Life sometimes drops the most unusual opportunities in your lap. Just last week, an e-mail popped up in my inbox offering me the chance to sit down with Claire Evans and Jona Bechtolt, the creative forces behind the group YACHT, before their show at Mississippi Studios last week. The catch was, I had to be prepared to be caught on camera doing the interview as the band were being filmed by the producers of A Day In The Life, the Morgan Spurlock-produced show shown on Hulu that follows a person(s) around for a single day. Out of sheer curiosity, I had to say yes.
Still, it was a weird thing to walk into Mississippi Studios and find Claire and Jona standing at the merch table, hunched over a basket of fries with a camera stuck trained on them, klieg light glaring, while dudes with boom mics worked to capture every word. And it was weird to sit down at a table and have the boom mics hovering close to my head and various crew members hovering just close enough to us to feel borderline intrusive. But as it is with these things, it became almost normal after a stretch, and I was able to concentrate on talking to two of the more fascinating pop musicians working today about living in Los Angeles, creating their own YACHT-branded fragrance, and their strange and wonderful experience touring in China.
You left L.A. today to come up here for this?
CE: Yeah, it's been a long day. I'm so tired. And it's incredibly surreal. But it's great. It's fun. It's an honor.
Even before a day like today, you have been keeping a pretty hectic schedule since the record came out. How have you been able to maintain your sanity in the midst of all this?
JB: I've been preparing since I was 13...
CE: For this moment! Right here, right now!
JB: ...so I'm ready for it.
CE: We've both been on the road for a pretty long time at this point. It's normalized to a certain extent. My parents are always like, "My God! I looked at your schedule! You're going to die! Take a break!" I have a different standard for what is exhausting and what isn't.
JB: It's relatively easy. Last year we had a couple of crazy routings where we flew from L.A. to Mexico to London to North Carolina. That was the first time where the scheduling actually ended up being a problem. They canceled our flight in Mexico. We missed playing a festival that we were really excited to play in Asheville, North Carolina.
CE: Sometimes we push ourselves a little too hard so we end up fucking up. It's difficult to remember to maintain balance. When you travels os much that when you're not traveling you feel like you're useless. We don't have 9 to 5 jobs anymore so when we'r not on the road, we don't know what to do with ourselves.
JB: We invent new jobs for ourselves.
CE: We constantly have to go or else the whole house of cards falls down.
You have a little break soon where you're not playing for a couple of more weeks. What do you do in the off hours? You said you invent jobs for yourselves what do you invent?
JB: Recently we made a perfume. That was a new job.
CE: A lot of merchandise design. And all the peripheral things that are involved in being able to run a tight ship on tour. All the preparatory things. Advancing all the shows. We do everything ourselves.
JB: We break a lot of equipment. None of our equipment is professional or professionally maintained. We have to keep replacing tiny little things.
CE: We're always trying to figure out ways to streamline the whole operation and make it more efficient. New suitcases, new packing systems.
JB: This last month on tour we figured out that no one listens to anything ever. We have to keep telling people that we're playing shows. We'll play a show and the very next day, on every social network, there'll be at least one person saying, "Oh you just played here in Dallas? How did I not hear about this?"
CE: We have to actively network on the Internet. Constantly. And we always have new things in the pipeline. Always working on whatever's next: a new video, a new text. Not yet new music. We're not even in the state of mind to think about making new music right now.
But is it difficult to have some of your touring band be living here in Portland?
CE: It is hard, but we tour so much that we don't really need to practice.
JB: Soundcheck is our practice.
CE: We're pretty much always up. We break between tours and everyone goes home and then we come back together and hit the road immediately. There's no build up at all. It's just a never ending moving sidewalk that we jump on and go forward on.
JB: We found that if we go for longer than four weeks without playing a show, the first show we play after those four weeks is a total disaster. Which is kind of okay! It keeps us scared and upset. It's good to have that.
The album that you're still touring on Shangri-La, very much rooted in L.A. - a state of mind, if you will. Before that See Mystery Lights was very much placed in Marfa. Is that always important to you guys to have a location to build creativity off of?
