The Modesty of Yeasayer
IMAGE COURTESY OF ANNA PALMA
If Yeasayer were a toy, the band would be a classic tin kaledioscope—colorful, shapeshifting, and impossible to describe. Whether it’s the self-debscribed “Middle Eastern-psych-snap-Gospel” of their 2007 debut, All Hour Cymbals, or the mutated retro pop of 2010 follow-up, Odd Blood, the Brooklyn trio transcends critical pigeonholing and settles into a genre that is uniquely its own.
Fragrant World, released this week via Secretly Canadian, may be the purest form of Yeasayer we’ve seen yet. Yes, the inherent weirdness is here to stay—look no further than lead single, “Henrietta,” for proof—but the self-produced Fragrant World finds Yeasayer remarkably restrained, a quality than manages to affect even the album art. “It’s a muted palate,” says frontman Chris Keating. “It looks a little like a fucked-up tree and the letter Y, and became iconic for us in terms of making the album.”
Keating answered our phone call from his home in Brooklyn, where we spoke about a strange car parked outside his front door, growing up in Rhode Island, a hood ornament theft gone wrong, the Bermuda Triangle, and Nicolas Cage.
JOHN TAYLOR: I was reading an interview where you were talking about how all these different bands live within a very small radius in Brooklyn. Do you think being in such a close proximity makes some of the music overlap?
CHRIS KEATING: No, not really. But there is definitely the concept of zeitgeist. The decade in which you are crafting something that influences the kind of stuff that you want to make. I try my damnedest to avoid becoming a typical member of that zeitgeist, but it seems no matter how hard you fight it… if you were making music in 1968, you’re going to have a tinge of psychedelia in it. In terms of community, there’s a lot of like-minded people. I’m pretty surprised when I end up talking to friends who are musicians in big bands.
TAYLOR: I was talking to Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio a while back, and he recalled running into you guys at a café.
KEATING: I saw Chris Baio yesterday! He was walking across the street, but he had these earbuds in. I kept yelling, “What’s up? What’s up?” for ten blocks, and he never once turned his head. [laughs] I guess he was rocking out to the new Vampire Weekend album.
TAYLOR: Are you looking forward to Coachella? I still can’t believe it’s going to take place on a boat.
KEATING: It’s fucking weird, right? Who were the wizards that came up with that one? I’m really looking forward to it. The S.S. Coachella Cruise 2012. I’ve never been on a cruise. I think my dad went on a cruise recently to go meet ladies, or something. [pauses] Shit, anything goes when you’re not on US soil and you’re in the Bermuda Triangle.
TAYLOR: Do you believe in the Bermuda Triangle?
KEATING: I think it’s real. There’s a lot of different places on the Earth that mess with magnetic compasses. I don’t think it can fuck up a GPS, because that’s coming from space. But I think it does interfere with the navigational systems that are based on polarity, and more traditional methods of navigation. At least, that’s what my sailor friends have told me. [pauses] Whoa, dude!
TAYLOR: What’s up?
KEATING: There’s this really fucked up cab parked outside my house. It looks like someone took a cab, and mashed it up with Mad Max’s cruiser car. It’s really weird looking. I’m kind of scared.
TAYLOR: You should try and carjack it, see what’s inside. Have you ever done anything like that?
KEATING: Dude, I’ve done it all. There was one time, I remember, [my friend and I] being dragged into this club by enormous bouncers in Providence, Rhode Island who were so in the Mafia. They thought we were trying to steal a Mercedes, but we weren’t. We were trying to steal the hood ornament. This guy punched me in the head, dragged me, and held my head against the wall. My feet were off the ground. They were like, “You’re fucking dead.” They were looking through my wallet and my friend’s bag. We were like, “We’re not trying to steal your car. We go to college right here.” It was the first time in my life I had ever [been like], “Do not kill us. Please.”
Providence is this big mob town. It was weird. The club was empty. It was cleared out, probably a few hours after closing, and there were these bartenders staring at us. Eventually I was like, “Just call the cops, man. Just call the cops.” Eventually, someone was like, “Wait a minute. Did you actually see them try to break into the car? Or did you just randomly assault and kidnap—forcibly detain—these two random kids?” They went, “OK! You can go.” I was 20. Let’s just say I was glad I survived that one.
