Yeasayer: Saying & Doing

Ahead of an exhausting summer festival tour, Siobhan Rooney talks to Yeasayer’s Anand Wilder.

There’s a good chance Yeasayer’s guitarist thinks I’m 12.

Speaking down the phone from his New York home, Anand Wilder has endured an afternoon of probing from The Guardian and will later chat to MTV. Hardly a bad position to be in, but four years into his musical career with the freshly-acclaimed hipsters, he’s already jaded about the trappings of 21st century fame: “The internet is the future of information. However, just because it’s in writing, it isn’t necessarily valid. A magazine will have been around for a long time. Its not some 12 year old kid talking shit in a basement.”

It’s fortunate then that journalists and amateurs alike love the experimental trio. Even Kanye West gave his stamp of approval, posting the video to “Ambling Alp” on his blog. Promoters have taken heed: with the release of Yeasayer’s much-hyped second album in February, they’ve been signed up to play at Lovebox, T in the Park, Latitude, Reading and Leeds festivals over the summer, and that’s not including a clutch of European dates including Belgium’s Pukkelpop.

Emerging from Brooklyn’s red hot musical underbelly in 2007, the band first impressed with All Hour Cymbals, their rock/worldbeat fusing debut. Last autumn, they toured the UK with Bat for Lashes after meeting at a Beck show in Amsterdam.

“She seemed really cool,” recalls Wilder. “She got in touch with our management, and wanted to get some drum programming and bass sounds. There was just a natural progression to open for her.”

Wilder rejects the idea of more supporting tours, however, citing the less than enthusiastic reaction of UK audiences. “It was great to get some exposure on the Bat for Lashes tour, but the audiences weren’t great. They didn’t seem to react in a very energetic way. They’re tentative and clap at the end, a very different way of enjoying a show compared to in America. Every night you’d get off stage and think do people hate us?” he laughs. “You look out in the audience and people are yawning, and you think why am I doing this?”

It’s not something the band will likely need to put up with again. Yeasayer’s latest release, Odd Blood, has guaranteed them headliner status with its weird mix of experimentation and kitsch, eccentric pop, winning them favourable reviews in publications previously unfamiliar with Brooklyn’s trendy oeuvre. Gone are the sitars and heavy rhythmic drumming of its predecessor in favour of distorted electronica gems like The Children and Mondegreen’s hyperactive groove.

The album has gone down a storm thus far in America, where student crowds attempted a stage invasion at the band’s Brown University gig. “A hundred people just got up on stage,” Wilder enthuses. “I think people know we’re OK with that, that kind of reckless abandonment. And maybe that’s part of the creation of this new album: we wanted to make songs that are really fun to play live.”

It helps that the new record strikes an arguably more optimistic chord than All Hour Cymbals, which boasted themes like environmental disaster on 2080, not to mention Wait for the Summer’s opening lyric, “Life is easier when one of us is dead”. Wilder disagrees: “I don’t think so. We made a conscious decision to do something completely different from the last album, get rid of the reverb and haze, and make a more synthetic sounding album.”

“In the lyrics of the last album we were talking about global fears,” he explains. “With the new one we thought, let’s see if we can write more love songs that relate to someone on a more personal level.” Indeed, songs like I Remember explore the more traditional territory of romantic yearning with its refrain, “you’re stuck in my mind all the time”. But, Wilder concedes, “I don’t know if it reflects any kind of optimism. I’m still just as cynical.”

So the renewed political climate in the US hasn’t made a difference? “I’d be a lot more cynical if John McCain had won the election.”

It’s tempting to compare Odd Blood with the kind of synth-pop and falsetto vocals typified by former tour partners MGMT, though Wilder says Yeasayer’s music has been described as a “rhythmic dance party”. While the record presents a welcome departure into a bouncy, techni-coloured world, it’ll be interesting to see where they go for their third offering.

Wilder says that at the outset, they wanted to avoid comparisons with some of New York’s more established indie bands. “We knew what we didn’t want to do, we didn’t want to have distorted vocals like The Strokes or be a Gang of Four or Joy Division throwback. We could all sing so played to our strength of harmonising. We wanted to do something with hip-hop, quite beat-heavy. With the new album, we wanted to do something totally new and still retain that core Yeasayer sound.”

All Hour Cymbals stood out from new band debuts by injecting a tribal element into alternative rock, lending itself to some energetic performances on songs like Sunrise. The band have cited the influence of Bollywood on their music as well as Zimbabwean political musician Thomas Mapfumo.

Not just a pretty face, Wilder – an Ivy League graduate with a degree in American history – has channelled some of his thoughts about social unrest into a musical, a side project he predicts could be released over the summer. The subject is Black Pete, a mythical companion of Saint Nicholas depicted in Dutch folklore as a black man.

“It’s a tradition dating back to when the Dutch were involved in the slave trade,” he explains. “All these little Dutch and Belgian children get dressed up in blackface. We’re putting out a song, kind of a Christmas song from the point of view of a kid in Amsterdam seeing this horrible tradition.”

Those less keen on concept albums need not worry though: “I don’t want to bog people down with [social commentary] and make every single song some form of personal protest. Actually, Strange Reunions [from Odd Blood] is kind of a political song about fundamentalism, but I disguised it.”

It’s an unusual move and one that will further distinguish them from less inspired Brooklyn-based acts. Having nurtured a number of justifiably acclaimed bands like Gang Gang Dance and Dirty Projectors, Wilder says the area is “just a very vibrant community”. He recommends Light Asylum and Javelin as some of the multifarious bands from the area worth listening to, as well as friends, Suckers, and Gates of Heaven.

Ultimately though, it’s tough being cool in a digital, virtual, post-myspace world. Wilder recalls one dodgy photo shoot in which the band posed with a Campbell’s soup can, a shot he speculates has become the default Yeasayer photo on the internet. “We thought it was just for one magazine,” he laughs. “It was the one picture we asked them not to use. Somehow that became the iconic Yeasayer photo.”

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