Yeasayer: "America's not like Canada, where crappy bands are funded by the government"

Rob Pollard interviews Yeasayer's Chris Keating.

Earlier this year, Brooklyn band Yeasayer released their third studio album, and this week they finished their latest UK tour. They are a band that have consistently evolved their sound since their breakthrough in 2007. Their debut LP, All Hour Cymbals, was essentially a folk record, yet their follow up, Odd Blood, was heavily inspired by 90s dance music. Rarely has a band released two records so dramatically different and pulled it off with such style. Their latest album, Fragrant World, is a more stripped back electronic affair, with all the immediacy we’ve come to expect from this great pop band. It’s this reluctance to remain static which has made them one of the most fascinating acts of recent years.

I spoke to vocalist Chris Keating to get his thoughts on Yeasayer and the US Elections. 

Your first album, All Hour Cymbals, dealt with very broad, global themes, whereas the follow up seemed far more personal. What’s your take on the new album’s lyrical approach?

In general, from song to song, we’re dealing with different things but on the last album it was specifically a personal record. This one we’re back to talking about more global ideas, with certain songs relating to stories and history. It’s always difficult to easily surmise the concept of a record that isn’t necessarily a concept album. 

You seemed to have a lot of the material written quite a while ago. Why does it take so long to get an album out there?

I don’t know if we had it all in the bag for that long but we delivered a record to a record label after working on it over a year ago and it just takes however long to put it out. One of the most frustrating things about being an artist and handing over your material to a label is that you never know how long things take. So it’s not really us, it’s more down to what a record label wants to do with it. 

Yeasayer write some of the best and most intricate vocal arrangements in music. How difficult is it for Anand, Ira and yourself to create all those harmonies?

Those guys are particularly good at arranging harmonies. For me, I’ll have kind of a vague idea that this should be a group vocal section or something but it’s one of those things that comes from experimentation in the studio. You throw someone in the booth after a lead vocal is done and they just kind of write a little harmony part alongside it and it just starts to grow from there. I find it difficult to conceive of vocal harmonies but it’s just something that comes from trying out different arrangements and usually it can happen in the course of a day, you just kind of devote yourself to making some harmonies. 

What’s the best part about being a musician?

I think it varies. When I’m on stage, I really enjoy playing music, whereas the other 23 hours of the day when I’m on tour aren’t necessarily the most fun. It can be but it can also be pretty boring. For me, it’s always been about creating the music and when you get that spark. When you’re in the studio and you’re trying to get through something and you have a moment that’s very creative and you feel inspired, that’s pretty much the best feeling you can have.

I’ve spoken to quite a few bands recently who complain about the financial deals offered by streaming services such as Spotify. What’s your take on that? Are Spotify ripping bands off?

Yeah, I think they are. When you look at the percentage that bands make on iTunes and Spotify it’s about a hundredth of if you were selling a record - that’s how much royalty you end up getting. Spotify try to be cool and offer bands a free membership or something and it’s, like, give me a fucking break, it’s 30 bucks. I think it’s a necessary thing and it’s annoying when I go on Spotify and artists aren’t on there, like Pink Floyd or something, because they are already massively rich. It’s just a strange climate we live in with a culture of cheap and immediate access to media and music and people seem to take it for granted. 

Yeah, people seem to think it’s absolutely fine to get music for free nowadays, which is odd to me. Is it sustainable?

You have a whole generation who has grown up now thinking ‘oh I’m entitled to this for free’ and not really understanding that if artists can’t make a living doing it then it will just stop. It’s a mixed blessing though because we were obviously given a career by the internet and have been able to tour the world multiple times over because of the idea of peer-to-peer file sharing and people downloading music, so you can’t really complain too much. I’m not sure we would have even existed under the previous system.

Why does so much great art originate in Brooklyn? 

I’m not sure. I think New York has always been the centre of creating art and creating music in one way or another and now, with more and more people wanting to live there, it’s just one of these places, it’s a certain zeitgeist, and people can move there and start bands, and there’s lots of places to play and they can feel cool about it, but I really don’t have an answer.

There appears to be less guitar on your new album. Am I correct in thinking that the presence of guitars has declined throughout the band’s existence? 

I’m not sure because what we’ve always tried to do when we use guitars is treat it like anything else and process it and get it to sound different. So when we have a song, something that may sound like a synthesiser sound or something being played by keys is actually being played by a guitar going through a variety of pedals. So I’m not sure. I mean, Anand’s main instrument is his guitar so he definitely laid down a lot of guitar in the studio but we’ve found interesting ways to treat it. You can overly fetishise the guitar sound, and guitar is such a staple of a rock band, so we always try to use it in slightly different ways. 

