Some songwriters compose with a pen and pad, nestling a guitar in their laps. Some bands work out arrangements by jamming on instruments together in a room. On their jittery and sprawling third album, Fragrant World, due out in August, the Brooklyn art-pop experimentalists in Yeasayer have mastered a decidedly more modern—and unconventional—approach toward song construction.
And the term "construction" certainly applies: Yeasayer songs are assembled, piece-by-piece, like a sonic jigsaw puzzle, a process that involves live instruments being played, then sampled, then fed through loads and loads of effects, then copied, pasted, muted, pitch-shifted, reversed, and (sometimes) re-recorded altogether. But it's a process that has, since the band's formation, reaped fruitful results, from the ghostly pulses of their 2007 debut, All Hour Cymbals, to the refined digital-pop elegance of their 2010 critical and commercial breakthrough, Odd Blood.
"I think the first album was all of our ideas mashed together in a hurried process," says vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Anand Wilder. "I think a lot of the pop elements didn't shine through. And on the second one, we wanted to really focus on the pop elements. This time, though, we wanted to kind of strike a balance again, kind of set more of an atmosphere and be a little wilder with our creativity—allowing more mistakes to shine through, happy accidents."
Fragrant World is their freakiest and finest work to date—a heady, thrilling sprawl that's as accessible as it is strange. In Yeasayer's world, a synth might sound like a French horn, a voice more like a pitch-shifted electric guitar. Opener "Fingers Never Bleed" features a call-and-response chorus between a vocal and what sounds like a queasy saxophone (turns out it's a pitch-shifted voice blended with a synthesizer). For these guys, confusing their audience is half the fun.
"It's all about making sounds that are not easily identifiable, so that you're not envisioning four dudes playing particular instruments," Wilder says. "We have to tweak out the sounds to make them sound unique or otherworldly.... The songwriting process is pretty similar to Odd Blood, in that we had demos that we worked on individually, compositions on a computer recording software program. We created riffs and sampled instruments, and songs are created out of that. And we come together as a band and replace a lot of sounds or enhance sounds and add new parts. But the process is pretty much the same in terms of composition. It's not like we're sitting in a room jamming and someone starts singing a song. It's a fairly long process."
He's not kidding. After wrapping up their Odd Blood tour in July 2011, the trio (which also features vocalist-instrumentalists Chris Keating and Ira Wolf Tuton) hit the studio with fleshed-out demos in September, beginning an on-off process of recording, re-recording, mixing, remixing, final overdubs, and more mixing, which finally wrapped up earlier this year.
Recording in this chaotic, democratic fashion is liberating, and it allows for plenty of experimentation and "happy accidents." But with all the technology and overdubs and studio wizardry involved, it's often difficult to figure out when a track—like the funky, bass-fueled lead single "Henrietta" or future live anthem "Damaged Goods," which Wilder describes as "Art Garfunkel if he put out an album in 1988"—is actually a finished song, not just a collection of fancy-sounding noises.
"We're obsessive to a point," Wilder says. "But at a certain point, you just want the album to come out and focus on the live show. And you want to move on from those songs, and you don't want to be too precious about any song. It's just a three- or four-minute-long collection of sounds, and you just want it to eventually see the light of day. One thing we've always been good at is sticking to deadlines and saying, you know, I know I thought this was good at one point. Whether or not I think it's good anymore is kind of meaningless. You gotta just get it out there—it's what we do. We just have to say, ‘Okay, this is a song!'"
The band's Knoxville date is their third on a brief jaunt that will preview the entirety of Fragrant World (along with a few reworked, "almost unrecognizable" staples). They're itching to get back on stage, which makes sense; after the labored copy-and-paste focus of recording a studio album, the spontaneity and collective energy of a live show is, by contrast, refreshing. "You tour off one album, and by the end, it's all so polished and perfect-sounding," Wilder says. "It's exciting to be doing something new for the first time. It brings the thrill back."
Plus, once these songs are beamed out into the crowd, iPhones recording and YouTube looming, there's no looking back.
"It's really up to the world to decide the merit of a song," Wilder says. "And you kind of have to just move on."