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 Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon