Bed-headed and sleepy eyed, Ira Wolf Tuton, bassist in alt-pop Brooklyn-ites Yeasayer, sprawls himself over a couch backstage of the 02 Academy in Newcastle. At the beginning, he regurgitates stuff he’s probably said hundreds of times before in interviews in response to my questions about playing bigger venues and how their live show has changed. “Bigger, I guess” he says in a monotone Baltimore drawl.
So I shift the conversation onto something less inane. Yeasayer make the majority of British bands seem lazy in terms of how many different styles of music they incorporate into their songs. Is this a conscious decision? He seems to wake up. “Wait…did you just say we make other bands seems lazy? (laughs)…well, it’s always a funny question.” You get asked it a lot? “Yeah. The thing is it’s always a conscious decision because it’s being created out of nothing. It’s not like someone is just holding a recorder to your head while you’re asleep. That being said, you have certain proclivities as a musician… we make these dense compositions with a lot of layering. What we haven’t touched on yet and which I might like to do is a sound that’s more minimal”.
‘Minimal’ certainly isn’t a word you would associate with Yeasayer. Their debut, All Hour Cymbals, was a deluge sounds from different genres and cultures. This year’s follow up, Odd Blood, pushed the pop melodies that previously ran underneath the songs into the forefront. A gamble, as going from experimental darlings to purveyors of pop could have easily come across as a cheap shot for record sales.
It soon becomes obvious that Yeasayer aren’t a calculating band, in that they don’t think about their audience very much. In a good way. Critics seemed to love Odd Blood because they were surprised at how well Yeasayer wrote brilliant, twisted pop songs. But for Yeasayer it was a forgone conclusion that their songs would come with hooks so big you could hang a coat off them: “We grew up in high school listening to pop music. When you’re an adolescence that’s what’s cool and it’s still cool.”
And Yeasayer aren’t the only new band around channeling huge pop acts from a few decades ago, referencing influences you wouldn’t normally associate with buzz-bands. Neon Indian and Sleigh Bells both cite Phil Collins, for one, as a major inspiration, incorporating the baldies knack for a pounding rhythm in their music. Anand (guitarist and singer) once said Yeasayer wanted to ‘trick people into liking really uncool music’.
But why isn’t the Collins effect so obvious in the up and coming U.K bands? “I think there’s a lot of bands in the UK and the UK music industry itself that are still way more obsessed with image than the US music industry is. And I’m not dissing any of my friends that are in bands from the UK. But even through the prism of my own band I can see that the industry here and the press and the populist here is insanely obsessed with image.” Ira might have a point, as it seems the British press has chosen to portray Yeasayer as a hip band playing what is essentially uncool music. For Ira, Yeasayer are just doing what comes naturally.
At one point earlier this year Yeasayer were the most blogged about band in the world. “We held that honour!” Ira replies, with mock-smugness that suggests a deeper feeling of humbleness. How appreciative are you of bloggers? “They’ve pretty much given us our career. Without the internet and the speed which information is traded as a commodity, we couldn’t exist at any other time as a band.” They’re yet to have a standout ‘hit’ though and, despite the well-received albums, they remain on the periphery.
Which is exactly where Ira wants to be: “You want to control ‘hype’ as much as possible. I’m happy with burning slow and having a career. I don’t look at bands who are selling way more records than us and get jealous, I get interested. Success is alluring.” With an air of mystique, he adds, “Success can be confusing as to what it actually is…..”
But Yeasayer are more successful than maybe Ira realises. By refusing to stick to a particular formula, as a band they are free from the constraints of one assumed sound. More importantly, their fans seem open-minded enough to stay with them, whichever way they choose to go next.