Interview: Yeasayer Say ‘Amen & Goodbye’ To Synth-Pop
Silent Shout is our recurring dispatch from pop’s fringes. It may not be music for the masses, but — to paraphrase *NSYNC — this might be pop.
In 2016, the alt-pop landscape is increasingly just the pop landscape. The subgenre has flourished to the point where acts like Purity Ring, Grimes and SOPHIE have influenced and broken through the mainstream, as formerly “internet” sounds have seeped into songs by stars like Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen and Demi Lovato.
The movement really blossomed in the mid-aughts, sparked by synth-laden albums like Hot Fuss. Then once poptimism took root and The Knife set the template with Silent Shout in 2006, indie bands moved from blog rock to a more melodic, electronic-based sound that looked backward to warp ’80s memories and forward for new digital textures. Bands like LCD Soundsystem, MGMT and Yeasayer found ways to bring indie sensibilities into danceable pop structures, all of this resulting in the great synth-pop revival of the last 10 years or so.
But with their new album Amen & Goodbye (out April 1), Yeasayer are saying goodbye to all that. At a time when indie-leaning acts are falling over themselves to evoke new wave squelches and digital dreamworlds, the Brooklyn trio is embracing the accidents of analog and hearty harmonies fit for hippies, leaving behind the realm that they had a big hand in shaping.
When Anand Wilder is asked why he and his bandmates, Chris Keating and Ira Wolf Tuton, largely abandoned synth-pop’s crowded pastures on their fourth LP, he isn’t entirely sure at first. But he hazards a guess when we meet at the Manhattan office of the band’s label, Mute. “We try to stay ahead of the curve, maybe?”
Once we begin discussing radio pop and Madonna and whether any of this informs Yeasayer’s musical pedigree, some underlying forces behind the band’s latest adaptation indeed emerge.
“Pop music is very much on the grid,” Wilder explains. “I don’t really see much in the stereotypical pop production nowadays as anything I’d want to emulate, because to me it all sounds very thin, and not very dynamic. I dunno if I’m not supposed to talk negatively about pop music [laughs] but a lot of pop music I don’t like right now, I don’t like because it sounds like Christian rock. [They] go for this uplifting anthemic thing, that you could replace the lyrics about getting drunk with lyrics about praising Jesus, and it would have the same effect. Build-build-build and then [sings] ‘JEEESUS!'”
Yeasayer aren’t the only alt-pop godfathers to go off the grid recently, like so many Brooklynites fleeing gentrifiers: The Knife did this with their spastic and sprawling 2013 album Shaking The Habitual, and M83‘s Anthony Gonzalez seems primed to do it on his next album. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Gonzalez echoed Wilder’s sentiments: “What’s played in the mainstream is just awful, it makes me want to puke. Whereas what was playing in the ’80s was actually really good, really thought-out music. Now, you’re maybe going to hear 50 songs during the day that were made by 10 producers using the same sounds.”
And so on Amen & Goodbye, Yeasayer confronted this pop singularity head-on by making songcraft a physical, nomadic experience that broke through the tediousness of modern recording. They holed up in the Catskills, wandering between studios and using their hands.
“My goal for the album was, I don’t wanna be looking at a screen,” Wilder says. “We wanted to make it a little bit earthier, use mic placement and editing with tape, in a way that made everything more tactile and fun for the process. Like if a bottle fell, it’s a great random sound that’s in there that makes it feel like this living thing, not perfect…And eventually it got to this more organic place where it felt more immersive, maybe.”
The result is a textured listen marked by synthetic-acoustic interaction and shapeshifting structures. These qualities emerge right away: The album kicks off with a ’60s psych chant, which is followed by “I Am Chemistry.” The lead single at first appears to be the type of skewed synth workout you might find on Yeasayer’s two prior albums, then out of nowhere the queasy arrangement drops out for a folky choral interlude. The LP is rife with side quests like this.
And that restlessness, that constant hum of discovery, makes Amen & Goodbye one of a clutch of recent full-lengths that, while unrelated in sound, take the modern listening experience and reflect it back to the listener. Among them are The Life Of Pablo, The 1975‘s I like it when you sleep, David Bowie‘s Blackstar, ANTI and even Liturgy‘s 2015 black metal puzzler The Ark Work, all albums built on an interplay of disparate styles and abrupt shifts in tone. They are products of and reflections of the fractured, frantic way we listen to music now: boundary-less, limitless, concurrent, chaotic.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a new thing, though. I think the most successful pop albums are the ones that deal with a variety of subjects and tempos,” Wilder says. “I was listening to So, the Peter Gabriel album. It’s got some huge radio-friendly hits, but it also has these heart-wrenching ballads and some of his strangest songs. And that’s part of what makes an album listenable and classic. You don’t get lulled into this one thing where you can’t tell the difference between songs. Same with The Beatles. If you only listen to the McCartney songs on an album, or just the Lennon ones, it’s not as interesting. You need that back and forth.”
We need it. We’re conditioned to hear all things all the time, so for an album to hold our attention now it has to be an ambling, rambling fusion. But that hunger for unpredictability applies to the artists, too. After all, they’re living in this same streaming world. “It’s always been more fun as a musician to feel that anything can happen,” he notes.
Modern pop obsessives already experience that boundlessness. Despite the complaints of Anand Wilder, Anthony Gonzalez and others, pop has never been more adventurous or ambitious. The Kanyes of the world work with the Arcas of the world, Grime signs to Roc Nation, Rihanna covers Tame Impala. This is the Kevin Garnett “ANYTHING IS POSSIBLEEEE!” moment — and with Amen & Goodbye, Yeasayer made sure to cultivate that same sense of wonder for themselves.