Claire Evans and Jona Bechtolt are surprisingly eager to talk about their sex tape. Or rather, their "sex tape."
It's not a subject you'd think they would leap into discussing with much enthusiasm, given how it nearly destroyed their band, the formerly Portland-based electro-pop group YACHT, and just about ruined their reputation with the music press and some of their fans. But almost two years since the incident—in which the band's core duo convinced the media they'd been the victims of a privacy hack, only to reveal it was a promotional stunt—they've come to terms with what they did wrong, and the backlash that followed. And for two artists obsessed with the machinations of digital culture, and how the online world shapes our offline reality, the experience of getting fed through the wood chipper of public opinion was too interesting to not talk about.
"Listen, we are fully cognizant of the fact that we made a major misstep, that what we did was insensitive and uncalled for in terms of our fan base taking it seriously and feeling betrayed by the language we used," Evans says over the phone from Los Angeles, where she and Bechtolt moved seven years ago. "That being said, the experience of going through being on the inside of a full-on online shaming at that level—I mean, I don't wish it on anybody, but I feel like you cannot understand the internet and what it's doing to the world unless you have experienced it."
Of course, that doesn't mean the whole thing wasn't painful, embarrassing and damaging to their career. They're only now crawling out from under the pile of angry tweets and think-pieces that subsumed them. Ultimately, they'd like to move on, and get back to the business of being YACHT again. But speaking about it publicly—something they're just starting to do—is part of getting to that point. It's their way of making amends, and owning their mistake. It is also, they say, a means of taking ownership of everything that's happened since.
"We were afraid to talk about it for a long time because we just didn't know how to talk about it, and how people would receive it or even be willing to hear it," Evans says. "Now we've found the only real way to do it is to be totally honest about what it was and how it felt and what we meant, and kind of kill 'em with kindness, truth and honesty."
Before the stunt, YACHT were critical darlings. They were regarded as smart, savvy pop seditionists, admired as much for their creative, high-concept "world-building" as their technicolor dance music. In interviews, Bechtolt and Evans, who are also longtime romantic partners, took to referring to YACHT as a "band, business and belief system," augmenting their records with books, video installations, apps and even their own fragrance.
I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler, their sixth album, was the apotheosis of YACHT as a multidimensional art project. Its elaborate rollout involved faxes, GIFs and drone-shot YouTube videos; they premiered one single by streaming it only when Uber prices were surging in LA.
As a cap to the promotional cycle, Evans and Bechtolt decided to try something more personal. One day in May 2016, they posted a message on Facebook reporting that someone had stolen a private video of them having sex. In order to circumvent the alleged "exploitation," they announced they were going to make the video available for paid download. Several news outlets, including this one, reported on it in earnest. A day later, the video appeared on PornHub. At first, it seemed like the real deal, with Evans and Bechtolt canoodling in night vision, before taking a swift turn into sci-fi horror. It was intended, they later said, to comment on "the attention economy, clickbait journalism, and celebrity sex tapes"—and also to tease their next single, "I Wanna Fuck You Till I'm Dead."
"At the time, we thought we were being culture-jammers," Evans says. "And it didn't play out the way we thought it would."
That's putting it lightly. Judgement was swift. Several articles accused them of undermining victims of actual revenge porn. Jezebel, who revealed the band had tried weeks earlier to get them to assist with the hoax, called it "one of the grossest publicity stunts I've ever seen." "I'm pretty gross, but I'm not spoiled-rich-white-kid-band-faking-a-sex-tape-leak-level gross," read one tweet. In trying to explain themselves, Evans and Bechtolt dug the hole deeper, and had to issue two apologies to quell the outrage.
In the direct aftermath, the band entered a period of "internal reckoning." They left their label and their own publicist had thrown them under the bus.
"We didn't feel comfortable making art for a while, at least publicly," Evans says. "I never want it to seem like we were the victims, but when you make a misstep that large, to fuck up on that level 15 years in, it makes you re-analyze. Who am I as an artist? Am I a bad person?"
They took a year off from music and put their focus into other projects. Evans wrote a book, about pioneering women in tech, and she and Bechtolt helped restore the Triforium, a massive sculpture in downtown Los Angeles that's also considered the world's largest instrument. But even with all their different pursuits to fall back on, it became clear after a while that they'd have to come back to the band. For Bechtolt—who dropped out of high school to tour in punk bands, and founded YACHT as a solo project—there wasn't much choice. "I don't know how to do anything else!" he says in a faux-cry, but only half-joking.
In late 2017, YACHT tiptoed back into the studio, self-releasing a five-song EP called Strawberry Moon. It finds them processing the past two years in ways both oblique and overt. But it is hardly downcast, nor self-pitying: On "Shame," Evans chants the word "shame" over bubbly synths like she's auditioning to castigate Cersei Lannister, except it sounds like she's practically skipping as she does it. In the video, the band doesn't satirize its own situation but rather a different kind of shame—specifically, shaming-as-advertising. Evans and Bechtolt pose as hip, young Instagrammers selling a "life mist" that vaguely promises to "hold reality together" and make existence more fulfilling. In true YACHT fashion, they're turning it into a real thing.
"We wanted to capture this moment we're in by observing the insanity of lifestyle branding," Bechtolt says. "So while doing that, we were like, 'I guess the best way to show this is to create a fictional product.' Rather than just making it goofy and transparent and a parody of something, we put a lot of work into creating something we'd actually want to own and create."
In many ways, the sex tape debacle has changed the way YACHT operates. It's forced them to consider more carefully what they're putting into the world, and pushed them to live more honestly and empathetically. But clearly, it hasn't changed who they are.
"We've made a conscious decision to just be YACHT for a really long time," Evans says. "We've seen bands we've come up with rise and fall and disappear and start new bands and become 10 million times more successful than us and then break up. We've weathered the storm—many storms. And it's always been YACHT. It will never not be YACHT."
SEE IT: YACHT plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with French Vanilla, on Tuesday, Feb. 6. 9 pm. $15. 21+. Get tickets here.