“The Joy Of Music And Art Is Confronting Difficulties” – Talking To Yeasayer

Brooklyn’s own Yeasayer have been around for over a decade now, releasing their own unique brand of experimental pop and rock that soundtracked a generation. Having released three albums, a quiet period followed before the band announced a new album earlier this year. Amen And Goodbye is less than a month out from being released and it’s looking like the band are striding into even further unchartered territory, their most ambitious release yet.

Bass player and founding member Ira Wolf Tuton gave us some time out of his hectic schedule to fill us in on what’s been happening in the Yeasayer universe in the lead-up to the new record.

Hey Ira, how’s it going?

Good James, I’m well, how are you?

Yeah not too bad, where do we find you at the moment?

I just walked into my apartment in Brooklyn, we had a rehearsal tonight.

I figured it might have been a busy day for you all, I know you’ve just released your latest single Silly Me. What can you tell us about that song?

That’s what they keep telling me. I keep checking my bank account but it’s still the same amount of money in there *laughs*.

Well, I can say that I feel like that song fits a place in the entire record as kind of the most pop song that we’ve got on the record and I feel like it juxtaposes a lot of the other stuff that we have. When we were recording we were very aware that we were engaged in the album artform, whether dead or alive or slowly dying or slowly clawing back and so it’s something we think about as we’re writing and producing and finding songs to fit the whole project. So I think what some people hear as the singular song that defines us I hear as one set-piece out of 11.

Speaking of those 11 pieces, that’s your new record coming out Amen And Goodbye due April 1st. You’ve been through this three times before now with your previous records, how does that last couple of weeks feel before you release an album?

To be honest, the process is so drawn out on that end that I tend to stop thinking about it and I kind of forget that it’s even going on because there’s so many other things you’re prepping for. You have to be getting ready for the tour and it’s always the next thing on the horizon that hasn’t been announced that we need to be ready for.

I think that once the record comes out and once there’s a hard copy and my wife tells me about it and that she’s seen it or my family and friends are texting me about it then it kinda seems real but until then I’m pretty focused on getting our live show together and whatever the next step of whatever we’re engaged in or going to be engaged in and it’s just that constant of preparing for the next thing.

And I guess that would be the tour you’ve also just announced. Are you excited to be getting out of the studio and back on to the stage? Do you prefer one to the other or is it all good?

They’re completely different and I enjoy both for different reasons. I’m excited to re-contextualise and replay this material having sat on it in its present form for such a long time and laboured over it and deliberated over it, sometimes probably too much, it’s nice to take that body of work and erase the edges and the lines and kind of see where it takes you and where the arrangements can go.

So yeah, I’m looking forward to that and I’m looking forward to the energy of playing in front of people and seeing how what has been very personal and introverted for the last few years can change when it becomes communal and extroverted.

You mention you spent a bit more time on this record. It’s been three years since we’ve had a Yeasayer record which is I think about the longest time between albums for you guys. Was there any pressure there either internally or externally to get it done or were you just happy to let it form naturally and organically?

I think there are a lot more pragmatic things that go into it. I don’t think we are ever really in the part of the music industry that there’s like a jackboot of pressure on our necks to do one thing or the other. We never really have occupied that space but pragmatically speaking we ended relations with our last record label and we had to let that contract run itself out and we were at a place where we had just toured off of the third record. The first three were pretty much bang-bang-bang in terms of touring and recording so I think it was some necessary time that we all had to take for our personal needs.

Then when we started recording I think if anything we would have liked to have done it in a quicker fashion but in the end the material was what it was. We ended up getting a producer late in the process and that kind of changed a lot. We lost a lot of the tapes that we had previously recorded in a studio upstate so that kind of added some time.

For us though, that’s just what the process was for this record and I think we approach every project differently and we definitely make it an active goal. This one was certainly different from the last three records we’ve made so we’ve certainly accomplished that (laughs). Sometimes unintentionally but in the end now it can be hindsight and I’m just very pleased that we’re finished and we can now move on to the next thing.

I definitely get what you mean by a different record, just with what you have released so far. I know you guys have such a very fluid sound between records and each one seems to mix in different elements of different genres. Was it important for you as a band to try and mix things up and change them up like that?

Yeah, I think it’s important for any artist to try and stay vital and maintain some kind of joy and appreciation of what you do and to continue to try and evolve. We are constantly looking for challenges, I guess you would call it. There’s things we might not be comfortable doing or some things that might have been difficult, but I think the joy of music and the joy of art is confronting those difficulties and trying to fight through them in a personal way. That’s how you achieve that personal voice and that group voice.

To me that’s the joy of it: approaching every project differently and having each record come out differently and standing on its own.

What were some of the challenges and difficulties you faced with this record? Apart from losing your tapes of course.

That was one *laughs*.

A big one.

Yeah. We didn’t lose them and they didn’t go missing they kind of got damaged but that was a big one. Also we’d never worked with a producer before and we weren’t sure what that was like. The previous three records we all produced. We’re pretty strong-headed and we’ve always found that we function well when we’re producing each other.

We all take a lot of control and ownership of the material that we’re working on so it’s kind of hard for us to understand how an outside puppeteer could be beneficial but then we realised that we didn’t need a puppeteer, we needed kind of a partner in crime and (producer) Joey Waronker is a great musician who filled a lot of holes that we had left open and then just kind of joined in very well with the democratic way that we work and the way that we come to a final decision and the way that we edit and produce so it ended up working well. We did have to work with a couple of wrong people before we got to that point though.

Scheduling too, life gets more complicated the older you get.

Speaking of that democratic process, was there a lot that was left on the cutting room floor with this record in getting it down to those 11 tracks?

