Interview: Stick Up For Yourself, Son. Yeasayer.

One of the plethora of perky joys afforded the latter-day journo is the transatlantic call. "It's sunny in New York", I'm duly informed although in London it's as dark, damp, and cold as it's seemed all year. Perhaps not quite as cold and thereby socially, as well as geographically distant as Yeasayer bassist Ira Wolf Tuton transpires to be in our opening exchanges, but still. As he'll later avow, he's done his fair share of spiels with faceless hacks, and the charting of previously untrodden ground is consequently of paramount concern to those more reticent scribes amongst us. Doubtless though, inquiring as to why a record may be named this or that is perhaps not the most promising, nor efficient way of ensuring tedium be kept at bay.

I have, however, been immensely intrigued by the titles bestowed upon their three full-lengths thus far: first we were endowed with All Hour Cymbals, then injected with the genre-transfusing Odd Blood, and recently invited into the trio's Fragrant World. I'd thought it was maybe a snide witticism on the reality that most major cities – both London and New York of course inclusive – now reek of the putrid stench of ├╝ber-commercialism and so forth. Tuton is a little more coy than I'd perhaps optimistically anticipated: "I think it's always good to leave a certain sense of vagueness to titles and allow for different sets of interpretations", he proffers with a commensurate ambiguity. "But this was actually the title of a song that didn't make the record. It was just one of the things that kept bouncing around; that we kept coming back to, and it just seemed like a nice, encompassing umbrella for a lot of the varying elements in there. Elements that may be disparate, or may be unified."

Fragrant World was brought into being back in August of this year, and indeed divided opinion somewhat. It was an irrefutably less immediate listen when compared with its predecessor and, perhaps more pertinently, despite involving the gloopy disco sloop of a track going by the name of Longevity, to bring its effect up to speed and into a more contemporary setting its lasting impression is arguably lesser too. Alas, it perhaps hasn't infested my ears and infiltrated all iGadgetry as I'd sincerely hoped it may. But with the benefit of that oft exasperating luxury of hindsight, do Tuton's impressions of the LP differ now with regard to then?

"Certainly, as I'm not as tied to the record right now as much as I'm tied to the live show. So my relationship with the material has changed significantly. It's now about constantly honing it within the live set, and continually working on the arrangements in that format. The order in which we do that and micromanaging that – down to the drum fills, and where all the small things should be."

So that's the now, but what of this then? Well, to speak quite generally and with that deplorably superficially, if Fragrant World had Yeasayer inhabiting soundscapes that were as vibrant, and polychromatic, and pioneering as ever then lyrically, it was all a little more monochromatic in the pure, yet simple sense that its key themes darkened to a rather murky hue. Whether a conscientious change or a more logical progression; evolution even, Tuton maintains the veil of aloof mystique: "I think lyrically, it's what those guys are going through at the time. I think there are a lot of perceptions of darkness and lightness, many of which purely stem from the nature of production. And sure – I think you hear lyrical shifts, but there are songs off Odd Blood that would never be perceived as dark primarily because of the way in which they're being presented. Take a song like O.N.E., which is a pretty uptempo, positive dance track, yet one with a fairly dark subject matter attached. It's about addiction, and... And that's kind of the interesting thing about playing with juxtapositions..."

Doors slam in the background, unintelligible bits of word are muttered under fumbled exhalations, and Tuton's drawn-out crackle chases its own tail off into the dim wildernesses of silence.

It's a stark punctuation mark in our conversation. No more lyrical focus; let's face the music. That's what I'd hankered so long for in the buildup to the release of Fragrant World, harassing fellow acolytes across the planes of social media and so forth. And the record thereby served as a punctuation mark of sorts in itself as, having become all but entirely addicted to Odd Blood in the interim period between the two releases I felt as though walking a precarious, tightrope-like hyphen between the two. That balancing act then became substantially less stable when I wasn't sold on the latest within the first few seconds, but it made me reconsider the way in which I'd been greatly appreciating a band to have become an immovable staple of my digitalised diet musical. For in retracing the evolution from All Hour Cymbals, through Odd Blood, and on into the Fragrant World it became apparent that the themes and idiosyncratic embellishments of world music always occupied something of a common theme. And moreover, although its impact may oscillate from song to song; record to record, it remains one of few constants. Ira's tone of voice opens up a touch to embrace the inquisition, as he repeatedly counter-questions:

Is it fair to bracket Yeasayer within the rather broad parentheses of world music?

