Yeasayer frontman Chris Keating remembers the first time he heard Aaliyah.
"Some kids in my high school were doing a step routine [to 'Are You That Somebody']," he said. "I was really not into mainstream music at the time – 1997-1998 – but the more I listened to Aaliyah, the way-weirder it was than the Sonic Youth record that came out around the same time, mostly because of her very futuristic and unexpected production. That realization was really exciting, and it's just stuck with me since then."
The deceased R&B singer is among the influences on the Brooklyn band's new record, Fragrant World. The album will likely be considered by most a rock record, as Yeasayer's two other albums (2007's All Hour Cymbals and 2010's Odd Blood) have been. But Keating sees genre lines heavily blurred in the eyes of music fans, humorously citing, for example, "the one time [he] got to meet Jay-Z and Beyoncé at a Ra Ra Riot show."
We have much more to talk about in the way of R&B, EDM and hip-hop than rock & roll, which could have something to do with how the interview starts. When calling Keating at the Wythe Hotel, the receptionist at the trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn spot asks if we're trying to reach Frank Ocean or his publicist. When we eventually reach Keating, it's hard not to discuss R&B's wonderboy.
"I think he [Ocean] is a good new face for the R&B world right now, to kind of usher out – no pun intended – some of these folks," Keating said. "Because, let's get real, R.Kelly is a terrible person. I like R.Kelly and how crazy he is, but he's a terrible piece of shit, a horrible person, really bad all around. Let's get rid of him. Let's gay it up a little [in R&B]."
He's also less than fond of dance guru David Guetta and his production style, though he does recognize the strengths of the EDM movement overall. Yeasayer has long experimented with electronic elements, with the sonic results ranging from Eighties dance-party pop to trippy psychedelia and tribal tunes.
"The EDM world has always been the place that's forward-thinking with sonic texture and production, but in terms of content, they're down at the bottom of the barrel," Keating said. "If it's not about Friday, or the weekend, party-party, or if it has any comment at all . . . As someone who's interested in progressive sound-making and textures, I look toward electronic music for that. But in terms of song-making and wanting to conveying something a bit deeper than just dancing all night, we're trying to merge those two worlds [dance and rock]."
The deeper elements Keating describes are certainly at play on the dark Fragrant World, which is best described as a co-write between Keating and guitarist Anand Wilder. Take first single "Henrietta," for example, which Keating says "is about the idea of the human life turning into a product or a concept." Or closing track "Glass of the Microscope," whose lush harmonies give voice to the album's most desolate message: "Everyone's impending death and the lingering misery of growing old and toiling away in a nursing home for years and years, watching all your friends die."
These heavyweight themes lead to questions of personal pessimism, at which point the self-aware Keating unloads the sort of fears likely felt by acts associated with the term "buzz band" – "I think no one's going to be at our shows, that our record isn't going to sell very well, and I'm probably going to be back at my old job [doing props for TV/film and photo shoots]."
Still, he says, it could be worse.
"If we did belong to some easily-defined genre, like chillwave, would that help or hurt us?" Keating wonders aloud. "I think in the long run it would hurt us. If you can lump something into a genre – especially some arbitrary, bloggy genre – then people are always going to be like, 'chillwave - that was 2008, it's 2040 now.'
"Though, you know, maybe it would be cool again by then!"
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