Enter their 'Fragrant World' of VHS dubs, cancer cells, rats
On 2010's Odd Blood, Brooklyn-via-Baltimore crew Yeasayer was frolicking in a Merriweather Post Playground, mixing in a hefty amount of Justin Timberlake to their heady mix of bass noise, proggy time signatures, snatches of African music, and lyrics about dystopian futures. The dystopia remains firmly in place on third album Fragrant World, with its first single name-checking the Tuck-everlasting cancer cells of Henrietta Lacks. Elsewhere, the band gets funky with former POTUS Ronald Reagan's skeleton (take that, Killer Mike) — ultimately Yeasayer emerge after two years darker, twitchier, and more minimal. We found songwriters Chris Keating and Anand Wilder lounging on a bed in the Wythe Hotel, a plate of fries between them, and asked what their third album might smell like.
Has the process changed much since All Hour Cymbals?
Wilder: The early days were just based on these jam sessions that were recorded and then pruned. For Fragrant World we'd start with the song demo and build it up from there.
You've had a different drummer on every album now, right?
Wilder: Yeah, but all the drums are sampled and pretty chopped up and changed around now. Maybe "Reagan's Skeleton" is the closest thing to one drummer, but to get that final drum pattern was four different passes.
Keating: "Reagan's Skeleton" we did with Abe Seiferth [former DFA studio engineer], so it's our most DFA-sounding track. Originally, it was even more like Holy Ghost! But then our drummer came in and freaked, making it a little weirder.
"Folk Hero Schtick" has this strange thing where it slides from lo-fi cassette-sounding into something much bigger midway through.
Wilder: We did dub things down to cassette tape for reference. In the mixing process, we'd put them to tape. Videotape back to cassette tape, to DAT, to 8-track tape. And then finally…BING! The sound of money. It allowed the song to really open up on chorus, going to full spectrum. I always thought of it as an effect that cheesy dance music uses, using the filter like that. I like that we re-contextualized that in a more psychedelic-sounding song.
Keating: We did a festival outside of Berlin that was 48 hours straight of DJing and it was crazy. That filter breakdown was prevalent everywhere: 'de-de-de-de-de-de-dE-DE-DE-DE-KSCH-KSCH-KSCH-KSCH'! There's some great DJs too, but there were tons of terrible DJs. It's crazy how dumb some of that shit is. We had a good packed crowd but then you'd go over to the DJ stage and it'd be 20-30,000 people just going crazy, even in the back. But the more interesting DJs didn't have the bigger crowds.
Wilder: I overheard this French couple discussing DJs and their different vibes. Just the way they were talking about music was so foreign and strange to me. Just what they valued: "Ee wuz chill and den dere iz a reelly 'appy vibe."
Keating: It's very subtle, these differences between deep house, trance house and tribal house.
So, what is the challenge the third time around?
Keating: Part of the process the third time around is coming to terms with the fact that you're not the "new cool band" anymore. Which I'm totally fine with. It's a great thing in many ways. Yeasayer is just a band that just is. We're just alive now. We survived our adolescence. That's cool by me. We always looked at it like we wanted to have a long life and constantly be making different shit. So it's exciting to make the third record and come to terms with our sound and what we do.
For this album, the music seems brighter yet the lyrics shade darker.
Keating: Just looking at the song titles, it looks pretty dark. The entire middle section has "demon," "devil," bones," and "skeleton" in their titles. We even cut some songs that would have taken the album into even darker places. In the end, we pulled back a little.
Wilder: "Longevity" has an upbeat feel to it.
"Live in the moment / Never count on longevity"?
Wilder: Yyyyyeah. It's uh…a hedonistic call to party. And "Henrietta" is happy as well.
About a woman's cancer cells that mutated after her death?
Keating: It's about coming to terms with an idea of the afterlife, or the lack thereof….Even our band name is about overbearing positivity, in the way like Tom Cruise of Joel Osteen would be, where you just know something's twisted.
Did you hear Jello Biafra's song about Henrietta Lacks?
Keating: That's the first I heard of it. I knew there were other songs but I found out about the book [2010's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks] after hearing a story on Radiolab. I got the book and it resonated for me, of how human life abstracts into a commodity. Just the idea of living on in a different form has this earthly interpretation of the afterlife, which is kinda cool. It's sinister, too. She's also from Baltimore, like us.
It seems like for this album there's a distinct meditation on the body, or the eventual breaking down of the body.
Keating: I think there are those elements of physicality and the idea of impermanence. I turned 30 not too long ago and started noticing shit like that. Weird stuff like when I dislocated my finger playing basketball, it took forever to heal. Same with suddenly having back pain for no reason.
How did you wind up with the title Fragrant World?
Keating: It was the name of a song that didn't make the record. The song was about a dystopia without smell or taste, where the world is bland and you have to wear masks and all you smell is nothing. New York in the summer just smells disgusting though. Everywhere you go, there's some retched smell. But it's those disgusting elements of urban life that I enjoy. If I was out in the suburbs, I'd just being going from my house to my car to my job and back. I'd never walk past things like a crazy abandoned lot that's fill with disgusting trash and rats. That's fun to me.