"I always wonder what people mean when they say world music, 'cause that could mean so many different things. I mean I think it is fair, but I wonder what you're meaning specifically by world music..."

Well, subjectively, I've always viewed world music as a quite ambiguous genre epithet to signify something deeply rooted in the movements and musics of bygone forefathers; something entrenched in a strict form of traditionalism. It tends to hark back to the past, whereas you guys seem to take this world music, and twist it into something only faintly identifiable; forward-thinking, primarily. I'm now hearing it as a futuristic rethink indebted to progressive pop grooves, and it's not something I've heard many artists attempt...

"My question to you though regards what type of music you're thinking of when you say world music..."

More ethnically-infused, maybe? [To run with the recurrent theme of the great vague.] There's certainly a more conventional ethnic thrust to much of All Hour Cymbals...

"You know, it's of interest to us to try and create new languages of style, and new arrangements that pull from as many different sources as possible to create something in a new and intriguing way. That's one of the reasons we continually get excited about making music. It's not just about going into a room and recording the same changes for, you know, the 60,000 country song that's been written with those same changes. I'm sure that there's something to be said for that, but that's categorically not what this project is about. Right now, we have such a wide availability to all these different kinds of music, from all these different cultures from around the world so why not derive inspiration from 'em?"

Quite. Ira's employment of the term project is quite irrefutably itself of interest though, as it hints at something maybe a little more temporary than expected. And the dichotomy between the temporal and the temporary is one of the defining aspects of pop music – another branch of the musical tree from which we feed to obfuscate any finite definitions of Yeasayer that we may set about cultivating. There's undoubtedly a feel of vivid pop running throughout Fragrant World, thus in a musical way lending the record the feel of a lucid continuation of its predecessor. But is pop music a term he yet feels comfortable with? "I've always looked at the music that we've made as being pop music. I think maybe we've honed the focus a little more, and our form has become more succinct but even though the songs might've been in longer forms, to me a song like 2080, or even Germs, is just as much a pop song in its form – maybe irrespective of quality – as Madder Red, or Reagan's Skeleton. I also think there's been a shift in how open people are, and what they now perceive as pop music. I think that's always shifting. And that shifts with, and across times. That happened in the '90s, when all of a sudden a six-minute Jane's Addiction song would be deemed a pop song and even way before that. Peter Gabriel stuff, at a certain time, would've beenconsidered really fuckin' weird and out there but heard through another window in time, it can then easily be perceived as pop music. So it's hard for me to discern. Certainly, we are engaged in trying to get better and better. And probably a part of that is down to our sharpening of this pop edge. But I think, you know, the audience changes with time too. And it's hard for me to quantify that."

The recording-cum-crepitation that I'm here transcribing is punctuated increasingly by the rustling of groceries and the clamorous banging of these background doors. It's indicative of the way in which Yeasayer, as a vehicle, has opened up so many opportunities for Ira et al., and indeed similarly of their ever shifting sonic aesthetic. You sense there are few doors and boundaries they'd fear to walk through. Yet as staunch advocates of striking juxtaposition, they were once recently caught up in one of the most crisp feasible to thought. The last time I was fortunate enough to witness their ebullient blitz of a live show was at this year's Latitude Festival, where they quite literally (and only literally, I ought add) followed in the footsteps of a certain Lana Del Rey – perhaps the epitome of the intangible, inscrutable, and eventually oppressed contemporary pop star. She straddles both the temporal and the temporary, belonging very much to the now whilst also finding herself condemned to an imminent irrelevance, I might pessimistically reckon. She is the emblematic martyr of diminishing shelf lives and dwindling attention spans, industry inevitabilities that have long since been combatted with deluxe editions and so forth, as she and her praiseworthily masterly marketing team strike repeatedly whilst the iron remains at least asmoulder. She is contemporary culture made carnal, and she is someone towards whom Ira takes an admirably pragmatic approach. "It is what the market will bear" he concedes, guffawing midway through these seven words.

