YACHT: “Koala trainers and us.”

30.07.09 Words by: Charlie Jones

When DFA signed Portland’s YACHT last year they were probably expecting an album of grinding electronic pop from the producer hailed as the ‘indie timberland’. What they received, a record called See Mystery Lights, was a concept album of pocket sized mantras inspired by one of America’s most unexplained paranormal phenomenon.

The culmination of two years non-stop touring, mystical encounters in the desert and the developing partnership between original YACHTsman Jona Bechtolt and new recruit Claire L. Evans, ‘See Mystery Lights’ is a beautiful patchwork quilt of glitchy electronica, ramshackle gospel and no wave disco – and one of the best albums released so far this year.

The antithesis of the cynical, detached hipster cliché, YACHT display an almost naïve positivity. Ready to embrace the infinite possibilities of a universe where magic is as real as science and the unknown is something to be embraced they still remain remarkably down to earth, articulate and great company. On their website their mission statement states that YACHT is ‘a Band, Belief System, and Business’, The beautiful thing is that they actually mean it.

Despite a litany of travel disasters over the past couple of days, including lost luggage and 12 hour flight delays, the duo were still in fine form when I caught up with them backstage before their gig at Cargo.

I saw on Twitter you’ve had some problems getting here, I guess your used to this kind of thing now though, your touring schedule the past couple of years has been pretty hardcore.

Claire L. Evans: Oh it was brutal.

Jona Bechtolt: In 2007 I played 200 shows. I consider it a great privilege; I’d never left the state let alone the country before being in a band. So it’s the only way I’ve ever been able to see the world. I never said no in 2007, anyone who asked me to play anywhere i said yes, and it was it was fucking awesome and exhausting and it ruined my life and then i was reborn, so it’s ok.

Claire: Jonathon has been on and off the road since he was a teenager.

Jona: When i was 13 i started playing in a punk band and that’s when I started touring, so it’s all I know If we’re home for more than two weeks we start to get weird..

Do you actually check out any of the cities you’re playing in or do you just get to know lots of dressing rooms?

Claire: We try to make a point of seeing the cities we’re playing in, and take time off when we’re playing places we’ve never been before.

Jona: Our sound checks are really quick…

Claire: We make a huge point of being tourists, try to get to museums that kind of thing, it ‘d just be so idiotic not to. I mean we’ve really been to a lot of incredible places the past couple of years. This year we got to hold koalas in Australia, the dream, the dream of holding a koala came true. Who else’s job allows them to hold a koala?

A zoo keeper?

Claire: Yeah, or a koala trainer, and us, there’s not a whole load of other options.

You’re back in Portland now?

Jona: Yes, we’ve been back 2 and a half weeks.

And before that it was Marfa?

Jona: We were in Marfa for two months last year to record the album, but I think Marfa really made the record on its own, it didn’t really need us, it just needed two people with a computer.

What attracted you to Marfa?

Jona: In 2005 I was going from Austin to Phoenix, and these kids told me about the Marfa lights, it was two hours off the freeway in them idle of nowhere but I just had to go see them.

On that same trip I think it was serendipitous I met Claire for the first time, two years later we came back to make the album.

Claire: That record is so much about Marfa and the way we were, and our reaction to that place as we weren’t listening to any music at the time or had any other connections, it was just magnificent desolation as Buzz Aldrin said.

Jona: But specifically it was the Marfa lights, a paranormal, optical phenomenon that no one knows what it is. Teams of scientists have gone out over the past twenty years but no one has an actual idea what they are.

What do you think they are?

Claire: Well that’s the great thing about it that we don’t know what it is, and I have this very intentional attitude to not finding out what they are.

Jona: Even if you wanted to though you wouldn’t be able to work it out.

Claire: Personally I’m very suggestible to anything occult, UFOs, or anything marginal. You tell me that ghosts are real, I’ll believe you.

The record is a complete reaction to the lights, that they are such a complete mystery. Especially as we’re very plugged into the internet, we live in an era where information is so prevalent, and truth seeking has become a very passive, very easy thing to do.

And yet something can still be so vital and remain a mystery. People in Marfa live with these lights every day, they live with this massive beautiful mystery.

