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Yeasayer: Goodbye. Amen. Hello.

by Ryan Reed on July 28, 2016
“I'm always really interested in what’s appealing to a three year old,” says Anand Wilder. For the past decade, his band, Yeasayer, has specialized in electro-acoustic art-pop menageries— sonic pop-up books with enough shifting colors to delight both giddy toddlers and Brooklyn hipsters. Wilder’s been ruminating on these connections, on the line between highbrow experimentation and crowd-pleasing pop. His three-year-old daughter, born around the release of 2012’s Fragrant World, has served as the perfect sounding board.

Naturally, Wilder’s been playing her a lot of music by German krautrock outfit Can. “We’ve been listening to a lot of Tago Mago,” he says of their car rides. “And for the past week, I can’t put on the news or listen to anything. It’s, ‘‘Mushroom’ song! I want to hear the ‘Mushroom’ song!’ It’s interesting because, for me, that was an album I came to as a 19-20 year old in college learning about experimental, weird music and having that really blow my mind and be like, ‘Wow, when did this come out? 1971? This is so avantgarde. I can’t believe I didn’t know this before.’ But the hypnotic quality of the music definitely translates to a three year old. You don’t have to be an adult to appreciate it. For her, it will just be an album her dad is playing alongside the Curious George stories.”

Fascinated by the titular mushroom, the repetitive grooves and the eerie thunderstorm effects, she often asks her father about these strange sound combinations—a key aspect of Wilder’s own band. “It’s their art. They can do whatever they want. I think that’s important for a three year old to know,” he says. “She’s gonna receive all the rules from just growing up and hearing all the drivel that’s out there, but there are really no rules. You can do whatever you want. It’s just sound.”

Yeasayer’s fourth LP, Amen & Goodbye, is the product of that borderless mindset—and the result is their most cohesive marriage of the childlike and the cerebral. Fittingly, it was also informed by a rainstorm. In the summer of 2014, after months of working on individual demos, the trio—Wilder, Chris Keating and Ira Wolf Tuton— decamped to the idyllic Outlier Inn, a recording studio located 90 miles from New York City, in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains.

“[The studio] was in this really bucolic setting where you could walk outside and have a conversation with a chicken or a goat,” Wilder says. “We’d have to turn off the electric fence because of the hum it would cause with the vocals, and immediately, the goats would escape. Ira would have to go wrangle them. I wonder if I have some pictures of him. I should put those online.”

They pushed themselves to unplug their laptops and embrace a more organic template than the electronic-heavy Fragrant World. They tracked live to analog tape, experimented with non-rock instruments like bouzouki and tubular bells, and arranged three-part vocal harmonies (à la The Beatles’ “Because”) using a field microphone in a geodesic dome.

“When we went out on tour for Fragrant World, a lot of the songs had metamorphosed into something more organic, replacing sounds with guitar live,” Wilder says. “There’s always that dream of, ‘We have to capture that live energy in the studio,’ and inevitably, you can never really capture that. Live performances always sound a little off. [With our previous albums], we were trying to push the boundaries of electronic music and see how we could engage with our contemporaries—and the music, the playing might have suffered. I think, sometimes, electronic music can be very cold, and we wanted to get back into playing instruments, making instruments sound strange, altering instruments— relying more on acoustic instruments, acoustic drums, mic placements, manipulating tape. I didn’t want to be looking at a screen as much.

“I think one of the first songs we worked on Upstate was ‘Daughters of Cain,’ and we were very committed to singing three-part harmony around one microphone,” he continues. “It’s a very romantic ideal—you picture The Beatles or Crosby, Stills & Nash or something. When you have three very different voices and you’re not used to it, it’s very difficult, and you constantly have to be like, ‘Chris, you move back a bit and stand up a little straighter; Ira, put a little more nasality into your voice to get that breath right.’ You kind of screw yourself later on because you can’t really turn up one vocal.”

But the fragility of these analog sessions proved to be costly: A summer rainstorm (recorded for the opening seconds of the folk-funk hodgepodge “Gerson’s Whistle”) caused a ceiling leak in the control room, flooding the space and damaging some equipment and freshly recorded tape. Instead of lingering on the near-disaster, the band chose to brand the incident as a happy accident.

“It was demoralizing, but it wasn’t that big a deal,” Wilder says. “If you really like something and remember what it was, you can recreate it. And some things led us into complete new directions.”

After failing to spark a connection with a producer the trio choose not to name, Yeasayer pondered their next move. “We had material pretty early on that we liked,” Keating says. “But we weren’t sure how to work on it. We had songs even right after we came off tour, but it was a lot of, ‘What kind of synthesizers do we want to use? Do we want to produce ourselves?’ We’ve been touring so much since 2008 that it was like, ‘Let’s take a little reset here.’ We’re in our 30s, and we’re not little kids anymore.”

The band’s label, Mute, presented a list of potential producers, and one stood out: percussionist Joey Waronker, whom the band recognized from his work with Beck and Thom Yorke’s Atoms for Peace.

