It’s a fragrant world
– literally (check the album title) and metaphorically – for the Brooklyn indie heroes.
BY SELENA FRAGASSI
Two years ago, blog aggregator The Hype Machine claimed thatBrooklyn indie group Yeasayer was the most
blogged about artist of 2010, a feat even frontman Chris Keating had to question.
“How is that possible when there’s Kanye?” he laughs, when we catch up over the phone as the band traverses Europe on its latest tour. While Keating claims to have read some of the online material, he admits the only thing he found shocking in the posts was the really bad grammar. “I would have loved to have seen something crazy written about us, like that I have a fetish for small animals or something.” Instead, most outlets-online and print-have done little but lavish heaps of praise on the relatively young outfit, whose first two
experimental releases, 2007’s All Hour Cymbals and 2010’s Odd Blood, set the trajectory for becoming one of the premiere faces of modern music. This year, the group (Keating, founding members Ira Wolf Tuton and Anand Wilder as well as Jason Trammell and Ahmed Gallab) returned with third album Fragrant World (Secretly Canadian), a release markedly darker than their earlier pop-infused albums.
Named for a dystopian concept of a world with no smell and as a consequence less memory (since the two are scientifically linked), the title hints at Keating’s mindframe when piecing the album together. His writing is just as bleak, focused on front-page issues of environmental crises, apocalyptic fears and a historical figure named Henrietta Lacks who is the cornerstone of the album’s first single “Henrietta.”
Yeasayer – “Henrietta” by Secretly Canadian
“I heard the story originally on a radio program a couple of years ago,” Keating recalls as he relays the story of Lacks whose death from cancer in the 1950s led to a host of medical vaccination research using her cell material. “The medical world was using her genes over and over again, manufacturing a deceased human. It was very upsetting yet very moving to me.”
Moreso when Keating discovered Lacks was from his town of Baltimore, making the issue hit closer to home. It is here that he first met bandmate Wilder years ago; and as the two remained close, they regrouped with college mate Tuton in New York in 2005. The rest as they say is, well, history.
“It’s been a good progression,” Keating notes of the band’s path to stardom belying any talk of Yeasayer’s so-called breakthrough moment at the glorified 2007 SXSW showcases. “We often joke about how we played this so-called great show but then for three tours after that there was nobody coming to our shows.” Yet that’s just the way he wanted it to happen. “I’m very distrustful of any band that makes it big overnight and doesn’t go through these growing pains of having to play for nobody first.”
In the beginning, it took awhile for people to grasp on to the band’s eclectic sound, self-described as “Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel” music.
“When we started out, we knew that we wanted to embrace a lot of different influences and try out different things; many bands try to rip off something from the past and that’s just kind of played out to me. I like
the originals, I don’t need new ones,” he says.
In a way everything about the band has been original, from its marketing tactics (randomly snail mailing out 200 copies of the “Henrietta” single to fans across the world) to its dazzling light shows, which Keating has referred to as being close to a “religious experience” live.
“Light art installations are some of the most powerful stuff I’ve ever seen,” he says, “and in the same way I want to make music that is just as unique or startling or at the very least engaging.” And if the blogs
are to be believed, the rest of the World is catching on.
[Photo Credit: Mikeal Gregorsky]
A version of this story also appears in issue #13 of the print edition of BLURT. Yeasayer wraps
up its US tour tonight at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, North Carolina, then heads to the UK
next week. Tour dates here: http://www.yeasayer.net/tour/
It’s a fragrant world