Yeasayer isn't worried about the apocalypse. In fact, it has a song about it called "Final Pass." Its advice is simple: When the end comes, dance.
"There's some article," reports Yeasayer guitarist Anand Wilder, "about how some ridiculous number of congressmen believe it's their duty to bring about the end of the world, to chop down all the trees, pollute the world because it doesn't matter – because they're going to be saved. We were kind of interested in that, kind of our take on that, so we wrote about a dance party."
Fair enough. Still, how does Wilder account for Yeasayer's overall sound, which itself seems to effectively conjure impending doom with its heavy reverb, eerie ambience and frequent use of cryptically apocalyptic themes? Many, if not most, of the songs on All Hour Cymbals, the act's debut album, can be interpreted as referring to the end times in one way or another – the song "2080" naming an expiration date for the human race, or "Germs" positing a possible method for our extermination. Wilder suggests this is more in the eye of the beholder than by intent, particularly in the case of the former track.
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"For me," he explains, "it's more of a personal song about mortality, saying, 'Okay, in 2080 I'm going to be dead, so don't look ahead, kind of 'live in the moment' kind of thing. Then you have songs like 'Germs,' that a lot of people have said is about biological warfare or fear of mass extinction from super-diseases, but maybe that's just about me being a hypochondriac, being sick all the time the first few years of living in New York. We try to make our songs' lyrical content kind of open-ended so it can be either a very personal song or something that's more grandiose that can be interpreted as something about our band's worldview."
Not that the band has a worldview, necessarily. Apart from a shared interest in making music, Yeasayer isn't trying to espouse any particular credo or grand theory of how the world will end, Wilder claims, despite whatever message listeners might derive from its songs.
"On a personal level, I don't really buy into any of that," he admits. "I think it's all sort of new-agey garbage. But it's fun to toy with it and see what kind of songs you can make out of it. That's the same thing with the gospel side of it: People talk about how we're very spiritual, we must be a religious band. But it's like, no, we're just interested in the release of joyous, spiritual music. But are any of us religious? I don't believe so."
Wilder and Yeasayer frontman Chris Keating have been friends since first grade and came together after college to form the group. Wilder was working on a musical about coal miners at the time, which gave the act some unusual material to draw from. "Really, the band kind of started as a live venue for the songs I'd already written, mostly because we lacked material," Wilder explains. "And then once we had enough of our own new material, new pop material, it didn't seem to make much sense anymore to be singing about Darwin Appleby the Third, the head of the mines. So we ended those."
As the coal mining songs were slowly phased out, the lineup solidified with the addition of bassist Ira Wolf Tuton and drummer Luke Fasano, and the group settled into its current form. Although each member has a specific band role, all are multi-instrumentalists and contribute to singing and songwriting. Wilder believes that Yeasayer's all-for-one attitude and collaborative spirit are key components of its success.
"Even when I'm writing a song," he reveals, "I'm not just sitting in my room making it for myself. Because then I just come out with the most wimpy crap out there. I'm thinking, 'Oh, God, what's Chris going to think about it? What's Ira going to think about it? Are they going to make fun of me? Are they going to like this? I have to make it better.' Even when you're working on a song by yourself, you're still being influenced by these huge critics and these guys that you really respect their opinions about music."
The results of that collaboration are songs that are dense, dark and exotic. Their most striking feature is the emphasis on vocals – not just singing, but chanting, wailing and calling out from every corner of the music. And those voices are surrounded by a variety of sounds appropriated from seemingly every culture on the planet — all mixed and matched and pasted into a crazy quilt, flawlessly stitched together with top-notch songcraft that nods to the world-music explorations of art-rockers such as Peter Gabriel and David Byrne while also incorporating influences from Afrobeat and Bollywood.
"I'm less into David Byrne than Chris," Wilder points out. "I'm more into the Roxy Music, Brian Eno side of things. I think we have a lot of guilty pleasures. I'm super into ABBA and pop songs like that, and we're really into Cyndi Lauper." Wilder goes on to list a number of other influences such as Edgard Varese, classical music, early rock and roll (or "'Stand by Me' stuff," as he calls it), weird Celtic music and "a lot of David Bowie," he declares. "I think that David Bowie is the ultimate recording artist of all time."
Elements derived from these influences are painstakingly merged into intricate, multi-layered arrangements on a computer and slowly assembled into epic, breathtaking songs that sound a little like lots of things, but not much like anything else. Unlike many acts that rely heavily on technology to produce their music, Yeasayer hasn't sacrificed the performance element. In fact, the band's built a reputation as a fantastic live act.
"I feel like a lot of musicians, especially studio rats, take on this personality of being very meek and afraid of interviews, afraid of talking to people and not being friendly," Wilder notes. "But me, Chris and Ira are three of the most boisterous, loud, competitive people I know. So even though we're really content to sit in the basement recording songs 24 hours a day, when we get up on stage, it's our time to shine, time to show off and be as crazy as possible."
Yeasayer shows – part rock concert, part old-time tent revival -- do tend to get a little crazy. The act is in a constant state of motion, with all four members bobbing around and swaying trance-like, especially Keating, who is a dervish. As he belts out oblique lyrics and triggers waves of sound from his keyboards, he sways, swings, hits cymbals, goes to his knees, writhes and hops around the stage and imploringly throws his skinny fists to the heavens.
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"I feel like I'm a little bit stuck," Wilder laments. "I'm imprisoned by my guitar to really go wild, because I'm not good enough to do crazy moves like Pete Townshend or Jimi Hendrix. I just try to dance as much as I can.
"Chris really has the freedom to just go nuts," he goes on. "He's such a performer. When we were in school together, he was always like the master of ceremonies at our talent shows and stuff. So he just really goes wild, and Ira's dancing, and Luke's the most intense drummer when he's up on stage — he goes nuts. I think people are into us being a lively live band, especially Chris's antics — the kind of urban preacher thing, or whatever he does."
Sounds like somebody skipped ahead to the ending.