“I saw him drum with Beck when I was probably 14, and then again when I was 17,” Keating says. “So I knew his name as a drummer and a figure in that world for basically 20 years. It was someone you were familiar with as a name for production as opposed to some guy recommended by a record label. It was nice to have someone whose opinion you respect.”

The collaboration proved to be even more fruitful than expected. Waronker essentially joined the band during their sessions in a small Brooklyn production studio, playing a live drum kit augmented with exotic percussion devices to compile a treasure trove of rhythm tracks. You can hear the end result of that live-on-the-floor sweat throughout the LP: “Dead Sea Scrolls” is built on snarling bass, a Turtles-inspired “ba-ba-ba” chorus and a dizzying, mishmashed drum track. (The song’s centerpiece is a dissonant, first-take saxophone solo recorded during a drunken session.)

“With Joey being a drummer and none of us being proper drummers, he filled out a skill set that none of us really had,” Wilder says. “But I didn’t really understand his skill set until we started playing with him. We were in a very small production room, which our manager wanted us to have for about two weeks before we moved into a big recording studio, but we ended up being in the production room the whole time.

“Joey would set up this tiny kit with a box with jangles in it, these Brazilian percussion pieces, and he would get these amazing sounds out of this little kit,” he continues. “He would play along with Chris on the Tempest [drum machine]. We would get these unique-sounding loops. I would record them throughout the song, then write down, ‘This sounds good at this measure,’ then we’d go back, and it would invariably sound really good. And we’d go, ‘OK, that’s the verse feel.’ It was better than something we would have done on our own because it had the combination of the live and the synthetic drum machine. That set a nice, new atmosphere and texture for the album.”

Tuton says Waronker was the “perfect catalyst” to push Yeasayer’s material somewhere fresh—despite the band’s initial reservations. “We were very reticent to the idea of using a ‘producer’ because with so much of what we’ve done in the past, we’ve thought of ourselves as producers,” he says. “That’s part of what we take so much joy in and how we work together—we’re constantly producing each other. But he motivated us to another level of musicianship. It’s a very ‘played’ record.”

That organic, hands-on-instruments approach wasn’t accidental—nor is any creative decision Yeasayer makes. Tuton details their collective vision as being like three chemists surrounded by beakers, breaking down the various harmonic, lyrical and production threads that form a unified whole. Amen & Goodbye went through around 10 different recording stages: home demos, a stoned listening party at Wilder’s house, free recording in New York City, the Outlier Inn sessions, the failed producer sessions, more demoing, the Waronker sessions, and various stops in between. Along the way, they recruited guest spots from psychedelic guitar god Delicate Steve (a pal who even performed in Tuton’s wedding band), percussionist Mauro Refosco and singer Suzzy Roche of Irish-American folk trio The Roches, whose distinctive croon adds a sweetly sinister vibe to three tracks, including the electro-prog epic “I Am Chemistry.”

That lengthy process resulted in a four-year gap between albums—Yeasayer’s longest to date—but for Tuton, the delay was crucial in order to reboot and avoid stagnancy.

“We were definitely trying to switch it up album to album because we want to be honest with who we are as people and artists at the time,” he says. “But the flipside of that is you don’t want to pigeonhole yourself as the band who changes their sound every time. ‘Here’s our new sound! What’s contemporary now?’ That can lead to a level of dishonesty, which we try to shy away from. I think there was a level of being burned out on touring and working on things, and it took some time to intellectually recharge and regain motivation and focus and gain a little perspective to move forward with as much of a unified vision.”

The trio’s chief goal with this record was to continuously transform their sonic palette— even in the midst of simple pop songs like the funky “Silly Me”—by combining elements of every recording era into strange sonic patchworks.

“With our first album, I remember getting really high and listening to it while we were mixing and thinking, ‘Why does this end part go on for so long? We should have made it change more!’” Wilder says. “With this one, we’d add more and more colors but also strip away and say, ‘We don’t need to have that bit in there anymore—that sound has been replaced.’ You slowly strip things away and you can really feel all the colors very vividly. They’re not all washing together to create some indistinguishable brown sludge.”

Boasting a handful of clear singles (“Silly Me,” “Dead Sea Scrolls”), Amen & Goodbye has more radio potential than any other Yeasayer LP—but even its breeziest hooks are constructed with widescreen sonic detail, often offset with dark lyrical content. “The moloch demands sacrifice,” Keating sings on “Scrolls,” which takes aim at “fake gods” in modern society. Ambient-psych lullaby “Prophecy Gun” charts similar faux-sacred territory. “That track was inspired by some Brian Eno stuff or Popul Vuh,” Keating says. “It became this kind of meditative song with cryptic, pseudo-religious lyrics, and it was really fun to write. We knew the album needed these pauses and interesting spaces to give it a little more depth.”

Wilder’s gentlest song, the spacey lullaby “Uma,” is also his most heart-wrenching— a dedication to his young daughter, purveyor of Can and Curious George, in which he croons, “Hope I still can make you smile/ When I get to be senile.”

It’s that dynamic balance— sweet and sinister, innocent and brooding, playful and experimental—that makes Yeasayer tick.

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