CE: Place is very important to us. We are both very affected by our environment. When we record, we are recording in the moment. We don't bring pre-existing ideas to our sessions. We just write what's happening in our lives. If we're in a place, that place is going to dictate the output, intrinsically. We're both very suggestible in terms of environment. WE get wrapped up in our environment a lot.
JB: Shangri-La is about three different places really. It's about Portland, Marfa, and Los Angeles. We had sessions in those three places.
CE: It does feel like an L.A. record, for sure.
How long have you been in L.A. now?
CE: Since October.
JB: Doesn't feel like it though since we've been touring a lot. It still feels brand new and crazy.
How does that compare with living here and how do you feel about living in either place now that you have lived in both?
JB: I hate it here now! [laughs] No! I still love it here and will always love it here. Our families are here.
CE: We both grew up here. It's always been like a really nurturing environment for us, Portland. It's such a supportive scene. And we're surrounded by people we know and love. But there's a point where it starts to feel oppressive. It's so nurturing that it's oppressive and you're not being stimulated because you're being too supported if that makes sense. L.A. is hard and can be really indifferent to what you're doing because it's a huge city. There are these variables of chaos and so many different lifestyles and people and world views and cultures that are coexisting. And so many of them could not give a shit about you and what you're doing as an individual or as an artist. The anonymity though gives you a huge amount of freedom to explore more of what you are without the crutch of context and place necessarily while still being a really inspiring place. We like it. It sounds like a mess. It's dark and amorphous and weird and polluted. There's a lot of bad but there's a lot of good too. It's about finding some kind of middle road and making our way in a new place. Seeing if we could adapt our lifestyle to a new place. We basically created Portland in L.A. We live in a pedestrian friendly neighborhood with a really good coffee shop and a farmer's market. It's not that alien. It's just the weather's a lot nicer and we have to drive more. It's not that different for us really.
Can you see now how the location has effected your creativity?
JB: I think so. It's easier to make things quicker in Los Angeles. We were talking about jobs for ourselves. We made a bunch of new things that we couldn't have made here as quickly or as cheaply. We made really beautiful letterpressed posters which is a huge thing in Portland. Sort of like a craft that's expensive. Whereas there's a place in L.A. that has been doing it since 1946 and does it really fast and cheap and beautifully.
CE: L.A. is a center of production for a lot of things. There's massive industrial districts dedicated to each possible imaginable trade. We made this fragrance and went to all these crazy bottle warehouses to look at every different kind of perfume bottle. Looking at every different kind of bottle and empty toothpaste tubes and realizing that things come from somewhere. Things are made and produced and packaged and merchandised in places like L.A. and as a consumer we have access to those things because we're basically there. We made a neon sign for totally cheap from this hole in the wall neon manufacturer. This dude is actually bending glass tubes over a fire. We have access to production in a really crazy way. And none of the creation is niche or artisanal at all. It's industrial. We've always been really interested in exploiting tools to seem like we are more professional or a larger operation than we really are. For us, that has been exploiting digital tools. The fact that we have the same software as marketing people. We could make our own website and have it look as good as one that a professional could make. Now, it's like we actually have physical tools at our disposal. WE can go straight to the factory and have things made that for us is the next level of that same idea. We're really pulling the wool over people's eyes now that we have all these crazy objects that we were responsible for having made. And it's so fun to source every element. L.A. is like the real life Internet! There's dark stuff like the YouTube comments, but it's also very democratic.
I did want to ask about the fragrance that you are selling now. How did you decide on what it was going to smell like?
CE: It was an interesting process because we don't share a language with a perfumer. It's actually pretty technical. We didn't know about top notes and middle notes or bottom notes or any of those trade terms. We had to speak in abstractions which was of course a really interesting experiment. How can we explain what we want this thing to smell like based on images and sounds and a sense of texture or ambience that it should simulate. We built this grand fantasy . The idea is that the perfume smells like the morning after a bacchanalian temple ritual. The temple's on fire and there's incense hanging thick in the air. All the bowls of unguents are spilled on the ground. The flowers are crushed beneath these people's feet before lying prostrate in their robes on the ground. There's this apocalyptic feeling but it still remains mystical which is what it basically is. it's all floral and smoky wood. It's unisex. We like to call it an anointing oil more than a perfume. There's actually a semantic difference between what a perfume can be. There's no alcohol in it so it's not a fragrance necessarily. It's a hand-blended mix of essential oils. Blended by a lady in Portland: Heather Sielaff from OLO who is a total genius.
