Anand Wilder of Yeasayer on being from Baltimore but making a name in New York

Yeasayer (due tonight with Hush, Hush and Smith Westerns at the Ogden Theatre) was started by three guys from Baltimore, who each moved to New York separately before starting the band. During its four-year existence, the trio has developed an experimental pop sound that is more akin to quirky synth-pop bands of the mid-'80s than a straight ahead rock outfit.

With two albums -- 2007's All Hour Symbols and last year's Odd Blood -- as well as tours with MGMT and Beck under its belt, Yeasayer has created some of the most innovative pop music of the last several years. We recently had a candid conversation with the Anand Wilder, the outfit's charming and observant guitarist and keyboard player, about his roots in Baltimore, Brian Eno and the tenuous nature of a group's popularity in the current era.

Westword: How did you end up doing production work on Bat For Lashes' Two Suns album?

Anand Wilder: That actually wasn't me. That was the other two guys. I pretty much know the story. I think Natasha Khan was a fan of our first record and then wanted to bring in some other musicians. When you're a solo artist, you miss out on that constant collaboration with other people, so it's like, "Oh, who can I bring in? I bring in Scott Walker. I'll bring in those boys from Yeasayer."

I think she really liked the drumming and all the bass playing, so she brought in Ira Wolf Tuton and Chris Keating. Chris filled out a lot of drum sampling. Ira played a bunch of bass lines that I think were already written, but funked them up a little bit. Put that Wolf Tuton stamp on them. I really thought they did a great job. Good for the Yeasayer brand!

How did you find out about people like Arthur Russell and Kate Bush -- not that they're all that obscure -- and what was it about their work that you found compelling?

It's funny, you know, both of those artists I found out through my girlfriend. Future wife, actually. She was really into them. I'd always known about Kate Bush, but it was one of those names you know, and you're like, "What's the difference between Kate Bush and PJ Harvey?" It's a name you know but you're not familiar with the work. She played me a bunch of Kate Bush stuff, and at the time, I thought, "Wow, this is really blowing my mind!"

Arthur Russell was one of those guys that I didn't know if I liked at first. It was so weird, and I thought, "Is this some kind of NPR music or something? Is it veering into annoying, Philip Glass territory?" I'm also really wary of cello music. I grew up playing the cello. The more I heard of Arthur Russell, I thought it was really weird and awesome because he was using a cello in a way I'd never heard anyone use one before.

How did you start playing guitar, and how did you come to be interested in exploring more processed sounds on guitar and maybe beyond guitar?

The thing about guitar is that I've always just dabbled in it. I've never really studied it that intensely like I did with cello growing up. So it's always been the fun instrument that I got instructions from friends on. I still don't really know what all the chords are, and it's something I can continue to learn on. The one thing about guitar in the context of pop music is that a lot of it's really been done. The sounds that are evoked by the guitar are just so immediate. You hear something, and it's like, "Oh, that sounds like a Rolling Stones rip-off!" Or, "Oh, that sounds like The Strokes!" Or, "Oh, that sounds like Tom Petty," or something.

There's a constant struggle to make guitar sound interesting. There are a few bands that do it really well nowadays. I think that band HEALTH does really interesting things with guitar, where you're like, "How the hell are they doing that?!" Ponytail and all the Ponytail side projects are doing really interesting things with guitar. Dirty Projectors are doing really crazy technical things with guitar.

But for us it's always been, "Oh, we like the sound of a plucked instrument in there, texturally." But it's never really the defining attribute of a song. It's never the sound of a particular sound. Maybe on something like "2080" that has that African-sounding guitar, but it's also delayed out, and it's a sample of a guitar being played. We always like to mess with the guitar.

For this next album we're working on, I've actually been trying to play a lot more guitar. It's really very difficult to make guitar sound cool, to me. I'm just not that good, so I'm trying to do little licks here and there, and everyone is really quick to make fun of it, "That sounds like rap-rock!" No, I didn't mean it, oh shit! I'm just trying to use it as a texture and get weird sounds out of it, because I do like playing guitar. There's something sexy about playing guitar on stage, and I want to get better at it.

