Interview with Yeasayer, July 2012

Yeasayer release new album Fragrant World in August – the band’s third studio album in five years. I caught up with front man Chris Keating prior to their Latitude Festival appearance to talk about the influences behind it and also their plans to wow audiences on their world tour.

I admit in 2008 I was a little out of touch with music. I was living in New Zealand – which has its own very introverted music scene – I was miles away from home, working in a corporate job and living a very domesticated life in the suburbs. Thankfully, one day I heard Yeasayer’s debut single ‘2080’ which had been receiving a lot of attention in the local indie press in the build up to their gig at Auckland’s 4:20 club. It had a profound effect on me. Lyrically compelling, musically outstanding the track reminded me why I love music and why it is always important to stay abreast of new, exciting bands. I went to that gig and was blown away by the energy, the on stage experimentation and the epic and original genre bending songs. In a sense, Yeasayer woke me up again…

‘Fragrant World’ once again highlights the band’s uncompromising attitude. Vehemently committed to innovative song writing, this time round, as Chris explained, they wanted to “explore the mid-tempo and go further with the whole electronic experimentation.” The UK’s burgeoning underground electronica scene and acts such as Jamie XX, have influenced this direction. Singles ‘Longevity’ and ‘Henrietta’ give a glimpse into this new laid back sound, which is quite removed from 2010’s epic and energetic ‘Odd Blood’. As Chris explained “We think it’s really important to not repeat ourselves so we’re always trying to create songs that sound different and interesting.”

Yeasayer’s musical innovation has become an intrinsic part of their live shows too. The band embarked on a world tour in June and promised fans that they would hear reinterpretations of the songs – “People should expect something different from each performance – the new songs never really sound exactly as how they do on the album. Chris, Ira and Aanand have been joined by new drummer Cale Parks and Chris noted “Just playing new songs is exciting for us right now as it feels like we haven’t done that for while; we’re just getting started really.” With a faltering music industry infrastructure gigging has become a band’s bread and butter again and Yeasayer have a very clear agenda on their current tour – ‘to play really exciting shows and keep pushing the boundaries of what we can do’ while reminding their audiences that music is a spectacle to be savoured, and not just taken for granted. ‘It’s good that bands have to work harder now and tour to promote their music – whereas Elvis never even left the county!’

This move is partly motivated by their own frustration at the music world, “people have begun to expect everything, all at once, on their phone – that kind of desensitises the experience of music – it’s not as special or intimate”. This frustration is clearly a theme that runs through the album too. “Fragrant World is actually a song that didn’t make the album in the end but was the ‘grandfather’ to all of the other tracks. The idea behind it is that smell and senses in general are intimately linked to nostalgia and memory but if you take a dystopian view of a future – with tasteless food and odourless environments – in some respects, it’s like we’re stripping away part of our humanity.”

From the outset of Yeasayer’s career, apocalyptic and dystopian ideas have pervaded the band’s music, and with the current state of society it’s no wonder politics is now playing a part too. “Everyone has good and bad experiences but for many people this is quite a depressing time, and when you consider that it starts to influence the way you write – politics in the US at the moment, for example, is at a very dark point.”

Fragrant World, for the most part, is a reaction to the corruption and greed of big business and the re-emergence of an oppressive right wing political movement in America. From the start of opening track ‘Fingers Never Bleed’ there is ominous feeling that pervades the album, with strange, dissonant sounds punctuating each song. Track ‘Reagan’s Skeleton’ describes the dead president’s skeleton, with “red eyes” “marching our way.” But if this is Yeasayer’s darkest album yet, fans shouldn’t expect sombre performances during the tour. Rather, the band hope to help ease people’s anxieties by reminding them that music and the experience of music is a powerful and positive tool to incite change.

Yeasayer return to the UK in September to play three shows and I for one will be off to watch them.  After five years they’ve successfully maintained their uniqueness and in doing so have captured the hearts and minds of music fans around the world. This may very well be the band’s strongest album to date and it certainly will be an unforgettable tour. They woke me up once, if you feel you need to be reconnected with music or shaken out of your mundane routines, go and check them out.