Despite being part of a shopping zone, between a mall and a historic boat, with most events held through downtown Manhattan’s ultra-classy River-to-River Festival, South Street Seaport (QRO venue review) has somehow managed to put on alternative/indie artists – for free. And these artists haven’t just been your up-and-coming acts destined to play bigger places & bigger crowds, like The National in 2007 (QRO photos) or Dirty Projectors in 2008 (QRO photos) – both of which have/are going on to play Midtown’s massive Terminal 5 (QRO venue review). Nor are they just your established indie acts with high brow cred, like U.K. art-punk forerunners Wire in 2008 (QRO live review) or nineties alt-act that went on to found major indie Merge Records, Superchunk, in 2009 (QRO live review). They’re not even just young, all-ages-appeal acts to bring out the kids, like No Age in 2008 (QRO live review) or The Pains of Being Pure at Heart in 2009 (QRO live review). No, the Seaport Music Festival has also managed to book some ‘out there’ electronic artists, who’ve been able to make their sound work outdoors, like Atlas Sound in 2008 (QRO live review), Black Moth Super Rainbow in 2009 (QRO live review), and YACHT on Friday, August 6th.
Electronica can be tough outdoors in even the twilight (that’s why BMSR had a man in a monkey costume…), but YACHT’s dance sounds are fit to get their crowd moving. Yet the Portland act is no overblown DJ, but graduated from the solo project of Jona Bechtolt to a duo with girlfriend Claire L. Evans (QRO interview with both) – and are now a foursome, with bassist Rob Kleswetter and drummer Jeffrey Brodsky, making for a full-fledged band. This has meant that they less rely on the projection show they employed as a duo (QRO photos) – not relying on projections anymore was very useful outdoors, as any slide show projected onto a screen gets lost in the daylight & behind the band.
However, at Seaport YACHT retained their trademark black-white dichotomy in appearance: the black-haired Bechtolt dressed in all white, the bleach-blonde Evans in black – Brodsky & Kleswetter classed it up by wearing tuxedoes (impressive that any drummer could perform in a tux…). This unusual look only got more so as the set went on, with Bechtolt rocking through his suit, and the pale, short-haired Evans getting to the point where she looked like a mannequin or one of those opposable figures used in art schools. And then there are their songs, like "I’m In Love With a Ripper" & "The Afterlife", and lyrics like, "Will we go to Heaven? / Or will we go to Hell? / It’s my understanding / That neither are real" – not exactly what someone unfamiliar with the band might have expected after early piece "Summer Song" (not the strongest on last year’s See Mystery Lights – QRO review – but they pretty much had to play it, didn’t they?…). Plus, covering X’s "Nausea"? That’s not just out there for a free outdoor shopping place show – that’s unusual for a dancetronic act as well…
YACHT covering X’s "Nausea" live at South Street Seaport in New York, NY on August 6th, 2010:
While the crowd at South Street Seaport were a little thrown by that cover, they lapped up the engaging dance tunes that YACHT put down, such as refrain, "I’m in love with the rhythm", or singing along to the non-word chorus of closer "Psychic City" ("Ah-ee-yah-ee-yai-yah huh!"). And the crowd was not just YACHT loyalists: Bechtolt & Evans remarked at seeing so many new faces since they last played NYC (QRO photos), in March at Bowery Ballroom (QRO venue review) – before breaking into dueling lines, "Tastes great"/"Less filling"-style argument about the crowd, "Don’t they look good?" "But don’t they sound good?" "Yeah, but don’t they look good?!?" "Yeah, yeah… – but don’t they SOUND good?!?" Unfortunately, few in the audience took advantage of YACHT’s request for questions ("About anything – not just us, but anything…"), beyond someone asking Bechtolt if the singer would be his boyfriend ("Sure – I don’t have anything to do…"). The Q&A was better used three years ago at McCarren Park Pool (QRO venue review), but that was when YACHT was still near-solo, so easier to approach, as well as only serving then as first opener, so out in the daylight to see & chat (QRO live review). But the full YACHT headlined South Street Seaport (please, no nautical puns…) for their last East Coast date of the year, before heading back into the studio, giving the Seaport one more touch of the engagingly strange for 2010.
