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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era