JB: We've been fans of hers for years. I've been wearing a perfume of hers for years. And it's been a dream to make something with her.
One of the questions I had about Shangri-La that has been sticking with me is that the lyrics seem to connect these grander concepts that you are coming up with with very specific cultural signifiers - like "Beam Me Up" or "The roof is on fire/We don't need no water." Where does that come from?
CE: We dig both high and low culture. I'm hesitant to use the term low culture to talk about dance music refrains. But we're super into pop cultural music production, R&B music production, radio music production, internet memes. We're very plugged in and aware of that, but we also have a deep reverence for more intellectual interpretation of text. We try to do both at the same time. Those are two extremes that we love. In general, pop music is such a good way to express abstract ideas in almost like a mantra-esque way. People get pop songs stuck in their head and they become a part of their lives in a way that's really commonplace and intimate and maybe non-intellectual. Almost a little bit primitive with the elements of repetition or to get a melody stuck inside of you in a way that's almost annoying. Yet making a pop song about death or a pop song about spirituality or a pop song about aliens is a way to be subversive in terms of using the medium. I think that playing with common refrains is also the same thing. Luring people in with something that sounds familiar and sucker punching them with something that's underneath. That's always been the tendency with YACHT. Playing with two extremes. Manipulating common tropes for nefarious purposes.
When you started the band, Jona, did you always foresee it having this larger artistic element, turning into this bigger thing?
JB: Yes and no. I knew that it would change. I knew that I didn't want it to stay the same for each album or recording. With Claire it's just been easier to execute those ideas as a duo.
CE: We're of a like mind in process and execution not necessarily ideas. But that's what makes it interesting for us. Having to reach compromises as collaborators is always difficult. But we've been able to develop a common language about what we want.
How do your spiritual beliefs or lack thereof influence what you do?
CE: I think it's more about an interest in engagement with ideas than it is about having a set of beliefs. We have definitely the YACHT mission statement and the YACHT philosophical tracts. Everything's delineated. For us it's more about wanting to have conversations with people and needing a starting point to have those conversations. We've set out lists of ideas: We believe in extraterrestrial life. We believe in free information. We believe in the power of the individual. We believe in a different and chaotic universe. These are things that we believe strongly as individuals. And if we delineate them on paper than people can come to us and say, "Oh, this is what I think" and we can have a conversation. For us that's the most exciting thing is engaging people on that level, to find a way to catalyze people to have that conversation. At the same time, we do have our set world view that will always trickle down into what we make. I think as people making art it is inevitable that what you do becomes a reflection of what you believe whether or not it's intentional. I think sometimes we can be heavy handed if only because we like playing with those ideas.
Do you get a lot of people when you're on tour engaging in those conversations?
JB: The best. So many people want to talk to us about paranormal phenomenon. X-Files/Coast To Coast AM style conversations. Also lots of teenagers writing us crazy e-mails like "I'm Catholic, can I listen to YACHT?" Very earnest real stuff like that.
CE: Or people coming to us with personal life questions. "What do I do after college?" is a common one. Or people are honestly being like "What are you? Are you a band? Are you a philosophy? What are your ideas? Why do you talk the way you talk? I want it broken down. I want you to explain it to me."
JB: And having to explain ourselves is great. It's a great conversation to have with people.
CE: It keeps us honest.
YACHT started out with just Jona and is now a full band. Is that a liberating thing or restricting or both?
JB: It's both! Definitely both. For a live show it's incredibly liberating. But in terms of technically putting everything together. We maybe don't get to go to some places like we used to. We got to tour in China as a duo because there was no overhead and there was no infrastructure for independent music culture there. It was easy to bring us there to do weird punk shows in coffee shops. Every style and every level of show you could have in China happened with us. We played in coffee shops and we played in a huge festival in Hong Kong. That sort of stuff can't really happen now.