There's nothing ever really sexy about playing the synthesizer, even though the keyboard has way more possibilities than a guitar. But you can never really rock it out. I'm always looking at what my favorite guitarists do, like Neil Young, George Harrison, Keith Richards and Prince and stuff like that, to try to see how they were able to make the guitar still so compelling twenty or thirty years after it went electric.

If you go to Guitar Center, you hear a dude playing guitar, and you think: "Get me out of here -- this is my definition of Hell. You're not Jimi Hendrix. You're not even Stevie Ray Vaughan, so just give it up. This just sucks! Just because you know the scales, there's nothing behind it."

Did you spend your formative years in Baltimore?

Yes. I was born and raised in Baltimore.

Were you involved in or around an underground music world when you were there?

I wasn't really. I went to school out in the countryside. I lived in Baltimore city, but growing up being in bands was a very suburban kind of thing. You had to have a basement that someone's parents would let you practice in. I wasn't allowed to go downtown and check out the metal scene. Nor was I especially interested in that kind of music. There were kids that were way cooler than me, who were playing shows in bars when they were fourteen. I was not that cool.

For me, playing music -- and for a lot of my favorite musicians -- it's probably the same thing: If you're going to hone being a DJ, you're not really spending those ten thousand hours becoming an expert being a DJ in a club; you're probably sitting in your house figuring it out, you know? I think there is this nerdy, technical aspect of becoming good at an instrument or whatever that is kind of forgotten about when you think about rock and roll scenes or whatever.

The whole Baltimore thing that people think of, like Wham City, was all after I had graduated from college and had moved to New York. I was part of a Brooklyn-centered scene because I could never get anything off the ground in Baltimore. Chris was in New York, and I wanted to work with him. Ira was in New York. So that I can speak on. Later on, when I met Ponytail and stuff -- it's amazing that all those bands were able to get some kind of national attention. That's really awesome.

I didn't think I could do it by being in Baltimore. I needed a better support system, which I found in New York. Baltimore's one of those cities that make sense if you want to live in a big space cheaply and make your art, and there are a few venues, but I don't think it compares with the hustle in New York City, where you gotta make your rent, you gotta work some other jobs, and you have to spend the little amount of time you have working on your music. But you can play your music at a different venue every weekend if you want. And people will see it, people that matter, who will write about you or discover you or whatever.

I still feel like Dan Deacon is a real one-in-a-million guy. He's worked his ass off from Baltimore. Whereas, I think a lot of other bands from Baltimore, while I think they did really interesting stuff, they fall apart. That guy tours probably three-hundred days a year.

Yeasayer never had much love from the DIY scene. Not that I'm against it or anything. In New York, the main guy is Todd P. We actually practiced at his practice space and we were never offered a show. He knew what we sounded like. We just weren't cool enough [laughs]. We ended up playing a couple of his shows through a friend. We opened up for Dirty Projectors, and we opened up for Entrance. But we've never done a headlining show for him.

I think it's one of those things like with Pitchfork -- well, if that's how it works for you, you either have to give up or find out how it will work for you. For us it was more like, "We've got this weird gig over at the Cake Shop in Manhattan, and this guy really likes us. He's going to keep booking us at this spot, and he's going to book us at his other spot. Then we got random gigs here and there and built things that way. But we were never really full-fledged members of any kind of scene, I don't think.

We were always idiosyncratic, and as we got more exposure, then people started saying we were part of the same scene as Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors. But all those bands were all coming up independently doing their own thing. We know them now, and they're good friends, and twenty years from now, we may say, "Oh, yeah, sure, we came up with those guys." But actually, if you look at the roots of it all, we were opening up for our rapper friend from Baltimore.

Obviously, with European journalists they ask, "Ah, you're from Brooklyn? Is there something in the water there?" And you're like, "Yeah, there's this city of four million, or whatever it is, and a lot of people come here with a suitcase and a dream just like anybody else."

Is the name Yeasayer a play on the word "naysayer"?

It's the opposite of "naysayer," but it's a real word, and it's in the dictionary. A friend of ours who is in a band had a little book with all these different names in it, and Chris called me up and asked, "What do you think about 'Yeasayer'?" And I was like, "I don't know..." He said, "Trust me, it's going to be good. It's good for graphic design."

In various interviews, you've cited Brian Eno as an influence. What was your introduction to his music, and is there an era of his career that you find the most interesting?