You’ve been playing tracks from your new record for a while now. Is playing new material to an audience a good way of testing whether or not a song is any good?

Yeah, it can be but it’s always difficult to play new material. When you play a song that’s been around for four years and has demonstrated it’s popularity by the fact that it’s been on a TV show or a movie, or just the fact that it was on the radio a lot, you can tell that people get really excited when you play that song as opposed to playing a new one. Who wants to go to a Bob Dylan concert and see his brand new material? But at the same time I really enjoy playing new songs because you get nervous again on stage. It’s easy to go through the motions playing something you’ve played 500 or 600 times, whereas the new ones you’ve only played, like, 10 times, so you get a real sense of energy from the musician trying to hold it together. 

I was at Latitude Festival this summer where I saw your performance and your version of O.N.E was really different from the album version. Is that something you may do more in the future, give old songs a new twist?

Yeah, we do that often, just because it enables O.N.E for us to have new life injected into it. We play certain songs a certain way for an entire tour, and if you saw it on that tour that’s great, but now we’d like to change them around for our own vanity. Some people might be disappointed with that, I don’t know, but we think it makes it more interesting to inject a different sound into a song. Almost like a live remix or something. 

The relief here in the UK when Barack Obama was re-elected was palpable. What was the feeling in America?

Yeah, definite relief. I was pretty freaked out. The United States can be such a troubling and fucked up, bizarre country when you have these real psychopaths running for office and real heartless plutocrats that could take over. When all of a sudden the guy who’s doing the right thing wins there’s a huge sigh of relief. I think we’re witnessing a once-in-a-generation type of politician in Barack Obama and I’m looking forward to him being president and hopefully him being taken to task by liberal people who are saying now ‘OK you really have to follow through with your promises’.

Has the expectancy about what Obama can deliver fallen since his first win in 2008 or is there still huge excitement?

Some idealists can be confused about the role of what politics is. I think politics is the art of what is achievable, it’s not always necessarily going to produce the best results, just because of the way government is set up. So yeah, I do think that expectations have fallen but I figure that the expectations were so unreasonably skewed that many young, liberal people just thought Obama could come in and totally change everything, which is just not the way the office of president works. It’s sort of a slow, grinding influence and he still has to deal with obstructing rednecks in congress, so it’s frustrating but I have high hopes. I think that, because it’s a second term, and this is a guy who will never have to run for re-election again in his life, I hope he pulls out all the stops. I hope he ends the drug war, and I hope he deals with poverty, and I hope he gets America out of all the horrible, foreign military situations that we’re in. 

Do you think the world would have been a more dangerous place had Mitt Romney been elected?

I don’t know, I just think that he was full of shit. I think he was a two-faced scam artist that didn’t know what he stood for because when he was Governor of Massachusetts, which is an extremely liberal state, he took on liberal viewpoints. So I don’t think it would have been as bad as having W. Bush but you really don’t know because we don’t know what Romney stood for. Mitt Romney is a religious fanatic, he is a plutocrat, a big business guy, so ultimately I don’t feel he had conviction in any way. 

There is great concern over here about Israel and Iran and their ongoing problems. Is there a high level of concern in the states, particularly among liberals?

I don’t know. I find you can’t really be too concerned with the craziness that goes on between countries in the Middle East because it seems perpetually every six months that Iran is close to getting a nuclear weapon, and that’s been going on for about seven years now. So yeah, in some ways people are concerned about it, but in other ways I really don’t know what you’re going to do. If Iran gets nuclear weapons then I think Israel is gonna hit them so hard that it’ll probably wipe out the whole world. But I really don’t know whether you can worry about it. You know, maybe we’ll be witnessing the end of the world in my time, I really don’t know, and I can’t worry about it too much, it’s beyond my control. 

We’re fighting hard in this country to keep our National Health Service free at the point of entry because that fundamental principle is under threat from our Conservative-led government. I therefore find it staggering that some American’s are opposed to the idea of Obamacare. Can you shed some light on that?

Honestly, I don’t know because Obamacare seems to be about 20 per cent of the way towards what we really need. So it’s a very minor step in the right direction and he tried for something much greater. People are opposed to it because the United States is essentially this ‘Live Free or Die’ cowboy mentality and I think people don’t want taxes, they don’t want to pay for anything. A lot of people don’t care if poor people are uninsured. There’s this bizarre libertarian mentality that’s pervasive in the United States. And then I think there are a lot of other people who are just convinced by big business that their healthcare’s gonna be worse if it’s run by government. I personally don’t agree with any of that, so it’s hard to put myself in the position of understanding what those people are thinking. 

