Fight or flight? Maybe it hasn’t been that either/or of a choice, but in general progressive-minded creators making art since the world-rocking events of November 2016 have had two paths at their disposal: escaping the troubling times, maybe on a dance floor or in fantasy worlds; or commenting on and confronting the outrageous reality show playing out daily in Washington, D.C., starring perhaps the most unconventional president in American history. Then there’s the art that manages to merge the two impulses, into something at once fun and fearlessly resistant.
Yeasayer, at this point certifiable indie rock veterans, chose something of a middle path for their fifth studio record. Out last week, Erotic Reruns is taut, melodic and relentlessly upbeat, the band’s most immediate and danceable release since 2010’s single-generator Odd Blood. It also has its share of sentimental, relationship-centric songs, in opener “People I Loved,” the propulsive “I’ll Kiss You Tonight” and the blissed-out, radio-friendly “Ecstatic Baby.” But on half the LP’s tracks, dystopia reigns beneath the musical sunshine as lyricists Chris Keating and Anand Wilder set their sights squarely on Trumpworld.
Wilder takes the more abstract approach. “Let Me Listen In On You” is a deceptively sweet paean to a time in which we’re encouraged to have our faces scanned, because, you know, it makes boarding a plane so much easier, while the psych-tinged “Blues Skies Dandelions” – whose opening line references a “James,” as in, Trump nemesis James Comey – posits that what the president could really use is some good hallucinogens. Keating is even more direct. On “Crack a Smile” he goes after the “crooked” grin of the “liar” who’s the “psycho captain of this fading realm,” while subtlety goes utterly out the window on the rollicking “24-Hour Hateful Live!” The song merges ICE and ISIS and excoriates Trump loyalists by name, dubbing Stephen Miller a “child killer” and Sarah Huckabee Sanders a “propagandist” he likens to Goebbels.
Keating, Wilder and Ira Wolf Tuton’s journey since the release of their acclaimed 2007 debut All Hour Cymbals has not been without bumps, including management, PR and label changes—going from two albums on Secretly Canadian to one with Mute, to the establishment of their own eponymous label for the release of Erotic Reruns, in collaboration with digital distributor Ditto. If they haven’t made the leap to arena-headliner status like a couple of their late-00s peers, still going strong a dozen years after forming is impressive.
Part of Yeasayer’s secret has been keeping the overhead down. With the exception of touring in a proper bus, their approach is no-frills, and on the recording side, they’re more DIY than ever. Erotic Reruns was largely recorded at the band members’ studios in upstate New York – Tuton and Wilder divide their time between homes in Brooklyn and upstate, while Keating has lived full-time near Saugerties, NY, for the past five years. The record was mixed and engineered not by a seasoned vet, but by Wilder’s former intern, Daniel Neiman, and the deal with Ditto allows the band to fully own their masters, and potentially substantially increase profits. In Keating’s words, the moves are “about trying to be smart and 21st century about everything.”
Yeasayer have long been socially conscious artists, their records reliably striking a balance between the secular and spiritual. But if they’re feeling inclined to be even more explicitly political these days, it may be because with Erotic Reruns, for the first time, they’re all dads. Keating has a five-year old daughter, Wilder has two – the older of whom, Uma, gets a co-writing credit on the new LP’s “I’ll Kiss You Tonight” – and Tuton, the newest to fatherhood of the three, has a fifteen-month-old son, Ram. In fact, he accompanied his dad and Wilder to a late morning conversation with Billboard at a Brooklyn café, a week before album release, and later that day we connected with Keating by phone. Both interviews are combined below in a conversation that covers the above topics, plus that somewhat inscrutable album title, resisting the siren call of Los Angeles and, of course, how long Donald Trump has left.
Guys it’s good to see you again! Our last meeting was in 2016 at Sasquatch.
Anand Wilder: And Sasquatch is no more, right?
Right. Yeasayer outlived Sasquatch!
Ira Wolf Tuton: Even then Sasquatch felt like a crossover year. It felt less band-heavy, a lot of DJs and stuff, which says less about the festival than the times that we live in.
In any case, that was Memorial Day weekend 2016. And I remember seeing all these Bernie t-shirts in the crowd, while on the drive out from Seattle, we passed a lot of Trump yard signs. But anyway, three years later, we are where we are.
