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Collaging eras

An interview with Yeasayer’s Chris Keating

From top left, Anand Wilder, Ira Wolf Tuton, and Chris Keating of Yeasayer

Eliot Lee Hazel

With the tour for its fourth album, Amen & Goodbye, well underway, Yeasayer will bring Tulsa fans a heavy dose of its signature psych-synth experimentation at Cain’s Ballroom on Wednesday, Nov. 2. Keyboardist Chris Keating gave us a taste of what to look forward to, including radio dial tunes, some poppy wordplay, and plenty of “life shit.”

The Tulsa Voice: It’s been about six months since your newest record, Amen & Goodbye, dropped. How are you feeling about the album now that it’s had some time to breathe, be toured, received by your fans, picked apart by critics... 

Keating: I’m really proud of the record. I haven’t really gone back and thought about it much, but I’m proud of it. It’s an interesting piece of art we made. I’m really happy with it, but as far as reflecting on the record … you generally don’t need to do that, you know? We spent a few years making it, and then it’s out there, and then it’s out of your control. 

And even I occasionally have to listen to it so I can remember how to play a song or something like that …

TTV: What was on your mind when you started working on the record?

Keating: My wife was pregnant at the time, so we had our daughter … you know, things like that. I’m always kind of interested in writing about mythology and religion, and am hopefully trying to tackle bigger topics in some of the songs. There are some songs that reference themes in religion, themes in politics. You know one of the songs is about a friend who died, and one of the songs is about having a baby. So you know, life shit.  

TTV: There’s a lot going on in these songs—tackling some of that “life shit” and what not—

Keating: You better quote me on that. “Life shit.” 

TTV: I’ll definitely give you fair attribution. 

But I’m wondering how you begin to create a record like this. With so much going on—so many different pieces and layers and shifts—do you have a specific idea of what you want it to be when you start out, or do you let it evolve as you work? 

Keating: I think it’s like anything else. If you’re gonna make a painting, you start developing a palate of colors, and it’s the same with making a record. When you’re sonically piecing things together, you’re still developing your palate, you’re synthesizing tone, certain bass tones, guitar effects, the way you want the vocals to sound. And then while you’re doing that, you’re also just writing songs the way you always do with a guitar or on the piano, and you just come up with melodies. And when those things meet, hopefully you’re talking about something you want to talk about. 

And then there’s the palate and aesthetics of that, and the way it’s filtered through that is a big part of making music. I mean, there are simultaneous paths that you walk down and then you scrap things and you re-contextualize. Pretty much like 75 percent of the way through making any record it still sounds pretty terrible, you know?

It’s only at that last 25 percent are we like, oh right, the harmonies are in key now, and we re-recorded that and trimmed that. It’s just like building a house. 

TTV: Yeah, and I feel like Yeasayer’s music is so focused on the sounds: the direction they move in, the trills, the melodies. It’s almost like the lyrics become secondary. Do your songs start with a melody, or something else?

Keating: I think I enjoy writing lyrics, and I like songwriting but I think you need to have certain sounds that grab people so they can go on and investigate the lyrics. You know, it’s not a folk album, and it’s not just a guitar and a voice. So I’m really disappointed when I hear albums and I’m like, “Well, that’s the third patch on that synthesizer. Like, that’s as far as you got?” 

But also, I spend a lot of time writing lyrics, and I like wordplay. I like songwriting. I like pop songs. You know, people that do that well, they can actually say something meaningful, and I think that means a lot. It’s not my favorite form of poetry but there’s a time and place to do that stuff.  

TTV: The beginning of “Silly Me” almost has this discordant, out-of-tune sound that turns into something really elegant as the song goes on. There’s a big change there. And on “Half Asleep,” you have these soothing, yogic sounds that eventually morph into a beachy, nostalgic, 80’s pop-radio kind of sound. I feel like many of the songs on the record are always kind of darting off in different directions unexpectedly. Do you gravitate towards that approach?

Keating: Yeah. I like the idea that a song—over the course of three or four minutes—can seem like you’re spinning the dial on the radio. There’s a confluence of decades, all kind of hitting at different points. But that’s just the way we listen to music these days. Genre is somewhat irrelevant, and time period is somewhat irrelevant.  It all kind of gets mashed together in an interesting way that I think is exciting. I like the idea of collaging decades and eras together to find something new. 

TTV: As a band, Yeasayer kind of defies typification in that way. Especially in light of everybody’s need to put bands into a particular genre or category—you know, how would you describe your sound?—is it frustrating for you to field that question?

Keating: It’s frustrating when I feel like someone doesn’t get it, and that they’re simplifying what we’re trying to do. I mean, I don’t know. I would never expect that someone would invest as much time in listening to a record as we did in making it, but in general, I’m not that interested in the way it gets reviewed, or how someone would talk about it in a magazine.  

Sometimes those criticisms, some of those interpretations are interesting, but you can’t really get caught up in that, whether it’s positive or negative. It’s kind of irrelevant. Like, you’ve already made this thing. We’re not going to try to make it again, Part II. The next thing we make will be completely different, so you know, there’s no real point kind of getting caught up in that prison, I guess. 

TTV: I recently heard the track “Lone Shark Blues,” which didn’t make it onto the record. Which is a little surprising, considering how good it is. Why didn’t it make the cut? How do you determine what stays and what goes? 

Keating: I don’t know, honestly. The band looks at the record, and you just don’t put things on. You feel like maybe it sounds too similar to something else, or it’s disrupting the flow of the pacing of the album. 

It’s sometimes like scenes in a movie: sometimes they don’t fit, and they get cut. But I guess it’s somewhat arbitrary. When dealing with vinyl, you do actually have a physical limitation for time. But I think we like the idea of a concise 10 or 11 songs, and sometimes there’s a couple songs that don’t make it.

I always really liked that song.

For more from Megan, read her review of Elgin Park.