On a recent night at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, esoteric art collective-cum-electronic dance band YACHT were touching the audience. Literally. Singer Claire L. Evans, clad in in a Artic-white mini-dress which combined with her bleach-white cropped hair to make her look like Williamsburg’s Sharon Stone, walked through the crowd and laid her hands on various members of the audience. Later, her bandmate Jona Bechtolt would do the same. “We are so happy to be in this moment together with you!” Bechtolt yelled into the mic. It might seem like an oddly New Age-y bit of stage patter, but the more you know about YACHT, the more entirely in character it seems.
I spoke with the band on eve of the release of Shangri-La, the follow-up to their wildly successful DFA debut See Mystery Lights. I’d gone to a lot of trouble picking out the spot of our interview – a sleepy bar in south Williamsburg in that late afternoon lull before the night starts in earnest. I wanted us to relax together, have a few beers, and get beyond the “tell me about the new record” BS that most bands have programmed answers to well before release date. I’d even asked their publicist if the band ever drank, and was assured that they did, at least occasionally.
When they arrive, fashionably late from an overlong interview with MTV, they look harried but happy, like two people who’re wrapping up a reasonably enjoyable day of work. They’re dressed less intimidatingly artful than I had expected, and look all the more fashionable for the slouchy comfort of their not-trying-too-hard outfits. I’m drinking a beer (I was early and they were late, so I’ve been sitting around for a while), and I ask them if they want anything. They both demur, and they both sip water or sip nothing while I order another beer so I don’t have to stand up again during our interview. “I’ll have to get two beers in me before I talk to these people,” Claire jokes, and I feel a little self-conscious. Indeed, I am talking a little slowly on the tape, as I do when I’m a bit drunk, and my stutter is a bit more pronounced than normal, as it gets when I’m nervous, or trying too hard to be clever.
I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a band longer, and about a greater range of non-music subjects, than I have with YACHT. Our conversation, which lasted without pause for an hour and runs to nearly 5,000 words and 14 pages in its unedited version, covered topics including (but not limited to): Animaniacs, aliens, pornography, Ren & Stimpy, Star Trek, Lady Gaga, the paranormal, the afterlife, the mechanics of human perception, the nature of performance, the nature of the soul, and David Foster Wallace.
At some point, I passed Evans and Bechtolt a handful of paper slips with various nouns on them, some of which I knew would be meaningful to them, and some of which were a bit silly: Foucault, fried noodles, pets, and more. Evans giggled and said she liked my “Montessori approach.” There was some back and forth, much of it about the blank slip I’d accidentally included. When I offered to take it from them, Evans protested, “That’s the wild card! Blank is number one: emptiness.”
“The void,” added Bechtolt (the full results are visible below).
Talking to YACHT is a strange and compelling adventure, and is a lot like listening to them, or seeing them perform. They hopscotch from the mundane to the meaningful, the relatable to the far out, the silly to the deadly serious. As I talk to them about their music, and the differences between Shangri-La and See Mystery Lights, this all becomes increasingly obvious.
The press materials for Shangri-La call it YACHT’s first narrative album, and first album recorded in a proper studio. The second part of that construction is fine –the album is their first recorded in a real studio, with instruments not bought off Craigslist or borrowed from a friend (although Evans and Bechtolt did all the recording and playing themselves, which is at least mildly non-traditional). When I put the second half of that to Bechtolt and Evans, though, they have some issues.
“That’s just fully wrong,” says Bechtolt.
“It’s not wrong,” counters Evans.
“It’s mildly inaccurate.”
“It’s a totally valid reading.” Evans continues: “See Mystery Lights came out of a specific experience, and was sort of dominated by that experience. Making it was almost a psychedelic kind of thing – we literally spent two months living somewhere, having this perpetual, paranormal, optical phenomenon. And at the end of two or three months, we looked down and it was done. It wasn’t something that we really thought about doing.”
I express some confusion about the contention that their breakthrough 2009 album was something they didn’t really think about. What, exactly, is she talking about? A “perpetual, paranormal, optical phenomenon?”
“Like a fugue almost,” she clarifies. “Have you ever seen Lost Highway? A little less sinister.”
In fact, the specific point of reference is the Marfa Mystery Lights, the original tourist attraction in Marfa, TX, where the band recorded much of that album and Shangri-La. From a viewing platform off the side of the highway, it’s possible to look out over the desert and see dozens of tiny lights suspended in air, dancing like “fallen stars,” as YACT describes it. For them, the significance of the lights lies in their persistence, and the way the people of Marfa live with that mystery. “That’s what humanity was like for hundreds of years, for thousands of years, before the enlightenment,” says Evans, “Everything used to be magic, before we understood science, or biology or astronomy. That’s just the way the world was known, and all the great works of philosophy and spirituality of the human species comes from that mentality, and we’ve lost touch with that. But people in Marfa haven’t. People in Marfa are like, ‘Yeah, mystery is part of life.’ Which is beautiful.” For the record, a study found that the lights were almost certainly car headlights reflecting in pockets of air. Not to be a spoilsport.
While the band also recorded part of Shangri-La in Marfa, this album has more intentionality, and more of a central question. SML “triggered a sort of latent interest in philosophy, esotericism, ritual, magic, mysticism” for the band, which they’ve continued to explore in this new record, settling on the idea of utopia – a perfect place. What does that mean? Does it exist in space or time? Can a person or people disconnect themselves from the world and not become fascists? As they sing on the album’s titular final track, “If we build a utopia, will you come and stay?”
“A utopia for us is a place made out of ideas,” Evans explains. “If a community of people has a strong enough belief system and they are completely immersed inside of it and separate from the world, they build their own separatist utopia, their own cult or secret society.
“Our idea as far as utopia is not that we want to make a utopia of our own, we more believe in the temporary autonomous utopia as an idea. Like, how a concert can be a finite utopia. Obviously, if a concert lasted forever, that would be hell. But for an hour, you can have a utopia. You’re with people that maybe you’re strangers to, but you’ve been brought together by some kind of shared interest, you’ve hopefully achieved some kind of transcendence, you lose yourself in a greater feeling, a moment that’s powerful – that is utopian.”
So, there you have it. See YACHT, see any band, or do any simple thing that brings you close with someone and lets you experience un-selfconscious joy. And you’ve found utopia. Just don’t expect it to last forever.