I got into him late in college. So it wasn't a formative influence. It wasn't like The Beatles or the Rolling Stones, or something, which I was obsessed with when I was young. But I remember in college discovering Brian Eno's music and Roxy Music at the same time. I knew Brian Eno as this ambient guy and that never really interested me because I like music with words and vocals.

Then I discovered Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy and thinking, "This is exactly the kind of music I'd like to be making right now." And this guy did it in the 1970s -- a quirky, weird, proto-indie rock. Super experimental. Playing around with sounds and treatment of sounds but still rooted in some formula of what a pop song is with a verse and a chorus.

And just the way that he pieced together sounds. When I got to Another Green World, where all the sounds were so unique, it was like ear candy, and you can taste the sound, and they fit together so perfectly, like jigsaw puzzle pieces. That was my introduction and I was probably nineteen years old. Whenever you're working on a new song, there's always a good Brian Eno song, where you're like, "How come this song sounds lame and how come 'The True Wheel' sounds really cool?"

Was there a moment where you knew your band had stepped beyond a small club touring circuit to something bigger?

I don't know. It always feels sort of tenuous to me. You're always unsure. A lot of times I like to say, "Oh, well, when we played Conan O'Brien for the first time, that was a big breakthrough." But then I think about subsequent tours eight months down the road, where we were struggling to sell out five hundred person venues. It was always a gradual thing.

We're playing cities on this upcoming tour that we've never played before, and they're not selling that well. People don't know us. The best thing you can do is tour your ass off and prove yourself and make that personal connection with the citizens of any particular town. Keep making it known that you're a working band with a couple of albums out. Have some songs that people might like.

It's one thing if we had a radio hit or something, and we worked in some kind of major label system that everyone at Rite Aid was going to hear a million times, where you're really propelled into the public consciousness, where people know that song. You know, "You had a bad day" or some other pop hit. Then, I'd feel like, "Oh, wow, this is a life-changing event. Now people will recognize me on the street." That doesn't happen. We're still a struggling art band in my opinion.

I went to a Reading Festival or something, and I'm friends with the dudes in Mumford and Sons, and they actually opened up for us four years ago, three and a half years ago. I just kept seeing this guy and suddenly his band got huge. I remember seeing the caterer at this festival serving him and looking at him with this different look, where it's like, "That's a famous person; that's a special person."

Then he leaves and it's, "Well, isn't he a nice boy." As if like he were expecting something different. He's just another human but propelled to this other level of fame. I don't feel like we're anywhere close to that at all. We've sold 50,000 records of All Hour Symbols and 70,000 of Odd Blood. And Lady Gaga's album is probably a failure if it only sells five million. I don't know that we've hit that point yet. I'm still nervous about our next record. Are we going to have what it takes? Are people going to like it? Will we kill each other before we finish it up?

On one of your previous tours you played at the hi-dive with MGMT, and that place only holds about a hundred people, and this time you're playing the Ogden, and it holds around a thousand people.

That was over three years ago that we played with MGMT, right? Both of our first albums had just come out. We had wanted to play the Ogden Theatre last time. I think that time it was the Bluebird or something? Maybe we hadn't sold it out the time before, but we had that time. I think we couldn't go to the Ogden because PiL, I think, was scheduled to play there.

Then they cancelled, and we were like, "Why can't we play the Ogden." And they said we couldn't do that. I think we would have sold more tickets than them if we'd done the Ogden and they'd done the Bluebird. But it's one of those, "I'm Johnny Rotten, and I'm not going to play a smaller place than I'm used to." So, for me, this time, it's "Oh, awesome, we're at the Ogden!" That's the next step. I don't think about the hi-dive because that was a lifetime ago.

Maybe your route will go the way of MGMT, who played Red Rocks last time the were here.

Anand: We'd love to play there. We'll see. You never know. Everyone says you have to have this gradual build, but it's very dependent not on radio hits, so much as songs that are connecting with people on this grand level. I think that if you don't do that, you could easily be forgotten or swept under the rug. The pressure is still on. There's no comfort zone yet.

Yeasayer, with Hush Hush and Smith Westerns, 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, June 1, Ogden Theater, 935 E. Colfax, $22-$25, 303-830-8497.

Related Items:
See photos from Yeasayer's show at the hi-dive in 2008 mentioned above.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.