This week, "A Change of Tune" host Joni Deutsch interviews Yeasayer co-founder Anand Wilder about his indie Appalachian musical “Break Line." The record features musicians from major indie/alt bands like Chairlift, MGMT, and Vampire Weekend, and the musical itself is inspired by West Virginia’s coal mining past. If you’re a fan of indie rock collaborations and classic rock operas, this interview is recommended for you.
Joni: I love how “Break Line” is an indie Appalachian romp of a musical. It’s not a stereotyped view of Appalachia. It’s a hip, cool, indie-alternative way of looking at mining culture.
Anand: Thanks! These songs were written in 2004, before Yeasayer was even a band, and a lot of them were performed by early Yeasayer. When I first played the show with Chris [Keating, Yeasayer’s frontman], we played three songs from the musical, and for the first few years of Yeasayer, we would play all these songs. Then when it didn’t make sense to sing about mining, once we started writing our own material, then we replaced it with Yeasayer stuff. We used to play these songs and they were people’s favorite songs. [Laughing] I have friends who still say, “Man, why did you take “Wedding Day” out of the line-up?”
J: I like Yeasayer’s music, but this just sounds so different.
A: I guess with Yeasayer, it’s all about forging ahead, being very new, using the newest piece of technology and samplers, and trying to be kind of relevant to contemporary music. And this was more of an homage to all of this classic rock that I grew up loving like Neil Young and David Bowie and that kind of stuff. It was all about trying to emulate that and not using any kind of crazy, new technology. It was trying to get that perfect sound as if it was a musical that was written in the 1970’s. It didn’t really make sense for me, as a band, to be retro in that way, because it’s already been done, but for some reason it made sense for a musical. It seems like if we’re going to do a musical, we might as well do it in the golden age of musical theater and rock opera.
J: To me, this sounds like an untapped resource. I’m not sure how many Appalachia rock musicals are out there. It’s taking a topic [like coal mining] and bringing it to the forefront in an interesting way.
A: It is like the history of West Virginia. Really, the musical’s historical facts were taken from West Virginian history, I just wanted to make it western Pennsylvania to kind of separate it from that. And the interracial romance, which I wanted it to be celebrated and legal in the musical and then everything falls apart from this labor conflict, and that would have been impossible in West Virginia because there were anti-miscegenation laws in West Virginia until 1967.
Joni: Let’s go back to the beginning to when you and Maxwell [Kardon, “Break Line” co-writer] came together and dreamed up this record.
A: We were old college friends, and we were in another band together with a guy named Evan [Voshnell], and we were trying to do the whole rock band thing in 2003, 2004. We were hitting walls with our sound and in Philadelphia, it was hard for us to get shows. Me and Max were talking about songs our dads would play us, and we struck upon this idea of telling this story about a fictional town. We were both history buffs, and the songs really just came so quickly in a way that I haven’t been able to write songs since. It was almost like channeling, where we would just come up with a riff or a line and the chords would just come very quickly. So I was really excited about this idea for the musical from the beginning, and I’ve had a lot of support from friends who thought it would be better than all the shoe-gazey post-rock that was happening then. And Max and Evan kind of disappeared, they went to Asia and Thailand to teach English, and I was left with my idealistic hopes of becoming a rock star.
J: Which turned out pretty well, I’d say.
A: [Laughing] Which turned out pretty great! I’m actually glad it happened. But I still felt kind of spurned by the guys like, “We had this great idea! C’mon, let’s run with this!” But Yeasayer started, and we played a lot of songs from the musical because they were all finished. Eventually I talked to my manager about getting this musical together, and now that Yeasayer has been touring so much, I finally found all these amazing singers. In our first year of touring, we were probably out for 300 days of that year, we met the guys from Man Man, who had been my idols living in Philadelphia. I asked “Pow Pow,” [Man Man’s] Chris Powell, to play drums, Ira [Wolf Tuton, Yeasayer’s bassist] was playing bass, Caroline Polachek from Chairlift got involved, and all these guys from the band Suckers to sing all these parts. Everyone had all these amazing voices, and I didn’t want to sing because I wanted everyone taking all the vocal duties to really make it a musical. Over the course of the last ten years, really starting in earnest in 2008, we slowly pieced together the musical and got the artwork together and now it just made sense to put it out in the lull of Yeasayer activity.
