Waiting in line for Korean food, Yeasayer’s Anand Wilder is wearing glasses slightly too big for his head and a backpack cinched up between his shoulder blades. I’m on time, thinking he’ll be late. He was early, knowing I’d be on time. So far, it feels more like I’m here to meet a med student than a rock star, but that’s because Wilder’s treating our interview like it’s part of his job—typically normal behavior from a band that you expect to be a whole lot weirder than they actually are. In fact, Yeasayer are three normal guys with an instinct for masking complex histories and very real worries about the end of the world behind pop hooks so strong they could easily pull one over on any listener not paying close enough attention.
Brooklyn’s music scene has changed a lot since the release of Yeasayer’s debut, All Hour Cymbals, in 2007. Back then it was plausible, but still kind of weird, that Animal Collective could be one of the biggest bands in the world. Gang Gang Dance had yet to hire a Vibes Manager. Hisham Bharoocha had only organized one Boadrum. The artists who built and sustained New York for half a decade were now moving beyond it, and to the young people living in the city then, who had missed the vital years of this, it felt like nothing new was happening. There was a definite in-between feeling in the air—an indistinct passing of the torch moment when the established avant-garde didn’t so much pass the torch as drop it on the ground for someone to pick up. People tried. Specifically, the next generation of Brooklyn bands—MGMT, Chairlift, Amazing Baby—were creating a scene of poppier, kind of radio-friendly neo-hippie music that came along with bizarre facepaint and white guys dressed in full Native American gear, headdresses included. People namedropped Graceland a lot, and it wasn’t that unusual to find yourself in a conversation about random African records as if you’d been listening to them your whole life. Out of nowhere, Chairlift got a song in an Apple commercial and signed to a major. MGMT skipped starter band status completely and became huge off a couple great singles and a solid debut. These sudden ascents left a pocket for Yeasayer, who were loosely associated with this crew, but, to keen observers, were definitely outside of it. They had a great live show—Chris Keating flailed spastically, yelping wildly while he pounded at a drum machine or sampler; Wilder’s guitar broke crystal clear through gelatinous synth buzz; and Ira Wolf Tuton’s bass stuck in the back without ego, dazzling with subtle theatrics if you cared to listen. If not, no big deal, they’d probably all be switching instruments at some point, maybe even dropping them altogether for wide-eyed harmonizing. It didn’t ultimately matter, it sounded awesome.
As Yeasayer played more shows, more people heard the harmonies and exotic guitar licks, saw Wilder and Wolf Tuton’s shoulder length hair and weird outfits (neon camouflage) and the way Keating went nuts on stage, and didn’t know what to make of them, other than that were definitely doing their own shit. They started getting more press but declined individual interviews, instead responding to questions via email, including a manifesto from Keating in this magazine that somehow both perfectly described the band and provided plenty of fodder for detractors: “We are tired of feeling like a lost generation who need to romanticize the past. We want to make interesting and diverse music that doesn’t sound like much else.” It’s a valid statement, but it is also so assured that it sounded pretentious. The reality was that Keating, Wilder and Wolf Tuton were just huge music nerds with big vision who saw the coming end of an era and were willing to forge ahead all alone, if necessary.