IWT: Maybe we aren’t where we are.
So with the more political tracks on the record, Anand, did you and Chris just go off and do your things, and it turned out they were political in nature? Or was there a conversation about like, we’re gonna go for it, in terms of messaging?
AW: Well, we had been doing a lot of messaging with social media, just on that tour, and getting a lot of pushback from these like psycho trolls that are fans of the band, but who are also constantly calling us “cucks” and “libtards” and stuff like that.
IWT: A lot of “stay in your lane” stuff. Apparently a lot of people who you don’t know what they do for a living are allowed to have an opinion about politics, but when you know what somebody does for a living, they’re not allowed to have an opinion! And that goes for football players, musicians…
Sure, “shut up and sing.”
IWT: I would say that they work on the lyrics and then we all kind of agree on what songs will work. I mean like “Let Me Listen In on You,” I was like, “Oh I am really into the lyrics of that song, and the changes. Let’s work on that.”
So with that one, it’s interesting how it kind of conflates a relationship and maybe a partner who wants access to your phone so that you have no secrets, and the surveillance state we increasingly seem to be in, that thing of trying to convince me that giving up my privacy is good for me. So Orwellian.
IWT: Yeah I was just looking at this last night, the ad on the government’s website is this woman who’s like – it’s like text blurbs with a friend – and she’s like “I’m through customs!” and the other one is like, “Oh my God that’s so quick!” and she’s like, “Yeah, they just scanned my face, and it was like, that!” and the other one was like, “You mean just like when you unlock your phone?” And she’s like, “Yeah! So easy!” And I was like, “Uhhhhh….”
AW: Yeah, you know, I actually started a sci-fi book club, which I never attend, they just read so quickly! But for all the kinds of fears of surveillance as this thing that you’re fighting against or is being forced upon you, really, we’re volunteering to be surveilled. Or like – yeah, you know, “Let me give my DNA to this company! So I can find out so much about myself!”
IWT: It’s made to seem great in a hyper-capitalist world. It’s got us all convinced.
AW: So with that song I was thinking of all these kind of raving lunatics. Like Jeff Sessions, I was kind of picturing him as like a – I live near this like men’s shelter, in Bed-Stuy, and there’s lots of schizophrenia around there. And I was imagining Sessions as like a schizophrenic guy, ranting and raving about immigration and all this stuff. And that’s kind of what the basis for the lyrics were. Like, the chorus just kind of fit.
And then on “Blue Skies Dandelions,” that first line refers to “James,” but I didn’t realize it was Comey you were talking about until I read the album bio.
AW: Yeah, no, Chris’ lyrics are very on the nose and direct, but I’m always trying to hide a little bit, make it a little more surreal and obscure? Or maybe more absurd? But anyway, yes I was listening to NPR – and James Comey was on a lot. But I had heard this one thing on Comey’s book tour, where he was talking about, “One strange thing about Donald Trump. I never saw him laugh!” And I thought that was such a funny, specific—it’s not like he’s criticizing his politics, he’s criticizing his weird, creepy personality – like how he wants everybody’s attention, but doesn’t actually understand humor and normal social cues. He’s like stayed in this weird bubble his whole life. He knows how to troll you really well but he doesn’t know how to laugh.
Erotic Reruns is an interesting title. It’s not in the lyrics. Where does that come from?
AW: Well the last one was called Amen and Goodbye, so…so it’s pretty clear.
IWT: Hellloooo? I thought you were a journalist.
I really don’t…
IWT: Well this guy is just….[laughs] I’m just messing with you!
AW: You know Amen and Goodbye was like, it was like a sitcom. Like Seinfeld, saying goodbye.
Okay, but the “erotic” part?
AW: Oh you have to dig into it. I’m not gonna say, I mean I could say…how I came up with it. [laughs] But the clue is that it is linked to the title of the last one.
