“He’s a complete megalomaniacal asshole, and the media all over the world are giving him this free pass, this voice – they’re actually covering that prick.”
Chris Keating is driving through upstate New York towards his home in Woodstock, ranting about (you guessed it) Donald Trump. We’re supposed to be talking about Yeasayer’s new record, ‘Amen & Goodbye’, but as it turns out – it’s impossible to discuss the album without also touching on modern-day America.
While we talk, Keating is heading back to the old church he’s been living in the last few years, the other side of the Catskills mountain range from where Yeasayer recorded the album. Both places are equidistant from Brooklyn, the band’s spiritual – and once literal – home, but couldn’t be much further from it in terms of landscape, space and…wildlife?
“We were facing a farm full of goats, and there were angora bunnies,” says Keating, describing the studio in which he, Ira Wolf Tuton and Anand Wilder found themselves. If the band forgot to close the door during a break, they'd be joined in the vocal booth by a troupe of wandering chickens. The hum of the electric fence would find its way onto recordings unless it was turned off, at which point the goats would immediately escape and the guys would have to tussle the pesky creatures back into their pen.
It wasn’t just the assortment of farmyard animals that made this a different spot to the band’s usual recording habitat: the band describes the area as “culty” in the promotional material they’ve sent out with the LP, “the farm where we recorded was beautiful and idyllic, but the surrounding area felt like a horror movie." The area used to be called the ‘Borscht Belt’, apparently, where legendary comedians honed their craft at glamorous holiday resorts, now abandoned and crumbling, totally overrun by nature.
To get to the supermarket, Yeasayer had to drive past the prison where infamous serial killer, ‘Son of Sam’ is serving 400 years. David Berkowitz – the ‘44 Caliber Killer’ is another of his nicknames – was convicted of a series of shootings in 1970s New York, and gained notoriety by dodging the police, infamously mocking them in letters he left at the murder scenes.
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“It was a strange area,” remembers Keating. “We were hanging out with a guy who lived in a building that was an old church and an old synagogue, and outside this building he had stuck a big billboard that just said ‘GOD IS A DYKE’.” He laughs at the bizarre memory.
The low-fi, almost retro, environment could be seen as a reflection of the band’s approach to Amen & Goodbye, different to how they’d worked before – recording as a band, live to 2” tape, and embracing the classicism of ‘the album’ as an art form.
“We still used new technology, the same as with every other record, we’re always trying to create new sounds, use new instruments, new everything,” says Keating. “It was new technology to us. It was made in the 1970s but we’d never used it before.
“We were trying to make something that in our minds sounded a little more classic – in terms of the sound, the presentation, the artwork, everything about it…I wanted everything to have a certain warmth and feel that reminded me of music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and soundtracks from that era, without sounding too retro.”
He cites lots of musical inspiration from Europe in the 1960s and 1970s: krautrockers Can, The Beatles (“like Abbey Road era”) and Italian horror movie scores like those by Stelvio Cipriani: “People working at the same time as Sergio Leone, but not quite as well known.”
One of the dangers of working in analogue is the fragile nature of physical recordings: at the end of one session, the band decided to capture the sound of a summer rainstorm (for the beginning of track ‘Gerson’s Whistle’) – the storm lasted through the night, and they awoke to find a leak in the ceiling had flooded the control room, causing considerable damage to the tape machine, some of their favourite go-to outboard effects units, and two of their finished reels of tape.
For Keating though, this was no disaster – it is part and parcel of the recording process, and can in fact add to the end result. “When you’re making a record you have to allow for stuff to go wrong,” he says. “It wasn’t like that happened and then we’d just lost it all. Maybe it was fortuitous – if you make a painting and you make an unintentional mark then sometimes that can be the best stuff. You’ve got to embrace the accidents.”
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When you’re making a record you have to allow for stuff to go wrong...
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In the album’s first song, ‘Daughters Of Chain’, there’s what he calls a “messed up whirlitzer sound” originally just recorded as a demo – ““We recorded it five times, cleaner, but it never sounded as good so we went back to the original sound, which we’d had no intention of including on the record – that buzz and that hiss, it turned out to be part of the aesthetic.”
After the non-disaster, before regrouping in New York with the salvageable recordings, the band took a few months out – Keating had become a father for the first time and wanted to spend some time with his baby daughter. Aptly, birth and female-ness feature heavily on ‘Amen & Goodbye’. “A lot of the songs on the record have this theme of birth and the creation myth, and a strong feminine presence,” says Keating. “Because we’re guys and we’re the band ¬we’ve never had a female lead vocal before – and this sort of earth mother idea features pretty prominently. I think it’s a really nice presence to have on the record, especially after having a daughter.”
The female vocals come from Suzzy Roche of cult band The Roches sang layered vocals on three tracks. The Roches – comprising Suzzy and her two sisters Maggie and Terre – were a big influence on Yeasayer in their formative years. Religion is also a big influence on the band, in an intellectual sense at least. “It’s just stuff that I’m interested in and we’ve spoken about it in our lyrics before,” says Keating. “You can’t turn on the news in the United States and not see crazy extreme fanatics, and all over the world of course. It’s something that’s always baffled and interested me: I’m two generations away from fairly religious Irish Catholics, and Orthodox Jews on the other side – so it’s particularly interesting for me.”
