From the archives: an interview with Yeasayer

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As Brooklyn’s Yeasayer look forward to their cruise ship bow, Ira Wolf Tuton takes a walk down memory lane
PUBLISHED 03 SEPTEMBER 2012 IN THE SKINNY

Ira Wolf Tuton is slouched in an armchair in the corner of the lobby of an East London hotel. He’s just finished his umpteenth coffee of the day, and as The Skinny takes a seat next to him, he orders another Americano with milk. “You sound like my mother,” he says, jokingly, as we admire his tightly-coiffed haircut and sculpted moustache. He’s wearing a checked shirt, with jeans and Reebok hi-tops. The only tell-tale sign that this is the giant-haired scruff that was, visually at least, the focal point of Yeasayer’s early shows is the trademark white wife-beater, visible underneath his half buttoned shirt.

And he’s talking boats. Yeasayer have just been unveiled as one of the senior shipmates on the inaugural S.S. Coachella, a musical festival on a cruise ship. Along with PJ Harvey, Hot Chip, Grimes, Pulp and a host of other indie heavyweights, they’ll entertain passengers sailing around the Caribbean, hopping from island to island. It sounds surreal, but Wolf Tuton – an experienced mariner – is looking forward to it.

“I was raised on a boat,” he exclaims, scanning the urban lobby wistfully, when we ask if he has his sea legs. “I used to go up to Maine every summer to work at a marina when I was kid. They built boats and sometimes I’d help with rigging. My grandparents were up there, so for a kid from Philadelphia, to be able to go up there in the summer was pretty amazing.”

He acknowledges, though, that there’s something slightly different about a cruise ship. “It’s a different scale. I’ve never been, but I guess this is my chance. My grandfather taught me navigation and I always loved the dead reckoning of it: from point to point on a chart, correlating that with where you are in the world.”

And did he fish? “I never really did. I had family that fished, but I just loved being in the water and swimming, I mean, we would hang hooks off the back and catch some mackerel, but it was all about the moving adventure for me. I didn’t want to stand still. I wanted to explore.”

Nobody that’s heard any of Yeasayer’s albums to date will be too surprised to hear of childhood Ira’s sense of adventure. Each record is rammed with ideas, jumping impatiently from one to the next. And while they’re way too complex and professional to be deemed “childlike,” there’s a refreshing, youthful exuberance and inquisitiveness present on each. There’s a willingness to chuck ten things together in the hope that they fit. Where many bands will make a conscious decision to change their sound from one album to the next, for Yeasayer, the decision comes in micro-form.

“There are songs that don’t end up on the album because we’ve already done it. You know, that idea’s already been expressed. You don’t need two chapter twos, you just need one to get your point across. Maybe some people find it hard to make decisions like that… it can be difficult to separate yourself from the material. You’re so connected to it personally and you work so hard on it, that it can be hard to realise that it’s just not that good. That’s why the three of us work together well. We produce each other and are able to say whether it’s good enough. Maybe we’ll piss each other off, but the mission is to make a good album, not to keep each other happy.”

Nor is it a surprise to hear that sometimes the band have to purposely rein themselves in. Ira jokes that the next album will be the “classic three piece,” but agrees with The Skinny when we tell him that we’ll believe it when we see it.

“Our tendency is to keep on putting more and more in the arrangement,” he explains, when asked about the band’s recording process. “I mean, it’s obvious that we love layers and orchestration. But in some ways, having too much is good, because then you can scale back in different ways. You can mute three elements that have been the core to a song by accident and all of a sudden have something weird that’s floating off into the distance, which may end up being the track. We can abandon that other shit. A Yeasayer outtakes album would be a nightmare. It would be just 64 hours of horrific music.”

The new album, Fragrant World, was mixed in London, with parts being recorded in New York. In his current garb, Wolf Tuton looks like he’d be equally at home in either and he says that it’s strange seeing elements of London starting to influence Brooklyn, when the opposite has been true for so many years previous. He describes Brooklyn as an “artistic and cultural Mecca”, but as with his band mates, grows frustrated when the “scene” is depicted as a living organism, the parts inseparable from the whole.

“It’s more complex than that,” he says. “Any scene that’s going to be written about is the creation of a journalist and is for the convenience of telling a story. Most of my friends are musicians and we had some come in and play on the record when we were in New York. That’s the world we exist in, but it’s not like we’re all meeting up in the bar and working on our rock and roll Magna Carta.”

But he freely acknowledges that many Brooklynites, like many Londoners, seem to be cut off from the rest of the world. “Of course it’s a bubble. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says, with a booming laugh. “It’s a bubble politically and culturally, for better or worse. Mostly for better.” Since he divides much of his time between these two “bubbles,” then, does he find it difficult to keep his finger on the pulse of the general mood among wider society?

“No. It’s pretty clear: it [the mood in America] stays the same pretty much wherever you go. The loudest voices in the room tend to change, but the undertones are always there. It just depends on whether or not they feel comfortable enough to express their opinions or not. Having a black man as president has galvanised those sides to be overt in very ugly ways and that can be disappointing and disenchanting. But it’s part of our country. It’s part of our history. It’s incredibly inspiring and incredibly tragic, but that’s the basis of who we are as a people, if we can be called ‘a people.’”

But despite what he says, there’s nowhere else in the world Ira Wolf Tuton would rather live and had he and his bandmates hailed from elsewhere in the world, there’s no way they’d be making the kind of music they do. “There’s incredible wealth in America, alongside incredible poverty,” he explains, on a roll now. “There’s everything in between, but most importantly, the cultural diversity creates inventiveness and innovation on an artistic and cultural level that doesn’t exist anywhere else. I find that to be so life-giving. I love being a part of it.”

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