Yeasayer (Boulder Weekly 11/27/08)
Yeasayer is anything but normal
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
Close your eyes. Now imagine David Sedaris impersonating David Byrne’s onstage and on-screen persona circa “Once in a Lifetime.” Such is the stage presence of wondrously unique Yeasayer front-man Chris Keating, who looks more like an extremely excited French waiter than a rockstar. Raising a spastic hand to his bearded face; miming things like struggling to keep his balance and catching large objects; alternating falsetto crooning, thick shouts of rock clichés like “it’s alright” and erratic speak-singing about the year 2080 and fish beginning to fly, Keating is one of the most captivating (if amusingly concerning) front-men in recent memory.
Similarly, Yeasayer are one of the most interesting American bands we’ve seen thus far in the ’00s. I recently described the innovative Brooklyn quartet to a Middle-Eastern friend as “like the Talking Heads, had they been born in Syria.” But in truth, on their debut album, All Hour Cymbals, Yeasayer takes the best of what was innovative in early ’80s pop (Talking Heads, XTC, even and the most inventive recordings of more commercial acts like the Police and Tears for Fears) and filtered it through a colorful African and Middle-Eastern musical lens to shine brightly and weirdly right alongside Yeasayer’s current visionary, iconoclastic peers, like Gang Gang Dance and Animal Collective.
But in some ways it’s easier to describe what Yeasayer isn’t than what the group is. They’re not, as the Washington Post wrote last year, “purveyors of the current ‘it’ sound, a rhythmic fusion of world beats with indie rock sensibilities that has propelled bands like Vampire Weekend and Beirut to similar success.”
In response to the above, singer/keyboardist Keating told me in a recent interview, “I have no idea what the Washington Post is talking about. We are not part of a stylistic movement or a trend. We are simply trying to push music into directions that we think are unique.”
After listening to All Hour Cymbals, one imagines Yeasayer will keep expanding their range of influences, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if they decided to do the stereotypical art-rock thing we’ve seen many bands fall into: ostensibly beginning by experimenting out of a true love of music and then forming a permanent, Styrofoam sort of sound that sells. In previous decades, Yeasayer realistically could have had smash hits with intriguing and infectious original pop songs like “Sunrise” and “2080,” but in the current musical climate the band is happy to sell a few records to creative music lovers all over the world and constantly play in front of big crowds who actually hope Yeasayer will evolve.
“We are going to continue to push our music as far as our imaginations will go,” Keating says. “Growing up, I was into all kinds of things. My parents had a pretty sizable record collection, so I was exposed to a lot of stuff from the ’60s like the Silver Apples and Captain Beefheart and obviously The Beatles and The Beach Boys. I’ve always been really into hip-hop, and the production techniques of hip-hop and electronic music really influenced the way we work as a band. Mobb Deep, DJ Shadow and sample-based music have always been a huge inspiration for me because I never owned a guitar. So, I don’t want to solidify a consistent sound. Ideally, our sound will change from record to record, and we will keep experimenting.”
Keating is also curious to see how Barack Obama’s presidency will affect the artistic climate in America, as the common thought has been that deep, inspired and risky art thrives under conservative (and, in ways, oppressive) leadership that fuels reactionary passion.
“The lyrics and songs on All Hour Cymbals are certainly a reflection of the mood of the past four years,” Keating told me when I brought up the apparent politics in his lyrics. “I hope that we can put the nastiness of the Bush years behind us and move on, but I’m looking forward to seeing how Obama’s presidency will shape the mood of the next four years.
“It isn’t as if Obama was elected president and then all of a sudden global warming is solved and there is peace in the Middle East. We have just experienced eight years of one of the worst presidents in the history of America. I am hopeful for the future, but Obama is by no means perfect [and] I am looking forward to being able to criticize and analyze Obama’s policies. Despite what Fox News will have you believe, he is a president that is quite centrist. I am glad he’s the new president, but there are many of Obama’s policies that I do not agree with and we will see what the future holds.”
Beyond musing on politics, we can expect a kind of quirky, stimulating explosiveness from Yeasayer when Keating & Co. — self-described as “Enya with Bounce” — play the Bluebird Theater on Saturday. On one hand, Yeasayer in concert is something like spiritual Caucasian art-funk as played by the main characters from Revenge of the Nerds — or what the Talking Heads might’ve looked like touring in support of Remain in Light had they decided to depend on synthesizers and sequences to recreate that album rather than hiring a big, diverse group of talented musicians to create what Anthony Kiedis called “orchestral funk” when he inducted them into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame a few years back. Instead of hiring a posse of backup singers, keyboardists and percussionists, Yeasayer has chosen to remain a quartet in concert, surrounded by (and, in part, recreating) all the extra, illuminating sounds of All Hour Cymbals while the band members jerk around as if trying to escape from straightjackets.
“We put a lot of energy into our live show,” Keating says. “The experience is more frenetic, more active, more danceable than our record. I feel like each live experience should be unique and powerful. I like it when the audience gets involved in the chaos.”