In Part One of the interview, the duo discussed the new record (QRO review), including making it in Marfa, Texas, home of the ‘Marfa Mystery Lights’, Evans ‘officially’ joining YACHT, putting mantras to pop music, involving the audience in shows by everything from invading personal space to PowerPoint to Q&A sessions, and much, much more…
QRO: How does it feel, See Mystery Lights is now out?
Claire Evans: It’s very momentous. It’s been weird, you know?
We’ve been getting lots of e-mail from our parents, and various people who were involved in the making of the record, “It’s your big special day!”
I don’t feel overwhelmed.
Jona Bechtolt: I feel overwhelmed. It’s closure.
QRO: It’s closure for you, but for other people, it’s just the start…
CE: Yeah, it kind of feels almost absurd, because we’ve been touring this record, the songs on the record, for almost two years. The songs were recorded in early 2008. It seems surprising to me that people haven’t heard it. “It’s new to you?…” It’s unreal that it’s new to some people.
JB: It’s a strange feeling.
QRO: How did making it compare to making I Believe In You. Your Magic Is Real (QRO review)?
JB: It was completely different, in the way that the last record was made over two years, and I guess this record was also made here-and-there over two years, but it was really focused in one point and time when the two of us were in Marfa, Texas, a tiny town in the far west Texas desert. And it shaped everything. It shaped the way the record sounds, what all the songs are about, how we recorded it, the notes we chose; all of that stuff was shaped through Marfa, Texas.
All because of this optical, paranormal phenomenon known as ‘The Marfa Mystery Lights’. And that’s what the record’s named after.
QRO: What are ‘The Marfa Mystery Lights’?
JB: It’s just this crazy thing that’s been happening since recorded time. There’s no scientific explanation – there’s been multiple scientists from all over the world, trying to figure them out, over the past thirty years. No one knows what they are, at all.
They’re lights in the sky that look like stars that fall out of the sky. You’re sitting there, and you see a couple of stars that look a little weird, and all of a sudden, they fall down, and they join together, and break apart, dance on the horizon.
CE: Every night…
JB: Everyone in Marfa has a very personal, weird story.
The guy who designed the record cover, Boyd Elder, he’s lived in West Texas his whole life, and he has been chased by the lights. He has felt an actual presence…
CE: In daylight…
JB: Every single person has some kind of weird, personal story. Us, too. So all of the songs have been shaped by there, by that experience.
QRO: Is that why you went there to make the record?
JB: Yeah. I first went there in 2005, after I’d made this record, MEGA. I was in Austin, and I was driving from Austin to L.A., and kids in Austin were like, ‘Hey, you’ve gotta go see these lights!’
I got there in three in the morning, ‘cause it’s literally in the middle of nowhere, very close to Mexico. The closest city is El Paso, three-and-a-half hours away.
Saw them there, my mind was blown, and then, serendipitously, two days later, I met Claire, for the very first time. We went back a year-and-a-half later, saw them together, freaked out, and decided we had to live there, try to channel it. Not to sound too ‘New Age-y’, but to work with whatever that is.
– we know all, we bust all myths. So that coexisting with this weird digital age is really interesting.
CE: It was really like what it must have been like before magic disappeared. Over the course of the last couple hundred years, magic has turned into science. All the things that used to be hocus-pocus in the old days are now all explained. That feeling of just kind of being powerless to control the things around you, and just being okay with the fact that you don’t understand it. The thing that is affecting your life is capricious, in a way?…
JB: For us, it was the closest thing to a miracle, or a religious experience that we had ever done in our lifetime, or seen, personally.
CE: We found it amazing that there people who lived with the mystery.