TAYLOR: You grew up in Baltimore. Have you been back there recently?
KEATING: Yeah, I go back a couple of times a year. My family’s all still there. Baltimore is a funny town. It still feels very provincial in a way, like when you go back, “Why would ever leave Baltimore, man?” [laughs] I grew up in the Baltimore scene, and it’s all these kids who went to MICA, went to art school there for a few years, and now it’s this wacky warehouse scene. It just seems very, it’s the way cities are. I’m an immigrant to New York. I’ve been here for nine years. That’s half the time I spent in Baltimore growing up. It’s a cool little town, but I don’t want to spend the rest of my lifetime there. And I think people sometimes find that funny when you come from a small town.
TAYLOR: Speaking of small towns, I remember seeing you at this small, conservative school a couple of years back. I think the tickets were $10.
KEATING: We’ve done a few of those. We’ve done a few conservative type shows, and… hey! Not my bag. Not my lifestyle. But I’ll play for any venue. I’m more about trying to transcend those bullshit notions of, these conservative institutions. The whole idea that people get in trouble, or blacklisted when they play Israel, to me, is a bunch of nonsense. I remember when Cut Copy played Israel, and they were Facebook-bombed with all these petitions for them to not play Israel. I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” The kids in Israel, first of all, are not the people you have a beef with. Just like the kids in Arizona are not the people you have a beef with, because of Arizona’s shitty immigration policy in that state.
You go and play these shows, and ideally, you’re trying to express something to younger people, who are a little more enlightened than the shitty governments or the shitty institutions that they represent. Similarly, with a conservative college. I don’t dig conservative ideology, but I’ll play for a couple of hundred kids who might be into it. It’ll probably have more impact on their lives than, you know, your average hipster in Brooklyn. That’s for damn sure.
TAYLOR: Those kids are probably too preoccupied with an ironic love of Nicolas Cage, anyway.
KEATING: I like him. I’m a fan. I don’t feel an irony—I’m a legitimate Nicolas Cage fan. I feel he’s delivered tens of hundreds of unsatisfactory acting performances, but he’s done some really brilliant ones. I’m not a hater. It doesn’t get much better than Raising Arizona, Wild at Heart, even Bad Lieutenant: Point of Call New Orleans. Pretty much every interview I do these days is about Nicolas Cage. I don’t know what the hell that is, but it just seems to come up.
TAYLOR: Can we just put irony to rest, once and for all?
KEATING: Yeah. Art and irony generally have not been the best of friends, I think. Humor is okay, but you need to have sincerity when you’re making music and art, I think, for it to transcend.
TAYLOR: That reminds me, I was just watching the music video for “Madder Red” last night, and I kind of chuckled at the beginning, but by the end of the video, I was getting really emotional.
KEATING: Yeah, that’s kind of the idea. [Director] Andreas [Nilsson] had a great, fully formed concept. It was about a story that a friend told him, about a deformed sheep that was born on a farm in Scotland. God, what a terrible story. It’s really sad. But yeah, it did start from a pure place. And then he injected humor into it by having Kristen Bell in it.
TAYLOR: Is Kristen Bell into Yeasayer?
KEATING: Maybe a little bit. She agreed to do the video. [laughs] I don’t know. I just assume that no one is a fan. I operate my life under that presumption—that way, you never settle into routines, or expect that you’re going to make money next year, or that people are going to be at your shows. It’s a much better way to be. Maybe it’s psychologically unhealthy to be wrapped in self-doubt, but I think that it makes you strive harder and longer to create something interesting. I’m going to assume that Kristen Bell hates Yeasayer, but the reality is probably that she liked our music, since she agreed to do the video. There you go.
TAYLOR: Fingers crossed for Kristen Bell fandom.
KEATING: Fingers totally crossed. [Police sirens wail in the background]
TAYLOR: I’m hearing police sirens right now, are you OK? Is that weird car parked outside your house still there?
KEATING: Oh man! That car is gone.
FRAGRANT WORLD IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON YEASAYER, VISIT THE BAND’S FACEBOOK PAGE.