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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Yeasayer: Don't call them prog or psych (or maybe you can)

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"Progressive rock" and "psychedelia" are words that get tossed around a lot when critics write about Yeasayer. The acclaimed Brooklyn quartet doesn't exactly repudiate these labels, but it doesn't really embrace them, either.

"'Psychedelia' is such a broad term," keyboardist and vocalist Chris Keating says. "I hate the notion that the music gets labeled and then all of the sudden it's 1967 and Haight-Ashbury, headbands and tie-dye. I look at Public Enemy as a pretty psychedelic band--just the ideas behind where they're coming from, and sonically, the way they were mixing their records and piecing things together."

Similarly, while Keating admits that he loves some albums by Pink Floyd, Genesis and King Crimson, he notes that he and his bandmates--guitarist-vocalist Anand Wilder, bassist Ira Wolf Tuton and drummer Luke Falsano--are hardly virtuosos on the level of those prog heroes. "I'm not even a real instrumentalist," he says. "My outlet, since I was a teenager, has been using samples and the synthesizer to create a sonic environment.

"If we're talking about trying to create an environment, that's something we certainly try to do--being more inspired by the ideas you hear in everyday life, rather than the sound that comes from a guitar when you just plug it in. And that's something all my favorite bands tried to do," however you want to label them.

Keating and Wilder first came together in their old hometown of Baltimore, though contrary to one rumor they've enjoyed, the childhood friends never actually sang together in a barbershop quartet. "What is true is that as kids, we sang in different groups, like in choirs, and we actually did do some barbershop-type harmonies, but nothing with the costumes and everything."

The beautiful, layered vocals would become a hallmark of Yeasayer's sound once the pair relocated to Brooklyn and began recording. But after that one constant, the band's horizons have ranged broad and wide, with its 2007 album "All Hour Cymbals" incorporating elements of folk, free-form jazz and shoegazer rock, ethnic drones that may be evocative of a Chinese Gamelan at one point and an Indian raga at another, and rhythms that hail from tribal Africa to avant-garde electronica.

"We're just trying to merge a couple of these worlds that we appreciate and sort of create something new, with some of the energy of a rock show, some of the kind of dancey qualities of club music and some of the techniques of hip-hop productions coming together and bashing heads a little bit," Keating says.

Following the methods of two more progressive/psychedelic heroes, Brian Eno and the German art-rockers Can, Yeasayer crafted most of its debut in its home studio in a Brooklyn basement, improvising for hours at a time in front of the microphones, and then building upon the spontaneous ideas that seemed most promising.

"It was somewhat chaotic in that we'd have some loose concepts, and more importantly, we'd have some ideas about what we didn't want to do. We would jam and play and just kind of have fun for hours and hours, but we would record everything, and then we'd listen back to it a couple of weeks later. Maybe we'd find 30 seconds or a minute of good material, and we'd be like, 'That was the part of those eight hours when we really hit it!' We'd go back and sample that demo recording from tape, make loops of it and then begin this whole process of building layers and layers, until it became too dense, and then we would kind of cut into the middle and strip away parts.

"It became this whole collaborative process where, since we were working based on tape and in the computer, we could leave the files up and people could come into our home studio and add things, like a vocal melody, and the next time you'd come back to it, that would have turned into a guitar melody, so somebody would sing something else over it. We're all close enough where we could be like, 'Well, that sucks' or 'I don't think that line worked.' It was pretty much people bouncing ideas off each other constantly."

The gorgeous vocals--as well as the sometimes dark lyrics that stand as a striking contrast--on songs such as "Germs," "Wait for the Wintertime" and "Worms" were added and honed in the same collaborative process once the music created a vibe.

"Generally, we'd have a mood that was set by the sound, and then we'd start writing lyrics. We're not really the kind of band where any of us view ourselves as lyricists, like, 'Here's the lyrics to a song I'm thinking about, guys.' It would be more like this mood that was set, and different people would sit with it.

"I like the contrast of having something you can nod your head to and which seems uplifting, and then when you dive into it, it's like, 'Oh, my God, that's really a dark idea,'" Keating adds. "A lot of the dark ideas were coming from just kind of reflecting about what we were seeing around us, and a lot of that stems from a political environment. But we try to reflect on both sides; I feel like we have some extremely positive songs, and then other songs that are a little more apocalyptic, just because how could they not be? I'm acknowledging the fact that I'm a citizen of a country that is engaged in two wars, that are completely out of my control, and that are something I don't agree with it. I'm just reacting to that. Plus, living in New York, it's non-stop, this assault of energy and intensity, and it comes out through you in the music. Sometimes it's really hard to find a sense of peace in that city, but I love that about it."

And fans are responding. Riding the crest of a wave that brought Yeasayer to Chicago last August as one of the most anticipated bands at Lollapalooza, the group is considering signing to a bigger label for its next release, which it will begin recording this winter. But Keating insists that the musicians, who've already been able to quit their day jobs to focus on the band, aren't feeling any pressure to top themselves, and that they're happily digging in it for the long haul.

"I've always been really excited about electronic music and hip-hop and the concept of sampling, and there are so many avenues we are really excited to push, and in our writing process for the next record, some of the stuff we're coming up with is really, really exciting. I never knew if anyone would hear the last record at all; we did it ourselves, and we only spent a couple of days in a real studio. It's cool that people responded to it, but it was very much a work in progress, and we're still evolving, and it feels like every day we're growing. I don't think we have to worry about a sophomore slump; it's not like we're Vampire Weekend, this band that came out of nowhere and hit it really big. We're a band that's going to be doing some weird s--- for the rest of our lives."


Yeasayer, Chairlift

9 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 28

Bottom Lounge, 1375 W Lake St.


(312) 929-2022;

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on October 21, 2008 11:51 AM.

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