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Yeasayer’s Chris Keating on MGMT’s New Album and His Blue-Collar Days

Brooklyn-via-Baltimore art-rockers Yeasayer were a band to watch when they released their debut, All Hour Cymbals, in 2007. Now they’re the band to watch, thanks to their follow-up, February's Odd Blood, a clattering collection featuring as many big blunt choruses and dance-floor jams as unsettling falsettos and unidentified bleeps and crashes. Before their tour kicks off in Washington, D.C., next week, Vulture spoke with front man Chris Keating about ginger-ale commercials, Wu-Tang, and truck-driving teamsters.

You’ve reached a new level of prominence since the release of Odd Blood. What’s that kind of rise feel like from the inside?
It’s not really anything we would know if people weren’t telling us that. I think that’s rad that people like it, but to be honest, we really think that people are bullshitting when they say they like it. We take them seriously when they say they don’t like it. You know, there’s more people at the shows, which is nice. I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where there’s so many people where they just know one song. We’re definitely grateful to have people be psyched, but at the same time I don’t want it to be something of the moment, that passes.

The critical response has marked Odd Blood as more of a pop album. Is the new material actually more accessible, or are people just figuring out your sound?
We definitely set out to make, not a more accessible record, definitely a more pop-oriented record. That was one of the goals: to use more dance rhythms at the front of the mix, to eliminate some of the harmony vocals, to bring the vocals forward. Originally we said, “Let’s make an album where all of the songs are under three minutes.” It didn’t end up happening … I think it just goes to show how much people pay attention to the production techniques than to the songwriting. You hear vocals up-front with less haze on it, and a beat you can dance to it … that makes it pop.

So you feel like you can clean up the production, and squeeze a bunch of weird sounds in between?
I like the strange sounds. That’s what draws me to it. Something you hear something once and just go, “What the fuck is that sound?!” Various different tones, like a lot of stuff on Wu-Tang records or hip-hop in general, it’s based on sonic textures, which is something we’ve always been really excited by. That can make something feel contemporary. “Wow, what’s that weird sound? That sounds like Animal Collective meets Grizzly Bear meets Vampire Weekend!” Nah, I’m kidding.

How much do you plan out your career? Like, "This is what we want to do on our second album, this is what we want to do on our third … "
I think it’s important to look at bands from the past … if they’re still doing what they love to do, how they did what they did. I always looked at R.E.M. as a good model. Most people did not know Murmur. I think it’s an amazing record. And then they continued to put out quality, but different-sounding material, and then six albums in they finally got a big hit. If you grow organically, you can keep people on their toes, have them always be thinking what you’re gonna be doing for your next record.

Your buddies in MGMT went in a less immediately accessible direction on their second album, Congratulations, and it’s gotten them some negative feedback. What do you think of the reception to their album so far?
I’m really psyched as to what they’re doing, and just knowing those guys, I know them to be extremely, extremely talented musicians who have really interesting tastes. And they’re also super anti-authoritarian in a lot of ways. They’ve gotten in bed with the devil, in many ways, and I‘m psyched that even with that they’ve managed to do whatever they want. It’s true, the new record isn’t immediately catchy. I don’t know if that’ll turn off the 14-year-old fan base that they have … they really had a lot of that generation of kids listening to music. I hope not, I hope it helps kids get into music that’s cooler. I think those dudes are gonna be a band that really defines our generation.

How involved are you with the financial side of things with the band? Or are you content to just record albums and tour?
I’m pretty involved with all of that. We’re coming from a very DIY place; we have to look at the bottom line for every show, for every piece of merch. And how bands survive these days, it’s placement in commercials and things like that, and ideally you can do that without compromising too much. I don’t know. We did a song for a ginger-ale ad in Portugal. I was like, “I kind of like ginger ale. That’s okay. I’m cool with it.” You have to find a way to survive. I’ve never known anything different. I’ve never expected to be living it up in a band.

The hype coming out of festivals like SXSW is always churning out bands that have their little moment and then are never heard from again. You guys had that hype moment and managed to stick around. Looking back, were there a few critical moments that broke in your favor, or was it just a matter of putting in the hard work?
The hype, we never took it for granted, and we never took it too seriously. You always have to be conscious that the media is fickle, and certain types of fans can be fickle. People that are really into music are there with you for the long time. For me, every day, I wake up and think, I’m going to go back to doing props on TV shows. I think as long as I keep thinking that, that I might not be able to make a living making music, then I think I will. I’ll just stay paranoid. The blog buzz, the hype from festivals, you can’t take any of it seriously. No one blog or one magazine is going to make your career.

What TV shows did you work on?
I moved to New York 'cause I got a job working on Saturday Night Live, driving the trucks, just trying to hustle. I did a bunch of that stuff. Then I coordinated the fake commercials on Saturday Night Live — I guess I got promoted. I went to art school; I’m a little handy. I ended up doing a lot of propping … art propping, scenic works … on some terrible movies. Some movie starring Hayden Christensen and Jessica Alba that just seemed like the biggest piece of shit. And Nickelodeon shows.

Which shows?
I honestly don’t remember. I wish I did. It wasn’t Nickelodeon, it was Nick at Night, it was … oh man, what was that? I don’t know what it was called. I don’t remember the names of the movies, either. I just kind of remember exactly what I had to do that day. I had a good job for a WWF commercial … there were calendar girls, wrestling chicks in bikinis, and I had to put soap suds on them. I was covered in soap suds, everyone was getting drunk.

I’ve read in another interview where you said there were a lot of “flying fists” in your truck driving days. I had no idea that was such a rough and tumble job.
Well, you’ve heard of the mafia right? The unions, that’s no joke. That’s real, that still goes on. That one hundred percent still goes on. They weren’t mafiosos, exactly, but they were not to be fucked with.

Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images