Interview: Yeasayer On Video Games, Virtual Reality And A Grueling Tour

Yeasayer
Courtesy the Artist

Coming off the winter release of Yeasayer's sophomore album, Odd Blood, the band has already circled the U.S., playing shows with all sorts of acts, including fellow Brooklynites MGMT and Sleigh Bells. That’s not to mention the surprise show at San Francisco’s historic Longshoreman’s Hall, the free event at Governor’s Island in New York, or Yeasayer's recent gig at Los Angeles’ greatest outdoor amphitheater, The Hollywood Bowl – a major milestone in the career of an up-and-coming indie act. But Yeasayer isn't slowing down.  This month they've embarked on a tour that will take them to Europe and back again, leaving the band all booked up until November.

Yeasayer’s sound has changed quite a bit since the band's 2007 debut All Hour Cymbals. And as their sound has grown and evolved, so has the group's live show. I recently caught up with the Yeasayer camp at the first night of the band's 2010 tour, at Washington, DC’s 9:30 Club. I spoke with multi-instrumentalist Ira Wolf Tuton and “artist in residence” Ben Phelan, who not only engineers the band’s stage lighting, but also designed the artwork for Odd Blood.

Will Butler: You guys just got back from Europe. How was it?

Ben Phelan: It was fun, I was a little worried about bringing my, like, weird electronics to other countries, dealing with different power supplies and stuff, but overall, well, the world is exactly the same everywhere. (Laughs.) You know, everyone uses electricity, lighting, and so on. It was a really awesome chance to travel, and hang out with friends, and perform every night.

Ira Wolf Tuton: He keeps our heads screwed on straight, night after night.


Ben: I also repair frayed wires. (Laughs.)


Ira: Yes, he’s a very skilled solderer, I have to say. I’ve seen a lot of soldering, but he takes the cake. Yeah, it’s a joy to have Ben on tour, because he’s a great guy to bounce ideas off of, spatially, visually, and musically.


WB: It seems like you’re all pretty handy.


Ben: Yeah, it’s nice, everyone has a very technical set of skills that’s oddly impressive, and we run into a lot of situations on tour where they come out to problem solve.


Ira: And I think everybody’s very interested in everybody else’s aesthetic, and having that be a dialogue, and being open, as opposed to just, I don’t know, nerding out over video games.


WB: I feel like we’re becoming part of a generation that doesn’t really know how to build anything with our hands.


Ira: I think I’m part of a generation that doesn’t really know how to play video games (Laughs.)


Ben: I don’t know, I’m pretty good at Mrs. Pac Man. (Laughs.) I like games that play up mastery of a simple set of problems, you know?


Ira: That’s why I liked the Nintendo Powerpad. I don’t know if listeners are familiar with the Powerpad, it’s a “gestural interface” from the 1980s. (Laughs.)  Mostly you’d only use it for the Nintendo Olympics. It’s like the Powerglove, you know, it really only works for Mike Tyson’s Punchout. (Laughs.)


Ben: There’s actually this push towards haptics, which is touch-based interaction with virtual reality. For instance, for the new album artwork I actually used a haptic interface which, like the Nintendo Powerglove, allows me to touch computer models within a modeling environment. So, we did sculpted each band members head in this virtual 3D environment, and kind of ended up taking chunks of each of their faces and merged them into one single weird being. That’s what’s on the cover.

cover for yeasayer's odd blood
Courtesy the Artist


Ben: It’s that kind of, mirrored-over, false future reality that kind of comes into the design of even the live show, too. We have this design that basically looks like a weird, ‘70s gameshow setup; It’s fun to push the realities and the expected genres that we’re representing.


Ira: Yeah, it’s exciting to me, to not just be five guys on the stage banging on instruments.


Ben: Yeasayer is definitely growing into a multimedia project in every way. It’s a visual, musical performance.


Ira: I think we’re at an interesting place right now, because, hopefully we will continue to grow a little more and be able to reinvest in these ideas, and be able to do things bigger and better. What Ben’s coming up with is definitely well outside of the budget that we have, but he’s stretching it and making it work.


Ben: But coming at it from that level – like, with our budget, we could basically buy one commercial stage light (Laughs.) – what we end up doing is taking something like that and, say, spreading it across the whole stage, and it ends up being something totally different, by not buying into the typical “entertainment experience.”


Ira: People have become comfortable with the fact that they’re going to go to a show with all these lights and they’re gonna have all these lasers stare at them, and a fog machine…


WB: Sensory overload.


Ira: Yeah. But we’re trying to deconstruct that, like Ben’s saying, and spread it over a stage. Ben could speak to this better, but, he’s basically dealing with gigantic pixels.


Ben: Yeah, the way our stage is set up now, we kind of have a backdrop wall of LED [lights] that are RGB controllable, and basically, all of these different illuminated structures on the stage, and each one is mapped to a corresponding area of a video that I’m manipulating on my laptop.


Ira: And when he says laptop, he means, in his brain. (Laughs.) He’s psychic.


Ben: (Laughs.) We’re mapping really super low-resolution color gradients onto the stage either really rapidly or smoothly. It’s a lot of color field theory and after-vision stuff. We’re pushing these walls of light and intense vivid colors and then flickering the opposite color right after, that kind of thing. We want it to be a perceptual experience. I kind of want people to know that their brain is being controlled by the stimulation, and it’s all about giving in to the experience, anyway. That’s really why people come out to these things, you know, for the atheist-religious experience we can offer (chuckles).


Ira: That’s what keeps me coming back. (Laughs.)


Ben: Yeah.  When you roll into town like this, it does kind of feel like some sort of weird revival.


Ira: The only difference is we don’t have snakes. (Laughs.)


WB: So are you energized to go around the country with it?


Ira: Yeah, check this out; I’ve got the list in my back pocket (produces tour booklet) – 33 shows, only two days off. Yeah, it’s gonna be grueling, but, once you’re on tour, you might as well be playing as much as possible.


Ben: If you have a day off, afterwards it’s like, what? When you start doing this stuff every day you just rely on your backbrain memory to do all of the uninteresting stuff, until it’s time to perform, and then you’re back awake for an an hour each day.


Ira: it’s also very rare to have a day off in an ideal Virgin Island type of place. Usually you have a day off at like, a truckstop between Duluth, and some other Duluth type town (laughs).

Visit the Yeasayer website for the latest tour dates.

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