaps more important.  On Odd Blood , whenever I described you to people I said you were extremely complex musically but presented simple messages lyrically. It seems to me a move away from this, the sentiments aren’t so immediately arresting.  Have you wanted to change the content of your lyrics?
I won’t speak for another person’s lyrics.  It’s difficult to say because I think it's somewhat of a construct of the listener and…you know, probably on Odd Blood there was certainly more overt fist-pumping moments which, well, it’s not a mistake that it’s like that- if you’re not aware you are doing it you have your head up your arse.  When we were working on this record, one part of the aesthetics was that we’d explored that kind of ideas and its benefits and limitations and felt we wanted to work in a different avenue.  And anyway, one man’s subtletly is another one’s sexiness.

Well lyrics are totally subjective.  Like a tattoo.  What is incredibly meaningful to one person is base and throwaway to another.
Of course, and that’s all part of the wonder of pop music.

You are doing a tour in England in September.  English audiences have taken to you well.  Do you notice a difference in crowds over here to other countries.
It even depends on the town you are in.  Like a Manchester crowd is different to a London crowd which is different to a Brighton crowd.  It’s the same in the US, a crowd in New York will be totally different to Philapdelphia or Boston.

In London do you find the people are more or less up for a party, or a dance? I often find this.
We see both sides of it, and I think this is affected by both the venue you are playing in, and the type of show it is.  So are you playing a Vice party, or your own show, or are you opening , or is it part of a festival?  In London we’ve really had all sides, from people standing with arms crossed to really crazy, overt and energetic crowds.  When we first started we played to what was really our core audience, and it was like 100-200 person crowds.  Then I think we went through a phase of playing to our audience but also to people who didn’t really know what to make of us, and now I think we’ve expanded our core audience.

How comfortable are you with the term ‘rockstar’ or the concept of being one?
Am I one?

Would you consider yourself one?
Occupation: Rockstar/ Arsehole.

The reason I ask is that I saw the new LCD Soundsystem film (Shut Up And Play The Hits!) last night, and one of the most prevalent messages I took from it was that James Murphy wanted to finish the band because he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the levels of rockstardom coming to him.  And in some ways I see similarities between you two bands…
Well I maintain such a separation from that sort of thing. Maybe that’s because we’re different types of people, but, you know, he has a band but he has so much stuff going on as an individual…I don’t know, I have two sisters that constantly tell me I’m full of shit.  I go home and I’ll be hanging out with high shool friends and they’ll say things like I’m a rockstar, but it’s all tongue in cheek.  At the end of the day I’ve worked really hard to have some sort of success, I think you just need to maintain a separation between what you set out to do, how you want that to be, what things you want to achieve and separate that from that way everyone else perceives it from the outside.  Does that make sense?

It does.  Do you think there’s a level of popularity you’d ever reach where you might retract and make a similar decision?
Hmm, the thing is I don’t read reviews of our records, I don’t read articles.  Obviously I’m flattered they exist and I do a shitload of interviews- I talk about myself a lot.  But I’m not going out of my way to get an added ego-boost.  I’m pretty self-aware that I haven’t attained a lot of goals I’ve tried to strive for, and I’m not as good at a lot of things I wana be good at, and I’m not as productive at other things as I could be.  That’s what preoccupies me.

I think that’s a healthy attitude.
I mean, I do what I love.  I’m a musician and I get to do that for my livelihood and I’m in a fortunate enough place to do that. I mean, can give you an autograph if you want? (Laughs)

You’ve given me an interview, that’s more than enough.
Oh, that’s good. (Still laughing.)

One more thing I wanted to talk to you about- with the current model of making money from touring rather than sales or records.  Is this something you are more comfortable with, playing your music on the road?
That’s the model that is out reality.  When I was a kid that seemed like the reality, but the wall came crashing down long before we came, what with piracy and everything.  The positive side to that is that I get to travel all around the world playing- that’s the power of the internet!

What's your favourite country you've played in?
I always like the unexpected stuff.  So for instance, the first time we went to Poland no-one at our record company had any idea about anything there cos we hadn’t sold any records there, like zero. So we got there to play this festival and we were just before Tricky, and it was packed with everyone singing along to all our songs.  And we were like “what the fuck, how does this exist?”  And it really just kicked in the reality of which we live, the power of incremation trading.

It must have been pretty thrilling.
Yeah, those things that come out of total leftfield are pretty special.  In relation to you, certainly when we played Roundhouse that was a huge moment for us.  As a headlining show on one of our tours that was one of the biggest places we played and was sold out, that was a watershed for us, 'cos that was a place we always wanted to play- you know, we’d opened for Bat For Lashes there and it really felt like a stepping stone.

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