Brooklyn experimentalists Yeasayer have followed up 2012’s ‘Fragrant World’ with their fourth album ‘Amen & Goodbye’, a vibrant rumination on religion and the world that’s out now. It could also be their best record yet, distilling lofty ideas into bold and peculiar bubbles of idiosyncratic pop. We caught up with frontman Chris Keating to talk Angora bunnies, religious culture clashes and making their own ‘Sgt. Pepper’s…’
You started work on ‘Amen & Goodbye’ with a new approach to how you’ve worked before. Why?
Chris Keating: “I think we always try to do something a little different. We don’t want to repeat ourselves. It’s pretty important. The people I was inspired by [didn’t] – David Bowie, just in his approach to trying something new, and The Beatles, obviously. We decided we were going to record very straight ahead as a band and probably take those things and remix them later, almost as if we were sampling ourselves. We were going to sit with the recordings for a while and revisit them six months later, and we’d almost forget what we’d recorded.”
You made the album at Outlier Inn studio in the Catskills, and it sounds like you could make a comedy out of the things that happened there, with chickens invading the studio and having to herd goats back behind an electric fence.
CK:“Yeah, totally! There was Angora bunnies there too, like those really fluffy bunnies. You could see two little eyes in a ball of fluff. Someone would be shaving them… it was cool. It’s just nice to get out of the city, have no distractions. [The studio] is remote. It’s just nice to be in a new headspace.”
What effect did being somewhere so remote have on the music you wrote there?
CK: “You think of everyone who’s making music on their laptops making electronic music. That’s cool, but it also really reminds me of someone who’s hunkering down in their apartment. That’s what it sounds like to me. We were trying to make something a little more expansive so we needed a psychological space that was a little more spread out.”
Were you listening to music that also reflected that?
CK: “I’d been listening to a lot of electronic music, certainly when were were making the last album and I started to grow a little tired of it. I still like the stuff that’s creative and pushing boundaries, but a lot of it feels really soulless to me. So I started listening to old ’60s/’70s rock music, ’90s rock music. Like the stuff I was into when I was a teenager – Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, whatever. I didn’t want to make a retro record. I thought ‘just be inspired by that, let’s make something that references those textures and puts it in a different context.’
You used spaces outside of the studio while you were recording, like the dome where you recorded some of the vocals.
CK: “Yeah, there’s a geodesic dome up at the farm. We had free rein of the space so we could record in the middle of the night up at this dome. It had a nice, natural reverb. Usually the best stuff you do is after dinner. You can try and get up first thing and work on a few ideas while you have coffee, or have lunch and try and record something, but rock’n’roll is the language of the night.”
You’ve described trying to find new sounds via new technology as “psychologically exhausting”. What do you mean by that?
CK: “It just means you’re always trying to second guess yourself. You’re always trying to be like ‘have we done this before?’ It can be a little more taxing, but also a little more exciting if you’re like ‘well how about instead of that all being guitar lines, let’s make it a saxophone part’. We don’t look at ourselves like we’re a rock band. Every time, the first thing bands go for is guitar, bass and drums. That can be cool, but for us it doesn’t inspire us creatively.”
This album is the first time you’ve used a producer. What was working with Joey Waronker like?
CK: “I liked it because he was a musician, he wasn’t just a taskmaster telling us what to do. He plays with Beck and he used to play with REM. He’s in Atoms For Peace with Flea and Thom Yorke – it doesn’t really get any better than that. I love all the stuff he did with AFP, all the drumming. So it was really cool to have him helping us guide that aspect of the record.”
Why did you avoid working with producers before?
CK: “We’ve had conversations with people, but I don’t really like being told what to do. Also, you need to really respect the person that you get. Since we figured out how to make records on our own, we thought we don’t really need one. But sometimes it can be nice to have another collaborator.”
You also collaborated with Suzzy Roche from The Roches on a few songs on this album. How did you get her involved?
CK: “We just called her. There’s all these great musicians from the past. I feel like everyone’s always focused on the present and trying to collaborate with who’s hot and of the moment. There’s all these great musicians and you can call them up and they might be up for working with you. All you have to do is call them up and try, pitch them an idea, play them a demo. We just called Suzzy and she said yes. It was kind of this cross-generational relationship that we developed, I think we had a similar aesthetic. We had this vocal part that we always knew should be a female vocal that featured prominently. So it kind of just made sense to have her do it as opposed to a friend. Joe McGinty who played with Psychedelic Furs also plays keyboards on the records – that was cool cos I like them a lot.”
You’ve said previously that you got rid of some songs from the album that you thought would be singles. Why?
CK: “We still believe in the album as an art form and we wanted everything to have some kind of relationship. We never throw songs away, we might go back to them. But I just don’t want to throw a bunch of songs together just because one of them might end up in a commercial or be on the radio. The album to me feels really whole. It feels like a journey. It feels cohesive and it has weight to it. I didn’t want to just throw extra songs on for the sake of it.”
There a lot of religious themes on the album, from the title to the lyrics and the artwork. Where do they stem from?
CK: “I find religion to be fascinating, confounding and frustrating. I’m not religious, but I’m interested in the relationship between all religions and the characters that come into our lives through these stories, which I think are mostly made up by men to justify their position of power in the world. Sometimes there’s some good morals, sometimes there’s some interesting things. I’ve just become interested in it and writing about it.”
What sort of questions about religion are you asking on this record?
CK: “Just classic stuff – why do people believe? Why don’t I believe? What is it about it that’s so compelling? What’s real? What’s not real? Where are we headed? I feel like our culture is increasingly coming to a head, a culture clash of people who are strict religious believers and people who are like ‘let’s head into the future’. How do you have that conversation without resulting in a culture clash that eliminates the world?”
The artwork is made up of sculptures designed by David Altmejd. What was the concept behind it?
CK: “I think album artwork is increasingly ignored because everyone’s listening on their phones, but to me it’s still a really important art form. I like picturing what it’s going to look like on an LP, especially on a gatefold. He was one of my favourite artists of the last 10 years so, again, I just called him up and asked if he wanted to do something and fortunately he said yes. I was thinking let’s take all the characters from our songs and our past songs and have them all meet up on this cover and engage with each other, kind of like ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’, like Hieronymus Bosch – ‘Garden Of Earthly Delights’, like Where’s Waldo?.
“I gave him a list of characters and he just started building them. I’d meet with them and we’d go the studio and arrange them. He had this cool vision and they just transformed into something else. That’s what you want – you want someone to hear your music and make up their own story. It’s not about intention, it’s about raising questions. With The Beatles, for example, I don’t know who Polythene Pam is. You can read about it or you can make up your own story.”