Anna Palmer

Only three albums into their career, Yeasayer have become indie rock's shapeshifters; continually morphing their sound to include folk, pop, rock, soul and dance rhythms into a sound that's both cerebral and visceral; heady lyrics placed over head-nodding beats. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the band's latest album, Fragrant World, which deals with fear of aging and mortality, yet remains an uplifting and buoyant listen musically. From a Brooklyn hotel room, members Chris Keating and Anand Wilder talk about their critics, their new album's sound and, of course, grandparent sex. 

Fragrant World sounds like your most dance-influenced album to date. 

Chris: We’re not like wallflowers. If we go out to a dance club, I like to have fun and I’m not going to sit. And I also think that when you look to music that is progressive in terms of its use of technology, sonically it’s the electronic music that’s geared towards dancing. It’s sometimes vacuous—most times vacuous—it’s empty stuff. But you can even listen to some of the shittiest fist-pumping Euro techno and you’re like, "There’s kind of a cool sound in there. What the hell is that?" So you look in that direction as opposed to looking at music that’s just trying to rip off blues or traditional rock n' roll. There is not a lot of interesting sonic stuff coming from that world. But we’re ultimately songwriters so you want to write the songs and convey ideas and images through songs, so you’re trying to you know find the hybrid of that.

There are references to aging and immortality all over the album. “Henrietta” is about Henrietta Lacks, the woman with the immortal cell line. “No Bones” says “Make no bones about it/We're older now than I like to admit.” Did anything specific inspire this theme?

Anand: It’s something that comes into focus when you have this weird lifestyle where you’re recording something and then going off on the road. And you have these two distinct lives and you come back to the city that you live in, but you’re kind of removed from it a little bit. You have a little Rip Van Winkle syndrome.

Like feeling like a tourist in your own city?

Anand: Yeah, a little bit. Or just like, "Wait, who am I still friends with?" It actually starts to feel less like a dream and more of just… it becomes your reality.

Chris: It's like, "Oh, did you change your number?" "Yeah, a year ago." "Wow, sh*t, you have a kid now?" That’s the theme in general, starting with that concept of Henrietta Lacks and this whole idea of human cells and branching outwards.

What was it about her story that clicked for you?

Chris: It’s very tragic and moving and a story that ties in interestingly with historical phenomenon and medical phenomenon made more personal by the fact that she’s from Baltimore where we grew up. It played in nicely with the themes that I’m somewhat obsessed with in terms of fear of aging; not necessarily death, but the beyond, you know? Terrifying, terrifying stuff.

Did the critical acclaim of 2010's Odd Blood weigh on you when recording the new album?

Chris: No, you don’t really hear the positive stuff anyway. You only hear the negative sh*t, so you’re just always looking to defy detractors.

So you have the mental filter to block out the positive.

Anand: It really was an exponential growth. I think we sold 40,000 [copies] of our first record, 70,000 of the next one. It’s just like inch by inch.

Chris: It doesn’t feel like we reached fame and fortune or anything like that. [Odd Blood] didn’t even feel like it was our definitive thesis statement of the band. It was just another step forward or working through ideas and making songs that we find interesting.

So when the album is mixed and mastered, is there a Yeasayer ritual to listening to it for the first time?

Chris: I did not want to listen to it for a while. Just take off a little time. You’re too close to it. You hear the imperfections and things that you would change under time constraints, which are mostly self-imposed, but still. So now I still haven’t listened to a final mastered version of it all the way through. I’m waiting for the hard copy.

Are you able to listen to your music without being critical about it?

Chris: It takes a couple of years. I listened to the first album while we were mixing Fragrant World and was nicely removed from it. I was like, "That sounds pretty cool. If I heard this, I’d be into this."

Anand: You need a few years to go back and listen to it. Or drugs.

Chris: Drugs or years.

The visuals for "Henrietta" make me want to take shrooms.

Chris: I’m not stopping you.

Anand: I got a number.

Was the recording process different from past albums?

Chris: I think we tried to keep up a spirit of experimentation that we found out the hard way on the first album just by limited resources and this is what we got, like, "Let’s just use this synthesizer." So the sound on that album is the free synthesizer we got from my friend. We had one microphone.

Anand: We had this big preamp mic and reverb tank that we would just send out the vocals to and crank up the reverb. It was a completely ridiculous old piece of equipment.

Chris: But we still do try to keep up that philosophy of getting something new and incorporating pieces of technology in the song and really feature it.

Three albums in, have you settled into your roles as musicians or does it still feel surreal?

Chris: A couple of moments, it hits you. It happens sometimes when we’re watching a friend's band at a festival with a lot of people on the side of the stage, and I’m like, "Damn, there are a lot of people here. If I was onstage now, I’d be real excited." And then you think, "Oh cool. We are gonna do that. Tomorrow." You just feel this surge of energy from the crowd and happiness and then you get the spine tingle.

Are you expecting that for the upcoming cruise S.S. Coachella?

Anand: We never thought we’d get on a cruise 'til our 50s and 60s. The reunion tour.

How did that go down?

Chris: When you’re playing [small New York club] Cake Shop or whatever place in Bushwick, you never think someone’s going to say, "So there’s this cruise with a bunch of bands that you like and some friends of yours who are also musicians, and we’ll pay you money to go on it and it goes to Jamaica. Do you want to do that?" And you’re like, "Uh yeah, duh."

Do you guys have cruise ship experience?

Chris: We were on a cruise once. It was the way to get to Helsinki from Gothenburg I think. We were using it as transportation and everyone else used it as a booze cruise. They go around the Baltic Sea drinking, going to these different ports and no one ever gets off and we were just trying to get to the next port.

Anand: They had this little theater with all these funny strange dance performances and weird ballroom dancing with elderly couples. That was surreal.

So is S.S. Coachella essentially going to be shuffleboard tournaments?

Chris: It’s gotta be more like girls in really short jean shorts having orgies and doing drugs.

Is that what you hope or assume?

Chris: Well, you always hope. [Laughs]

Well, James Murphy’s doing a wine tasting, so...

Anand: He is? Oh my God.

How much do you read about the band?

Chris: I mean, there’s always a period where it’s like, you know your grandparents are having sex in the other room because you can hear it, and you’re like, "Ah, I don’t really want to see that." But then you think, "Well, it’s awesome."

I don’t really know where to go from there.

Chris: You know it’s out there, but it can get so morbid to start, and just depressing to dwell on any of that sh*t.

Anand: You only see the bad stuff. We all want approval.

Chris: I also like what people’s interpretations are of things, I always find that to be interesting.

So you’ll read Yeasayer album reviews?

Chris: I try not to, but I'll read some of it. So much of this stuff these days can be kind of hacky and snarky online; just not fact-checked and not really thought out. It can be negative, as long as it’s really thoughtful.

Anand: I like reading about my favorite classic bands and they might even lead you to a band, but if I read a review of some band that even looks really cool and all these descriptors are great, and then I listen to it, I’m not going to like it because of the review. I’m going to be like, "This sucks and I’m never going to look at that. I’m never going to listen to them ever again." I’m sorry, but it’s kind of meaningless.

Going back to the cruise, if James Murphy is doing a wine tasting, what will Yeasayer be doing?

Chris: Nacho cheese tasting. You can have your f*cking wine tasting. We’ll be here with some nacho cheese and Cheese Whiz.

Anand: We got five different types of cheese.

Chris: Yeah. We'll do a pretzel tasting.

Fragrant World is out now on Secretly Canadian