What are the lights like?

Jona: It’s like if you were looking at the stars at night and a couple of them fell out, landed on the horizon and started dancing with each other, joining up and splitting apart.

People have had them chase them, people have had really close encounters, and this is nearly every night. People have felt a presence behind them, and we had something similar, maybe not as intense but a really, really weird thing. We felt like instruments of the lights.

So we did more research into the lights, triad sights and all this stuff that is happening around the world, people seeing these triangles, all these lights that form into triangles and float over cities.

And is that where the YACHT triangle iconography comes from?

Jona: Actually that was before, I really got into triangles when I was like ten or eleven, we had to go to group AA as my brother was an alcoholic, so I was introduced to a triangle with a circle around it, that’s their icon and she was introduced at a really early age to Buckminster Fuller, the scientist.

Claire: A great thinker, he formalized the conceit that triangles are the strongest representational shape and that great, strong, synergistic structures can be made out of triangles that are the most suitable for human needs. Making the most out of the least.

Jona: So with Marfa and triangles it inspired even the music itself on the album, like using power chords, which are made up of three notes to make a triangle.

Everything happens in threes on the record, the beats and all that stuff, right down to the way that the waveforms look, there are hidden valleys.

Claire: Actually the first album that we handed into DFA was very different to the one that you downloaded, it was simpler, more boiled down and only 8 or 9 minutes long.

We’d been living in this really surreal environment and meditating on these ideas and we thought fuck it we’d just make these mantras, loops that just totally speak to the message we wanted to project. We sent it to DFA and they loved it.

Jona: But they had come to us through pop music, ‘See A Penny Pick It Up’ stuff like that, so they said ‘We love this shit and we’ll put it out if you want but why dont you try doing your pop stuff around these.’ So we went back and put these mantras into a more pop framework. Which was areally interesting idea for us as pop music is such an amazing vehicle for slipping in things such as mantras.

Claire: People accept pop music into their lives with much more ease than most things. They will play a pop single over and over again, a hundred times in their bedroom and think nothing of it. We saw that as a totally powerful vehicle for the transmission of repetitive messages. You can appreciate our music on as many levels as you want to, you can enjoy it as pop music or you can delve deep into the messages within.

Apart from the pop element, did DFA have any other influence on the album? To me it sounds a lot more organic than previous releases.

Jona: Well I think that’s just that I got better at recording. We’re still using a consumer I-Mac and the same condenser microphone to do everything. That’s what I’ve always used to do all the YACHT records and all The Blow records. I think I just got better at knowing how to hold the microphone.

Claire: A lot of people have been saying oh it’s on DFA, it’s more of a dance record, or it sounds like LCD Soundsystem, which to me is a really short sighted view.

To me the only really LCD Soundsystem sounding track is the one ‘You Can Have Anything You Want’ which to me sounds like the kids Murphy was talking to in Losing My Edge talking back to him.

Jona: Oh my god that’s so brilliant, that’s so cool.

You both come across as very open people, the way you interact with crowds, how your performances often break down the 4th wall. Are you worried that with success, as you get bigger, you’ll be more constrained, lose some of the freedom you have?

Claire: I think that is definitely a concern.

Jona: But we have control. We don’t have to play 02 wireless, we can say no, we can finally say no.

Claire: We want to transmit the message as thoroughly as possible, we’d love to access the mainstream, hopefully not a contrived way, but at the same time I am terrified of losing that connection,

Then on your own blog, you’re very open with the way that the songs on this album were put together, you really break down the artistic process.

Jona: We went back and forth about doing that, as we said we were in love with the mystery. We felt like debunking our songs was maybe not the direction we should go in, but then we also felt a big part of our message is that you too can do music. The tools are available and inspiration is everywhere.

*Of course the downside to this is when something blows up like… *

Both: Piracy!

Indeed. You did an interview earlier this year and talked about the pirated software that you’ve used and well one of the companies, Audio Damage lost their rag. Were you surprised at the reaction?

Jona: Honestly I was very surprised, before it blew up, before it was on Pitchfork and everywhere, I had written to them, sent them a really sincere email offering to pay for the 4 plug-ins that I used.

