Critical Questions: Yeasayer's Ira Wolf Tuton
The future is what you make of it.
Cloning ethics, the Reagan era -- these are not usually the topics of a breezy summer album. Then again, Yeasayer has always had something to say. Continuing on the path that Odd Blood led them on, they've moved further onto an eclectic syncopated landscape with their new album Fragrant World. While almost stumbling into trip-hop territory, they abandon the restraints of dance music and play around with new wave vocals and dense arrangements. I spoke with bassist Ira Wolf Tuton on their ever-shifting sound, the darker themes of the new album, the dangers of being political, and the importance of experimentation.
CM: Before you released the album, you sent out copies of the first single to fans at random. Would you ever send out copies of albums or singles to fans before critics?
IRT: In a world, where people in their bedroom have as much power to curate pop culture as a critic does, you embrace that and see how it works in a practical manner.
Did you have a very clear concept in mind for this album?
There are definitely aesthetic things that we talked about. The biggest thing was to shy away from what we've done before. That's the primary number one goal. Keep growing, keep developing, keep challenging yourself. Not only is it the prime goal but in terms of your sanity and joy of what you do. That leads you into aesthetic decisions you haven't done in the past so all of that informs the direction for when you're going into record.
The group has experimented with lots of different sounds and instruments in the past -- do you always start out with various instrumental options and then pare things down when recording an album? Did any instrument or tool not make the cut on Fragrant World?
Yeah, plenty. Sometimes you have an idea to try out on a certain instrument 'cause you've never done it before, and that's part of the experiment. I remember in this one part we were trying to record this unique hook on this weird instrument. I played it on a Greek Oud cause it was in the studio and I'd never seen or played one before. It sounded weird and when we recorded it, it was like, ok, scratch that, let's go to the Roland sh 101 [synthesizer]. Going that extreme kind of leads you in the other direction.
You guys self-produced your last album, Odd Blood, as well as Fragrant World. Do you enjoy the control and flexibility you have of producing yourselves? Is it hard to look at the material with fresh eyes or from a different technical perspective?
It can be, but that's probably why we work as a trio when we're making music because the three of us can be each other's sounding board, filters and reality checks. Producing is something that all of us take a lot of joy out of. It also helps to define the aesthetic of you as an individual band. We've always held on to that really tightly as a valuable part of what we do.
You've talked about capturing the schizophrenic nature of the present, and obviously a lot of the songs tie into that theme, whether it's the mad science of the Henrietta Lacks story or the lack of permanence on longevity. Is this your way of making sense of the current culture?
I think art is always going to draw off the realities around it. At any given time, you choose the filter that you look through. Even if I say, oh everything is terrible; I'm choosing to look at the world with that filter on. The craziest the world has ever been is always the present. It all depends on how you want to reconfigure that into an artistic statement.
What's been the reaction to the new material on the road so far?
So far it's been good. It's tough when you're playing a lot of material that nobody knows, especially at festivals, since a lot of people go to festivals to hear music they know. I like to think there's a visceral feel to a lot of the material. It's been overwhelmingly positive.
You guys are set to play the Coachella cruise? Are you excited for the experience and do you know how to play shuffleboard?
I know how to play shuffleboard, and shufflepuck, and I'm excited for THAT experience. I've always wanted to do it on the deck of a ship.
This album is much more politicized in nature, but then again, there's a lot to respond to. Do you ever feel the urge to get politically active outside the realm of musical message?
I definitely think about that, I have friends that run an organization called Air Traffic Control, they came out of the Tibetan freedom concert world. I've been involved with some of their retreats, and one of the things that comes up is, it's very hard for someone who exists in the public sphere to define themselves as something else. It can be a very dangerous thing, especially for an artist. Because a lot of times that can take away from the goal and the cause. It can become more about the individual. The other side to this is, as an artist, if you step into that realm of soap-boxing and being political, there are so many things you can do that with. You really need to know your shit, more than anybody, and you also really need to believe in it. It's a tricky thing for a musician, I certainly have my very strong, powerful beliefs and I'll vocalize them when asked, but I think at this point we speak largely through our music. We're not Bono quite yet.