JB: It’s been wonderful to see what that was like. And it really shaped the record. That’s where all the triangles imagery and everything comes from. All of that is inspired by the lights.
QRO: What are people who live in Marfa like?
CE: They’re amazing…
JB: Marfa is interesting, completely in itself. In the 1970s, they lost their water rights, and were shut down the town – it was hopeless. And then Donald Judd, this minimalist sculptor from New York, got all this money from the Dia Art Foundation, bought up all this land, and he set up permanent installations there.
So now, it’s almost like an ‘art utopia’. I didn’t know anything about the arts stuff when I went to see the lights. I just rolled up into what seemed like a ghost town, and in the morning, I woke up and opened up the first door I saw on the main street – and it ended up being the most beautiful bookstore I had ever been in in my life!
Everyone in Marfa either has a reason to be hiding for the rest of the world, or an insane life path that led them to be there. Like Boyd, who did our record cover, did the record cover for the number two top-selling record of all time, The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975)…
CE: There’s a lot of people there like that, who did some amazing thing in their life, and then dropped off the planet.
JB: Yeah. We met this guy who was an SGI, silicon graphics animator for Independence Day, Species, and Space Jam – and now all he does is live in the desert, and paint these solid-colored cubes. Which is a lot like Donald Judd’s art is a lot like.
CE: People there are amazing. We go back there a lot.
JB: We’ll have some kind of link to there for the rest of our life.
QRO: Claire, what was it like, jumping on board a moving ship, so to speak?
CE: Ha-ha. Ever since I met Jona, in 2005, we’ve been collaborators in some capacity. Joining YACHT is recent, but it happened pretty much organically. It seemed, at that point, kind of redundant that I was traveling with him, we were collaborating on everything else, the video projects…
JB: She’s been in YACHT since I met her, but it was only recently she started doing the music part of YACHT, now.
CE: We were long-time collaborators. If I’m doing an art project, he’ll help me – it goes back-and-forth. When we went to Marfa, we settled down and made this record, I was just there. I was there when we were making the record, all the time.
QRO: Jona, you were doing YACHT solo, then you were in a duo in The Blow [with Khaela Maricich], then back to solo YACHT, and now you’re back to a duo. Why the back-and-forth?
JB: The Blow was supposed to be for one project only. We were commissioned to make an EP in this series called ‘The Pregnancy Series’, asking already established people to make a record in a different way, whether it’s writing in a different style, or the recording’s a different kind of process. He asked Khaela, who’d made two records before, and me, to work together.
We made Poor Aim EP. We liked it so much, we decided to make another record together. And then we started hating each other, so I stopped making music with her.
QRO: But it was only with the last one that you started singing…
JB: There was singing on the other two records, but not in a ‘pop style’.
CE: It was really affected.
JB: Through experimenting with pop, with Khaela, and doing The Blow records, I realized that’s the music I wanted to be making. Also,
And it’s something that people play on repeat a lot, so it’s really easy to get messages in there.
That’s a really good thing about this record, too. The first thing that we actually submitted to DFA was not really pop music, in any way. It was eight-and-a-half minutes long, total, but it was just mantras…
CE: It was what we’d recorded in Marfa.
JB: In the west Texas desert, ‘in homage to the lights’; sometimes atonal, sometimes really beautifully tonal.
We gave it to them, and they were like, “Whoa – this is really weird. We’d love to put this out. How do you want to do it?” And we’re like, “We’re not sure if this is done yet; we just wanted to show you want we’re doing.”
And they were like, “We also like your pop music. Do you want to make any pop music?” And we thought, ‘Wait a second – what if we took these mantras, and built a pop framework around them?’ We felt that it would be a really interesting and compelling way to do that.
So we started working on these pop songs, and built all this stuff up – ‘Yeah, this is actually totally perfect!’ Because no one’s going to put on eight-and-a-half minute record of mantras and think, ‘Oh, yeah, this is awesome!’ So we thought that it would be a lot better to get out our message widely by taking these things and reshaping them.
