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Before starting on songwriting for Yellow Ostrich’s latest album, singer/guitarist Alex Schaaf moved into the band’s Brooklyn practice space and immersed himself in the study of such astronomers as Carl Sagan and Frank Drake. Keeping up his day job of digitizing vintage home films by day, Schaaf devoted the next 9 months to exploring the depths of the galaxy from a tiny windowless room, whose lighting he synthetically altered to reflect the arrival and passing of daylight each morning and night. Around the same time, Yellow Ostrich drummer/percussionist Michael Tapper ventured into the infinite in a much more literal sense by departing on a sailing trip from Mexico to Hawaii that left him out at sea for nearly a month. Borrowing its title from Sagan’s 1980 PBS series, Cosmos expands Yellow Ostrich’s intensely guitar-driven alt-rock with dreamy electronic arrangements to mirror the mood of Schaaf and Tapper’s retreats away from the everyday world. While the album embodies a sense of both wonder and isolation, Yellow Ostrich’s refined melodies and dense yet delicate sonic textures make Cosmos as powerfully intimate as it is dynamic..
“Something I really like about the Carl Sagan way of thinking is how it’s a very unironic and sincere amazement at how the world works,” says Schaaf, who began Yellow Ostrich as a solo project at age 21. “One of the main things I was thinking about in writing this album is how to take that viewpoint and bring it into real-world life,” he adds. “It’s one thing to be reading all these books and watching all these movies in a very small room, or—as Michael did—to go out and live under the stars for a while. But trying to inject that pure amazement into day-to-day living in a big city is something completely different.”.
The follow-up to Yellow Ostrich’s 2012 EP Ghost, Cosmos captures that uneasy tension by merging raw guitar riffs, lush atmospherics, brain-bending electro effects, sweetly ethereal harmonies, and earnest but unsettling lyrics. Engineered by Beau Sorenson (Death Cab for Cutie, Superchunk, Sparklehorse) and mixed by Paul Kolderie (Radiohead, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr.), the album saw its inception when Schaaf sketched out skeletal versions of his songs, then brought them to Tapper to begin fleshing out beats and arrangements. Having delved into the work of early-Krautrock and 70’s synth bands while on tour the previous year, Schaaf and Tapper set to broadening their sound with locked grooves and textures inspired by artists like Neu!, Kluster, and Kraftwerk. For more help in crafting the sonics of Cosmos, Schaaf and Tapper recruited bassist Zach Rose and keyboardist/guitarist Jared van Fleet (who stepped in soon after the departure of multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez). With Rose and van Fleet further shaping the songs and helping the band to realize their vision, the new lineup of Yellow Ostrich recorded most of Cosmos in the same rehearsal space where Schaaf was living..
Opening Cosmos with the ominous “Terrors” and closing with the hushed, hymnlike “Don’t Be Afraid,” Yellow Ostrich lace together electronic elements and organic instrumentation to build a mood that’s sometimes gloomy, sometimes euphoric, and often an inextricable mix of the two. Throughout the album, Schaaf’s fascination with Earth and beyond plays out both literally and as metaphor: there are songs like “In the Dark” (a stark and dreamlike meditation on the journey of NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts), as well as “Shades” (whose urgent guitar lines and frantic piano reflect the anxiety that Schaaf imagines many people felt upon seeing the first published photos of Earth and “realizing how small and insignificant we really are”). Although that fascination bears an undercurrent of lonely melancholy, Cosmos also achieves its own strange brand of bliss on songs like “How Do You Do It” (a joyfully woozy track whose bombastic chorus serves as a diatribe against self-delusion)..
One of the album’s most exhilarating numbers, “Any Wonder” pairs a swirling soundscape and questioning lyrics that closely encapsulate the thematic heart of Cosmos (“I’m gonna try hard to tear it all apart/I wanna be stunned, don’t you?”). In writing “Any Wonder,” Schaaf again tapped into Carl Sagan’s careful illumination of the romantic side of science. “A lot of people have this idea that when you explain something, you take away the magic and mystery of it,” says Schaaf. “But sometimes the actual science of what happens is way more magical than any fiction we could invent on our own.”.
For the Cosmos cover art, Yellow Ostrich drew inspiration from Schaaf’s day job by selecting a photographic still from a film by Bas Jan Ader, a Dutch artist who created a series of videos in which the force of gravity served as his main medium. An inspiration for “Things Are Fallin’” (the album’s epic penultimate track, which starts as a tenderly off-kilter ballad before shifting into a sprawling rock song and finally dissolving into eerie noise), Ader’s work also helped Yellow Ostrich tease out that elusive connection between the cosmic and the everyday. “We’re living in a time when we’re all split up into such small subcultures and everyone has their own personalized digital worlds, which can make it easy to lose touch with the basic principles that rule our lives,” Schaaf says. “There’s so much that connects all of us and makes us all the same. No matter who you are, gravity’s always going to bring you down. I think there’s something really beautiful in that.”
