Yeasayer: men versus mammon

They're po-faced but funny, worried about death – and life. Yeasayer talk about music, self-promotion and compromising with commerce

What is the best way to make people want to buy your new album? You can put taster tracks on the internet before release. That is something Yeasayer have done. You can book a couple of tiny shows in a minuscule venue to generate buzz. That is also something Yeasayer have done. Or you can say the album is a redundant artform. Which is what Chris Keating, singer and keyboard-player with the band, is doing right now, ahead of one of those couple of tiny shows at the Lexington in London.

"The two-hour film is dying," he expands. "When you have The Wire or Mad Men, you'll sit down and watch 60 hours of a story: two hours seems so limiting. Likewise with the album." And tThen he rows back just a little bit. "But if we were to release one song a month for the next two years – I don't think we'd be talking about it now."

"The album is a publicity event," says Anand Wilder, who also sings and plays a bit of whatever comes to hand.

It is left to bass player Ira Wolf Tuton to try to reel the talk back, lest potential buyers just up sticks. "It's a good amount of material to develop ideas in the fullest sense, rather than just working on one song instead of putting it out," he says. "I feel that would be too limiting a vignette. The editing process is that much greater and it leads to a more challenging experience."

The new album in question, their third, is called Fragrant World. If their debut, 2007's All Hour Cymbals, might unkindly be described as The Lion King soundtrack rewritten by apocalyptic hipsters, and if their second, Odd Blood, might have been their stab at incorporating a sleeker sense of pop into their art-rock – especially with the breakthrough single Ambling Alp – then Yeasayer's new album is their state-of-the-musical-union address.

Fragrant World is about tones and textures, taking from 80s pop and from R&B, and addressing specific targets. Fingers Don't Bleed addresses those who profit without labour; Reagan's Skeleton bemoans the deification of the 40th president to a dance-pop melody inescapably reminscent of the Beloved's 1993 hit Sweet Harmony; and Folk Hero Shtick targets someone making music for all the wrong reasons.

"It's a very direct lyrical attack, but I'd prefer not to say who it's about," Wilder says, cautiously, of the latter song. "Ira has some idea who it's about. But it's also directed at ourselves and this idea of buying into your own mythology and the danger it can bring – just being so egomaniacal and not caring about the little guy, but pretending that you do."

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Yeasayer aren't exactly the big guys yet. Odd Blood stalled in the mid-60s in the charts in the UK and the US, and they are playing theatres not arenas – they are surprised to learn Bon Iver is headlining Wembley Arena this autumn. But they are big enough to remember what it was like being little, when they were shocked by the entitlement that came with any level of stardom.

"Before we were a band we used to do props and stuff," Keating says, "and we were working on this enormous budget music video for this guy." Again, diplomacy prevails and said guy remains nameless. "We were like: 'Wow! He's spending so much money!' – it was a huge rental with an elaborate set. We stayed up for 25 hours straight building this thing. And finally we asked: 'What's this song he's doing?' 'It's his cover of We Wish You a Merry Christmas.' Fucking shoot me in the face. It's a half-million dollar video for We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

But like countless bands before them, they have to balance the demands of commerce against their desire to remain uncompromised. It is not, they stress, that they are opposed to licensing their music – there will, apparently, be a Yeasayer song in a forthcoming Grand Theft Auto game – more that when mammon is too apparent they recoil. Keating gave up cable TV at home, apart from HBO, because he couldn't bear the adverts. And they fight against those trying to sell things off their backs.

"People push it as far as they can," Tuton says. "The longer we do this, the more we have to take action in pushing back. When you start off, you have this feeling that, to succeed, you need to say yes to everything because at any moment the bottom could drop out. Then you realise this is your entire life and you need some kind of quality control over what's going on."

"And we're not that good at selling phones," Wilder chips in.

"We've gotten in actual serious arguments with promoters if we've turned up and there's been an advertisement," Keating says. "'What's this? Am I getting 50% of this? Fuck this. Take it down.'"

"But even if you play the Lexington for 200 people you're still supporting 10 different beer companies," Wilder points out. "We're not getting any money from that."

We won't be seeing Yeasayer in arenas with the Doritos logo plastered across the stage any time soon, then?

"Remember the Doritos stage at South By?" Wilder asks his bandmates.

Keating explains. "The Doritos stage at South By was inside a giant Doritos vending machine. Seriously. This is real. The stage looked like a vending machine inside a chip bag."

"But Doritos are really good," Tuton protests.

"I think it's case by case," Keating says. "And when you're changing your song to be in a Taco Bell ad that seems a little distasteful. How much did you get? Oh well, you gotta feed your kids. I don't want to have my face on a cigarette ad. I don't want to advertise the military. I don't want to advertise booze."

They are a curious bunch. There is a hint of po-facedness about them, and before talking to them I am told they take their work very seriously. Yet the questions about their work are met, by and large, with a polite blankness. They answer almost distractedly, perhaps because they've been asked these questions – about songwriting, about production, about recording – countless times already. Their songs engage with ideas about society, but there is no particular sense of engagement from their conversation: their views on the state of the US boil down to the Tea Party being bad and Barack Obama being a disappointment. Maybe they feel they have said all they need to in their songs.

But they are funny, too, in an offhand way. Tuton, especially, is jocular. Only Wilder seems a little withdrawn. And what seems most to engage them when the conversation drifts off topic at the end? The merits of a pork butchery course as a birthday present (excellent idea, Tuton enthuses); the prospect of death.

"I've been worrying about that since I was five," Keating says. "Since I first heard about it. 'Death? This is going to happen to me?'" "I'm not terrified of my own death so much as the death of everyone I care about," Wilder says. "My own death? I'm dead. What the fuck do I care? But having family members and loved ones pass on, and having other family members live a very long time and seeing all of their circle pass on? That seems a very gruelling thing to go through."

Keating is not just afraid of death, though. He's also afraid of long life. "That seems like shit, doesn't it? An extra 20 years of being senile. You can live to 110 – but it's not like the good years are from 90 to 110. Give me a break. People say: 'You'll just die of old age.' Doesn't happen. It's gonna be cancer or Alzheimer's."

"If it's not that it might be a bus accident," Tuton offers.

And Keating cheers up. "Which might be OK."

• Fragrant World is released on Mute on 20 August, preceded by the single Longevity on 6 August.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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