As such, the record has an underlying narrative informed by religion and transcendence, the afterlife and the search for meaning, fables, references to Babylonian gods and ideas of religiousity. And in America, religion in whatever form, is never far from politics.
“I think about it as an intellectual exercise,” says Keating. “We [the US] happen to have as part of our founding document is freedom of religion, so loads of people came here because of how they were being treated in their own countries because of religion. And part of our written constitution basically allows them to have a very loud, very visible voice. Which can be somewhat irritating, to be honest, if you feel like it’s not representative of the country you live in.
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He talks about the power of the church in America, and how its voice overwhelms secular ones, how – in contrast to what we might think here in Europe – a huge number of Americans identify as non-religious: “ The population of France, Germany and the UK combined.”
“Every single president has to talk about ‘god this’ and ‘god that’, even though, for example we know Obama was raised in a different sort of way – his mom was a Buddhist. But whatever, that’s just the nature of the place. It’s just a huge, crazy country.”
This is how we get onto Trump: “It’s so extreme right now. We’ve got Bernie, who I really like, and Hilary who I think will do a fine job – I don’t think she’s that charismatic but I think she’ll be an effective leader…and then you’ve got this psychotic asshole on the right. A fascist piece of shit.” The severed head of this ‘fascist piece of shit’ made its way onto the album artwork, an intricate tableau of sculptures by Canadian artist David Altmejd.
For the work, Moloch, an ancient god of child sacrifice, a silent movie starlet, a breastfeeding mother, characters from the band’s songs past and present, join Trump and Caitlyn Jenner – the result described by the band as "Sgt. Pepper meets Hieronymous Bosch meets Dali meets Pee-Wee's Playhouse”.
“He makes installations and sculptures that look like the sounds I want to make,” says Keating of Altmejd’s work. “It’s full of people they’re inspired by or not inspired by– dissecting our pop culture and political landscape.”
Back in Brooklyn after their adventures in the mountains, producer Joey Waronker helped the band piece together the fragments they’d salvaged, and worked heavily on the rhythmic qualities of the sound. The shift in location and method shaped the record, and new techniques crept in: Waronker would play live over drum machine beats created by the band, creating a hybrid of digital and analogue. His ragtag collection of percussive toys – rusty springs, chopsticks and jangly wooden boxes – helped create unique sounds.
Keating was listening to an equally mishmash array of music during this time: Miles Davis, Chopin, the new Beyonce track ‘Formation’, and “I was obsessed with ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ the Kendrick Lamar record,” he remembers. “I think it’s genius – you can’t tie enough accolades on him.”
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We’re just weirdos who like music...
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But words as well as sounds built this album, and Keating speaks enthusiastically about the literature that inspired him whilst writing: William Gibson, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain – “Mark Twain, always” – a Polish writer (whose name I shamefully cannot make out no matter how many times I replay this part of the conversation) “whose aphorisms are so great I pretty much just rip them off lyrically”.
“In the song ‘Silly Me’ you’ve got my take on a Jonathan Swift style rhyming scheme based on a few of his limericks and poems.”
And how does the experience of being in a band differ now, over a decade since Yeasayer started playing together? Keating is as enthusiastic and optimistic as an 18-year-old playing his first show in a downtown dive bar.
“I think we’re starting to realise exactly what we are as a band. Every record it becomes a little more clear,” he says. “We’re just weirdos who like music and the way it combines, and if within that you can find a pop hook or an ear-worm or something that sounds catchy – I appreciate that too, I like Michael Jackson, stuff on the radio, Madonna – but essentially we’re trying to make something that’s true to ourselves as artists.”
The 10 years have done nothing to dull that infamous Yeasayer experimentalism either – disorder is a key part of how they function. “We have a certain level of chaos that we’re comfortable with,” says Keating. “No-one’s role or identity is firmly implanted in the band, that’s why we have multiple singers, I write my style of songs, Anand writes his style of songs, and Ira makes his bass sound like a flute…you never really know what the hell’s going to happen. And because of that we never settle into any obvious pattern and we’ve tried to do something different with every record within our own aesthetic parameters.”
Keating talks about what he’s listening to at the moment: a lot of old jazz – “Things I never thought I was clever enough to like in my twenties” – and music from his youth. “I’m revisiting a lot of stuff from the 90s, trip hop and stuff, and thinking ‘Oh my god the Smashing Pumpkins were actually amazing’.
“I think we’ll be forever associated with a certain millennial Brooklyn scene – MGMT, Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear, those kind of guys – and that was great and a part of my life, but you don’t want to anchor yourself in any one scene or sound.”
It’s this variety and enthusiasm that keeps Yeasayer going, and, ultimately, means they’ll never get stale. Despite the title, a ‘goodbye’ this album most definitely is not.
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Words: Emma Finamore
'Amen & Handle' is out now. Catch Yeasayer in London at Oslo on June 10th, and then Field Day on June 11th.