Chris Keating [on being told their answer]: [laughs] I like that answer a lot! But I think it’s just some weird phrase that Anand kept saying, and he has these phrases that I think you can interpret in a few different ways. I think just the very nature of being a band in this climate, you’re kind of antiquated and old-fashioned – kind of like a rerun? And the idea of erotic it’s not – by nature, reruns are not erotic. And then also to me, it has this type of odd relevance to our current climate with like Trump being this rehash of like – you’ve seen the same old figures again, like old John Bolton, oh he’s back! But for some reason this is our porn star president. This is the eroticization, the vulgar – not that erotic necessarily means vulgar. So I was kind of looking at it like that too. Like, “Here we are again – but just a little more sexed up!”
Chris, like Anand said you’re very direct on “Crack a Smile” and “24-Hour Hateful Live!”
CK: With “24-Hour” they were like little lyrics that I had just messed around with, and I was just, “I really want to specifically name-check this like horrible Minister of Disinformation, Sarah Sanders and this disgusting troll-boy Stephen Miller.” And I think the first time I showed it to Anand, he was like, “It might be a little too explicit.” And I was like, I don’t know, George Harrison name-checked two politicians in England, in [The Beatles’ 1966 song] “Taxman,” you know? “Haha Mr. Wilson, Haha Mr. Heath.” And I liked that. And I didn’t even know if Sanders and Miller were even gonna make it, because the turnaround in this administration so unprecedented, you know? But I think it’s a testament to how evil and disgusting they truly are – the fact that they’re still around. It’s like, Stephen Miller is just the architect of the entire platform Trump ran on, which is complete xenophobia and children in cages.
And he’s been that guy since school, if you’ve seen the kind of troll he was even back in his school days.
CK: It’s so gross, like they’re both younger than me. But it gets to the point where it’s like you know the archetype – like I remember that type of prick, you know? I remember that same sour-faced younger woman, even though I didn’t grow up with Mike Huckabee as a father, you kind of just know what they’re like. I mean they’re my generation! They’re basically old millennials.
So with “24-Hour Hateful” there was a point where Anand said, “Do you really want to go that far with it?
CK: Yeah I think he doesn’t mind going that far, he was just sort of, “Is this too on the nose?” And I just said “I’m gonna do this. It just feels right.” I think there’s too much innuendo in songwriting, and a lot of metaphors, where this stands in for that. And I like how in hip-hop things are very explicit. They can be, anyway. And so I just felt like, I’m gonna put these people in here, because they’re such obvious criminals and so obviously disgusting that I just wanted to memorialize their evil deeds in a song.
And yet musically, to use a reductive word, it’s a fun song, and this is a fun album. And it’s not all politics. You have “Ecstatic Baby” and “Fluttering in the Floodlights.”
CK: I think we consider ourselves to be pretty reasonably politically engaged, and even probably too much so. I’ve tried to dial it back lately because I just get too depressed, reading the paper, listening to political podcasts and all that stuff. You just can’t help it but – there was a point where I was just like, “Fuck, I’ve got to stop writing about this kind of shit.” That’s kind of how I ended up writing “Ecstatic Baby.” I was like, “Fuck, I’m not writing about these horrible, evil, soul-destroying people anymore.”
As far back as Odd Blood you guys worked upstate, in Woodstock. The last record was done up at The Outlier Inn, in the Catskills. And now you all have places upstate and home studios of one form or another.
AW: Over the course of the past ten years, we’ve purchased equipment, but you know we got an advance from Secretly Canadian in 2009 and bought a bunch of stuff to take with us upstate, and we still have all that. I just hoard all that stuff. I never sell anything.
IWT: We just built em up over the years. Built our own studios. And they’re all pretty unique, I would say, too.
Each one is different from the other?
IWT: Very. Which I think works well for the collaborative recording process.
Is it safe to say that in general you guys just prefer the isolation of being in the country when you’re working?
CK: Yeah, I do. I think that recording in the city can be way too distracting. You know, you’re thinking about where you’re gonna get takeout from, and maybe whether there’s a show that night, or a gallery opening that night that you want to go to…whereas if you’re with your friends up here, you’re kind of living in it, you record in the morning, at night, whatever. I just like living in the space I’m recording in. I think that always works out really well.
It’s pretty remarkable how DIY this record was. Last time with Mute’s budget, you brought in Joey Waronker as a co-producer. But this time it was back to you guys producing yourselves, and no recording budget.
