Backstage at Bonnaroo: Yeasayer & Girl Talk

We spent a pleasant Saturday at the ‘Roo under blue skies and only a moderate amount of mud and standing water. Right in the middle of some dedicated people-watching, when we thought life couldn’t possibly get any better, we snagged a few treasured minutes with Chris Keating, lead singer of Brooklyn-based band Yeasayer, and Gregg Gillis, the sometimes controversial mash-up DJ known as Girl Talk. Gregg attracted a monstrous crowd for his 2:30 a.m. set on Friday night, and Yeasayer, directly followed by MGMT, filled the house and killed it at their late-night Saturday show. Luckily for those in attendance, they threw in a few very catchy tracks from their soon-to-be-released album. MGMT followed suit, and although every single one of the festival’s pseudo hippies/wannabe hipsters was there to pay tribute, no one was feeling their new tunes.

What types of venues are better for your music? Chris Keating: Festivals can be really great because obviously the energy can be amazing from so many people, but I don’t like it when people are 40 feet back. We played Lollapalooza, and there were so many people, they went on forever, but you couldn’t really see anyone. They were so far away. We also did this whole summer of festivals in Europe, and the one show I really remember was when we played at a bar with 100 kids in Zurich. It was right in between all of these festivals. We just stopped at this bar, played a show. It was so good even with the crappy sound system, being sweaty, we couldn’t even all fit on the stage.

You’ve called your music “Middle Eastern psych snap gospel.” Help us with this one. CK: You just have to write definitions sometimes, and people run with it. That’s it. I’m never going to say it again. I was listening to a lot of Middle Eastern music at the time; I like gospel music; I like Jermaine Dupri southern snap. It’s hard to define our music. It’s better than “Contemporary Brooklyn.” If anyone calls us “Freak Folk,” I’ll be really pissed off.

Are you playing with any new gadgets? CK: We have two new drummers. We have a percussionist names Ahmed who was born in Sudan and has played with Of Montreal before. Now he’s part of our band for the next touring cycle. We have a whole new thing going.

Where do you hang out in Brooklyn? CK: Madiba in Fort Greene with South African food. I really like the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal. I hang out at Glasslands a fair amount. We played a “test show” there before we came out here. No one was allowed to come except our sound guy and the bartenders.

Hype us up about the new album … CK: We really pushed electronics on this new record. We’re trying to mash up some new genres. I was listening to some industrial music that I hadn’t heard before that my wife got me into. We mixed a lot of that with some really pretty sounds to get a little more edge to our music. I’m really, really excited about a lot of the sonic textures. A lot of the songwriting is undeniably dancey. I want some of these songs to be club bangers … as much as Yeasayer would do a club banger. This shit is remix-ripe. I think we matured a lot as we were playing shows over the last couple years, since the last record was so ethereal, this is just very focused and very pop. People may hate, people may like it. But I’m stoked.

How did Bonnaroo act as a forum for your music? Gregg Gillis: The organizers were very relaxed, which was cool. I think it was good that I was going last and went on a bit late and beyond that, I come from a background where I used to play very short sets. For many years I rarely played for more than 20 minutes. Last night, they gave me an hour and a half slot, and typically, I don’t like to play that long. I can accomplish what I want to accomplish in an hour, and it can be very intense, and people can go nuts in that hour. I actually prepared more music than I’ve ever prepared to fill that hour and a half. No one stopped me from playing the full time slot, even though we went on late. We didn’t have much security on stage, and people were climbing over the barricade more than they expected, and it got out of control at the beginning — which is typical at a club, not so much at a festival. I liked that. I don’t want things to end, and I don’t want people to get hurt, but I want some level of chaos and I want it to be a free for all.

During your set, the digital screen kept flashing the phrase, “I’m Not A DJ.” Aren’t you a DJ? GG: For six years when I existed on a much smaller level; I had never, ever gotten an offer to do a DJ gig or play as a DJ. Once things started to pick up a bit, we started getting all these offers like, “Can you play three hours at this place.” And I’d never really played over an hour. I had to keep specifying, even though you think this would be cool, that’s not the style of show I play. With any band, you pick an identity, and you make music within that world. A big effort with Girl Talk, for me, has been keeping people from steering it into this dance club world. I never wanted to be up in a booth, and I never just want to be just playing songs. I want to have stuff that’s going to be transformative. Ideally, even though it’s based on samples, I want people to view it as an original music project. It’s an abstract concept and that’s half the fun. I like to push the way people think about what is original music.

How do you feel aboutfans trying to catalogue every song you play in a set? GG: It raises the bar for me when people are bootlegging shows and keeping track of sample listings. Every show has a million YouTube hits and people get to hear what I play every night. Last night, I played bits and pieces of stuff that I worked on during my layover in the airport. It’s exciting that I can make something in the airport, play it, and then it’s forever documented on YouTube. It definitely puts pressure on myself. I can’t just play a show today that would be completely different from last night. It would take me a really long time to do that. I know that people come out to multiple shows, and I like to be in touch with what they’re thinking as much as possible. It makes me want to work a lot more.
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