J: You brought upwards of 15 bands and artists to help with the musical. How did you approach them about helping with the record? Did you have to tempt them with food?
A: You know, I definitely did buy everyone lunch when they came in. [Laughing] But I think everyone knew that it was a small project that was weird and cool. There’s been so many articles written around 2008 about the Brooklyn community, but they were all kind of fake. None of us really performed together. Everyone was here with a suitcase and a dream to try to make it happen, so we thought, “Let’s make this real and turn this community into a project that everyone can work on!” And it lucked out. We found an awesome mixing engineer in Brit Myers, who had a great studio and could work for cheap since he was really into musical theater. He had just recorded the musical “Passing Strange,” which was pretty cool. Everyone was really game to get involved, but I don’t think I could do it again [Laughing]. I could get some of the guys to come again, but it was just a different time where people were free and ready to get creative.
J: So you’re not saying that you would commit to a sequel or prequel?
A: I think everything has been said about this particular town. But Max is a great friend of mine and an amazing song-writer, and we’ve been working on an upstate New York-based kind of musical. I think I might like it to be based in historical characters, so I’m thinking about maybe licensing the rights to a book. Try to make a certain book come to life. The musical, “Break Line,” is based on thinly-veiled characters who definitely have their historical figures that they represent. But I would like to do something where I can say, “Here it is: here is the town they are in, it’s a real town, here are the characters that existed, and here are their stories.”
J: Well if you want plot fodder, you could do the chemical-water spill in West Virginia that happened earlier this year.
A: Oh yeah! Well, I do want the next one to be much more water-based. That’s something I want to tackle because it’s something that we take for granted. We take for granted that water just comes out of the tap. Yeah, maybe. I need to apply for some grants from West Virginia or something.
J: You mention that you did some West Virginia research to find inspiration for the music.
A: West Virginia could just be called “coal” if we named our states around the industries they were based around. But yeah, I took a lot of stuff from there. There’s this great book called “Coal, Class, and Color” by Joe William Trotter Jr. about blacks in southern West Virginia in the World War I period. I think a lot of people misinterpret the musical as this staunchly pro-union tale, but it’s actually more of a nuanced thing. In musicals, it seems like you’re choosing one side or another, but I really wanted to use the musical to depict all these different sides and show strike breaking as not necessarily bad. I always loved the movie “Matewan” and that kind of “everybody working together” feeling, but I wanted to do something that was like, “Ok, maybe people worked together, but what was it really like if they hated on each other a lot?” It wasn’t always the big companies that were being racist, so I wanted to kind of explore that. When you’re singing pop songs, you can’t just sing from a real evil dude’s point of view. But in musicals, those are always my favorite songs.
J: Were there any musicals by Andrew Lloyd-Weber or others that you took inspiration from for “Break Line?”
A: We took a lot of inspiration from “Bugsy Malone” and Paul Williams. I guess “Little Shop of Horrors” was a big influence. And we were inspired by Neil Young and 70’s classic rock. We also love classics like “The Sound of Music,” “Oliver,” and “West Side Story.” Those were the ones were we thought, “If only we could be that good!” I know every lyric to every single song on “A Sound of Music,” it’s just hit-after-hit, and I’m not sure if that happens anymore with musicals.
J: You can’t expect it to be so immediately amazing that NBC puts it up on TV like “Sound of Music: Live!” or “Peter Pan: Live!” Maybe it’ll become an instant classic over time.
A: “An instant classic over time.” [Laughing] I like that. But it’s funny you mention Andrew Lloyd-Weber. “Jesus Christ Superstar” was a concept album with all these different singers. It was just an album that came out, and it was also our inspiration. Ok, you can have an album, and maybe one day it will become a musical and no one will remember it was a musical. It was like a demonstration record.
