So far 2011 has been a great year for discovering bands. My first new love of the year was Yellow Ostrich’s The Mistress, which combines percussion and melody in a union better than any I’ve heard since Local Natives burst on the scene. So after a lot of foot-dragging, I finally go around to asking Alex Schaaf to do an interview.
Alex Schaaf of Yellow Ostrich // the You Ain’t No Picasso Interview
I love the vocal layering on this record. You’ve got everything from the simple (“Hate Me Soon”) to the wildly complex (“Libraries”). How did you get started using that so heavily in your arrangements? How do you approach the backing vocals for a song you’ve just begun?
I’ve always been a big fan of vocal harmonies, in all the music I’ve ever made vocals are usually a big part. And for the Mistress stuff, I thought about taking that even further, to use vocals as more of a rhythmic non-lyrical element, just as a kind of experiment. I had done an EP a month before I started working on the Mistress called Fade Cave that I did with almost all vocals, just a little drum machine here and there but it was mostly 100% vocals. Just a kind of experiment to see what i could come up with. And I liked using a looping pedal for my voice, and so I knew I could do the Mistress songs live that way, so I just wanted to see where I could take it.
Many songs on the Mistress started with a vocal riff, like “Hahahaohhoho” or “Campaign” or “Libraries,” then I built the rest of the song around that vocal riff. Some of them I added the vocals later, like “Hate Me Soon” or “Whale.” I had recorded a different version of “Whale” a few months prior that was mostly electronic, and “WHALE” was the first one i came up with for the Mistress, experimenting with that kind of vocal riff.
I’ve read that you have a background in vocal jazz and choral groups as well as training from the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. What’s it like bringing that basis into pop music? Did you have any classical teachers along the way who directly or indirectly helped you translate that teaching into a pop format?
I think I’ve always come from a pop standpoint first, rather than being a classical musician who decided to venture into the pop world. I studied classical music in school, mostly because it was the only kind of music I could study. But I did learn a lot about song structures and harmony, etc., and the effect that using different chords/chord changes can have on a song.
I took jazz guitar lessons the last two years of school from Steve Peplin, who does a lot of his own solo guitar stuff. He helped me think of different ways to approach the guitar, and to kind of think outside the box. He even played on one song — on “I’ll Run,” the intro is him. We put his amp facing into an upright piano, and then depressed the strings so that it rang through the piano and made the strings vibrate, giving it a kind of natural reverb. Then we mic’ed the top of the piano for that guitar sound. Kind of cool ways of thinking about guitar that I got out of studying at a Conservatory.
Continue reading the rest of the interview after the break
The percussion on The Mistress reminds me of Local Natives’ Gorilla Manor — both use the drums as a complex instrument that adds to the dynamics of a song rather than just a backing to prop up the guitars. Did you give Alex [Bunke] free reign to come up with his drum parts or were you already sure that’s more or less what you wanted?
I mostly gave him free reign, he only played on a few tracks, and Michael (the current drummer) also played on a few tracks, but I’ve played with Alex before so he knew what kind of thing I was going for, and it worked out great. I like the idea of drums being their own instrument/part and not just being an accompanying layer, where they just make some sort of backbeat or they just are there to keep time.
After moving to NYC to work more on your music, is that something you’d recommend to other people getting their start? If so, at what stage in their life/career would you encourage someone to make the move?
I’d definitely recommend it, it has worked out pretty well for me so far. Especially in terms of getting the band together and being able to play in front of lots of people. It was a good time for me because I just finished school so I had nothing really tying me down.
I think it’s also just healthy to make a big life change if you aren’t satisified with where you are. So if you live in NYC, maybe try living in small-town Wisconsin for a while. Although it may be harder to book a show there….
I’m a big Bishop Allen fan (my blog is named after one of their demos), so naturally I’d love to hear your connection to them. How’d you go from opening for them to incorporating one of their band members? (or is it two now?)
Both Jon and Michael have played in Bishop Allen; Jon stopped playing with them a few years ago, but Michael is still currently playing with them.
I was part of the group at my college that booked bands, and so we got Bishop Allen to come. We needed an opener, and nothing else was working out so I offered to open as Yellow Ostrich. I had a full rock band in college (The Chairs) but they were unavailable as well, and I had been working on this solo Yellow Ostrich stuff so I wanted to try it out in a live show.
So I opened for Bishop Allen, just played 5 songs or so, really early stuff from the Mistress that I had barely started to write. Michael talked to me afterwards, said that he liked the stuff. So we kept in touch over email the next few months, and when I moved to New York last August we started to play together.
Then we got Jon a couple months ago, because we decided we wanted a third person, someone that could play bass but also some other things, and Michael knew Jon and said he’d be the perfect guy for the job, and he has been, playing bass and horns and keys and whatever else we need.
You’ve posted a bunch of covers on your site. Was there anything you learned from re-working other people’s songs? Any songs you’ve heard recently that you’d like to cover?
I did those covers just as a way to practice arrangements, to see what kind of different ways I could present a pre-existing song. It was mostly just for fun, because I do really enjoy playing/singing songs that I love, even if they aren’t mine, so it was just a way to work on recording and arranging without it being my own songs.
I’m going to lay off doing those for a while, during this last tour I got a lot of people “requesting” songs beforehand that were those covers, which was kind of funny yet weird, but now I’ve got enough of my own songs to last for a while.
What’s been the biggest change for the band since you went from being a solo project to a three-piece/full band?
All of the songs obviously got bigger, and just took on a different kind of energy. I like the setup we have because we can still do quiet stuff, since we only have 3 people and don’t feel the need to have a keyboard player play on every song, or have 3 horn players earn their keep. But when we want, we can get pretty big, especially with the looping we do.
It definitely feels like a full band now, especially with the horns. The horns have definitely been the biggest change, in terms of having an element that doesn’t exist at all on The Mistress, but it’s happened really naturally and it seems to fit really well.
What’s the next bit of new music we can expect from Yellow Ostrich?
Well we have a new album mostly written, that we are hoping to record pretty soon. We’re still figuring out whether the Mistress is going to get re-released or if we can put the next one out fairly soon. We’ve got a bunch of new songs that we played on this last tour, some shows we played more new songs than Mistress songs, so we’re pretty anxious to get into a studio and get those out.