Yeasayer's Anand Wilder Explains Why Critics Hate His Band.
At the South by Southwest Music Conference in 2008, Yeasayer was one of the bands to watch. Fresh off the 2007 release of their 2007 All Hour Cymbals debut, the band, along with the likes of fellow upstarts Vampire Weekend, was part of the boom of Brooklyn bands that all of a sudden came to be in vogue at the time. But Yeasayer, it seemed was different. Whereas Vampire Weekend reveled in indie pop territory, Yeasayer toyed in a more tribal realm, perhaps referencing pop aesthetics, but never quite settling upon them.
Their sophomore album, Odd Blood, was a different story altogether. If Yeasayer wasn't altogether poppy prior, this record ensured that they now very much were. Lead single, “O.N.E.” in particular sealed this argument. The band's members cutting of their long hair down to closely cropped cuts certainly didn't help any case against it. But, on the band's August 20-released third album, Fragrant World, the band has again taken something of a sharp left turn. Almost completely, the glistening pop of Odd Blood is now gone, replaced by a darker, even more synth-heavy sound.
The band, it seems, is in constant transition — and that's something that hasn't helped the band out much in the world of music criticism, where the band is increasingly given the short end of the stick and called out negatively for genre-hopping and lacking any sense of self. Unsurprisingly, that's not something that sits very well with Yeasayer guitarist and co-songwriter Anand Wilder. But his reaction to that negative press might not be exactly what you'd expect.
Two weeks ago and in advance of the band's stop at the House of Blues in Dallas tonight, we caught up with Wilder over the phone just two dates after the band's tour in support of Fragrant World launched, and we spoke about that negative press, the band's suddenly morbid sound and the band's high esteem for Dallas' “wild” audiences.
How's the tour going?
It's going great! We've got this new stage set-up that was a collaboration with The Creators Project, so we're performing in front of these awesome, prismatic mirrors. It's like we're on a space ship.
I imagine that's quite conducive to the new album's sound.
Yeah, definitely. It's also a nice progression from our previous stage set-ups. It's not, like, totally out of left field. It definitely fits in the aesthetic we've fallen into over the past five years.
Sonically, though, you guys have made some pretty interesting transitions over that time, I'd say. Certainly, Odd Blood was a pretty big transition from All Hour Cymbals for a lot of people. This new album, Fragrant World, might be less of a transition from Odd Blood. Has that all been intentional?
Even from the beginning, when you listen to All Hour Cymbals, I think we were pretty all over the place. We didn't want to be pigeonholed into one particular genre. Only once the album comes out do people start labeling you.
For that first album, we wanted all the songs to be really different from one another. For the second album, we wanted to go in a different direction and have a very stark contrast from the first album. This one was the same way. We wanted to keep moving and keep changing things up and not rest on our laurels. It's always more exciting for us to experiment and fail than to repeat our successes.
What was the overall goal, would you say, with this album? Certainly, it's a very electronic album and very indebted to technology, but how would you describe it?
I'd say it's a little more electronic. We've always been using samplers and trying to use technology to our advantage, but with this one, we wanted to try to be a little more minimal with our sounds. And we wanted it to be less filled with pop anthems that just seem ready-made for the Glastonbury Festival. We wanted to maybe make songs that were a little more subdued and didn't necessarily have to have booming choruses or sappy lyrics.
Is that a reactionary thing to the way you feel about Odd Blood looking back on it?
I mean, in order to move on, you have to kind of start hating your earlier work. Otherwise, you just keep making the same thing over and over again. But, hey, I can appreciate all the songwriting and elements that went into Odd Blood. I just think that, for this one, we wanted to make the vocals less dominant and indulge more of our experimental side. It's probably one of the first albums where we really explored dissonance and how far we could take singing a note that's completely out from the chord that's underneath it.
Was there a specific inspiration for that?
It's just something we hadn't done before. A lot of the music that we're interesting in can be sort of jarring and dark. We wanted to see if we could do that. On the last album, there definitely were some saccharine songs. And they were great, but it was something we wanted to move away from.
Is that a reflection on where you're at in your personal lives? Basically, I'masking if you guys were in a really sappy place when you wrote Odd Blood.
[Laughs.] No, I think, looking at some of the songs from Odd Blood, “I Remember” is about young love and “Love Me Girl” is about frustrations with the beginnings of relationships. There are relationship songs on this album, but they're maybe more mid-relationship, like with marriage and that sort of thing.
There's some morbidity to this album, too.
