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.
MP3: Yellow Ostrich – Hold On
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
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