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Yeasayer Puts the Art in "Art Rock" with David Altmejd

Yeasayer is dropping its first album in five years, so we chatted with Chris Keating about building the album around fine art.

by Beckett Mufson
Mar 30 2016, 3:22pm

Album artwork for Yeasayer's 'Amen & Goodbye.' Images courtesy the artist

Art rock outfit Yeasayer is dropping its first record in five years, Amen & Goodbye, on Friday, and with it comes a holistically artistic approach to the music, album, videos, and touring. Working with Venice Biennale alum David Altmejd, they've put together truly fascinating album artwork and embedded fine art aesthetics into every aspect of their current identity.

For the 2012 Fragrant World tour, The Creators Project brought Yeasayer together with Casey Reas and Aranda\Lasch to create a high-tech crystalline stage with trippy visuals, and we heavily documented the process. As they transformed between their wall of sound first album, All Hour Cymbals, and the danceable Odd Blood, Yeasayer has again emerged from the chrysalis a beautiful, transformed butterfly.

Their reaction to the bright lights and alien landscapes that defined their last tour now fraternizes with a surreal DIY artist whose work has been shown along the likes of bricolage evangelist Tom Sachs. In an exclusive interview with The Creators Project, co-lead vocalist and co-songwriter Chris Keating recalls visiting Altmejd's studio and seeing the Canadian artist, "just picking up a saw and chopping stuff in half and gluing it back together."

The intentionally unpolished look Altmejd's work can have is a huge, yet welcome departure from Fragrant World. "We went so large on the last tour, obviously with The Creators Project’s help, that we were dwarfed by the technology that was happening on stage every night," Keating says. "I’m nostalgic for when I used to see shows in the 90’s and their whole light show was just some Christmas lights. Even the bigger bands. You know what I mean?"

Speaking about designing the visuals for the Amen & Goodbye tour, Keating playfully bandies about the idea of incorporating animatronic robots into the show, followed by a more solid concept channeling the likes of James Turrell. "Immersive light installations are really beautiful," he says. "I’d love to maybe capture that in stage show, where you turn the whole club into a light environment, instead of just the stage. And if they really felt like they were inside of this weird, floating entity, that would be awesome."

While Keating didn't mention whether or not he has contacted the legendary light and space artist about designing his tour visuals (unlikely), he did talk extensively about the band's collaboration with Altmejd, whose work appears on the cover of Amen & Goodbye and the music videos for "I Am Chemistry" and "Prophecy Gun." Altmejd designed a series of sculptures, contraptions, and costumed characters framed with a powder blue background. The result is a delightful visual cacophony that you could spend an hour unpacking. Yeasayer has given The Creators Project a suite of exclusive images highlighting each of the characters, which you can peruse throughout this article.

We also chatted with Keating about the band's creative collaboration with Altmejd, the upcoming tour, burnout, and the importance of play. Read the full interview below.

How did the collaboration between you and David Almejd come about?

I’ve been a big fan of his work for the last 10 years. I always felt like the things that he was making looked kind of like the sounds that I wanted to make. They’re deconstructed and rebuilt, with alien landscapes and references to some unknown history, with maybe a kind of an obfuscated narrative. But it’s also accessible. It’s not super obtuse. It’s fun, really enjoyable to look at, but also grotesque. It’s really nice. I thought it would make great album artwork, so I just called him up.

Was he already a fan?

I don’t think he knew who we were [laughs]. But when I started a dialog, it felt like we were speaking the same language.

What was the creative process like between the two of you?

We started talking about making a video before we got to the place of doing the album artwork. It started out as a vague concept of incorporating a bunch of different characters from our past albums, videos, songs, and this album. I gave him a list of 30 or so names and he just sort of ran with it.

He started turning them into his own ideas and some things he interpreted in a completely different way, which I love. There’s a reference to a manic pixie dream girl. I wrote it down, and he happened to make this crazy anime character. And I asked who the anime character was and he says, “That’s the manic pixie dream girl!” And I hadn’t pictured that at all.

I guess he hasn’t seen Garden State.

[Laughs] It was perfect, though. There are so many layers. We were talking about them all and engaging with each other, referencing Hieronymous Bosch and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, album covers from the 70’s where there are a lot of characters. I remember holding up Prince’s Paisley Park, Sgt. Pepper’s, To Pimp a Butterfly for inspiration. Donald Trump is in there, and Mark Twain. There’s a weird Caitlyn Jenner or Gina Davis character that Ira is turning into, which I love.

There’s a character that was a sculpture of our manager, and then his head got chopped off and then he was crucified upside-down in a very brutal fashion, like Peter the apostle. I love that stuff. I love his destructive process. He makes a character and then just chops their face off.

Tell me about collaborating with Yoonha Park, who has also worked with Vampire Weekend, the Fuck Buttons, M83, Beach House, and more, on your video for “Prophecy Gun.”

We wanted to document the process. What he was able to do with the video was make the tableaux almost look composed in Photoshop, but it’s for the most part all there in real life. The coolest part is that it captures when everyone comes back to life and comes back to life and stops holding their poses.

I like these layers where you’re unveiling all these things that don’t seem real, and then all of a sudden they’re revealed to be real. I think that was captured really well in that video. The moment when the guy holding the javelin relaxes was really good. He kept having to say, “Freeze! Everybody freeze back into your positions… Ok now relax. Now freeze! Ok, now relax.” That was really cool.