Claire: Didn’t you actually pay for them then?

Jona: No I didn’t, I offered, he refused. He never got back to me he just wrote publicly on his blog and referenced my letter. That was completely ridiculous to me. For one it’s funny how much coverage it got as it started in this weird vacuum of a software plug-in developers blog’s comment section, that’s where it really blew up.

That’s pretty niche.

Jona: Totally, but also our field, music is the most pirated ever, way beyond software or movies or anything. It just felt really funny to me that we’re using this stuff to make music that’s then pirated, so there’s this cyclical piracy thing going on.

Claire: I guess in a way we’re getting our just returns, we use illegal software to make music but then we lose a certain amount of money to people downloading it illegally.

You don’t have a problem with people taking your tracks?

Jona: As we speak there’s a computer at home seeding a torrent of our album. Not one that I started seeding but just one that I joined in on.

And you’re happy with people taking stuff and remixing it?

Jona: Oh totally, we get emails every couple of weeks from people asking to remix songs and I always give them the parts. I love that shit, I’m super flattered that anyone would want to touch our tunes.

Claire: We just spoke on this panel back in Portland at the University of Oregon about copyright. It was set up like a fake consultation between us and the music lawyer who represented Negativland during the U2 thing.

Jona: We asked him a load of questions, for example back in 2003 I made a record just comprised of Nirvana samples, and I was like what was wrong with that?

Claire: It’s obvious that copyright law is out of date, and something has to be done. You have these draconian enforcements that happen where Warner Bros. takes down somebody’s video off YouTube because they’re playing a cover of a song on their guitar. That doesn’t make anyone feel good.

Jona: A kid actually spoke up at that panel, he had a video he posted on YouTube of two people talking in a café and there was a song playing in the background and Warners took it off. It’s completely broken.

Claire: It’s unenforceable. People don’t pirate music or pirate software because they want to be intellectual, radical punks, they’re doing it because they can’t afford to buy it. I mean there’s no way we could have made our albums if we hadn’t stolen audio and video software.You have to weigh up the good and the evil at this point. Is it better for us to not make music, where is the line drawn? People trying to live beyond their means to create art and consume culture is not a negative thing, it’s a great thing for the world and we need more of that.

It’s always been quite a multi-faceted project, with music, video, blogs, art installations. With the album finally out next week what’s next for YACHT?

Jona: I think the next thing is the ideological side of YACHT, and disseminating that kind of stuff. We wrote what we’re internally calling a bible, that’s actually being mass produced right now, it’s a really beautiful art object. Then there’s the original version of the album that we sent to DFA, we’ve decided to actually make that on a limited edition lathe cut piece of copper. So it’s an actual copper disc, much like the NASA Voyager golden disc, there will only be a hundred copies of it and we’ll sell it with white archival gloves as if you touch it with your hands you’ll oxidise it. Then there will be all sorts of companion pieces for the album, there’s a mixtape we’ve done, that comes out really soon. There’s also a web based piece of software that we’re launching in the next few weeks that will be like a portal into the culture and universe of our band. I don’t know quite how to describe it but it’s a great big thing. We’re really excited, we put a lot of thought into this thing.

Claire: It’s totally incredible and very beautiful, and it’s a little bit sinister

Jona: And then it’s also like pretty normal, it has many different approachable levels, you can really dig deep into it if you like.

Claire: We have this thing that Yacht is whatever Yacht is when it’s standing in front of you. We try to avoid specialising ourselves, that’s another Buckminster Fuller conceit, the idea that over specialisation leads to extinction, in both the biological and the human world. If we become too focused on what you’re doing then you become oblivious to the larger context and the systems that you’re part of as an artist. So we like to think of ourselves as generalists and we try to make things, objects, software, pieces of art and performances. That’s the only way that you can remain competitive and creative and involved in what you’re doing. I can’t imagine what will come after this, I don’t know how it’s going to end but we do know that it won’t be with a whimper but with a bang.

See Mystery Lights is out now on DFA.

YACHT’s myspace

David Macfarlane’s piece on Gang Gang Dance is a similarly interesting take on a mystical pop band.