Rabbits, Religiosity and the Return of Yeasayer

Apr 1, 2016

After a four year break, seminal alt rock band Yeasayer is back with a dazzling new release titled Amen & Goodbye. We sat down with Yeasayer’s Anand Wilder to talk about the record, the farm that it was recorded on and how things have changed since the band came together almost ten years ago.

Yeasayer’s fourth full-length Amen & Goodbye is out now on Mute.  You can follow the band on Twitter and Facebook. To hear more of their music, tune in to 'A Change of Tune,' airing Saturdays at 10pm EST on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Interview Highlights

On recording Amen & Goodbye:

We were upstate [New York], recording at this place called Outlier Inn. It was on this beautiful farm, like a fiber farm, with Angora bunnies and all these goats and sheep. I didn’t [take an Angora bunny home], but I did buy my wife an Angora bunny hat, which is just the warmest hat [laughing]. These bunnies get huge. As they get too much hair, they start eating their own hair and choke on it. So you have to shave them. So we would take a break and watch the owner of the bunnies just shave them [laughing]. They’re just big puff balls.

Angora bunnies are hip to Yeasayer's hop.
Credit Betty Chu

It was a nice break to get out of the studio. You know, when you’re in seclusion up in the semi-wilderness, it’s just nice to be like, “Ok, let’s take a break. Let’s go to the waterfall and go swimming!” Or, “Let’s go pet some bunnies!” It just feels like a safe place instead of being in the city and saying, “Let’s go outside and get more coffee at the coffee shop.”

On lessons learned from his recent solo release Break Line, an indie rock opera set in Appalachia:

Well I learned that just being “Anand Wilder from Yeasayer” does not mean you can put out a record and expect it to sell well [laughing]. I think we’ve probably already sold more copies of Yeasayer than I sold of Break Line. But it was a strange project, and I didn’t do much promotion for it except, you know, your show [“A Change of Tune”]. I think when we’ll go out on tour as Yeasayer, we’ll probably bring some of the vinyl and CD’s and have them out on the merch table, so maybe they can have a second wind.

On Amen & Goodbye’s pronunciation:

You know, I always say A-men & Goodbye. When people say Ah-men, it’s always seems much more reverent to me. Whereas A-men & Goodbye just sounds like a sign-off. “Alright, see you later! Amen and goodbye.”

On the band’s goal for Amen & Goodbye:

There’s so much of a process wrapped up in it for me, so I think about the journey these songs have gone on. We were dropped by our record label in 2013. And then we had to say, “Ok, what are we going to do now? Are we going to make another album? Are we going to do it ourselves? Are we going to look for another record label?” So that’s part of the title. We had this long process, and now let’s not be precious about it.  Let’s just put it out. We got to get this out into the world! But we were also reflecting on all this societal talk about religion and xenophobia, and I think that was playing into the record. It was sort of our own religious manifesto, and we tried to tie the album together. So it’s loosely a concept album, where we have reoccurring themes and motifs that keep coming back. We were working with the album as this kind of antiquated form, where people listen to songs on YouTube. We’re saying, “Let’s make an album that connects lyrical themes and musical motifs.” And a lot of the songs are very personal to me; I feel like I’ve said things I’ve wanted to say about a friend that I lost and having a baby and then  more broader themes of religiosity.

On Amen & Goodbye’s religious themes:

I think it’s because it’s something I find so frustrating in contemporary life. We’re still constantly dealing with these ideas that seem to be very antiquated and medieval. I think a lot of the time, religious freedom can be just another excuse to enforce patriarchy. And so we wanted to deal with it. Yeah, we could make the next one about Christopher Columbus [laughing]. There’s a lot of issues you can raise with that. But somehow, religion is something that’s a little bit more easy to deal with in a song. If you’re talking about Christopher Columbus, that really would seem like a musical [laughing].

Amen & Goodbye's album artwork.
Credit David Altmejd / Yeasayer

On Amen & Goodbye’s album artwork:

Chris [Keating, Yeasayer's frontman] got in touch with David Altmejd; he’s been a fan of his art for a really long time. We had the idea that we wanted to use all these different characters from our previous songs like “Madder Red,” and I think there was a song on Odd Blood called “Grizelda,” which was based on this criminal called Griselda Blanco. So we had this list of all these different characters from past songs we were working on and songs that didn’t even make the final cut of Amen & Goodbye. And we sent all these characters to David Altmejd, and then he came up with characters of his own from news items. Like I think Donald Trump’s head is in there, sort of like a riot to get rid of him as the leader of our country. So he put together this type of tableau, and we didn’t know if we were going to be putting it together digitally. But he really wanted to do one-shot for the gatefold. And we gave him a lot of references from Sgt. Pepper to Prince’s Around the World in a Day and other albums that had a lot of different characters, and he came up with his own thing.

