Yeasayer? Or Mehsayer?
Chris Keating is effusive, having just returned home to Brooklyn for a few days from a European tour. But he seems a little shocked when he's reminded that he and his bandmates in Yeasayer will be appearing at the Granada Theater this week as an early date in the band's planned 10-week tour.
"I feel like I just got off the plane!" he says.
The constant travel is merited, of course: Yeasayer is evolving from Brooklyn pan-musical freak folkies into one of the more compelling musical acts of its time.
A portfolio of catchy tunes? Check.
Acclaimed videos? Check.
Accomplished live performances (including a very spasmodic frontman)? Check.
Art school cred? Check.
Hired guns for other musical stars? Check.
People, Yeasayer is the new Talking Heads! Sure, some of the band's fan base that was developed around the sound of 2007's All Hour Cymbals are—to say the least—disappointed with this year's follow-up, Odd Blood. But, evidence shows, the band hits the mark of making its music more accessible on this release—not to mention more danceable. Hell, Odd Blood is even more consistently memorable than All Hour Cymbals.
Is it a departure? Sure. But there is clearly a shared gene pool between the two albums. When comparing the two, Keating (who, like David Byrne, attended the Rhode Island School of Design), explains the band's differing aims with each release: "Rhythms that were buried underneath a lot of the atmospherics were brought to the front," he says.
The sound of All Hour Cymbals was in some part due to the happy mistakes of a DIY effort. But through that same aesthetic, other aspects of the songs' kinetic impact were lost.
"We kinda felt we were doing [dance and pop] on the first record," Keating says. "But we were combining with other influences that made it less accessible."
One benefit of the success of All Hour Cymbals was the number of heavy-hitters (Beck, Bat for Lashes, Simian Mobile Disco) that came begging Yeasayer for guest appearances on their releases. That exposure to how others work has also had a beneficial effect on the band, Keating says: "It's cool to see how different people approach songwriting. It opens up your ears and eyes to the possibility of working in different ways".
Like the Talking Heads, the boundary-stretching videos that are supporting the first two singles from Odd Blood contribute to an aura of artiness that defines the band. Keating was drawn to video directors Radical Friend by the groundbreaking interactive video they did for Black Moth Super Rainbow.
"We wanted to do the kinda bizarre qualities of certain avant-garde films from the late '70s and the '80s," Keating says. "We wanted to reference the whole idea of making a little world."
And it's working; Yeasayer is reaching a wider audience these days, as well as earning rave performance reviews.
"We're playing to 1,000 people or more—15,000 to 16,000 people at some places," says a clearly flabbergasted Keating. "We haven't really skyrocketed to fame or anything; we're happy to play to 300. We try to play someplace weird on every tour."
That will be put to the test when the tour stops in tiny art Mecca Marfa, Texas, to play the Crowley Theater. Meanwhile, a larger adventure—one that also involves local favorites The Polyphonic Spree—will take Yeasayer to Uganda later this year to benefit the relief organization Invisible Children.
"They used our music in a film they made a few years ago, so we've kept in touch," says Keating.
This new project, to be filmed by Blogotheque, is intended make the children living in refugee camps more visible.
"We're there for six days and just wanna make some music with some kids and just hang out and do some electronic workshop stuff," Keating says. "We're all pretty humble about it—the idea that someone would even ask us to do something that seems important."
In the span of three years and a few singles, Brooklyn's Yeasayer went from an outfit of avant-rockers with psych-folk tendencies to what can best be described as an avant-pop act.
The band's first album, All Hour Cymbals has a deeply rooted, ritualistic feel and is steeped in a tribal, almost mystic aesthetic. As a result, the album made it onto various 2007 year-end, best-album lists.
Now, after a three-year period in which the band only released one single ("Tightrope" from 2009's Dark Was The Night), Yeasayer's highly anticipated sophomore album, Odd Blood, has dropped. But it doesn't take long to realize that, quite blatantly, this is not a follow-up to the band's earthy, ethereal debut album. Rather, Odd Blood seems to take a quantum leap from earthy mysticism to electronic space-outpost pop music of the future.
So why was there such a drastic change in sound with Odd Blood? For starters, you are what you eat. Or, in this case, what you listen to. Chris Keating, frontman for the experimental outfit, reveals that the band's influences while creating All Hour Cymbals were, in fact, very different than those the band took in during the construction of the new album. Throughout the making of the band's debut, its influences ranged from rock acts from the '60s and '70s to African and ambient music.
"We looked at trying to, in some way, do some vague attempt at a cultural mashing up of sound—an artifact that someone would find that would be representative of a lot of sounds that were going on," Keating says.
With Odd Blood, though, that all has been tossed out the window. Says Keating: "There was a lot of dancehall stuff, some dubstep, some industrial music, and also revisiting '90s R&B and then a lot of electronic music—some of the stuff I loved growing up as a teenager."
Keating also reveals that—gasp!—the band actually set out to make a pop album this time, initially aiming for each song to last no longer than three minutes. Alas, that effort was something of a failure, Keating admits: "We're a little too self-indulgent when we make our records." Indeed: The band ended up recording songs like "ONE" and "Love Me Girl" that clock in at over five minutes and repeat and fold back onto themselves. Still, they're more accessible songs than anything the band created prior.
"The accessibility was somewhat of a conscious effort," Keating says of Odd Blood, certain in his belief that such efforts haven't compromised his band's sound. "We didn't want to make a Katy Perry song, but we wanted to make something that, 'Oh, could this possibly become a dance song that someone could hum along and dance to?'"
Sure enough, teenagers and indie kids alike are bound to devour Odd Blood, thanks to surefire avant-pop hits like "Ambling Alp" and "ONE"—especially when accompanied by equally flashy music videos provided by young, hip L.A.-based video production team, Radical Friend.
But what about the original Yeasayer lovers?
Well, that all depends. Thus far, the increased accessibility of Odd Blood is working for Yeasayer, earning the band yet another spate of rave reviews from numerous publications. And, when asked if more people are turning up to the band's shows these days, Keating can't help but chuckle.
"A lot more people now," he says. "So that's always a good thing."
But while Yeasayer may be reaching out for more commercial success—and accumulating some more fresh-faced fans in the process—the band, even as it orbits around the moon, is leaving a fair share of fans and critics who fawned over All Hour Cymbals back on Earth.
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