J: Let’s assume 10 years from now, someone off-Broadway, on-Broadway, somewhere in some dive in Louisiana decides to put on this musical. Do you have any stars or singers outside of the ones used in the record?
A: You know, someone asked me to do this. I think I listed all dead people. [Laughing] Sure, it would be great for Shelley Duvall to play some character. Harry Nilsson’s “Popeye” musical was a big inspiration because it wasn’t a cheesy, over-blown, contemporary musical theater kind of voice. It was more like speak-singing, so she was a big inspiration besides Dolly Parton and that kind of stuff. It would be so amazing if someone 10 years from now from West Virginia or Pennsylvania changed around some of the lyrics to make it make more sense. I would be so psyched.
J: I think this is a perfect merge of something people recognize and love, like Yeasayer’s name, and a cultural significance that people wouldn’t look into unless they had catchy music. Hopefully people will look into this, recognize 10 names in the cast, and look into its content.
A: That was my goal. I didn’t want it to be a solo album at all. I wanted it to be presented as a collective album. Even though I was the force pushing it through, getting all the actors together, I wanted it to be a group effort.
J: Did you have certain slots for the actors or was casting based on scheduling?
A: It was definitely on purpose. Like I wanted [Suckers’ frontman] Quinn Walker to be the main anti-hero. That was of the utmost importance to us, having the perfect voices. We had to change vocalists constantly because it just wasn’t working, and we had to adapt the story and change the lyrics so it made sense. It was really about finding the perfect voices. A lot of people surprised us. Aku [Orraca-Tetteh] from the band Dragons of Zynth, he plays Harvey in the musical and sings “Coal into Diamonds” and “Fathers and Brothers,” and his band is the most avant-garde, experimental band in New York, but he got in front of the mic and sung this sweet ballad. He was a total pro. But it was difficult to work with some people because I’m used to working with Chris and Ira from Yeasayer, and Chris can shred his vocals and is a great mimic. Other people have these wonderful styles, but I had to adjust the songs and coax them through it, so it was a real lesson in vocal production. Working with Ryan [Kattner] from Man Man, who has this really unique and awesome voice, it was difficult for him to hit the high notes, so we had to change some of the melodies around. We finally figured it out, which is great because I always imagined him as this cartoonish, evil boss in the mines.
J: I’m sure he appreciated that.
A: [Laughing] I think everybody was really happy. I had one person who didn’t want to be associated with it, so I had to change her name. That was weird. Her name is “Tanya Houndsley.” It’s crazy because her song “Hang Your Head High” was one of the most amazing vocal performances, but maybe she didn’t want that style associated anymore with her own solo career. You can figure out who it is. [Laughing] But other than that, everybody was really happy. I had a record release party and people came who couldn’t remember doing the record. [Laughing] Delicate Steve tweeted something like, “I played slide guitar when I was 24 and now my 29-self approves.”
J: Why didn't you mention pepperoni rolls in the musical?
A: [Laughing] You know the reason we didn’t do it is because it’s western Pennsylvania, so it’s probably a Stromboli there. But you know, we were in the release/cast party and were like, “How do we not have any mentions of canaries in the musical?” It’s definitely incomplete, it needs revisions.
J: You could do a deluxe album and add in some songs… if you have the free time.
A: [Laughing] Yeah, right. Actually I’m getting a songbook made. A couple of songs were cut from the album, and one song we didn’t even attempt because too many voices were going on at once, but we had a demo though. So if someone wants to put on the musical, the songbook is there in full with the piano parts, the full story is there. It would be really awesome if some fan bought the songbook and posted a cover on YouTube.
J: I could dress up my sheepdog and have him mime the musical, if that helps.
A: Oh yeah! Various people have told me what the visual elements should be. It could be animals playing characters. That’s what’s so great about “Bugsy Malone.” It’s a little kid playing these historic figures. Or claymation would be great.
Anand Wilder is working on an upcoming release with Yeasayer. You can follow Yeasayer on http://blog.yeasayer.net/. To hear bits of the interview and songs that inspired "Break Line," tune in to Joni Deutsch’s “A Change of Tune” this Saturday at 10 PM EST on West Virginia Public Radio.