CE: It used to be just us with a suitcase. But now its different. Now I think we are freer to perform in a new way. It used to be since it was just the two of us there was a huge responsibility to fill the stage, to convince people that it was a show worth watching. "Oh they're just doing karaoke."
JB: A lot of people didn't understand that that was music that we authored. "Whose songs are you doing?" Now people have something to reference, that it's something like a rock band.
CE: It feels more physical. We have more presence. I like the YACHT group theme, this constantly expanding thing. I think that's a big part of what we want in the future is YACHT to become this looser and looser definition of what it could be.
JB: So many more things can go wrong now, both emotionally and technically. And to play with Rob and Jeff is so great. Two people that we loved their solo work for so long to have them actually be with us is so awesome.
How was it being in China and playing those shows?
JB: It was a kid from rural Idaho who had moved to China as a fan of martial arts. He lived in China in eight years before deciding that he wanted to start playing punk bands and start setting up shows anyway that he could. A fan of ours went abroad for an English teaching job, and somehow found this kid on like an expat message board. Asked him to bring us over, brought us over and then...
CE: ...and then...it was amazing. We played in places where people had never seen a white person in their life. We played on the Tibetan plateau. We really took advantage of the time that we were there and went to monasteries and temples and climbed mountains and ate crazy food. Ultimately there's so much to overcome culturally. Just getting to China and being in China is hard. Every hotel that you check in in every city, they tell you that you have to go to the local government office and report that you were a foreigner i the city. There's a sense of the government bearing down on you all the time.
JB: We snuck in. We didn't say we were a band. We were there on tourist visas.
CE: Information never seems 100% viable or authentic when you see it around you. It was just weird. It felt like dissociative reality. But again you'd show up in the craziest weirdest coffee shop in like rural Wuhan and it would feel like "What are we doing? Kids are going to think we're crazy." And then then it would be like any other show. Kids are kids. Kids who love music are kids who love music and there are no boundaries. It was really inspiring to see. We didn't take very much to crossover cultural boundaries.
JB: It was amazing to go to Wuhan and for kids to know our records through downloading our records through torrents.
CE: Getting around the firewall, for sure. There's very little culture for punk. We played a show in Shenjing where security guards flanked us around the stage and wouldn't let us jump off the stage. Every time I jumped off the stage they would physically carry me back up because they didn't want me to touch anyone. They escorted us to bathroom. They didn't know that we wanted to be with the people.
Do you ever see it reverting back to just being the two of you again?
JB: We played one show this year just the two of us which we haven't done for two years and it felt so wrong. It felt like we were cheating on Rob and Jeff and I hated it. But we did it and it worked.
CE: I feel like we can't go back. We'll always be sole producers in terms of writing the songs. But performing them it's just so much better as a band. I don't know if it's objectively better, but it just feels better.
JB: I don't think we could go back to play these new songs with just the two of us. If we wrote songs that were specifically for the two of us to perform, it would be fine. But otherwise it wouldn't work.
So if you're not working on music these days, what are you working on for the band?
CE: We're always making something. If it's not redesigning our website, it will be making a new record or writing a book. Our last book is essentially the text of the See Mystery Lights record, it's the philosophical companion piece. I really want to make that for Shangri-La. I've been soliciting submissions from science fiction writers for the last year or so. People whose ideas about utopia I want to know. Hakim Bey wrote us a little something. It will include both art and philosophical tracts and additional material. We made an e-book version of our last book and it was so fun to make that I want to go straight to e-book with the new one. You can make beautiful interactive texts as a person who is into language, I like the idea of liberating in that way. Exploring what the medium offers.
A couple of last questions, one from my editor who wanted to know: if you could be sampled by any hip-hop artist, who would it be?
JB: I'd like 2003-era Clipse. Specifically that version of the band.
CE: Yeah! Like Neptunes-produced early Clipse.
My last question I am stealing outright from the late Gene Siskel who always asked his interviewees: What do you know for sure?
JB: We're a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck on a speck.
CE: We are but a mote of dust hanging in a sunbeam, to quote Carl Sagan. We are certain of our irrelevance!