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Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Monday 17th September, 2012 9:15AM

Yeasayer garnered mainstream success with breakthrough singles like ‘Ambling Alp’ and ‘O.N.E’ from their 2010 sophomore record Odd Blood. The Brooklyn-based trio have just released their third studio album Fragrant World, an experimental offering that has received mixed reviews. We caught up with frontman Chris Keating to discuss the record, where they’re at as a band and how the track ‘Henrietta’ symbolizes the corrupt nature of the pharmaceutical industry.

Hey Chris, how are you? Are you preparing to tour the new album?

We’re actually on tour at the moment. Yesterday was our first day.

It must be nice to have new songs to play live?

Yeah it’s exciting to have new songs and finally be able to play some new stuff.

Tell us a little bit about the album Fragrant World: was there a starting point for the album or a particular direction you wanted to take?

Yeah I don’t know, we just wanted to further some of the aesthetic decisions that we’d made on the last album, while also trying to push the sound into a darker area and use darker electronic textures and things like that.

Are there any themes on the album?

There’s a lot of different things, starting off with the single ‘Henrietta’, which is an interesting story about a scientific oddity; the cells of this woman lived forever and were turned into a commodity. So that was an influential idea for writing the rest of the album.

The premise for ‘Henrietta’ sounds interesting! What actually happened to this person?

In the 1950’s there was a woman and her name was Henrietta Lacks and she had a really nasty form of cancer and she died from it. After she died there were some tests done on the tumors from her cancer and they found the cells from the tumors kept multiplying and wouldn’t die. Even when they were bombarded with radiation and different things they kept multiplying, so they became the basis for a lot of the vaccinations and a lot of the pharmaceutical treatments used in the latter half of the 20th century.

So is the bigger idea there anti-corporation?

Sure, a little bit. The idea that big business is dehumanizing in a way. Not in an overly political way but in a subtle way.

How did you go about representing these ideas musically?

Well without being too direct and using metaphors and interesting wordplay to express some the ideas. I think some of the ideas are subtle and some of them are a little more obvious. There was this sombre mood that we were trying to tap into when writing the record.

How do you see Fragrant World as a progression from or different to your previous two albums?

I think on the last album there were a lot more songs about romance and love and interpersonal relationships, and this album is a little more austere: the textures were all about taking an instrument and distorting it and making it more abstract, whereas the last album was a little more anthemic. There’s something clinical about this album, there’s something clinical about the approach.

As a band you’ve always been quite politically and socially motivated: is this a fair statement and are you still interested in exploring these ideas?

Sure, I mean we live in a really politically fucked-up country. I’m not like a 16 year old kid writing songs and so naturally as a grown up writing songs who pays attention and reads the news I’m engaged with what’s going on. I’m not necessarily particularly politically active but I do pay attention and this stuff can’t help but influence our songwriting. It always bothers me when bands claim they’re not political, because I don’t see how you can be a thoughtful person and not at least have an opinion about certain issues that are going on. You don’t have to write politically didactic songs to be influenced and have an opinion on the things that are going on. I like Bob Dylan and I think that’s great music but at the same time it’s not really what we’re doing.

You guys are based in Brooklyn and between your last album and this album the recession has really set in and 'Occupy Wall Street' was a big deal. How have those things affected the music scene in Brooklyn and New York?

It’s hard to tell because for me the 'Occupy' movement felt a little scattered. Although it’s valid and interesting it didn’t seem to have a singular focus which I guess is the point, but it was all a bit scrambled. I’ve sort of felt a little removed from it because I wasn’t going down and camping out. New York is the financial centre of the US but it’s also very much the creative capital of the US as well so it’s an interesting dichotomy.

Fragrant World is darker and it also lacks the anthems that you had on earlier albums: does this reflect where you guys are at as a band or personally?

Yeah I mean we had the experience of writing some songs that punctuated the mainstream on the last album and there’s nothing wrong with that and I really like songs that are big and punchy with big anthemic choruses, but at the same time this album we felt like we were trying to experiment more and get a little away from it because we saw a side of that world that we didn’t like. People come to your shows just wanting to hear that one song and it’s a little disheartening when you’re potentially trying to do more interesting stuff. We’ll still always play those songs but we don’t want to be known as a band that just makes singles or anything like that.

This is a reaction to previous work and we like to balance the two by using interesting sounds and crafting something unique but also having a melodic pop sensibility, so we try to find the place where those two meet. It’s always a challenge but we’ve tried to do that from the beginning - even with All Hour Cymbals. Songs like ‘Sunrise’ is pretty simple, it’s a three chord song with a melody but we just layered a lot of texture and interesting sounds over the top and people thought it was a little more proggy than it actually is.

You’re about to go on tour for another intense, album-release circuit. How do you feel about doing it?

It’s actually tiring as hell. The one hour when you get to play a show is pretty exciting but the other 23 hours are pretty damn boring. Fortunately we all get along pretty well and we’ve got a good crew and so playing a show is a lot of fun. We’re looking forward to going to new places and re-visiting some places we’ve really liked, but at the same time this tour will last us until October and then we’ll be down your way in the new year.


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