The Internet has generally been a boon for indie music, but there a couple of drawbacks- namely that anyone with a computer and an opinion can share his or her thoughts with the world. This issue is compounded by the democratization (or dilution) of music journalism that came along with an explosion of music blogs and online magazines. Bands like Brooklyn’s Yeasayer end up on both sides of the coin; they most likely wouldn’t have risen to prominence without online devotees, but many of the same writers who championed the band through All Hour Cymbals and Odd Blood are now characterizing Fragrant World as something of a disappointment. Yeasayer’s Ira Wolf Tuton talked with Prefix about Fragrant World, dealing with negative reviews, and his tendency to ramble.
First of all, let’s talk about Fragrant World. It’s a new Yeasayer album, and everybody’s talking about it.
There’s somebody talking about it?
In the circles I run in, people talk about these albums.
You elicit some responses. What makes the new album special to you, though?
Putting together an album is like trying to complete an aesthetic vision, and one of the things we try to do when we go into the studio is lay out a series of challenges, so that we don’t repeat ourselves. I think that makes the opportunity much more exciting than regurgitating something we’ve done in the past. That’s what keeps us going and what keeps us vital. I think that we were successful in that in a lot of ways. We’re taking our music into a different area and pulling from a lot of different influences and genres. It’s a creative idea with a lot of intent in it. For some reason, it’s been a polarizing record. Some people literally hate it and others think it’s the best record we’ve done so far. I’m glad that it elicits emotions, and hopefully strong ones, from the people rather than just being middle of the road boring.
You talk about setting challenges for yourselves as musicians. What were some of the specific ideas you went into the studio with this time around?
We did it in a different studio, so you’re in an inherently different space. That’s going to affect the way you behave right off the bat. The studio we were in had a lot of different tools, software and units that we hadn’t used before- we had to teach ourselves how to use them and add that to our mental process of assimilation. We also wanted to pull from different kinds of music to continue our tonal experimentation. We wanted to find sounds that don’t recall an Eighties synth-pop group, but are a little more fresh. We want to be more present, and, if possible, futuristic.
Could you give me an example of where I can hear this on the record?
There’s a lot of songs like “Longevity” that have a lot of synth stuff going on- there’s a real heavy bottom end. Then there’s one like “Folk Hero Shtick” that was really fun to produce because it has a lot of recognizable electric bass and other electric instruments, but there are also a lot of imbedded atmospheric tones. That was done by scratching piano strings and then running them through Omnisphere, a program originally made for scoring films. It’s kind of exciting to unite these elements that seem divergent on paper but somehow relate to one another.
Do you have a particular favorite on the record?
People keep asking me this, and my stock answer is that I love them all, you know, I got to keep loving them all.
Nope. Not happening. Come on.
“Folk Hero” is one just because of what I was telling you- the experience of recording it was so great. There was a lot of experimentation on it. There were those types of moments in the other songs, like “Henrietta.” Now we’re touring with these songs and honing the live show, so I do try to focus mentally on all of them and not get too married to any one. I do this by focusing on the moments that each song had, and remembering the how it felt to record them. It’s a little bit different for me than your average listener.
You’ve said that this record has provoked a lot of visceral reactions. As you turned it in to your record company, could you picture this reception, or is it even something you think about?
I guess I don’t really think about it. It’s always kind of a crapshoot when it comes to how the record is received, and I don’t put a lot of weight in the criticism, because nine times out of ten I don’t agree with it. It’s not just my stuff; it’s other people’s stuff too; my tastes are different than the prevailing critical websites. I turn the record in, and I don’t pay attention, because I’m really thrilled with this record. I think it’s a really valuable step for our band. And at the end of the day, we’re not making a record for critics- we’re doing it for our fans. I don’t care how many stars it gets; that’s one person’s opinion. There are critics who will always give us good reviews because they like our band, and others who will give us a bad one because they’ve always hated us. We record for the fans. They are the ones who allow us to keep on with this thing.
Do you read your reviews? I’d be tempted.
I think it’s tempting, but I pretty much stay away from it because there’s nothing valuable that comes from it. I appreciate people’s thoughtful criticisms and getting into conversations with them about them, but I don’t think reading reviews is the same thing. If somebody tells me that there’s a particularly good one, I might read it. My mother reads all the reviews and then she tells me about them.
What did she tell you about the new record?
(Imitating his mother) Some people just really love it, and other people don’t like it all, but then someone really attacked that guy for making a negative review. She doesn’t want anybody to badmouth her kid. But at the end of the day, we’re just fortunate to get reviewed, you know?
I really don’t. Why would you say that?
I’m surprised continually that I’m in a band that’s relevant enough for people to write criticisms about it.
Do you think that there’s too much emphasis put on records? There’s a flurry of writing and attention and then nothing for two years. One false move can kill a career.
I think that’s happening organically. The game for us has always been that we have to pay our dues by getting out on the road. We have to add that level of humanity to keep our fans. And what model would replace it- just releasing singles? I think the album’s been dead for some time now, but we all keep making them because it’s a convenient thing to do- wrap up a bunch of songs and make a cohesive statement. It just doesn’t make sense in the age of iTunes, even if it’s the tried and true artistic method. It’s all about what has the most hits. That’s what you want to hear, and the rest could follow later.
Is this singles culture helping your band or hurting it?
That’s an interesting question. We started as a band with all of this as a reality. It’s not like it changed overnight and blew our minds. We came about in an environment where people were illegally downloading their shit- and the other side of that sword is that’s how we gained any sort of notoriety. It was the power of the Internet; people were writing about us on blogs and getting our music for free. I also don’t want the band to be defined by one song. I don’t want to play a concert full of people waiting to hear one track and sitting there in space the rest of the time. I guess the only solution is to keep writing better songs. I think that most of our fans are familiar with our larger body of work, but the trick is that you just have to keep producing all the time.
Odd Blood must have changed your situation as a band in a lot of ways. Do you have any expectations for Fragrant World?
I wouldn’t say that Odd Blood a huge rainmaker for the band. Our career was more a steady trajectory. There wasn’t one watershed moment. We played South By Southwest and then toured to nobody for months. Then we played CMJ and toured to more people. The first time we went to England we paid our own way and only played in London to develop a fanbase there. It was a lot of steps that incrementally built on what we had done, and the Odd Blood cycle was a part of that. Nothing was given to us in an unexpected way. We toured our asses off to get our music out there. We played in front of as many people as possible in order to turn on as many heads as possible. We worked super hard, and the payoff for me is to be able to continue doing what I’m doing in a grander style. We want to have a more interesting live show and put in more visual components. We want to continue to make music that’s interesting to us so our band can evolve. Does that answer your question?
Yeah it does.
I have to warn you. I kind of ramble sometimes; you have to cut me off.
That’s okay. I’ll just cut it out in post. That’ll be a three-word answer in the article.
We toured our asses off, then. Perfect, man. Cool.