While Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans of YACHT claim they're "political atheists" and "emotionally agnostic," there's no escaping the fact that the duo's first disc together (YACHT's DFA debut, See Mystery Lights) is a subversive pop record about whether the light at the end of the tunnel is actually on.
"We know that ultimate reality is unknowable, and are willing to leave it at that," explains Evans. "We just want to talk honestly with people about these things, and I don't see any other way of doing it besides being in a pop band."
YACHT took a slightly circuitous route to get where they are: Bechtolt originally dropped out of high school to play in his brother's punk band, but he switched to a synths-and-samples setup in the late '90s. A few years later, he was crafting beats for the Blow and easing into digestible IDM tracks with his first solo album, YACHT's Super Warren MMIV. Somewhere between then and now, he collaborated with Devendra Banhart, Mirah and the Microphones, to name just a few. Evans (a veteran of LA's noise rock scene) was added to the YACHT lineup in 2008 — one year after Bechtolt quit the Blow.
Since they were still recovering from a free show on the steps of Portland's City Hall when I tracked them down, Bechtolt and Evans spoke to me about a series of unmarked MP3s over Instant Messenger.
Claire L. Evans: Whoa!
Jona Bechtolt: I can't tell if this is homophobic yet…
Evans: This man means business.
Bechtolt: I know this song.
So I picked this one because you once did a "Chopped and Screwed" remix of Mirah.
Evans: Yeah, this is a great song. I have a disco version that kills every time I DJ; it's completely undeniable. I love this kind of music. I love anything that has a sluggish, mildly fucked-up quality.
Bechtolt: I've been a fan of DJ Screw and Houston rap for a while. That Mirah remix is a direct homage to DJ Screw. I wanted to take Mirah's greatest assets — her voice and the production of that song — and decontextualize, or damage, them in a very stylized and recognizable way…I went to Screwed Up Tapes & Records four years ago. It's DJ Screw's shop in Houston. He literally OD'd on cough syrup, but his shop lives on.
What did you pick up there?
Bechtolt: I bought two two-disc comps. Both are very, very good.
Did this kind of music influence the new record at all?
Bechtolt: I'm not sure if this song specifically influenced music on our new record. We didn't really let in any conscious musical influences.
Evans: Yeah, our influences on the new record are largely non-musical.
I can see that, because the sonic reference points in the record are all over the place.
Evans: We really weren't "listening" to anything while we were making it, because we were trying to directly channel the vibe of where we were living at the time, in Marfa, Texas. Plus, we like to think of ourselves as "generalists" as much as possible, and incorporating non-musical influences into our work is really important in that capacity.
Why Marfa? It's not exactly the first city that springs to mind when people think of places in Texas to write or record music.
Evans: Oh, Marfa is huge for us. It's home to a specific paranormal phenomenon called the "Mystery Lights," which we moved to Texas to be close to. The Mystery Lights have never been explained by either "rational" scientific means or "irrational," like, UFO-cult-type means either. It's a real mystery — and it's a mystery that people live close to, and live with.
So it's something in the sky?
Evans: Yeah, it's as if stars have fallen out of the sky and are floating right above the horizon. They move around and merge and sometimes have color. And it happens essentially every night in Marfa.
Bechtolt: …and sometimes in the day.
Evans: It has a huge influence on the psyche of the place.
Bechtolt: Song 2 = LAZERS.
Evans: We don't know this song!
Well, it relates to both of you. The remixer on this is an up-and-coming LA producer that reminds me of early YACHT records.
Evans: The production on it sounds vaguely familiar.
Bechtolt: Is it remixed by Nosaj Thing?
Yep. So you're familiar?
Bechtolt: The music of his that I've heard has a very soft and sweet feeling to it.
Bechtolt: Right, I can see that comparison. Jason seems to have a better grasp on what he's going for than I did with the music I was making, though.
I see. As for the band he remixed, they're one of LA's rising noise rock acts. And since Claire used to be a part of that scene…
Evans: Oh, is it Health?
Evans: I have complex and mixed feelings about new LA noise-rock bands. The Smell scene was so formative and intimate for me when I was younger and living in LA, and seeing it blow up the way it has is both exciting and very vulnerable. Not to sound like a grumpy old-timer, but when I was playing in bands at the Smell, it was really a small scene. Sometimes only 10 people would be there. It was always precarious, and exciting in that way.
Were you in several different bands at that time?
Evans: Yeah, I played in a band called Weirdo/Begeirdo for a few years, and then later a band called Thunder Sundress. The scene then was a lot of suburban kids from Riverside who just saw the Smell and downtown LA as being 100-percent liberation from the parking lot aesthetics of their lives. And I deeply relate to that specific strain of the punk feeling, the Southern California punk feeling. The sitting in the parking lot of a Del Taco in your Orange County suburb and hating your parents, or whatever. I think it's so real and true … We try to spend as much time in LA as possible. If there were a war between California and the rest of the world, I would fight and die in the trenches — no bullshit.
