File Under: Frenzied guitar riffs, looped vocals and floor-tom grooves
Alex Schaaf started Yellow Ostrich as a dorm-room solo outing while in college in Wisconsin, where he cranked out a couple of whimsical electropop albums and EPs made mostly with just a drum machine and vocals. He doesn’t like to spend much time on one project: Those first releases — among them an EP inspired by Morgan Freeman’s Wikipedia page — were each made in just a few days’ time. But when he started recording The Mistress in early 2010, he tested his patience and stretched the process out over a few months. The results were worth it: The new LP is still simple in its instrumentation — mostly guitar, looped vocals, and floor toms — but it’s a bigger and tighter sound made with a little bit of outside help. Since Schaaf left small-town Wisconsin for Brooklyn in August 2010, Yellow Ostrich has become a three-piece, rounded out by Mistress collaborator, drummer Michael Tapper (Bishop Allen, Fool’s Gold, We Are Scientists), and multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez (Beirut).
eMusic’s Laura Leebove met up with Schaaf at Brooklyn’s Roebling Tea Room, right above the band’s tiny practice space, to chat about The Mistress, going through a Dave Matthews Band phase, and his first real tour.
On his day job, digitizing old film and photos:
It’s a day job, but it’s interesting. I take 8mm film, so it’s home movies from the ’50s or the ’40s. I’ve gotten a few porns — some professional, like nasty ’50s [stuff] and some, like, y’know, “This is my grandparents’. I didn’t know and I brought it in and this is what it was.” It’s mostly people vacationing at Disneyland. [When it's porn], usually we call them ahead of time and warn them — “You probably don’t know this” — because if you have 8mm film, most people can’t play it, so they have no idea and they bring it in.
On playing his music with a live band:
When I did The Mistresss, I did it with the idea that it’d be able to be played live with two people, maybe three, so that made it easier because I did it with vocal loops. I kept it to only a few vocal loops, guitar and drums, basically, which is two people. So me and Michael can do most of the album relatively replicating it, not that that is what we were trying to do to get it exactly, and then Jon finishes it off and adds this touch of horns and stuff so it’s been really natural. It’s a much different sound than the album. It’s fuller and more lively I think.
On learning to play guitar just a few years ago:
I played piano for most of my life, I started that in kindergarten. In college I took classical piano lessons. It was just music but it was a mix between performance and theory and composition [in college]. I didn’t start playing guitar until like, sophomore year, so three years ago, I picked that up because in all my bands I had been playing piano, but I got tired of that. I wanted to play guitar in a band — I wanted to be a rocker, because it’s possible to rock with a piano, but it’s harder. So yeah I just learned guitar. I’m still not great at it but I can play my songs [laughs]. Once you get the basic framework of how a guitar works, I can fake my way through most stuff. I just subscribe to that Neil Young thing: He can solo on one note, it’s all soul and it’s not technical, which I think is the way I’m taking it since I’m not good yet [laughs]. I’ll just, yeah, that’s what I’ll say. I choose not to be technically proficient!
On collaborating, and not recording any of The Mistress in a studio:
I knew with that album that I wanted to take my time and not do a quick, week-long thing, so I did a lot of the drums myself first, and then I had some friends play some things. So I would go to where they were or whatever, or have them come in. I was taking guitar lessons and my guitar teacher played on one track. I just wanted to have it be more collaborative than my previous things which was like, me in front of a computer, so [this was] going to the movie theater and my room and some other rooms. And when I got [to New York] I did a little guitar on one song. I’ve never really done anything in an actual studio, ’cause I couldn’t afford it. I still can’t really afford it. I’m sure we will someday, but at that point it made sense.
On why he likes to quickly churn out project after project:
I like the rushed-through stuff because I feel like it’s more cohesive and totally more from the subconscious because there’s no time to think about it — you just have to do it and put it down. And if it all comes in three days, then it’s all gonna come from the same place. But when you take longer it’s hard to find a balance between taking longer to make sure it’s good and it’s what you want to do, rather than what you happen to be in the mood for that one night. I started it in February and by May I had mostly finished it, but then I didn’t do anything with it until August, when I started mixing it again, because it let me think about it. A few months later, if I still liked it, it’s a good sign that it was good because I tend to move on quickly. [The 2010 EP] Fade Cave, I didn’t like weeks after I did it, but in August I liked this, then I put it online. Weirdly, I’m already moving on and I think we can do better but I’m still satisfied with it. There’s not much I would take back.
On Dave Matthews Band and indie rock:
When I was in middle school I was in a huge Dave Matthews Band phase. It’s embarrassing to look back on but it was there, it happened, and then I got into really melodic pop, especially piano, like Ben Folds-type stuff because that’s what I was playing. So I didn’t really hit the indie rock stuff until later in high school, but it was just doing that and I was in bands and choirs growing up…I love voices and harmony and stuff. In high school I was in the a cappella vocal jazz choir. It’s cool to think of the voice as an instrument …’cause if I had only listened to Pavement and stuff like that where it’s guitar, and the band is the band and the singer’s just kinda singing his lyrics over it, that’s awesome, but it’s also cool to take the singer and make him do other stuff inside the band rather than just on top of it. So I think that’s where the choirs made me have that idea. It’s so easy to make [the voice] unique and personal because you can work with it and improve your voice and stuff but you have what you’re born with.
On his first real tour:
We start March 3 in Buffalo and go down and end in Seattle. I’ve done not much touring [laughs]! I did one tour with my college band where we went from Wisconsin down to Georgia and up to here and back over, for like two weeks. That was the only tour I’ve ever done. Jon has been touring since he was like 16 or something, that’s like, almost 20 years of touring, and Michael’s been touring forever because he was in We Are Scientists, Fool’s Gold, all these bands, so they’ve got me on the experience. I was like, “Tell me what to do…” I think it’s just a matter of whether we’ll get along. I think we’ll get along, we’re all pretty mellow guys, so it should be good. It’ll be nice. It’s a really long tour, five weeks, but it’ll be good to get the experience. I figure if we’re gonna do it we might as well do all of it so then I’ll have experienced the extreme.