[The members of Yeasayer]’re in there, and they’re sort of early versions of ourselves. There’s a Bob Fosse dancer in the top left corner. Moloch, the god of child sacrifice [laughing]. Bamol! Bamol is the name of the character from the “Madder Red” video. We had this song that didn’t make the cut called “Loan Shark Brothers,” and [Altmejd] interpreted that as the funny kind of two-dimensional cartoon of the guys carrying the suitcase with money in it. So we would give him a little bit of inspiration and his mind would run wild, and everything he came up with was fantastic.

Yep, that's the photo.
Credit Yeasayer

We always joke about "Yayslayer" [the poster found in the Amen & Goodbye's background]. David asking us about the worst press photo we ever did, the one where we’re throwing a Campbell’s soup jar in the air. It’s this horrible photo that followed us in our early days. And that was his idea, to say, “I’m going to take the worst press photo and make it a crappy poster for you in the background."

On collaborating with Suzzy Roche and Lael Neale for Amen & Goodbye:

I saw Suzzy in a play called “Early Shaker Musicals.” The Wooster Group in Manhattan put on this play, and it was basically Suzy Roche, Elizabeth LeCompte (who is also the head of The Wooster Group and its founder) and Frances McDormand. And they were reenacting this record [originally done by Sisters of the Shaker Community from Sabbathday Lake, Maine]. Someone on the side of the stage was playing this record, and they were hearing it in their ears and you could kind of hear it. And they were just speaking along with the record and singing these Shaker spirituals from the record. And I saw the name Suzzy Roche in the program, and I thought, “Is that the same Suzzy Roche from The Roches?” And I knew someone who was in The Wooster Group, so I asked if I could get her email, and he gave it to me. And I just wrote to her and said, “Hey, would you want to sing on the next Yeasayer record?” And I don’t know if she had ever heard of us, but I sent her the demos to the songs, and she said, “Oh, these are great.” And she came by, and she just did one day in the studio. She was really cool, really fun to hang out with, just a consummate professional.

Laele was a friend of Joey Waronker [Amen & Goodbye producer, known for his work with Atoms for Peace and Beck]. So we weren’t even there when she sang the part. But I think when Joey was doing a preliminary mix for the record, he thought he needed another vocal to thicken up Suzzy’s voice, so Laele’s in there as well on “I Am Chemistry.” She’s great! We saw her perform in L.A. Great voice. Beautiful voice.

On Anand’s personal goals for this record:

I need to stop reading reviews because that just gets me down [laughing]. But I just want to remain culturally relevant and be able to keep making music without having to make too many artistic compromises. That’s the dream I had as a little kid listening to Beck and The Beatles. That’s it. Just living the dream and hope that it keeps going [laughing].

On the future of streaming music:

It seems like when we came out, I remember doing interviews at the very beginning about downloading and why people buy records. But even in the last ten years, it’s changed so much. With each record, there’s a new innovation, you know? I think it was with Odd Blood that people were telling me, “Oh, I heard you on Spotify!” And I remember saying, “What? What is this? What are you talking about? Free music?”

It just sort of… is. It just exists. I mean, I use it. I subscribe to Apple Music because it’s just so convenient as a consumer to say, “Ok, I want to listen to Bob Dylan right now. Ok, I can just look it up and listen to any record.” I think it takes away some of the romance of buying a record and not knowing what you’re going to get and putting it on and listening very intently. But it’s sort of the way of progress. I mean, the whole history of recorded music has been based on technological advances from 78s to 45s, 33s, tapes, CD's… I always think about when CD’s came out, when I first buying CD’s when I was 5 years old, they had those weird, long packets and cases. And that was just ridiculous, but that’s what I would fetishize as a little kid. I would cut up those cases and keep them in my drawer and look at the album artwork on these CD cases. I don’t know what people are doing now, if it’s all just on their cell phones and it’s so small to hold it and look at the lyrics.

But in terms of the artist’s compensation? I think there is still room for streaming to work. If someone buys the CD, they’re just paying the artist whatever it is, like 3 dollars, at that one point in time. Whereas streaming, if someone listens to my record over and over and over again, I think that plays into the percentage of the profits that are then funneled to the artist. I don’t know if that will be at the equivalent of CD sales or record sales, but it’s something. It’s better than downloading for free.

It is kind of scary. It does seem like content creators are just getting screwed. I don’t know if that plays into why artists have very short careers because they’re not able to make it work. I mean, you have touring. Touring works, but touring is a risky thing if you don’t have health insurance and you’re traveling around in a van in the dead of winter.

On making friends with chickens:

We also had to contend with chickens that were coming into [Outlier Inn’s] vocal booth. If we left the vocal booth open, the chickens would just walk right in. You know, we already did chickens, actually. If you look up Dark is the Night, we did a takeaway show where we sang “Tightrope” acoustic. I was playing the banjo, Ira [Wolf-Tuton, Yeasayer's bassist] was playing a little keyboard flute and Chris [Keating] played this loop of chicken noises. We’d already done it, so we don’t like to repeat ourselves [laughing].