I actually don’t know if that number is true or not, I just pulled that number out out and guessed *laughs*.

Yeah there’s some on the cutting room floor. We probably started with 20-25 or something like that, maybe more if you really count all of the little snippets of music we had it might be upwards of 30. We tend to kind of work on everything as a whole across the board and everything is rising at the same time so you can kind of compare everything and I think when we do that it seems that the cream rises to the top and it’s pretty clear when things aren’t working or if something isn’t fitting.

Maybe we’ll go back to it in the recording process in years to come or maybe it’s just gone by the wayside forever. There’s definitely a lot of editing from the beginning where we bring all of our material together to the final product.

Is there a personal favourite track on the record or something we haven’t heard yet that’s going to knock our socks off?

Hmmm… knock your socks off? You know it’s kind of speaking to what we were talking about before. I know we live in a pop culture which is trying to take advantage of a shorter and shorter attention span and in some ways feeding that shorter attention span. So I think the singles are probably what people will hear but to me I’m just really pleased with how the whole record came out. You know, the sequencing of the record and the way that the arrangements flow in and out of each other and through each other and that’s really my takeaway.

I’m just kind of happy with how the whole record feels for me and that didn’t happen overnight.

With the lead-up to Amen And Goodbye it’s almost been a visual experience as much as it’s been a sonic one. You’ve had all this fantastic artwork by the Canadian sculptor (I hope I’m pronouncing it correctly) David Altmejd? What’s it been like collaborating with him, does he take your ideas and visualise them?

Yeah he kind of took the idea in the beginning of a twisted Sgt. Peppers, taking a lot of characters from the past. I think Chris (Keating, vocals/keyboards) reached out to him first to see if he would be interested in working with us and he, fortunately for us, was keen. So we kind of gave him the idea of ‘here are all these characters from the past records, can you do this?’ and then he kind of ran with it and added some characters of his own.

That’s what’s exciting about working with somebody like that is that they are able to take such control and put so much of the personal artistry, that is the reason why we came to them in the first place, into what they’ve done and collaborate on something that you’ve done musically and put it into a visual medium and that’s very exciting to work with him and then continually with Mike Anderson, who did the video for I Am Chemistry.

What a video.

Yeah you know, it’s the same kind of thing where conceptually he’s on the same page. I think when we first saw that video it was very clear that he had created something that existed in the Yeasayer universe we’d always kind of imagined. So that worked really well and now we’re working with people for the live show and continuing on.

That’s definitely a big part of collaborating and over the years we’ve been able to collaborate with a lot of very talented visual artists and that’s been great. Really an exciting part of what we’ve done.

You mention over the years, I know Yeasayer are now in their second decade as a band and I think it was your 10th anniversary as a band last year which must be surreal to think about. Has that been something that’s flown or dragged?

Yeah it’s pretty surreal. I remember when I first moved to New York and I was doing a carpentry job and this guy, I think his name was Rock, he was probably in his fifties or something and he’d been a carpenter since back in the day. We got talking and he said to me ‘just you wait, 10 years is gonna go by just like that’ and he snapped his fingers and said ‘and you’re not even gonna know it happened.’

And I was like ‘Yeah, whatever old man!’ *laughs* ‘get outta here!’ But it happened all of a sudden. Time flies in New York, you’re mostly engaged in doing something and it’s a competitive place. You’re constantly surrounded by people who are on the move and working at their own art or industry and I think we’ve moved, when I think about the touring I can’t believe we’ve done that amount of touring. In some ways I’m like, oh man we should have so many more records! We only have four records, what have we been doing?!

We don’t have the luxury of being a studio band though and we have to get out on the road here and there. Has it flown by? It depends on how you look at it but I’m constantly on this go-round where everybody interviewing me is like ‘so what was New York like back in the day?’ and usually the people who are interviewing me are legitimately 15 to 20 years younger than I am (laughs), so I’m saying for the first time: I’m feeling a little bit old but at least I look great.

As long as you can keep saying that as the years go on.

And I still have my sense of humour. As long as I have either one or the other I guess.

So what was New York like back in the day?… I’m kidding.


Is there anything that you haven’t achieved as a band yet that you’re working towards?

At the moment my mind is just on the touring. There’s places to go that we’ve never gone to before. We’ve never played Istanbul before and I really want to play there. We just had our first number one single, our single went to number one on the iTunes charts in Lithuania so I’d really love to play there too.

Look out Istanbul and Lithuania.

I didn’t even know it was possible. It’s always exciting to play to new audiences who discover you through the power of the Internet, it’s very unexpected, but most of all I just want to keep moving and keep developing and if that doesn’t happen then we’ll move on and do something else but that’s the most important, is to keep the change alive and to keep the motivation.

Speaking of places to play, you guys have a lot of fans out here in Australia. Is there any chance we might be seeing you play here in the near future?

I mean, Australia is one of the greatest places to tour if not the greatest place to tour. If you’ll have us, which I hope you will, we will definitely be there. We love playing there and the audiences there are fantastic. Where in Australia are you?

I’m in sunny Brisbane.

Yeah that’s usually the first place we go. We’ve done Laneway a few times and that’s usually the first place we go. Laneway is great because it’s a travelling festival so it’s like a summer camp around Australia and unlike other tours you tend to eat really well and get a lot of vitamin D and the people are really friendly.

If you’ll have us, we will come. Not a question.

I think I’ll speak for all of Australia in saying that we would love to have you. Ira I’ll let you go but thank you very much for the chat today and all the best for the release of Amen And Goodbye, we can’t wait to hear it.

Enjoy the rest of your day man, hope we see you soon.

Amen & Goodbye is out April 1st via Mute. Pre-order it at yeasayer.shopfirebrand.com