Last fall, Yellow Ostrich spent 12 hours a day tracking their first full-length release as a trio (Strange Land, released March 2012 on Barsuk). Yet every night, while the rest of the band slept, Alex Schaaf, the group’s leader, singer, and guitarist, would close himself in the control room and stay up recording ideas for new songs. The intensity of Schaaf’s creative output is nothing short of staggering―over the past 3 years, under the Yellow Ostrich name, he has released 4 EPs and 4 full-length records, culled from dozens if not hundreds of unreleased songs. The idea for the latest Yellow Ostrich release, the six-song Ghost, began with one of the songs Schaaf recorded at night during the Strange Land sessions.
Schaaf started Yellow Ostrich as a 21-year old student, and within a year and a half, he had posted two full-length albums and three EPs online. He refers to these early works as “an embryonic, more raw” phase of the band; nonetheless, he felt compelled to distribute this music online. “So many musicians think that they should only release flawless, perfect music, which is an impulse that can prevent some people from releasing anything,” Schaaf says. “I obviously only release material I think is worthwhile―there’s plenty of stuff I work on that doesn’t make it out into the world―but for me music is about creating something that expresses a particular moment in time. It’s important to me to release it, to acknowledge that moment in my life, but then to move on to the next thing.” This creative restlessness, the need to always explore new musical frontiers, is the constant that has defined Schaaf’s body of work.
Yellow Ostrich’s musical identity began to crystallize as Schaaf worked on The Mistress, the first album that reflected a cohesive vision for what the band could become. Accordingly, it was the first Yellow Ostrich record to get a proper release, on Barsuk in June 2011. The most significant development for the band, however, occurred when Schaaf moved to Brooklyn and found two like-minded musical partners: Michael Tapper and Jon Natchez, who joined Yellow Ostrich in early 2011. Their musical chemistry was apparent from their first rehearsal together. “From the outset,” says Tapper, “each of us would get tremendously excited when one of the other guys tried something unexpected.” All three musicians share a fierce commitment to constant experimentation and to taking an innovative approach to music-making. Tapper, who supplies drums and percussion, plays a drum kit he designed himself: it lacks both a kick drum and hi-hat, and instead features a host of homemade percussion elements. Natchez is the band’s multi-instrumentalist, playing bass but also contributing a unique approach to timbre and instrumentation, performing everything from lap steel guitar to trombone run through effects pedals to baritone saxophone to synthesizers, often all in the same song.
Strange Land reflected the unbridled enthusiasm of the trio in the months after they started playing together; recorded almost entirely live, Schaaf, Tapper, and Natchez threw themselves into songs with abandon. The result was an album densely packed with different textures and ideas; it showcases a second embryonic phase of the band, presenting the early stages of a group coming into its own.
Ghost, Yellow Ostrich’s latest release, reveals a band still deeply invested in exploration. At the same time, it demonstrates that Schaaf, Tapper, & Natchez have developed a shared musical language. Now having worked together for more than a year and a half, and having embarked on 7 national tours that included performances at Lollapalooza, Sasquatch, and Austin City Limits, the group has developed a rapport and comfort in collaboration that is apparent on Ghost. Rather than record the songs live over a short period of time, the three musicians passed ideas around gradually, letting each song develop over a period of months. Instead of using as broad a collection of sounds as possible, the band limited itself to a more contained sonic palette: on Strange Land, for example, Natchez played 11 different horns, in addition to bass and multiple keyboards; on Ghost, the band chose to exclude horns entirely. “We wanted to have more space in the songs, to exercise a little more patience,” says Natchez. “With Strange Land, in retrospect, we went into the studio with a ‘let’s show the world everything we can do’ attitude. With Ghost, it’s been rewarding to focus more intensely on a more tightly defined sonic world.”
That sonic world is darker than previous Yellow Ostrich releases. The evolution of the release’s title track neatly summarizes the group’s process on this album: “Ghost” began as a lilting song strummed on acoustic guitar, a late-night recording from the Strange Land sessions. But Schaaf stripped out the guitar and reharmonized the song, realizing that a mournful tone better fit the lyrics. Tapper & Natchez then came up with drum and Moog bass parts that further fleshed out the song’s mood. The trio then passed the song back and forth, making suggestions, cuts, and additions, eventually arriving at a cohesive endpoint. The method used on “Ghost” guided the rest of the recording process: songs were crafted with careful attention paid to controlling the mood and sonic landscape.
Tapper uses his custom kit on some songs, but also introduces a palette of painstakingly assembled electronic percussion sounds. Without horns, Natchez turned to his extensive background in sound synthesis, using various analog keyboards and processed lap steel to create his textures and colors. And as with all Yellow Ostrich releases, the central voice is Schaaf’s: themes of loss and loneliness have always loomed large in Schaaf’s writing; here, those themes form the core of the songs, both lyrically and musically. The songs contain exquisitely sparse moments, from the jagged beginning of “Ghost” to the mournful mantra of “Already Gone” that ends the album.
