Sometimes it takes an identity crisis to get an old band to come up with some new tricks. This year marks the tenth anniversary of Yeasayer’s formation, but reaching this milestone wasn’t easy. Alongside Grizzly Bear, MGMT and Chairlift, the trio rose up through the ranks of Brooklyn’s blossoming indie art-rock scene of the mid-00s. In five years they released three albums that demonstrated just how rapidly they were evolving. From the spiritual psych-rock of All Hour Cymbals, to the conceptual freak pop of Odd Blood, on to the paranoid, sci-fi moves of Fragrant World, the only logical step for Yeasayer was a complete overhaul of how they make music or bust.
After wrapping up the promotional cycle for Fragrant World, Yeasayer found themselves not only struggling to decide what would come next, but doing so without a label in North America. Those types of obstacles have forced bands to simply pack it in, but instead of admitting defeat, Chris Keating, Ira Wolf Tuton, and Anand Wilder packed up and moved to the country. By heading to a remote part of the Catskills in upstate New York, the band found an environment that was low on pressure and high on farm animal hijinks.
This tranquil setting planted the seeds, but it wasn’t until they headed back to Brooklyn and hired their first ever outside producer to help piece together the fragments that the songs began to form. In Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.) they found not only a producer but also a kindred spirit who was as passionate about newfangled song structures and bizarre percussive sounds as the band. To top it all off, they signed a worldwide deal with their European label Mute to release what would be.
Yeasayer consider their fourth full-length, Amen & Goodbye, a new chapter, possibly even the start of a new trilogy. Although it doesn’t mark a radical departure in their sonic footprint, they haven’t sounded this loose, melodic and blithe since their 2007 debut. Anand Wilder filled us in on their refresh, the dangers of an unkempt angora rabbit, the cunning mind of goats, and the importance of eating an egg fresh from a cage free chicken.
Noisey: It’s been a while.
Anand Wilder: Yeah… Well, we got dropped by Secretly Canadian and that was kind of the first road block. And we’d been using to this schedule of “put out an album, tour, get your advance money, start working on a new album…” But we didn’t get that advance money, so we had to try to pick up the pieces and see where we were at and recalibrate. We’d get into a studio for a few days at a time, or we’d do a lot of stuff at home, but without that influx of money to just book a studio for a few weeks, it was hard to get things going. Plus we were meeting with other labels and taking time to be with our families. So at the end of that year, before we had a label again, we just decided to book this studio in upstate New York called Outliner Inn. Delicate Steve had told me about it, and we borrowed some money from our manager and went up there in the spring. We stayed there for five weeks and it was amazing. I was just looking at pictures from it this morning. There was a super relaxed, isolated vibe where you could just walk outside of the studio and pet some goats or angora bunnies.
So you were really one with nature?
It’s not as if we were camping in tents. We had lodgings, and just wake up when we felt ready to go, and then work on experimenting with sounds into the wee hours of the night. And we got all of our eggs from the farm there. If you’ve never had fresh eggs right from the chicken then you haven’t really tried eggs. It’s like tasting an egg for the first time. But yeah, they had this garden here and made us fresh salads. And we could take a break from recording and go down to the swimming hole and jump from this waterfall. Or go on hikes or run along this abandoned train track to a basketball court.
Why would bands record anywhere else? This place sounds like paradise.
I know! It was pretty ideal.
But I read that the chickens would interrupt your sessions?
Yeah, well they would always tell us, “Guys, please close the door to the studio.” Because you walk out of the studio and you’re in a daze. But then you walk back in and you’d be like, “Aw shit! We’ve got all of these chickens in here! How do we get them out?” And you don’t want chickens to be in there for long or otherwise they just shit all over the equipment.
And you also had to watch out for the goats.
Yeah, that was one of the technical difficulties. I guess the electrical fence was on the same circuit as some of the equipment in the studio. And you would hear this hum, and then turn it off. But I guess the goats are just constantly checking the fence because as soon as we would turn it off they would just escape. And goats will just eat everything… I need to post a picture of Ira going after these goats because he had to really wrestle them to bring them back to the pen.
What did the goats eat?
What do goats eat? They eat everything. They jumped out and just started eating the trees and the bushes. Yeah, I think it’s a good way to clear land.
Did this isolated studio help shape the sound of the album?
I think so. We did do some field recordings and we used the geodesic dome to get some good reverb sounds. It was raining the whole time, so we recorded a lot of the rain. There were these pebbles outside, so we’d record ourselves stomping on the pebbles for some percussive sounds. But there was such a great supply of instruments, like so well curated. This guy was very tasteful. It was all fun stuff, so we didn’t have to be too precious about any one instrument. The isolation just allows you to get into this weird flow. Whereas when I’m in the city I need to also be on family time where I’m up with my daughter at 7 AM and preparing her breakfast, and then making dinner at 5.30 or 6.00 PM. That kind of schedule is very incompatible with a loose, creative mindset.