Bechtolt: Beat Happening! This music and these people have been very inspirational to us. This is how I learned about punk.
Evans: Yeah, this is huge.
This record in particular is what got you into punk?
Bechtolt: Not this record in particular, but K and Calvin.
Evans: Bands like Beat Happening and the Microphones made me realize that punk was a feeling — an attitude — and not a style. The fact that the "I only know three chords" aesthetic of "traditional" punk music could be ported to a different style of music. That you could be singing about tea parties and baked Alaska and still be punk, because what you were doing was completely your own. It took me a while to see that, but when I did it was extremely meaningful. I think this is actually the first Beat Happening SONG I ever heard, too.
Evans: We wouldn't be here, doing what we do, if it wasn't for the early Pacific Northwest punk scene.
Bechtolt:> [Before I was exposed to K Records] I thought [punk] had to be about men [too].
What female K artists stood out?
Bechtolt: Heather Dunn [of Dub Narcotic Sound System] stood out to me. She was the best drummer I'd ever seen play — just super explosive. I put on a show for Dub Narcotic when I was 16 and living in Astoria, Oregon.
Evans: Jona, did you learn about K because Kurt Cobain had that K tattoo?
Bechtolt: Yes…and then Calvin left a message on my answering machine…He asked if Dub Narcotic could play at my parents 'gas station.
And did you flip your shit essentially?
Bechtolt: Nope. I didn't know his music so much. I knew Old Time Relijun first. Which was weird.
Evans: That is weird.
And he ended up playing your parents 'gas station?
Bechtolt: Yes, with Miranda July and everything. That's how I first met Phil Elverum [of the Microphone and Mt. Eerie]. Back to Nirvana, though: Krist Novoselic came to that show! That blew my mind. Even though I'd already met him a couple times when my pop-punk band had played with Sweet 75, his post-Nirvana band.
Did your parent's gas station host other shows?
Bechtolt: I had been putting on shows there for a little while. It was first made into a techno club by my older brother.
Evans: "The Launch Pad."
Did you think that was lame?
Bechtolt: No, I thought it was amazing. Techno was also really punk to me at that age, living in rural Oregon.
What kind of techno are we talking?
Bechtolt: All styles. My brother went to London for a semester of college [so he brought a lot back with him]. He had a jungle compilation that I was obsessed with called Welcome to the Terrordome.
Claire, did you dig jungle at all?
Evans: No, not at all.
Right label, wrong artist.
Evans: This music is synching perfectly to an animated .gif I happen to be looking at right now.
Bechtolt: You're ALWAYS looking at animated .gifs.
That explains your album cover.
Evans: I don't know what this is!
Bechtolt: Is this Plaid?
Evans: I never got into this particular kind of electronic music, although I often tried to. Squarepusher?
Bechtolt: Oh IDM, you sound so cute in 2009.
Its Autechre, from [their 1995 album] Tri Repetae.
Bechtolt: Ahhhhhhhh, right.
Were YACHT's earlier experiments with beats influenced by Warp at all, and IDM in particular?
Bechtolt: This is what I call "graphic designer" music.
Evans: Yeah, I always thought the appellation "IDM" was really self-serving. Dance music is not about being intelligent; the moment it becomes intelligent, it ceases to be dance music. Dance music is about the lizard brain.
Bechtolt: IDM is about headphones.
Evans: Expensive headphones.
Bechtolt: I really like that it creates space of which you can live inside. To me, it sounds like drone music. I still love it, actually.
Evans: It bores me to tears!
Bechtolt: I never listen to it, but this is really "doing me." I liked Warp stuff, and was so blown away when one of our friends, Lucky Dragons, almost put out a record with them. There was always something with Warp that rubbed me the wrong way, though. I think it was the lack of punk.
Too concerned about its aesthetic?
Bechtolt: A little bit, yeah. I felt like the feeling and execution was right, but the tone was just a little off. I wanted to hear the people on the computers; not so much the computers. Although right now, I'm super into these computers.
And you're finding a human way to use the computers.
Evans: We try really hard to differentiate ourselves from the tools we use. Which is an interesting challenge, largely helped along by the sheer mass of other [YACHT] materials — video, print documents, physical performance. So much electronic music performance might as well be email-checking from the other side of the computer. And as much as I secretly like to wonder what's really happening on the computer, it's not exciting to watch or to be around. And it's definitely not punk.
Bechtolt: Which is fine, that performance isn't about a visual experience.