Just because, I think. It's a fun topic to talk about, Mortality is always something that pops up and lends itself to interesting story songs.
It's funny because, when you're in a satisfying relationship, hopefully there isn't much drama to discuss in your songs. It's probably much more inspiration to have, like, multiple romantic liaisons. [Laughs.]
Do you think that's true? Do you have to be a less stable person to write good songs?
I don't think so. To create good music, all you have to be is ambitious and not lazy. I think some of the best music is probably written by happy people overflowing with creativity. But then there's also tons of really great sad songs.
I mean, you find inspiration from that book you've been reading or that really crappy thing that's been happening in your life. It's the job of the songwriter to run the gamut of all of those different inspirations.
Are there any specific inspirations for this album?
Well, for the songs I wrote, I'm mostly talking about myself and my relationships and my own personal anxiety or my anger. [Lead vocalist] Chris [Keating] has a few songs about himself and some more story-related songs, too.
You mentioned earlier in this interview the idea of ambition and the idea of trying and failing. One thing that I always hear a lot when I talk to songwriters is the frustration of certain songs they're writing just not working. it almost sounds like you're saying that that's part of the benefit. Did you guys do the whole thing where you wrote 50 songs to get the dozen or so that appear on this album?
We definitely worked on about 20 different ideas and then whittled it down.
Then we figured out in the studio which ones we were working on. I think we ended up mastering 13 songs, and then we ended up cutting two of them.
You cut the title track, even.
We did. Just through discussions and how it turned out sonically, we cut that song and another one called “Don't Come Close.” And we're actually performing both of those live.
I noticed that, too. Is that a weird thing?
I don't know. “Fragrant World” came out in the deluxe package of the album, but the other song, we just kind of reworked it live and it's been working out nicely. Those songs maybe kind of made the album too dark, I think. They're just kind of miserable songs in terms of how they ended up sounding. [Laughs.] So we put some other ones on the album just to give the disc a little more flow and give it more ups and downs.
Speaking of that flow: Given the left-hand turns you've taken with the last two albums, especially electronically, how does the more tribal All Hour Cymbals fit into the live show these days, if at all?
We just re-learned “Wait for the Summer,” actually. We have a new drummer, so we had to figure it all out with all the new technology and tracks we have. It's great. It's a different vibe, for sure, but it helps out, I think.
It's hard to get a read sometimes on how people feel about the new stuff, just because it's so new and just came out. So, certain songs that might end up being people's favorites don't register as immediately as the songs that just have a really solid four-to-the-floor disco beat. But any time you play an old song like “Wait for the Summer” or “2080,” people get the kind of double satisfaction of those being old familiar songs that they've had years to sit with and also that they're just fun songs to play live.
Hopefully the new songs have had some time to register before you guys get to Texas.
I think they will. Texas crowds are usually just pretty fantastic toward us, especially Dallas. People just go wild down there. The Granada Theater has been great to us. Last time we played there, I think they recorded the show for us. It was a pretty solid recording.
Like, just for personal gain or have there been plans to do something with that?
I think it's something they just do there.
I actually have a little section on my CD shelves that's dedicated to all these live Yeasayer recordings that have just been handed to us after a show. It's funny, it's just like, “Oh. OK. Thanks, Granada Theater.”
You should do something with those.
Yeah, we should. I mean, we did a live album a few years ago. We're not at the point yet where we're like the Grateful Dead and people are recording every show and putting it online and being like, “Oh, man, I really love that Madison, Wisconsin, show! It's my favorite!” [Laughs.] But, yeah, that'd be pretty sweet. That's kind of our goal at this point. Music critics haven't exactly been the most kind to us, but our live following just seems to be more and more dedicated. So it really has seemed like things are headed in that direction.
Have you been surprised by that negative critical reaction?
It kind of happens with every album. We've never really counted on any particular reviewers to burst open our career, and we never really had a ton of early Pitchfork love or anything like that, so, to me, I think the negative reviews are just largely symptomatic of us being at a certain level of notoriety where critics don't feel like they need to help us out any more and they can just trash us. I mean, there have been plenty of positive reviews of the album. But I think we're at the point where it's just like, 'Who cares? They're already established. They can make a living off of this.' Critics like to build you up when you're on the way up, but once you have some sort of stature, it seems like it's all about taking you down a notch.
That seems like a healthy perspective to have!
Yeah, thanks! I mean, I just look at everything and I'm like, 'Oh, sweet! We're huge!”
Yeasayer performs tonight, September 5, at the House of Blues.