"I think there is a deep, storied love – in the UK especially – for that particular style. And I think you can trace that, well, I don't know how far back it goes but even in recent history, it boggles my mind that Adele is about to have the largest selling record of all time. I would not have been able to foresee that. That, in her career, she will outsell Michael Jackson who only hit such figures in death. Then you have Amy Winehouse, and, well, is it a good thing? If there's an audience for it, then there's an audience for it. When I was younger, I engaged in the futile effort of hating on music that I didn't like, and hating on artists that made that music but as I've gotten older and more involved, I've realised the futility and, more importantly, immaturity and ridiculousness of that. Music, at the end of the day, may not be something for the 99.9% but at the same time, it doesn't hurt anybody. For the most part, it helps people identify with who they are personally; with other people, and however you wanna get your kicks, that's fine. It may not be the thing that gets me off, but it's a wide world out there and I don't think we ever got into this thinking we would outsell Michael Jackson in life. That was never our goal, nor is that the reality in which we live but the fact is that we can do what we wanna do, and have a crowd that, so far, has followed us through any changes. That's all I can really wish for, and certainly it's good that there's a varied palette out there."

The juxtaposition was made all the more startling if you may be, as am I and with that Ira, schooled in the opinion of Yeasayer as architects of pop music – however that may be defined. One thing that's a little more conclusive, though, is that at times acts come into being and go on to become omnipresents, only to ultimately flatter to deceive. "Every once in a while, sure – it's a bummer when you feel as though people are getting hoodwinked, just through mass media, but I tend to give the listener more credit. I'm not gonna waste my sleep over it. Plus I'm far too self-centred to think about anybody else."

This concept of losing sleep is a turn of phrase that kindles a thought; a self-referential comparison. I recall Chris Keating's 2080 lyric of an insomniac reaction to the very thought of the future. "I can't sleep when I think about the times we're livin' in/ I can't sleep when I think about a future I was born into" he adorably ingenuously crooned five or so years ago, and whilst we're not quite in that particular year prophesied just yet the musical landscape is forever changing as new beings, bands and PR vessels helmed by porcelain-skinned figureheads rampage its fertile expanses.

"That a different conversation. I'm not meaning that there's nothing out there that makes me lose sleep – that's the thing. It's as my mom says: 'Choose your battles.' And the battles of music stylistic prowess, and the future of popular music, and what people should be, but aren't listening to aren't mine. There are other things in life that I think you can express through art, and that you can achieve with the aid of art. And those are the things that I tend to focus on in my life in general. Relationships that I have with people. The overall social issues that I'm engaged in, and social issues that I'm not engaged in; economic issues that I'm engaged in, and economic issues that I'm not engaged in but that I see around me. The complex realities of life. Trying to be as good to the people that you care about as possible, and trying to get that in return from those people. [Give the final few minutes of All Hour Cymbals' Red Cave a listen, and it becomes quite apparent that this has long since been their primary intention.] Harder than it sounds!"

As it is, and always has been, to cogently define that which Yeasayer do. Such innovation isn't to be sniffed at, nor sneered down upon in any way through such sniffly probosces. That said, the contemporary tendency to take one connotative term and conjoin it to another with an impotent hyphen to construct something – a previously nonexistent sub-genre of sorts – that holds its relevance for the approximate running time of any one song, is a tendency we really ought revile. This sounds like that; attach prefix-slash-suffix here to fabric yet another inessential genre tag. I might thereby define Yeasayer as, say, world-pop. That sort of thing. From the inside out though, has such obsessive compartmentalisation of our everything aural proven in any way problematic?

