19 September 2011

[interview] Yellow Ostrich

Yellow Ostrich is a breath of fresh air. Providing originality in a world of formulaic monotony, the Wisconsin via New York group plays a unique brand of sincere, lo-fi folk. Their exceptional debut album The Mistress is out now on Barsuk records. Art/Official had the pleasure of having a few questions answered by their frontman, Alex Schaaf. The band is playing TONIGHT at The Parish with The Antlers. Read the interview below, and after that watch the band's video for their song "Whale."

What’s the story behind Yellow Ostrich? Where do you come from, how did the band meet, why not Purple Ostrich?

I moved to NYC from Wisconsin about a year ago. Then I got the other two guys to join up, and we've been going strong since then. Purple was already taken.

Your implementation of vocals as accomplishing more than just singing lyrics – i.e. badass vocal layering – is remarkable. How did you arrive at that approach?

Thanks. I did it for The Mistress just as a sort of experiment/exercise, to see if I could use vocals in a more percussive, structural way as compared to harmonies and "prettiness." I think they function in both ways on the album, but I started by working with putting my vocals through a loop pedal and seeing what I came up with.

The drumming in your music is especially noteworthy. I don’t know that I ever heard a standard four on the floor beat or anything like that. What’s the inspiration for it? What are you trying to accomplish with it?

Michael is the drummer now, so I can't speak for the inspiration behind the current drumming; but I think we share most of the same sentiments. In terms of the drumming on The Mistress (which is done by both Michael and I, along with my friend Alex Bunke), I was just looking for something raw and primal, where every element of the beat was essential and effective, and there wasn't a lot of extra stuff around the edges. I think Michael has said something to the effect of "If you're just playing a four on the floor beat, you aren't really playing anything at all", and i definitely agree with that sentiment. If there are going to be drums there, then they should be interesting rather than just standing there and doing what drums are "supposed" to do in a certain situation.

You guys have a knack of doing a lot with a little in your music. What’s your song writing/construction process like? How has it evolved as the band has gained members?

For the Mistress I wrote everything myself, and did most of the recording myself. It was a lot of construction by vocal loop, where I would start the song with some random vocal loop, and build from there. With the full band now, it's become a more collaborative process. I'm still writing the main structure of the songs, with the lyrics/melodies/chords, but then it comes into the room and gets fleshed out in terms of arrangements and it goes to a different place than if it was just me doing it.

I read that you studied at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. How much of a classical influence makes it into Yellow Ostrich music?

There's not a whole lot of overt classical influence, since I was never a big classical guy. I wasn't a big jazz guy either, I'm still not sure how i managed to get a degree from a Conservatory, but I'm just into learning about lots of different kinds of music, and hopefully those things seep into my music without thinking about it.

I also read where you recently relocated from Wisconsin to New York – quite a change of scenery. Have you found that move has changed your creative process at all?

It's definitely effected my creative process, but I think that has less to do with the location and more to do with my life now. Before I moved to NY I was in school, and I had lots of time to sit around and write songs and record them. Now I've got a day job and we are starting to tour a lot and we practice all the time, so there's less time in the day to write new stuff. So it's just become a challenge to figure out a new way that I can write, and where I can squeeze it in.

What kind of connection do you seek to make with your listeners/audience?

I don't consciously try and make a connection with anyone, obviously I hope that I do, but it's not really something you can consciously work for. I think the main thing is to just be honest -- people recognize honesty and connect to that, rather than trying to be something you aren't in order to connect with a different group of people.

How does a live show differ from what we hear on the record?

The live show is much bigger and heavier, now that we have three people in the band. It's become a lot less light and poppy like the album, and more crunchy and raw. Which is fun.

What about Morgan Freeman inspired your Morgan Freeman EP?

His Wikipedia page seemed interesting enough; the part about the relationship with the step-granddaughter was really the clincher. When I saw that I knew I had my man.

Have you guys been to New Orleans before?

We played there back in March, I don't even remember where we played. But no one came. So hopefully this will be a better show. I really liked the city though, that was the first time I had ever been there. We went to the French Quarter and did touristy things, hopefully this time we'll have time to see more of the city.

You guys were recently signed to the venerable Barsuk Records. Can you tell us a little bit about how that relationship was forged?

They got into contact very early on, back in December. We waited for a while to make a final decision on a label, but they remained totally enthusiastic throughout, so that was really the clincher.

What's next for Yellow Ostrich?

We'll be touring a lot for the rest of the year, and probably early next year. New stuff is being worked on, hopefully it sees the light of day sometime soon.