Was your family visiting you up at the farm?
My wife and daughter would come pretty much every weekend. And my daughter would deliver me a new toddler illness. So it was fun to see her but also like, “Oh God, stay away from me! I don’t want hand foot and mouth disease.” But she loved the angora bunnies. They’re very strange. They will grow hair out until they look like sheep. And if you don’t cut their hair they’ll start chewing on it and choke on it. We got some great hats and sweaters from them.
And then a flood happened that caused some damage?
We had a bit of a kink, yeah. The roof was leaking and it got all over the tapes. But it actually ended up being a good omen because we had set up these limitations where we were using tape and not really adjusting that much on the computer. So, it allowed us to say, “This was fun. Let’s salvage what we can and get back to our tried and true method of sampling these sounds and creating more of a pastiche, a sonic environment for the songs. Rather than the guy singing with a backing band kind of thing.” We really worked in so many studios though.
You ended up working with Joey Waronker, which is the first time you’ve really handed over the producer role to an outsider.
Well, our label really wanted us to work with the people who produced all of our hits. And we were like, “Well that was us!” So they wanted us to work with a tried and true producer, but that didn’t work. No tried and true producers wanted to work with us [laughs]. But we realized that we needed to just work with a musician we respected instead. We even brought up the idea of Beck producing, but it just didn’t fly. I think he was busy. Anyway, we got this list of names and Joey Waronker was on it, and he drums for Beck and Atoms for Peace. And Chris and I were obsessed with Beck when we were teenagers. So we called him up and he had a very cool vibe. We kind of just rolled the dice and said, “OK, let’s just do this and see how it goes.” We had a pretty bad experience with the other producer but right when he arrived he set up this drum kit that had these trash cymbals and a reco-reco, which is sort of a Brazilian cowbell with a spring attached to it, and this wooden box with jangles inside of it.
It sounds like he changed how you thought about the music. For instance, he scrapped some of the songs you thought would be singles?
That’s the thing about working on this album for so long, you start working on some song and then you realize that you don’t care about the lyrics or it doesn’t fit in on the album. But then some songs stand the test of time, ten years or three years. If we have a song we’re still playing for two years then it’s probably a good song and it deserves to be on the album. If there’s a song that everyone is tired of after two seconds then we will probably ditch it. And we did that a lot with this album, because we had so much time to make revisions and cuts.
The first three albums were considered a trilogy. So is Amen & Goodbye the beginning of another series of albums?
Amen & Goodbye is a prequel [laughs]. No, I mean I think there was a progression for those albums, and this one might be considered more of a reboot or a rebuild for us. It doesn’t feel like it’s our first album, but we need to let the world know that we’re still out there and still blending different styles and different genres while always keeping a nice little melody on top so you can sing along to it hopefully.
You guys experienced a bit of an identity crisis going into this album. Do you feel like this album solved that problem?
I think so. With the last album we were definitely trying to push the electronic and experimental side of things and then over the course of touring we got a little bit disenchanted with everybody playing electronic drums and using samplers. So we wanted to get back to mixing the organics and the synthetics.
Knowing how tough it was to make this record, the title—Amen & Goodbye— sure seems like it is directed at the process of making it all.
Yeah, I think so. I like the album when it’s taken as that. It works on many levels. I like that it can reference the process of making the album. “And… we’re done! Amen, goodbye, wrap it up, let’s put it out!” But it’s open to interpretation. We toyed with a lot of religious themes on the record and it’s sort of our take on the bombardment of ideology we receive in the 24-hour news cycle. It’s sort of our journalism of everything that’s going on today, like xenophobia, hardline religious groups or authoritarian governments. Instead of writing an article about how we feel it’s more like, “Here’s our song! Do you want to follow our religion?”
I get that from the album cover. It’s quite abstract, but filled with recognizable figures. Like Donald Trump.
That was a choice of the artist, David Altmejd. We gave him a list of the characters that were represented in our songs. And I’m glad we don’t have a song that deals with Donald Trump. But Donald Trump’s severed head on the cover is an image that I am perfectly OK with.
Any plans to use the Donald Trump head around election time?Well, we don’t actually own it. The artist owns it. But we shall see. Maybe he will loan it to us and we can do some kind of effigy.
Some sculptures were made of the band for the album cover and these video promos that look a bit creepy. What was your reaction to seeing those things?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Those are the versions of us he created for the album. It’s actually not that creepy. It was creepier when I did a 3D scan with a computer a few years ago and it didn’t include my hair. So I just saw my face, how it would look as a bald head and it was so much creepier. This one is more like me with a hole cut out of my face with crystals stuffed in it. But somehow I found it to be more playful than the uncanny, creepy feeling I got from seeing myself as a bald, computer-generated head.
Cam Lindsay is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.