"I don't find it to be problematic, but I don't really care for it; it's not something that I pay attention to. This is a wonderful conversation, and I'm enjoying it but I don't particularly enjoy talking about what it is that we do – that isn't really why I got into this! And talking to you is an extension of who and where we are. We are fortunate to be where we are, we make a living doing what we do, and so we need to do all the things required of us so that we may continue to make records, and promote the cultivation of music. But, you know, I always felt the same way about school. I studied architecture, and I couldn't stand reading about architecture. Well, reading about architecture was one thing but I couldn't do with writing about architecture. I didn't see the point – I'm not a theorist, I wasn't a scholar, and I feel the same way about music. I really enjoy making music, and all the other things that surround the industry – sure, I'm a part of that, but that's not where I get my kicks from."

And neither, or so it'd seem, is social media. To revert to that remoulding of the musical landscape previously referenced, Tim Berners-Lee's internet has been its primary sculptor in recent times. It plays a progressively fundamental role in exposure, distribution, successes and failures, and is an unfortunate entity that now has to come into the way in which a band fathoms its functionality. Having recently conversed with Angus Andrew, he told of Liars' inability to come to terms with internet presence; with the indubitable futility of your witter-fuelled Twitters and inanity-driven Facebooks, and Ira shares similar concerns, even if they may be translated into the native tongue of a self-professed "internet band."

"I've done interviews through this whole process, and at the beginning we were always like: 'Hey, yeah, we're an internet band. The internet's always been, erm...' I'm quoting myself now. 'The internet explains the way we do this whole business, and it's changing at an exponential rate.'" I choke on a thorough gulp, having inadvertently put forth what now feels the age-old Q. "And because we have always existed within that framework, we've always tried to be on top of all these changes as much as possible; to embrace them. By no means are we trying to fight any of the shifts that are happening, because we are direct products of those very shifts. But, that being said, it's one thing saying it's gonna change things exponentially, and quite another to actually see it happen. All of a sudden, the power of Spotify has increased dramatically. And illegal downloads, like, a lot of people would be getting music for free yet with one swift deathblow, the music industry as we know it..." He tails off, as though some label exec were sat down his end, before his very eyes, with two hands on a cheque. "I actually think in some ways it's good that it happened so quickly, so that it forced people into a state of motion to change the way that the industry is structured. I still marvel at how much people are scrambling to hold onto these old, antiquated ideas but, you know, it still is changing..! And it has certainly changed for us – we're still trying to embrace that in all the things we do, with our internet presence and things. That was something we had to act upon with the way in which we controlled the leak. I wanna have a relationship with our audience and our fans, and I think we can now do that in a really interesting and exciting way, through the ways via which people now get their media. Where major labels are really freaked out about their bottom-line, we have to perceive the advances of the internet as something pretty exciting that we can then take advantage of in various creative ways."

So even, say, piracy isn't something you'd perceive to be intrinsically detrimental to the evolution of the band? "It's not really detrimental to..." Again, he cuts out. To spin an extended allegory, there's now a crease-slash-faint rip in that cheque. "It depends on who you talk to! It's not intrinsically detrimental to us as a band. It's probably intrinsically detrimental, though, to that classic way of making albums. Making albums is fun – I really enjoy it. People still write about albums, and review albums, but I think your average music listener that's getting into the world of music listening right about now – i.e. your young teenager – doesn't really listen to albums any more. I don't think... I mean I'm just judging from looking at iTunes, but there's now that difference – people clicking on individual songs. But maybe this was always the case, even back in the '80s or whenever. My sister, for example, bought Poison's Open Up And Say... Ahh! because she thought every song was Every Rose Has Its Thorn. So even then, she ended up being quite disappointed when she found that not to be the case. But they'd still sold her the whole record. It's so funny because this is a conversation I've had so many times, with so many different people, and it always goes down this rabbit hole of very vague, broad statements. At the end of the day, people getting our music, however they get it, helps us. And if that furthers our opportunity to continue playing live then it indirectly helps us to keep making records. Access is always a good thing, and that goes for all forms of media across the board." It's a stance the BMI could really do with adopting in light of its latest licensing ruse.