AW: In December of 2017 we just got together up at Ira’s house, and we prepared a set that was just the three of us, for a tour of Thailand. And then we were just talking about “We could record here…” cause that was the first time we had been up to Ira’s space.
IWT: That was kind of the beginning of the next phase.
AW: Yeah, and I was like, “Who should we get? Should we get Joey again, or something?” and they were like, “Why don’t we get your intern, Daniel [Neiman] to record us?”
And he engineered the whole thing? And played drums, or some drums?
IWT: He played some drums, and then our present touring drummer Noah Hecht played drums on I would say the majority of it. But Daniel definitely played drums.
AW: We were just learning as we go. He was a freshman in college!
IWT: And also there was like a label that was hovering the whole time. And I don’t want to paint that in a negative light, but that’s just the nature of the game. But even with the first record we got some money to record it. This was the first time we completely just had no budget and did it ourselves.
So now with four kids between the three of you, planning anything must be way different from in the beginning?
CK: Totally, yeah. It sucks! [laughs] I mean, it’s just hard. But you make it work, it’s fine. When you have a kid, it’s all about juggling. Like if you had a regular job, say like a job where you have to go nine to five or whatever, and there’s a snow day and your kid isn’t going to school, you have to like, figure it out! It’s this crazy thing. It’s like you’re engaged in this whole other thing where you’re responsible for a whole ‘nother person, and you have to deal, you have to juggle. You have to make it work. And it’s just chaos – but it’s fun though, and I appreciate the insanity of it all.
Sometimes the kid gets to be a co-writer. Anand, how did Uma’s part in “I’ll Kiss You Tonight” come about?
AW: I basically would strum chords, and then she would just spit lines. I copied the entire first verse from stuff that she said. The hook line, “Even though I hate you, I’ll kiss you tonight.” That was hers. You know kids just flow. It’s the perfect songwriting partner, cause all I have to do is play some structured chords and then she just spits verses and lyrics, and it’s so pure and conversational, you know? And then she’s hitting these high emotional things, hitting the words – cause the words are inspiring the melody, you know? And I stole it from her!
IWT: I can’t wait to steal from my baby! Right now I just steal his food, right?
I love how you guys have kept it east coast. So many bands seem to make this inevitable move to L.A., which I can’t stand.
AW: I’m trying to convince my wife, every day.
IWT: I think about it all the time. It always comes back but my wife and I just can’t wrap our heads around it. For us, there’s way more opportunity to be out there, just because of numbers. You know, the industry is out there. Even if you’re just trying to find stuff to do, soundtrack work or whatever.
CK: I do not like L.A. at all. I think that there are cool pockets, and I think probably if you live there, you hang out in your neighborhood. But I do not like incessant bright sunshine, hot, desert, suburban hell. I’ve actually had a couple near-crazy panic attacks where I met up with friends in L.A. and they were like, “Let’s go out to dinner!” and then we’re driving in traffic for like an hour, and then we go to parking garage shithole thing, and then we can’t even find a place to park, and I’m like, “Cmon, dude, it’s been an hour and a half!” I feel like a little kid.
So, the first time I interviewed Yeasayer, in 2008, George W. Bush was president. The next two times – 2012 and 2016 – it was Obama. Now it’s Trump. Let’s say I talk to you again in three years. Who will be in the Oval Office?
IWT: I’m pretty sure he’ll win a second term. Let me say this: it was exhausting being surrounded by people before this election, just repeatedly convincing themselves and you that there was no way this guy could get elected. Because it was identical to the same shit that happened when Bush junior got elected.
CK: Four more years? I can’t imagine. This fucking shit clown didn’t even win the popular vote. They got their asses handed to them in the midterms, and, I mean, he was running against Hillary who was a bourgeois candidate and so a lot of people didn’t come out to vote at all. I can’t imagine. But then again it’s the Democratic Party’s race to lose, and there’s so much in-fighting. I mean, I’d like to see a President Elizabeth Warren. I’d like to see a President Bernie Sanders, I’d like to see a President Anyone but this cocksucker, but I have a feeling that the Democratic Party will end up nominating Biden, who – I will vote for Biden.
Erotic Reruns is out now. Yeasayer’s North American tour runs through July 13.