Monday, 11 February 2008


Interview for the Skinny

Back in October, renowned New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones provoked a bit of a storm by taking nearly four thousand words to explain a rather dubious theory about indie-rock being some-kinda-racist, because not enough white bands were incorporating elements of ‘black music’ into their styles. (Unfortunately, he neglected to mention the lack of twinkling harp on Akon’s latest album, and totally forgot about the scandal of Daddy Yankee’s missing power chords.) Even so, for that theory to emerge in a New York publication was especially puzzling: from Talking Heads’ work with Brian Eno in the late 70s, to TV On The Radio’s kaleidoscopic anthems of the new millennium, to Vampire Weekend’s 2008 afro-pop stylings, New York has a fertile and ongoing habit of merging traditionally white and black musical elements. Meet another Brooklyn band with an indiscriminate musical ear: this is Yeasayer, who released a debut album at the end of 2007, All Hour Cymbals, that was as colourful and colourless as the end of a rainbow, and just as packed with treasures.

Bassist and singer (they all sing) Ira Wolf Tuton explained: “I think we’re all interested in exploring as many avenues and flavours as possible, bringing it all into the pot. We like to keep an open ear and an open eye to different sorts of tones, styles, melodies and arrangements we can use, to keep it fresh and exciting”. Think of the rhythms and bassline of “You Can Call Me Al” - or anything else from Paul Simon’s Graceland – think of Fleetwood Mac, and Peter Gabriel; but insert steel drums, falsettos, chants and screams, handclaps, synths, keyboards and the apocalypse. There are guitars too, of course, they’re just not fetishised like elsewhere. “It’s a mixed-bag,” Ira says. “We all have our own home studios so we all write our own music and see how the others can improve it. It’s a pretty collaborative effort, and technology makes that possible”.

While there’s much scaremongering in the music industry about the advance of technology, there is a clear advantage to the proliferation of easily-available music that hasn’t been fully discussed. It makes sense that more informed musicians will have to stretch themselves further to find originality. Confusingly, Frere-Jones decried advances like MySpace for widening tastes but narrowing visions, as if fans of eclectic musical styles are incapable or unwilling to integrate them. Ira is convinced that the opposite is true: “It’s such an advantage to be able to so easily listen to so many different kinds of music, it’s at your fingertips all the time.” It doesn’t just apply to making music either, he believes: “I think it helps anybody to be exposed to as many things as possible. It can only widen your horizons and help you understand other people and other things more - and to understand yourself a little bit more, who you are and where you fit in. It opens your eyes to realise how many different things you can make of yourself.”

Yeasayer have already finished their first European tour, but promise they’ll be back soon. They’re yet to play in Scotland, despite having booked a gig at the Hive in Edinburgh last November. The gig was cancelled at the last minute because two different dates had been announced, with nobody really sure when it was actually going to happen. Ira perks up when the conversation turns to food, and reveals he’s looking forward to finally making it to Scotland and sampling some haggis: “Anywhere we go we try to eat the specialty. In Wales we had some meat stew, it was pretty delicious. We’ve had raw meat sandwiches with pickles and anchovies, that was pretty nasty. I grew up in Philadelphia where we have a very similar specialty to haggis, it’s pretty close to the cheese-steak I think.”

Whether it’s travelling the world to sample local food, or browsing the net to taste international musical flavours from the comfort of a home studio, Yeasayer display an open-minded tendency to try new things, compare them, mix them all together, and sing over the results. Haggis isn’t really like the Philadelphia cheese-steak, but we can forgive them the odd cultural stumble here and there. With more touring planned, videos to be made and singles about to hit the virtual stores, All Hour Cymbals could yet prove a 2007 sleeper that waits until 2008 to awake and take a stretch. “This album is about a lot of temporal things. Dealing with the here and now and issues of global conflict, the environment we grew up in. The themes are outgrowths of that. Some mythology too. I think our second album will be more love and relationships!”. Listen out then for oysters, chocolate and smooth jazz, but in the meantime rest assured: indie-rock isn’t as narrow-minded as some people seem to think.

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