Although it's this concept of the rigorous constructing of an LP to which we soon return. It's an art in itself, I honestly believe, in an era defined by whimsical opinions and jittering indecisions to set about piecing together a record that runs as a record ought – from track one through track whatever. A trigger-happy click-through of previous singles and odds and sods otherwise does not an album make and although the vinyl renaissance of recent years has counteracted this somewhat, we've still some way to go. Yeasayer though – they're doing their bit, inadvertent as it may perhaps be: "I think if you're gonna make a record then you're already involved in that [the building of a coherent album] inherently. We're already accepting of that being the format within which we're working, so sure. That being said, we work on songs individually – we always have. And we produce those songs individually – always have. So I think what you hear as a cohesive album is just a product of the same couple of people working away at the same material in the same space and time, as they strive to create some form of stylistic cohesion. Even down to a 'Hey! This has been our go-to synth for the bass! That's obviously gonna relate to the other songs on the album.' But then at the end of that whole process comes the part where we take the fifteen, to eighteen songs that we have and whittle them down to one consolidated project – one where the order makes sense and flows accordingly."

"And that extends out into the live show, too. The two things are so different – there's no live rehearsal being done while we're working on an album, so before we go out on the road there's at least three months of rehearsing. Just strictly dedicated to getting live arrangements down. Because the two are so different. But the exciting thing about the live show is that you're working on material from different albums. So you're working with that same concept – of putting together this fluid musical thing – but with material that was done across different times, and where it's all a little more dispersed. You can kinda play with a lot more ups, and downs, and shifts than you might be able to were you to do a Police-style show and play an album the whole way through. Do they do that?"

Obliviousness is bliss. Although irregardless of whatever the heck Sting may be up to within the live arena, Yeasayer are as dynamic and utterly devastating as ever. Their recent UK tour may have been cancelled as vocalist/ grotesquely talented multi-instrumentalist Anand Wilder's wife gave birth to their baby girl, but mercifully all shows have subsequently been rescheduled. They're to take to the Shepherd's Bush Empire December 4th, and it's an element of the band's existence that remains as essential to their collective existence as it ever did: "You gotta have respect for the audience – shows are not that cheap. They're not that cheap to put on either, so that's just the nature of the game. Everything's gotta work out. So to ask somebody to pay outta their pocket to see something, and to then not come through down our end on something that we feel we really need to work hard on, well... To put on a really good show is vital to us, basically."

It's an estimable position the three-piece have adopted, particularly in light of the number of unapologetically lackadaisical live acts touring this here globe at any one time. Both on behalf of artists and their respective audiences, London and New York are becoming increasingly dreary cities in which to explore the live arena and, in compliance with this degradation in overall quality, I fear that there's an equivalent lack of exertion going into the coverage being afforded these nocturnal offerings. It's all a bit indolent and, as Tuton intones, "it's not exciting to anybody. And it certainly wouldn't be worth doing for three months. I'd be asking myself: 'What the fuck? What am I doing with my life?' We spend so much time touring that we need to approach it as something that's gonna be stimulating in some sense for everyone involved. And the only way to do that is to continually challenge yourself, and keep working on your arrangements. To double-think yourself; rethink the ways you can do things; constantly hone that down. And team that up with a visual side that is compelling, and creative, and unique."

Musically, Yeasayer typify all three adjectives, and live they outdo anything previously recorded as they ring the changes and rework every last moment. Longevity is debatably one of the hardest things to obtain in modern-day music, and theirs appears to have been prolonged with the release of Fragrant World. It may not be their sweetest sounding, but in a world spun by uncountable artists seemingly all too, and indeed only, preoccupied with looking, sounding and seeming as they feel they ought Yeasayer continue to smell of something overwhelmingly ambrosial. And as our voices bid one another farewell, Ira and his initially thorny demeanour come up smelling of roses.

Fragrant World is out now on Mute, whilst we'd suggest you sniff 'em out at the O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire December 4th.