Yeasayer's Ira Wolf Tuton On the Band's Return And Their Exhilarating New Album

"I think of art as constantly a next step, never as retrospective"

Photo by Eliot Lee Hazel

Don’t call it a comeback, but secretly do. On 2012’s moody and subdued Fragrant World, it seemed as if Yeasayer had turned away from the polychromatic weirdness of their previous records, opting for darker textures and at times viscerally bleak lyricism. For those who fell in love with Odd Blood’s noisy exuberance, their new record should be a cause to rejoice. From Suzzy Roche’s transcendent turn on “I Am Chemistry,” to “Dead Sea Scrolls'” effervescent ‘60s harmonies, Amen & Goodbye channels the trio’s technical virtuosity into moments of sheer, exhilarating joy. We caught up with bassist Ira Wolf Tuton to discuss the story behind Yeasayer 4.0, and how a leaky roof single-handedly shaped the album.

With each album, it seems like you create a new world, both sonically and conceptually. What were you guys thinking when you started writing the new record?
I think after every record, we take some time to figure out what direction we wanna go in after that. Part of that is a process of learning it live and touring it live—all of that influences the future direction. With this record it seemed very obvious, after making such an electronic record and being surrounded by the climate of EDM as a commercial mainstay, we had to step back and ask where our talents lay. We came to music as musicians, and there’s a lot of influences that we hadn’t necessarily pulled from in the past, whether that’s the '60s or ‘70s classic rock or creepy vocal stuff like the Zombies. We try not to be retroist in what we do, so the process in the recording studio is finding the fine line between drawing from these influences and also mixing them with our own music personalities.

I saw elements from all three previous albums in Amen & Goodbye. Would you describe it as a culmination of your work thus far?
I think of art as constantly a next step, never as retrospective. I understand that people think of it as that, but to us, the goal is to continue to develop. In some ways, I feel like it’s a very honest record in terms of who we are musically, and maybe because of that, elements from all the records come out. We were trying to explore a lot of deep and nuanced arrangements that we haven’t in the past, and I guess to do that you pull some of the techniques from all the albums just to get their extremes.

I heard the recording process was dramatic, to say the least.
It could’ve been a lot worse. We recorded at a farm in upstate New York and it rained basically for three weeks straight. We were recording the rainstorm on tape, and some of that ended up on the beginning of "Gerson’s Whistle." We left the tape machine exposed through the night, and a leak developed in the roof and damaged the tape machine and some of the recordings. It was toward the end of the process, of us being there and recording the arrangements, so we picked up everything we could salvage and brought it back to New York. We sampled and reconstituted what we could, but it took everything in a totally new direction. It made us kill our darlings without having to do it ourselves.

You also brought in an external producer, Joey Waronker (Beck, R.E.M.). After self-producing all of your previous work, what was that like?
I think the reason it worked is because Joey was such a natural fit, and came as an augmenting member of the project. He’s also a world-class drummer, so that rounded out what we were doing in the studio. We had gone through trying to work with other people and it didn’t work. We were always really reticent to explore the idea because we really enjoy taking ownership and control over these projects, but Joey came in and just became part of that process.

The album seems to present a distinctive cast of characters. How did you decide on the subject matter for the album?
I think that all of our subject matter across the records has been a mixture of religion and mythology, mythological figures, but there’s also lyrical content that reflects real life situations, like “Cold Night.” I think it’s a reflection of interest in the world around us. When the three of us are together there’s a lot of debate about religious ideas, which is constantly coming up because it’s constantly coming up in popular culture and media. To explore those ideas through narrative has always been very interesting to us. That also goes back to the musical arrangement. It’s always been a technique of ours to talk about a scene from a movie that the song we’re working on could be part of, whether that’s a scene from The French Connection or a made-up movie. It’s about appreciating a multisensory experience.

At the same time, “I Am Chemistry” is narrated from the point of view of a poison particle. Is there a tension between religion and science within the Yeasayer project?
We’re pretty grounded in scientific thought. For me, those pathways are way more astounding and unbelievable and poetic than trusting that God created Earth in seven days. That’s not interesting to me. How? How did that happen? What’s the scientific background behind that? Just to say that it happened is unbelievable, literally. I’m reading a book right now called The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. It’s a thought study about what would happen if humanity disappeared right now, how everything would decay and transform. It goes into a lot of thought about how humanity changed the world 10,000 years ago, 100,000 years ago. That’s what I find fascinating, rather than the myopic, one-size-fits-all way of telling how it went down.

You feature Suzzy Roche from The Roches on “I Am Chemistry.” What drew you to her vocals?
Suzzy and her band have always been legends to us. We listened to them a lot when we were touring the first record, and immediately related to it because they have something so original and unique in the timbres. They sound kinda ageless; they can be childish and sound octogenarian at the same time. I think Anand [Wilder] saw Suzzy sing "[Early] Shaker Spirituals" in this theater group, and I think that led to one of the most exciting collaborations we’ve ever been able to do.

Another striking collaboration is the album cover that artist David Altmejd produced for you.
We’ve been really lucky to continue to work with interesting artists that we respect. Chris [Keating] reached out to David and, kind of like Suzzy, he reached back. We gave him a list of characters that have been in our records, and he ran with it and created this world that was both unexpected and also really exciting, seeing someone of his talent recontextualize what we’d done on a musical level. That extends to Mike Anderson doing that [“I Am Chemistry”] video, taking some of the assets that David had done then recontextualizing what a Yeasayer world was to him.

Are we going to see an all-new Yeasayer world in your live shows?
I’m excited about this live show because we really have been harnessing the feeling that it could at any moment become unhinged. We’re getting away from the prevalence of backing tracks that you see nowadays and that we’ve incorporated a lot in the past too. I want shit to go wrong, so it stays exciting playing the songs night after night.