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Interview: Yeasayer

| August 1, 2012

But you gotta see ’em live – such is the witty retort that accompanies the advocacy of an artist who really can’t cut it in the studio. That’s not to disparage the craft of gigging. The gulf between a tremendous performance and a simply good one is greater than the difference between mediocre and awful. In fact, you could argue that the scale is circular, with wretchedness just around the corner from greatness – an act that strives but ultimately fails.

The argument swung fully back into view when psychedelic and poppy indie-rock bands took over from garage rockers in the mid-2000s, and playing shows became the great equalizer for musicians propped up by primitive synthesizers and other devices of home-recording. Take into account that inexperienced bands have been naively accepting headlining tours, and the road has gotten a little rough for bands and fans alike. It’s forced studio boffins to really hone their presentations.

Appearing: 8/22 at Vic Theatre (3175 N. Sheffield) in Chicago with Daughn Gibson.

“The songs change when we do them live,” says Yeasayer’s Chris Keating. And he doesn’t mean it in a Grateful Dead-y, never-the-same-performance-twice thing. He means, someone’s paying us money to do more than press buttons and twiddle knobs.

“I’m not orthodox in my opinions on [everything must be played live],” he continues. “But I do think, It’s not a DJ set, you know? Everyone should be doing something at all times. As long as that’s happening . . . there will be drum machines triggered, and that kind of stuff. But no one’s standing around. The pre-recorded parts – it’s not like hitting ‘play’ for a full song. It’s different sections get triggered and manipulated. We try to do it in a sophisticated way, hopefully,” he laughs.

As the Brooklyn-via-Baltimore outfit gears up to release its third studio album, Fragrant World (Secretly Canadian), Keating & Co. will have spent a great deal of time deconstructing songs that many ticketholders will be hearing for the first time.

“It can actually be a fun part, but it is a little difficult because you only have so many hands and people on stage,” he explains. “We make pretty layered music – even though we tried to make a less layered record this time, it never seems to come out that way. It can sound really bad when you first try to do it live. Like, Oooh, how’s this going to work out? We do a lot of work in the studio, and try to use it as an instrument. So it’s tough to figure out, if it’s not a keyboard or a guitar part, what is it [going to be]? And we use this one filter that takes drum sounds and turns them into chordal structures, so you can play something and it will make major- or minor-chord sounds – I don’t know how we’re supposed to do that live. It’s not really gonna happen. So then we try to take samples of what we have on the recording and try our best.”

So while the band should offer a reasonably juxtaposed version of Fragrant World, Keating’s confident that what you won’t be witnessing is merely band-trying-not-to-screw-up. You will see a performance. You will see – gasp! – their eyes!

“At this point, you sort of have to [know what to do onstage] – you’re there to put on a show.” He continues, “I don’t understand people who just sort of shoegaze. You have a crowd and there are hundreds of people there, the least you can do is be enthusiastic. And it’s a fun thing to do for an hour a day. It can be nervewracking at first, but at this point we’ve done it a lot.”

That said, “I’m nervous about playing new songs, and I probably will be for the first month.” Really? “Sure. You’re supposed to internalize it and the older material’s supposed to be second nature. But the new stuff – you don’t know how people are going to react to it. And a lot of how the audience reacts to songs dictates how you play them many times.”

Calling Fragrant World a “funk record played backwards underwater,” he might inadvertently give the impression Yeasayer will do some backmasking while wearing wetsuits. But as he dissects it further, you begin to understand the challenges they face in reproducing it.

“Aaliyah’s [self-titled] album we listened to a lot,” he glows, “the production on that is totally bananas. It’s the most awesome sounding record. And then, definitely Chicago house music from the ’80s that I’m super into. There’s funk stuff, one-hit wonders like Colonel Abrams, funk people from the ’80s who never got recognition. I like listening to that kind of stuff and slowing it down, seeing what it would sound like.”

— Steve Forstneger

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