At the same time, there is continuity between Ghost and previous Yellow Ostrich releases: Schaaf’s keening, intricate harmonies remain central here; Tapper’s unique approach to drumming is immediately recognizable whether on acoustic or electronic drums; Natchez still constructs intricately layered soundscapes, just without horns. The songs here feature the dynamic builds and cathartic climaxes characteristic of previous Yellow Ostrich releases. But Ghost reflects a powerful step forward in the group’s development. Taken as a whole, Ghost reveals a band that both has found its footing and is confidently striding on.
"At some point you wonder if maybe the grass is greener, and then you go somewhere else and you realize it’s not that much greener — so what do you hope for now?" so says Yellow Ostrich’s singer-guitarist Alex Schaaf, summing up the themes of his band’s powerful new album, Strange Land.
Schaaf knows what he’s talking about — he moved to New York from Wisconsin in 2010, got a bunch of acclaim for the Yellow Ostrich album The Mistress, signed to Barsuk and toured the U.S. several times with his hot new band: multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez and drummer Michael Tapper. Still, wherever you go, there you are, and that’s what Strange Land is all about.
"The Mistress was a guy in a bedroom," says Schaaf. "Strange Land is a band. In a slightly bigger room."
They recorded most of the tracks in six days in a little studio outside of Woodstock, New York, and selfproduced with engineer Beau Sorenson (Death Cab for Cutie, Sparklehorse). So while The Mistress used a purposely limited palette of sounds, Strange Land has a dramatically expanded one: Tapper’s inventive, downright catchy drumming provides a polyrhythmic foundation for many of the songs while Natchez plays no less than eleven different kinds of horns on the album, lending an almost symphonic air, while his nimble bass playing helps propel the music in its exciting new direction.
Strange Land retains Schaaf’s sweet, boyish voice and bracingly open-hearted songwriting, but adds a hardwon urban edge: brawny bass and busy, prominent drums, triumphal horns, and plenty of raw, overdriven guitar. As the album transitions from wistful but supercharged pop to new musical realms, it’s as if you’re hearing the transition the band itself made, from self-contained solo unit to a collaborative trio of outstanding musicians. Schaaf has a degree in music, and there’s plenty of his gorgeous stacked harmonies here, but this time Natchez’s horns occasionally take on that role, and it’s all animated by Tapper’s hip-shaking syncopations.
The opener, “Elephant King,” is “my current self talking to my past self,” says Schaaf. ”I’ve achieved some goal but there are still so many important things to find. It’s a song about struggle.” “‘Marathon Runner’ is about the constant need to figure out what you are and what you want to be,” says Schaaf. There’s ”Daughter,” with its exhilarating final rush of horns, roaring guitar and thundering drums, but then there are riveting quiet moments, like the haunting and powerful ballad “I Got No Time for You,” “Wear Suits,” or the naked candor of “I Want Yr Love,” mostly just drums, percussion and voice. And sometimes they’ll just blam out a rocker with the swing and chug of “Stay at Home” or “The Shakedown,” with Schaaf cranking out some wonderfully hairy guitar on the latter.
The lyrics were written as straightforwardly as the music was recorded. “They’re a lot more open and personal,” Schaaf says. “I didn’t usually go for the big metaphor, I just said it. I got a bit of a thrill from being more open and direct, and from putting myself out there a bit more. Being unafraid of darker areas and yet trying to not make it totally depressing.”
Previously, Schaaf had reveled in artistic constraints, like recording The Mistress virtually by himself, or recording an EP using only voice and drum machine (Fade Cave), or taking lyrics exclusively from a movie star’s Wikipedia entry (The Morgan Freeman EP). This time he went in the opposite direction, enlisting some very gifted bandmates to help take the music in directions he never could have anticipated.
Tapper actually saw Yellow Ostrich’s first show, at Schaaf’s college in Wisconsin, opening for Tapper’s old band. A few months later, both of them happened to move to New York City, and in October 2010 Schaaf invited Tapper to join forces. They played as a duo for another few months before inducting the talented and supremely versatile Natchez, who’s played with Beirut, the Antlers, and Camera Obscura, among countless others. “When Jon joined, that’s when it really felt like a band,” says Tapper. ”It’s more than just the fact that he plays horns sometimes — he adds some things that can be quantified and some that are intangible, but it all makes playing the songs feel really natural.”
Yellow Ostrich did several US tours in 2011, opening for bands like the Antlers and Ra Ra Riot. It was a pivotal experience. ”I found myself tending to want to flex a little bit, get bigger, so people wouldn’t talk over our whole set,” Tapper says. That — and the heavy airplay the Velvet Underground, Wire, and Crazy Horse-era Neil Young got in the tour van — had a big impact on the new music they made, with its dramatic dynamic shifts and listen-to-me-now passion. ”We took the energy from those performances,” says Natchez, “and allowed the live experience to direct the recording, as opposed to vice versa.”
It took that kind of power and urgency to unleash the emotional core of the songs on Strange Land. ”They’re about all those pent-up feelings of anticipation you carry throughout your life,” says Schaaf, “and what happens to those feelings when imagination becomes reality, and you see things maybe quite aren’t as magical and easy as you thought they’d be. When your future becomes your present, an explosion happens; that’s where a lot of this came from.”