The video for “I Am Chemistry” by New Media Ltd. is also crazy. How did that collaboration come about?

A friend of mine was working on this cool stop-motion technique where he was creating sculptures, but then doing 3D scans of them and animating those. He showed me this technique a couple of years ago, and I thought that if we ever had the opportunity to use it, that would be really cool.

We already had these sculptures that were made by David, so I asked him if it would be cool for us to incorporate them into a video as ruins, or if they could be animated and dance and move around. He was cool with it, so that worked out well.

Then Mike did 3D scans of us, and a bunch of David’s sculptures and incorporated them into this other crazy narrative that he built for the video. I like linking all the worlds and relationships together. Having a continuity of aesthetic became really important for this record.

Can you give me an interpretation of just what is going on in there, in your opinion?

There’s going to be a prequel to “I Am Chemistry.” All the videos that we’re making are going to link together and inform a broader story. You keep thinking you’re witnessing the full universe and then it pulls out even more, just like in …’s video. The other videos will elaborate on the story and expand on the world.

David’s stuff and the weird voguing, dancing sculptures of us in “I Am Chemistry” are kind of the ruins of the world, but this is going to be on an entirely different type of planet. More Earth-like and grounded.

Will Altmejd’s ideas and aesthetics manifest in the upcoming tour?

I think so, to some degree. We can’t take the sculptures on tour, but some version of the characters on stage with us is something that we’re exploring. I want some manifestation of all those characters to appear in every facet of our show. Live, video, everything. We created this weird little family, with only weird mutant uncles and naked dudes. For the tour, we were thinking, “Can we do animatronic robots? Probably not.”

Oh man, now I really want there to be animatronic robots.

I’m always disappointed when a big, giant band with a whole lot of money doesn’t do animatronic robots. Maybe it’s gimmicky, but I would want that on stage. I don’t think it’s going to be anything elaborate, I just want to reference the album artwork live. Nothing too over-the-top, we’re not going to have holograms or anything like that. I just want to pay a little homage to that amazing tableau that was created and I want it to appear live every night, and I want to be surrounded by my weird mutant uncles.

What technological aspects—animatronic robots notwithstanding—do you want to incorporate?

We went so large on the last tour, obviously with The Creators Project’s help, that we were dwarfed by the technology that was happening on stage every night. I’m nostalgic for when I used to see shows in the 90’s and their whole light show was just some Christmas lights. Even the bigger bands. You know what I mean?

We’ve entered into the age of a technological arms race for stage shows—which can work out really well for people like Skrillex, who’s got the money to pay for this really big show. It’s just him on stage, you know? There’s a balance I want to hit. And we went really big last time, which I enjoy, but I also realized that it might not translate as well for this music. I’m trying to weigh the benefits of not being overpowered by your lights.

These are all discussions we’re having right now. We want to incorporate projections, but we don’t want to just play in front of a movie screen. We’re trying to think about an interesting way to present it. But we also want to recognize that we’re a band, and we’re up there playing instruments. We can’t rely on the technology too much. We want to make sure that we’re compelling performers without anything. We’ll come up with something.

Aside from Altmejd, who are some other visual artists you enjoy?

Well, I really like artists like James Turrell and Olafur Eliasson. Their immersive light installations are really beautiful. I’d love to maybe capture that in stage show, where you turn the whole club into a light environment, instead of just the stage. And if they really felt like they were inside of this weird, floating entity, that would be awesome.

We’re working with a guy named Nick Doyle who is designing some stuff for the stage show. We’re talking about how minimal we want to make it, and he works with some really cool lighting. We’re playing with incorporating only white light into the stage show, which we we think will look really different from what everybody else is doing these days when you use LEDs that can be as many colors as you want. So I was just like, “Nick, will you do something with only white light?”

It’s funny because so much art doesn’t seem to get attention in a mainstream way. Every now and again you’ll have Drake referencing a Turrell installation, or something, and that’s kind of cool.

You toured pretty hard last time, which you have said resulted in serious burnout. How are you planning on avoiding it this time?

Dude, I don’t know. You kind of just have to burn yourself out. We’ve toured a lot since 2008, which has been really beneficial for us. I look at us as a big, small band. We’re not a big, mainstream act or anything. So continually touring is good. Having those relationships with people in both small and big cities all over the world has just been a part of what we’ve done.

But you have to get to a point where you just burn yourself out again, I think. We’re not going to white glove it and just do a few shows on an airplane. None of this bicoastal shit. Some of the best shows are in smaller clubs in small cities all over the place. Burnout is inevitable. More and more burnout until you’re just a wily, veteran-looking musician dude, chain smoking with a shaky hand and skull rings. That’s what we’re shooting for.

Do you think that burnout is a necessary part of the creative process?

Probably. You have to push it until you get sick of it, I think. It’s good and bad because at a certain point, man, you can’t think about doing it ever again. But making art is something that is done out of compulsion, and hopefully out of joy.

That’s definitely what I saw in David’s studio. It looked like a playground in there. It was so inspiring. He had ten or so people working on different things, doing experiments, working on different projects that might never come to fruition. But they looked like they were having fun and everyone was exchanging ideas. He was overseeing everything and getting his hands dirty, sometimes just picking up a saw and chopping stuff in half and gluing it back together. It’s so cool, and I think he’s acting out of this compulsion to create something, and I think we’re the same way.

I don’t know any other way to be.

Amen & Goodbye drops on April 1. Learn more on the official website. See more of David Altmejd's work here.

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