Evans: Right. But we live in such a visual age. For me at least, performance is more about being looked at than listened to.
How have you guys modified YACHT sets to incorporate the two of you? I assume its been seamless, as you guys clearly have good chemistry…
Evans: It took a while to get it right, actually. For a long time I tried to do what Jona does, which is be this insanely calisthenic presence. But that didn't work; it was too visually confusing. I studied a lot of performers, dancers and artists, like Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, and figured out a persona that worked. I try to be more about restraint and charisma, and Jona is more about being bombastic, almost like a Southern preacher.
Bechtolt: This song is super good. I don't know it.
Evans: I don't know this song either!
It's a bonus track from the Nike mix James [Murphy] did. Your boss is gonna be sad.
Bechtolt: Ah, I knew it was DFA.
And how did you know?
Bechtolt: His bass sound. It's my favorite bass guitar sound of all time. Most bass guitars are slapped, picked and plucked. This sort of bass is tender.
[The YACHT song] "It's Boring" has some disco elements to it.
And did you guys really write "Summer Song" for James?
Evans: Yes. Well, not for him, but in homage to him. A joke about him, for him. "Summer Song" was our attempt to make an LCD Soundsytem song. We don't normally ever do straight musical rips like that, so it was silly [and] meant to be a little funny.
Bechtolt: We initially released "Summer Song" as a free MP3 on our blog. That was its intended lifespan. We recorded it in something like 40 minutes, and put it online as soon as we were done. Then it proved to have a whole second and third life of its own.
What was the second life?
Bechtolt: The second life was DFA asking to put it out as a 12" single, then making a video for it, then including it on this album.
The third life is the lp?
Evans: You could say that. We're going for nine — nine lives.
Bechtolt: Terry Riley?
Very interesting you said that.
Bechtolt: Oh yeah, "For Terry."
Evans: White Rainbow!
Bechtolt: White Rainbow, one of our better friends.
Evans: A very good friend and former member of YACHT.
Bechtolt: But we're still very close.
What period did he play in?
Evans: Oh, early 2009. He was the third vertex of our triangle, but it didn't work out as intended. The idea was that he would be a live touring member, but I think he didn't want to get too involved with our particular universe as a band.
Still looking for a third vertex then?
Evans: Well, we realized that the third vertex is "you," meaning the audience, the listener, whatever. YACHT is whatever. YACHT is whenever you're looking at it. So, if there are people dancing on stage, they're in YACHT for that moment. It's very mutable.
Bechtolt: Hey, I made this.
Evans: Oh, The Blow!
Hope you don't mind me bringing that up…
Bechtolt: Nope, I'm still very proud of this work, especially under the mildly extreme conditions in which it was made.
Evans: I don't mind, although it's only recently that people have stopped perpetually thinking I am [the Blow's frontwoman] Khaela [Yvonne Maricich].
How did that collaboration differ from the current incarnation of YACHT? Bechtolt: Well, YACHT has always been free to organically explore all territory. The Blow was always a fight. That created an interesting editing process, but it was ultimately incredibly destructive.
Does YACHT jam — like at a rehearsal space? Bechtolt: No, we have no space. We do everything in the same spaces we sleep. I don't know if Portland even has rehearsal spaces.
Evans: We work from bed.
Bechtolt: Since we consider everything we do to be YACHT, it doesn't make sense to us to compartmentalize the music part of it — physically and psychically.
Evans: Yeah, we have instruments crammed into all our apartments 'closets. And we borrow from friends and buy old drum kits on Craigslist. It's all pretty ephemeral.
As soon as [Claire] joined, you started working on the ideas for this record specifically?
Evans: Jona started some of the fundamentals of the record as early as 2007, although the full vision of it didn't become clear until we were in Marfa, which is pretty much when I "joined" the band.
Bechtolt: Marfa really shaped everything. We started writing with triangles in mind, all the way down to which chords we were using.
What chords would be related to triangles?
Bechtolt: Three-note chords, like power chords. Or as I've always called them: "Nirvana chords."
Evans: It was around then that we started to realize we needed to offer people more than just a "band." We needed to purposefully construct an entire world, an ideology, a movement, for people. So a lot of work, a lot of writing, went into that, a lot of which happened after the album was finished.
Do you see the ideology changing quite a bit as you continue to work together? Or are there certain tenets that stay true no matter what?
Evans: [There's no] overspecialization. Overspecialization is what makes animals go extinct. We think of ourselves as an evolutionary entity, something that has to stay alive even when the music stops playing. It definitely develops as we go. We begin to refine things as we live with them. And, most importantly, we've begun to believe the myths and ideological conceits we started out with, which is incredibly powerful for us. You really can build your own world.