Yeasayer have built a career out of confounding expectations. Ahead of their latest Australian tour, Matt O’Neill speaks to frontman Chris Keating about the band’s uneasy relationship with the public and the press.
Chris Keating speaks almost gruffly. The frontman is never rude. On the contrary, he's quite frank and funny in discussing his band's output to date. Still, his tone is always slightly guarded. When he does joke, there's something rueful to his comments. There's a cynicism that colours both his perspective and his humour. Given what his band's been subjected to over the years, it's an unsurprising outlook.
“Well, whatever I say, you can write whatever the fuck you want to write. It doesn't really matter what I say or do, you're going to do what you need to,” he says with a laugh – in better humour than you'd expect, given such philosophies. “The relationship between musicians and the music press has always been tenuous at best. I love reading music writing, but I would never dwell too heavily on anything about me or my band. With social media being what it is, it's hard to differentiate your legitimate reputable writers from your average blogosphere shit. With Twitter giving everyone a voice, it all just kind of turns into this very loud bullshit that permeates the internet,” the frontman explains. “You know, my mum will come up to me and tell me that somebody wrote something and I just have to tell her to stop reading the shit.”
Yeasayer have enjoyed the archetypal trajectory of the successful post-millennial independent band. Formed in 2006, their rise was immediate. The band appeared at South By Southwest in 2007 and, following the release of their debut album All Hour Cymbals in the same year, earned critical praise from Spin, NME and Pitchfork Media – who would go on to list the album as one of the best of the decade. The band's success has been considered synonymous with blog culture. On the back of their 2010 album Odd Blood, The Hype Machine listed Yeasayer as the most blogged-about band of that year. While ultimately successful, Yeasayer have been at the centre of a storm of discussion and opinion for almost the entirety of their career, weathering endless opinions and inventions alongside deserved praise.
“It's a double-edged sword. I feel like social media, file sharing, blogs and the internet really enabled us to have a life as a band; enabled us to be an independent band on an independent label while still having access to global markets,” Keating muses pragmatically. “And I'm obviously hugely grateful for that. I'm very much aware that is where we came from as a touring band. However, there's always two sides to it. You know, file sharing allows us to tour to places like Australia but it also prevents us from making any money out of our music,” the frontman elaborates. “It's a lot like Twitter and the blogosphere in general. There's a lot of good stuff out there said about a band and a lot of bullshit. Really, you just got to kind of stay away from all of it.”
Over the course of their ascent, Yeasayer have been subject to the requisite cavalcade of journalistic hyperbole and myth-mongering. Their eclectic range of influences, in particular, has seen them consistently pigeon-holed with absurdist terminology, an approach the band themselves would eventually parody, referring to themselves as 'Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel'. The band's output has been perpetually misunderstood.
“When we started, I don't think we had any clear idea of what we wanted to do with our sound. I think we had a clear idea of what we didn't want to do,” Keating laughs. “We were really just trying to come out and reference a lot of stuff that wouldn't be referenced by your average rock band; now a lot more bands are doing that sort of thing, thankfully. I think that was kind of the zeitgeist for a while there. Which is really kind of where you get all that 'African' or 'Indian' bullshit. I mean, I get where people are coming from when people say that sort of stuff and I appreciate that they think where eclectic, but that's not really what we're about at all,” he explains. “We were really just making an album in our basement for eight months. We had no idea if anyone would even ever actually hear it.”
This has been compounded somewhat by the band's own refusal to stick to a template. Each of their successive albums has been a distinctive departure from their established sound. All Hour Cymbals wove together worldly rhythms with psychedelic indie-rock, Odd Blood saw the band venture into pop-heavy electronica and this year's Fragrant World emphasised funk and R&B flavours within the band's freewheeling sound.
“The people who I always respected and the artists and bands I've always liked always seemed to evolve and consistently push boundaries,” Keating says of the band's outlook. “Whether it was The Clash or The Beatles or REM or Kraftwerk, like, every album you were kind of, 'Oh, what? That's the same band?' I don't really like stagnation in art. Sure, if you hit on something great you should explore it, but then move on, I suppose. I think there's definitely a Yeasayer sound that ties it all together,” he says. “I hear similarities. Even if it's just in song structures or certain textures or certain indescribable processing techniques we found attractive: pitch-shifting techniques or certain rhythmic ideas. I think there are a lot of those things that have followed us from album to album. I find it odd people don't seem to hear more of those elements.”
The overall point: Yeasayer are a band that have always railed against lazy categorisation; not purely in regards to style but scene as well. Equally at home in electronic and acoustic realms, it's hard to even determine whether Yeasayer are actually a rock band. To this end, endlessly dissembling and analysing their work seems almost counter-productive. Hence, Keating's guarded tones.
“Yeah, I really don't enjoy trying to verbalise our goals as musicians or artists. A lot of them are just aesthetic or really just abstractions. Whenever I try to do it in interviews, it always just turns into dribble, really. That's why I make music – so I don't have sit around all day describing shit,” he laughs. “Our music is kind of about chasing the absence of those descriptions, in many ways. So yeah, when it comes to music journalists who want to speak to me or write about our band,” the frontman reflects with a chuckle. “All I can really say is good luck.”
Yeasayer will be playing the following shows:
Friday 1 February - Laneway Festival, Brisbane QLD
Saturday 2 February - Laneway Festival, Sydney NSW
Sunday 3 February - Laneway Festival, Footscray VIC
Wednesday 6 February - The Hi-Fi, Melbourne VIC
Friday 8 February - Laneway Festival, Adelaide SA
Saturday 9 February - Laneway Festival, Perth WA