They’re all the same songs, but they’ve been reshaped in a pop framework.
QRO: How did you two meet? You said two days out of Marfa…
JB: Yeah – two days after Marfa, our bands were just randomly paired together to play a show.
CE: I was in the real damaged noise band called ‘Weirdo Begeirdo’, on Not Not Fun Records in California. Totally different than what we’re doing here. We played toy instruments, threw confetti at people, twenty-minute sets of one song…
It wasn’t necessarily ‘crazy love at first sight’ – we really appreciated each other. In fact, a couple of days later, my band had a ‘band meeting’ at practice – about how we could be more like YACHT. ‘Cause what he was doing at the time was so unlike anything we’d ever seen before. He was playing the computer by himself, and he was treating the computer like a rock instrument, beating it up. He had all these props; he had this very hyper-stylized way of dancing and holding himself that was really cool.
Yeah, we wanted to be as much like him as possible. It’s really funny to think about now…
JB: It’s still very flattering for me…
CE: And Jona liked our band too. We didn’t cross paths again for a couple of years. We ended up having mutual friends, yada-yada-yada…
QRO: How were your recent U.K. dates?
CE: Pretty bonkers.
JB: Generally, we don’t love playing shows in the U.K., but these last three shows – I think it had something to do with the album leaking. So people knew every word to every song.
QRO: You’re doing a string of release parties. Are you planning any ‘full-fledged’ tour?
JB: Well, this will go on until the end of September. We keep adding more dates, special events.
QRO: Sort of filling it in?
JB: Yeah. They’re just one-off events. Rather than driving, we’re flying to each place. We’re making them more of like ‘special events’.
CE: In most cities, the day of the show, we’ll also be in a much different venue, much less people. And those will be more like rituals, for example, presenting the original mantras of the album.
JB: [On July 27th,] we did a live, solar-powered show for WFMU that was broadcast live. And, for the first time, we played the mantras.
CE: And it was done in a geodesic dome on a barge, on the Hudson. Exactly the kind of thing we want to be doing…
JB: With the mantras, too, we’re actually releasing the original record, the mantras, on a copper seven-inch. Solid piece of copper…
CE: There’s a guy in Portland who does it. He goes straight from cassette to cutting the copper. The most esoteric piece of equipment you can imagine.
QRO: Did you/are you going to play any festivals this year?
JB: In the U.K., we played a festival called ‘Truck’. We played a shit ton of festivals in the U.K. last year.
CE: We’ve never really played any festivals in the U.S. We’re playing a festival in Chicago…
JB: We’re playing three festivals in September. We’re playing one for Wired Magazine, and then we’re playing two for colleges [Pygmalion & Forward – QRO Festival Guide].
CE: I’ve never really experienced the intensity of British festivals in America. SO intense – thousands of people in tents, the mud, massive stages, people are camping out, there’s beer everywhere, trash; it’s kind of totally unpleasant, actually…
QRO: You were at McCarren Park Pool (QRO venue review) in 2007, and during the show, you took time out in the middle to hold a Q&A session. Where did that come from?
JB: I just think that it’s really important to have a two-way street, as far as performances go. Just because that inherently makes it a different show, every night. Just having the audience be an actual part of the show, which is really important.
And, I honestly care what people think, and what people want to know. And I think that that environment is a good way to answer questions. If people have a question unrelated to YACHT, or us, or whatever – if they have a question that they need to solve, in their lives, there’s always enough people in the audience to collectively solve any problem.
CE: It’s fun to try to harness the power of the crowd to try to solve a question. Although people don’t really use it in that way…
JB: Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
You go to a show, and you’re expected to stand a certain way, or look ‘cool’ in a certain way, or dance in a certain way – anything we can do, to take people out of that shell, out of that mold.
QRO: What else do you do to do that?