There’s a theory that’s prevalent amongst the artistic fraternity here in the UK that right-wing governments impinge on creativity and make art more difficult to create. Would a Republican president have been a threat to art and music in America?

Honestly, no. The fact is that Mitt Romney wanted to cut funding to PBS, which is what makes Sesame Street and is the only really reliable news source, and he also wanted to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, but those things are such small budgets that it would have made no difference. It’s, like, a fraction of the budget for the military. There isn’t very good arts funding in the United States anyway. It’s not like Canada where crappy bands are funded by the government. We’ve never had that here and I think, in many ways, it benefits not to have government involved in the arts. But I’m not sure a Republican or Democrat would affect things. 

Yeasayer at Manchester Academy, October 2010. Photograph: Sam Ellis

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

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Philip Lancaster's War Passion draws on beautiful material – but lacks feeling

With a lot of commemorative art to compete with, the premiere of Lancaster's new piece could have used, well, more passion.

In a letter home from the front, dated May 1917, Wilfred Owen wrote, “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land.” He was referring to the prevalence of Catholic iconography in rural France and commenting that even the statues he saw everywhere were not immune to war wounds. In the opening of his poem “At a Calvary Near the Ancre”, he took this imagery and wrote of a roadside statue of the crucified Christ: “In this war He too lost a limb . . .” Decades later, the poem became one of nine set to music by Benjamin Britten for his War Requiem, cementing the connection between the suffering Christ and the losses of the First World War.

It is this parallel that Philip Lancaster has sought to explore in War Passion, his new work for chamber choir, ensemble and soloists which premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester on 24 July. Lancaster, like Britten, has used the poetry of the First World War, interspersed with other, often religious texts. His selections range across a number of poets who died in or survived the war, including Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Julian Grenfell, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves.

The choice of texts is intriguing, as several of the poets from whose work he borrows were openly atheist or anti-Church at the time of the war. For instance, the last entry in Edward Thomas’s war diary, written shortly before he was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917, was: “I never quite understood what was meant by God.” You wonder what he and others of similar mind might have made of the inclusion of their work in a Passion.

The piece is intended, on one level, as a narration of Christ’s Passion according to the Gospel of Mark, and also as a commentary on the parallels between the sacrifice of Jesus and that of the soldiers. The opening contains some of the best music in the work:
a merging, intertwining dialogue between two cellos that sets a sombre, eerie mood.

A lot of the effect of this section was lost in performance, however, once the full orchestra and chorus got going. The sound of the former was so overpowering that the words of Grenfell’s “Into Battle” (the first poem of the sequence to be used) were mostly inaudible. This remained true throughout the 67 minutes of the piece as the narrator and other characters, as well as the chorus, were all but drowned out by the ensemble, a situation that was not helped by the blurry acoustics of Cirencester Parish Church. For a piece that relies so heavily on the interaction of different texts, this was a problem.

An exception to this was the soprano aria fashioned from Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Tower of Skulls” for the Golgotha section of the Passion, in which the soloist Anna Gillingham made full use of her higher notes to bring a piercing, unearthly quality to the “gleaming horror” of the poet’s vision of “layers of piled-up skulls”. The chorale-like chorus setting of parts of “The Death Bed” by Sassoon also came across well. In general, the music was unremarkable – self-consciously contemporary and percussive with lots of dissonance and rhythmic shifts, but lacking the harmonic underpinning or depth of feeling that would make it particularly memorable.

The various First World War centenaries that are being celebrated at the moment have provided us with an awful lot of war-related cultural output – from exhibitions to plays and everything in between. To stand out in this crowd, a new offering has to give us a fresh perspective on what are commonly known events and images. The parallel of the suffering of Christ with that of the soldiers on the Western Front is well worn almost to the point of cliché, as evidenced by Wilfred Owen’s use of it. Even the war memorial outside the church where the War Passion was premiered is topped with a carving of the crucifixion.

Alongside Lancaster’s Passion, the St ­Cecilia Singers gave us Herbert Howells’s Requiem. Howells wrote this relatively short, unaccompanied work in the 1930s, partly in response to the death of his nine-year-old son, Michael, from polio, but it wasn’t performed until the early 1980s, just before the composer died.

This was an atmospheric performance, though it was slightly marred by the perennial problems of amateur choirs: falling pitch, poor diction and quavery tenors. But the two hushed settings of the Latin text “Requiem aeternam dona eis” were admirably focused, and more evocative than ­everything else on the programme.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue