In late June, I sat down with two members of psych-pop band Yeasayer, Chris Keating (vocals) and Ira Wolf Tuton (bass), before their concert at Mr. Small’s. I had seen Yeasayer twice before, once at Terminal 5 in New York and at Mr. Small’s nearly a year go. They’re always a treat to see with their intricate light shows and colorful sound.
Jess Phoa (WRCT): So, how did you come up with your name?
Chris Keating: My parents named me before I was born.
Ira Wolf Tuton: My grandfather named me.
CK: I was kind of bummed about my name – band name?
JP: Yes, sorry.
IWT: Mine’s from a time of, you know, you don’t meet many Ira’s any more.
JP: Is it an acronym for “I.R.A”?
IWT: To some people yes, to many Northern “Irelanders”.
CK: Uuh band name…actually a guy who only played with the band for two shows came up with it.
JP: Really? Okay, was this when you were just up and coming?
CK: Yeah, totally.
IWT: NO. We were bigger then. [chuckles]
CK: We were very huge… our EGOS were bigger. [laughs]
IWT: The first name of our band was “Coldplay” [laughs] and then we changed this name to be more modest.
CK: Yeah, he was really into naming bands. He was obsessed. Seriously obsessed band names.
JP: What are your thoughts on Pittsburgh? Well you’ve obviously been [here before].
IWT: I feel like Pittsburgh is, regardless of shows and all that, Pittsburgh is one of those hidden jewels of an American city. One of those that not a lot of people really know about and, uh, it’s probably easier to discover when you’re here and find people that are from here who can show you around. It’s definitely interesting.
JP: Yeah, cause a lot of people are like, “Why do I want to go to Pittsburgh?” what’s so special about it?
IWT: Sure. I grew up in Philadelphia during the Rocky era, at least the Rocky view. Everybody now from Philadelphia figures Philadelphia was just what they saw in Rocky. A lot of that is true, but there’s more to it than that. It’s very picaresque and cultural, culturally relevant.
JP: What have you actually seen around here?
IWT: Uh, the first time we were here –
CK: We went to the Warhol Museum!
JP: I was gonna say, did you go to the Warhol Museum? Did you like it?
CK: We did. Yeah, it was great.
IWT: CRAP! [laughs] No, it was a cool museum. All the bridges, uh, the steel architecture.
CK: The wild packs of dogs.
IWT: The wild packs of dogs roaming…
CK: Roaming the streets.
IWT: Three-headed fish in the river. Um, Carnegie Mellon up there is really pretty. I remember uh, the first time we came here… I think, some dude whose house we slept at… He took us on like, an unplanned tour.
JP: Of the campus?
IWT: No, just around Pittsburgh, different park areas that it overlooked.
CK: Buildings, squats.
IWT: Like Neo-Classical stuff, which is really, really cool. Deco-era stuff.
JP: Being from New York, where do you guys like eating? In the city?
IWT: Where do I like eating in the city… let’s see…
CK: My backyard! I’ve got a grill.
CK: I’m all about it.
IWT: That’s all I’ve been doing lately in my backyard… There’s a lot of great butcher shops, a lot of great markets. I’m in a CSA, so I get a lot of really good organic veggies every week. Too much.
JP: Are they cheap?
IWT: Uh, it works out to if I had gotten all these veggies throughout the season, it goes all the way through November, actually, which is crazy. And if I were to pay for all of these vegetables, I’d definitely be paying a lot more. The challenge is trying to figure out to do with, you know, four heads of bok choy.
CK: What the fuck. I’d never do that shit.
IWT: You ALWAYS get bok choy.
CK: YOU GOTTA GET CSA, MAN! I’m like, “You have a fifty pack of turnips.”
I don’t want a turnip.
IWT: Yeah, yeah, but it’s good!
CK: There’s good Japanese restaurants.
IWT: It keeps you on your toes.
CK: Chinese food that’s great…there’s everything in New York!
JP: What’s your favorite kind of Japanese food?
CK: Well, in Tokyo, there were these Izakaya places. There’s this one yakitori place that I loved. Or actually we went to this place that specialized in Okinawa-Japanese food.
JP: I’ve never actually had that kind of Japanese food.
CK: A lot of bitter cucumbers.
IWT: My favorite stuff in Japan going to the Ryokons. Going to some inns more inlands, it was kind of like the local…river fish that were fried and sautéed up. Kind of local pickled vegetables…All this really good, high-quality local stuff. Which is good. It wasn’t just sushi! But that yakitori place…
CK: That was awesome.
IWT: That was amazing.
JP: Did you just have endless skewers of meat?
CK: Basically just like, all parts of the chicken. I have of a friend of a friend and he just takes us out. He takes us to interesting places.
JP: If you could have one last meal before you died, what would it be?
IWT: It would probably be Japanese food because I’d be able to eat, more of it.
CK: Probably a really huge bowl of pasta, ‘cause I always want to die after then anyway.
IWT: You’d die first.
CK: Like just a HUGE heaping.
JP: With anything on it?
CK: Yeah, just EVERYTHING. Like ALL THE SEAFOOD! Mix it all together.
IWT: Red sauce! White sauce!
CK: Why am I dying, by the way? Am I in prison? Am I being punished?
IWT: Yo, why is it your last meal?
JP: No, just like a hypothetical question. Let’s just say you were to just die the next day, I guess.
IWT: Like we were clairvoyants.
CK: There are so many other things I’d rather be doing.
IWT: Yeah I probably wouldn’t sit down to eat. I’d probably be doing a lot of other things.
CK: All the horrible things I’d be doing… [laughs]
IWT: Well, GOTTA EAT.
JP: Well I feel like I got this wrong, ‘cause I read you [Ira] grew up in Baltimore.
CK: I grew up in Baltimore.
JP: You. So wait, I guess I got that wrong. So are you [Ira] and Anand [Yeasayer’s guitarist] cousins?
IWT: Me and Anand are related through family, yeah.
JP: How did you guys form [Yeasayer]?
IWT: Anand and him grew up together. In Baltimore.
JP: Ah okay, are you approximately the same age?
CK: Yes we are approximately the same age. Same year of school. Class of 2000 high school.
JP: What high school did you go to?
CK: Park. It was called Park High School.
JP: Did you play an instrument in high school?
CK: Nah, not really. We had a band. I sang in a band.
IWT: They had a band that when I was in high school, I had their album.
CK: A demo!
IWT: I had never met him [Chris]. But because I knew Anand and his family –
CK: He LOVED it!
IWT: I LOVED IT. My sister, not a big fan.
JP: And then did you get roped in? By them?
IWT: Roped in, they just pushed me in and wouldn’t let me go. Uh, we all moved to New York around the same time.
IWT: And then, over the next three or four years, we slowly, slowly got it together after all of us figuring [things] out and getting on our feet.
JP: What drew you to New York then?
IWT: The community. The opportunities and every single thing.
CK: Girls and jobs.
JP: All the girls?
CK: There’s a lot of them there. Seems like a good place to go.
IWT: All the girls with jobs.
CK: All the girls with jobs. COUGARS! I’ve never experienced that first hand.
JP: So I always see you [Ira] wearing this necklace and the rings, which are on your watch. I was wondering about the significance of them.
IWT: This was a necklace I got a long time ago from a friend of mine.
IWT: And he traded me for a necklace I had at the time. It has Pennsylvania and Maryland on it and I noticed that it had Pennsylvania on it and I was like, “Oh I’m from Philadelphia! What’s the other state?” and he said “Maryland.” And I was like, “Oh that’s where Chris and Anand from our band are from.”
He took that as a sign from the heavens that this necklace was for me. He placed it on my head and I haven’t removed it since.
And these [the rings] are gifts from my woman.
JP: How did you design your album covers? They’re kind of just…out there.
IWT: He did the first one [All Hour Cymbals]. [gestures towards Chris]
CK: I did the first one.
JP: How did you do it? Photo manipulation?
CK: Collage. Cutting out stuff. I did a lot of collages, surrealist collage. So that was the first one and then…the second was like the same idea, but we were using 3-D scans of our faces that actually a friend had built using a car design program.
IWT: Actually that guy also had built some of the set designs.
CK: Yeah he did. So that was a friend of mine and so he did virtual sculptures of our faces and matched them together and made all this weird stuff. I figured it was in line with that. And the last one was another friend and that was like, images of this dancer.
JP: Do you have any hobbies that not many people know about?
IWT: I really enjoy tree work and gardening. And working on music.
JP: Is that why you wear wife-beaters all the time?
IWT: They’re called, “tank tops” where I come from?
JP: Sorry, haha. Or “muscle tees”?
CK: Guinea tees?
IWT: TANK TOPS.
CK: I watch a lot of movies.
JP: Oh, what do you like?
CK: All kinds of stuff. I don’t even know!
IWT: What DON’T you like?
CK: I did NOT like the new Superman movie. I generally, I tend to like movies from say, ehh, 1969-1979. It was a really fascinating period.
IWT: The movies I brought on tour, I brought because I knew he would really like them. The French Connection.
CK: OH! I love The French Connection.
IWT: As well as…El Topo.
CK: I liked that. You gotta go with Gene Hackman in Conversation, though.
JP: [To Ira] Are those some of your favorite movies too?
IWT: Yeah! They certainly are. I haven’t seen the new Superman.
CK: I watch a lot of old stuff and the Hollywood Blockbusters.
IWT: I like the documentaries. [In a New York accent] I like the documentaries! I read tha paypahs!
JP: [To Chris] Do you have a crab tattoo because you’re from Maryland?
CK: I do. It’s not because I’m a cancer.
IWT: If you were to die tomorrow, what kind of tattoo would you get?
Special thanks goes to Ceci Gomez and Paul Drake for all of their help.