JB: Well, we’ve been using PowerPoint a lot, lately.
Right now, I think we’re mostly into delivering a sermon, or something like that? It’s more of a call-and-response – again, it goes back to repetition, and mantras, and obsess with religious cults…
QRO: Almost like gospel, or a revivalist tent kind of thing – in that style?
JB: Yeah, totally. In that vein.
QRO: Do you still go into the crowd to dance?
JB: Yeah, if it feels right.
CE: Anything we can do to change people’s perspective on what you’re supposed to do. Because I think a lot of people go to shows and have expectations of the way they’re supposed to act, and maybe won’t dance if they don’t think other people will. We do everything we can to knock that out of them.
JB: We’re big fans of invading personal space…
CE: Having shows in unusual places, so that people don’t have any set patterns of behavior for. On a boat, in a high school…
QRO: How can you do all of those moves & sing at the same time? Don’t you get winded?…
CE: Yes, but it’s our job.
Especially at the beginning of a tour. If we’re playing a lot of shows, we get into show-shape, and we can maintain much longer without getting exhausting. When we’re winded, actually, the Q&A helps. We do a lot of talking.
JB: I would feel really bad if we weren’t putting everything we have into it, physically. Because this is all we do. This is our job.
CE: We don’t have to go to a cubicle in the morning, and work all day. We don’t have to be ‘weekend warriors’. We put in 100%; because otherwise, we’re assholes.
JB: Because we feel nothing but the utmost respect for people who carry traditionally jobs and that kind of stuff. It’s the least we can do. We owe you that energy.
QRO: Do you try to balance between the two of you – mix when one of you does more, vs. the other?
CE: We I first started in the band, I tried to match Jona’s energy as much as I could, just to be the Yin to his Yang. Which ended up being, I think, a problem. It was visually confusing, and I don’t think I added anything to the band, really. People couldn’t concentrate on what we were doing, because we were both just ‘Whoa – I’m over here…’ ‘And I’m swinging from the rafters…’
It was really hard for me to figure out what exactly my performance style would be, because Jona is so hard to compare. He’s really an amazing dancer, and a huge presence.
I think I’ve got it. I realized it’s more about the charisma than totally freaking out, which is what I thought I had to do, initially. Now I think I restrain myself; it’s more interesting to watch. And the audience can actually follow us.
QRO: That [Claire] has the white hair, and [Jona] has the black hair, is that part of the Yin-Yang thing?
JB: That’s deliberate. We’re really into exploring duality, in all walks.
CE: I wear all black, and Jona wears all white.
QRO: Did the acronym for ‘Y.A.C.H.T.’ [‘Young Americans Challenging High Technology’] come before the name ‘YACHT’?
JB: Yes. It’s a physical place in Portland, Oregon. It was an after-school program place.
Again with duality – I intended it for a month when I was around fifteen years old, and half of it was all about embracing technology, trying to do as much as you can, media creation, that sort of stuff. Using consumer-level tools to create whatever you wanted.
The other half of the program was trying to completely shun technology – almost to the point where it was like a ‘Unabomber Manifesto’. And they were eventually shut down – I think it was because of that whole program.
It was a two-hour long program. The class was split into two groups; half the class did one, the other half the other, and halfway through, you’d switch. It was so strange, because you’re in this mindset for an hour, and then, all of a sudden, you’re in this other mindset. So I think that’s maybe where I first started thinking about black & white.
QRO: Is it difficult to play outdoors, or on any big stage, just the two of you?
CE: Yes. Well, outdoors, it’s really hard for us, because we do video projections, so unless it’s nighttime, it can be pretty brutal. We try to play only play indoors, or when places that are dark, which limits us, especially from doing the weird, interesting shows that we like to do.
But the video helps. With just two people, it’s hard.
Hopefully that fleshes it out a great deal.
People have expectations that, because we don’t have a ‘band’, or because we don’t play instruments, we have to over-compensate.