Around the release of Yeasayer’s first album, All Hour Cymbals, Vice magazine ran an otherwise flattering story about the nascent band titled, “Yet More Fucking Hippies” (subtitle: “Yeasayer Douse Us in Patchouli Oil”). They were being snarky, of course. Still, most of the psyched-out-indie-pop act’s career has been spent proving that being free-minded isn’t synonymous with being freak folkies. (See their 2009’s fluttering dance single “Ambling Alp.) And the more kitchen-sink the trio’s inspirations have grown, the more they’ve amassed a global following, while etching a name for themselves in the art world, thanks to collaborations with the Guggenheim Museum and avant-gardist Yoshi Sodeoka alike. The release of Yeasayer’s third full-length, Fragrant World, finds the group’s head-trippy sound careening back down to earth to tackle such weighty topics as politics and mortality. Vulture sat down with Yeasayer’s lively frontman Chris Keating, who talked us through his band’s curious influences, and his problems with Democrats, drug parties, spirituality, astrology, drug parties, and yoga.
There’s a lot of death on this album, even in your song titles: “Devil and the Deed,” “Demon Road,” “No Bones.”
We’re, like, afraid of getting old and like, dying. Well, not necessarily dying — but definitely of getting old and wallowing in a nursing home, getting Alzheimer’s and living for 25 years like that. It’s really terrifying to me. I think that started to manifest itself more in the way I behave. Not only that, but the political climate has gotten dark. It’s an interesting transitional climate for the world. We witnessed a rebirth of hope with Obama, and then a comedown from that into a realist view of what a president can do. But also we witnessed the awful underbelly of what the right wing is throwing our way.
Is “Reagan’s Skeleton” a look at how people are referencing his presidency, now that we’re in another recession?
I’m opposed to the deification of Ronald Reagan. Obama does that shit, too. Obama is always quoting Reagan — how disappointing is that? In my mind, Reagan is a pretty despicable character, but is moderate compared to these [conservative] psychopaths, who hold him in such high regard.
Will Yeasayer be active during this election?
I don’t know. Yeah, if we were asked to do something … it feels a little weird. Like, I’m not like enthralled with the Democratic Party. They don’t represent me.
You can hear Yeasayer using a lot of new gizmos on this album.
Do you know who the voice of Gizmo was, from Gremlins? Howie. Mandel.
Now that’s a random thing to know.
I was just looking that up yesterday. I was watching America’s Got Talent with our friends — a directing team, called Radical Friend, who made our videos — because they had never seen it. I think it’s the most awesome thing ever. It’s contemporary vaudeville, not like these stupid singing or dancing competitions. It’s just anyone who thinks they are talented. And the concept of talent — it’s so vague! One minute you have a guy who put a robotic, prosthetic chin on his dog. He hit a button and did a ventriloquist act with his dog. It didn’t seem that cruel. And the next person is just getting kicked in the balls over and over again.
So it’s an amped-up Gong Show.
It’s exactly like an amped-up Gong Show! I really enjoy that shit. And this really young, sweet kid wants to hug Howie Mandel, who just quivers in fear [because of his well-publicized germophobia]. He was so excited, and Howie Mandel is like, “No! No! You’re an untouchable.” That’s dark.
So, gizmos on this album …
We like finding different ways people process sound. Like new sampling technology that this company Native Instruments is making. There’s some really cool sound-design software that’s being built for sound design in films. We’re also coming to the point now where there’s all this interesting technology where you can take older synths from the seventies and eighties — beautiful, rich-sounding analog synthesizers — and do voltage conversions. Basically, you can write a little keyboard riff on your phone with a dollar app and have, like, a beautiful 1977 harp synthesizer play what you just wrote on your phone. That is crazy.
You and your bandmates produced your own album again. Does the idea of using a producer ever get thrown onto the table?
Yes, every time. Why do we choose not to? It seems strange to introduce somebody into the project who has a big say that we might not get along with. We really have to trust their opinion. Also, we don’t write songs like, “Strum out this blues chord, and sing something on it. Hand those recordings over the producer.” When I write songs, I [already] envision what shape they’re gonna take. Being a producer is a superfun job. I don’t wanna pay someone to do that. Though, it might be nice, because there could be a deciding voice. ‘Cause at times, you end up being the bad guy in the band.
Who’s the dick in the band?
[Laughs. Pauses.] We all got dicks!
Your music is generally associated with mysticism, spirituality. Are there any schools of thought you subscribe to?
I find religions to be interesting, but I am pretty atheist in many ways.
But isn’t “spirituality” supposed to be a loophole? Like you can be atheist, but be a spiritual?
Exactly. That seems like a bullshit loophole, myth replacement. It’s people whose parents were Muslim or Catholic or whatever and now are like, “I’m just spiritual!” Okay guys, whatever that means to you — that’s your thing. I did yoga and got bummed out by a lot of that chakra talk. I just wanted to do some great stretches. I get really agitated by astrology talk. I find it really massively simplistic.
What’s that on your album cover?
Does it matter?
[Joking] It’s a spiritual cover! When we were working on the artwork, we got into the idea of working with these designers who’re into the idea of arrhythmia — forming letters and words through movement. Not just like acting out the physicality of the letter, but a reinterpretation of an alphabet. So they took a lot of pictures of this dancer moving around, and it played into the idea of physicality on the record. That’s ultimately a photograph of a sort of movement.
How much do drugs factor into what you do?
Uhhhhh. Not that much, probably.
Your last album was reportedly inspired by acid.
When we were making this album, I think I smoked weed once, and it made me really depressed. But other drugs, sure. You know … whatever you got. MDMA is fun if you wanna go listen to dance music. If you wanna stay up all night, do some coke. If you want to go have a religious experience take ayahuasca.
Which you wouldn’t do, because you don’t believe in religion.
Uh, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in a religious experience.
But is that part of the band?
I think … no. People are always like, “I’ll smoke you out!” I’ll smoke weed if it’s just by myself, or if it’s one person and you need to shut the fuck up and just listen to music. I don’t want to do that with strangers. I don’t want a drug party. I’m totally pro-drugs; let’s put it that way. But I am very disappointed in way the alcohol industry has merged with the music industry. Sometimes I feel like I’m selling booze to people. I drink as well, but alcohol is disgusting. How may horrible things do you see from alcohol?
You’ve earned a reputation for collaborating with artists. Why do you think indie rock and art have been bedfellows?
I don’t know that I have an answer for that. But I was at this guy’s house, a really big curator for one of the biggest galleries in Chelsea. And his music selection was the worst shit I’d ever heard in my life. He was like, “Check this out.” I’m like, “Are you serious? Putting on the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album?” It was just very odd.