Since we last caught up with him in October, Yellow Ostrich’s Alex Schaaf has gained a label and two bandmates. Add to that the three EPs, two full-lengths and one 7” he’s released since the beginning of 2010, and it’s clear that the Wisconsin native’s fast and furious career is truly taking flight.
His album The Mistress—originally offered as a pay-what-you-will download on his Bandcamp page—was reissued on Barsuk last week. In addition to Schaaf’s initial recordings, it includes three bonus tracks that feature new group members Michael Tapper and Jon Natchez, formerly of Bishop Allen and Beirut, respectively.
The decision to bring on more musicians was one Schaaf has toyed with for a while now.
“When I started recording, I knew I could do a lot of vocal loops and stuff that I could do live by myself, which I always thought was kind of cool, making these big songs but doing it in a way that made it easy to do it by myself,” he says. “Before I moved to New York, I played a few shows in Wisconsin as Yellow Ostrich, but it was just solo, and that was cool, but it’s just a different kind of energy live where it seems more like a craft, like you’re cleverly bringing all these things together. I wanted more real-life happenings that are more in-the-moment.
“The more people I added, the less I would have to rely on a looper building loops, which hopefully means that the stuff gets more live and unpredictable, so I knew right away that I would want a drummer because that would free me up from having to do all this loop drum stuff. I wanted a side to it that wasn’t totally looped and controlled, and so I got Michael right away… It was really about the more people we could get, the less controlled it would have to be, so the bulk of a lot of the songs we’re not doing any looping. The looping stuff is cool, but we don’t want to be The Looping Band or this band where we have a schtick, so it just gives us a little more freedom to do more arrangements and things. And only having three people is nice because it’s already way bigger than when it’s just me, but it’s still pretty small, so it’s not getting out of control or becoming this huge thing.”
Take away the looping, and fans will have an opportunity to really experience the guts of The Mistress live. Behind Schaaf’s carefully layered vocals is a hint of grit—fuzzy guitar and pulsating drum beats.
“I knew I just wanted something raw and kind of tribal, where it’s not just soft guitar chords,” he says. “Kind of in-your-face. I think that’s the general aesthetic I was going for. It’s kind of abrasive. When you take something that’s kind of rough and abrasive and then add these cool vocal harmonies around it, I was kind of going for that juxtaposition, where it’d be like choir harmonies against this rough, jagged musical element.”
Music and melody were priorities for Schaaf on the project. The words—and the dreamy, wailing harmonies through which they’re presented—may be the first thing to catch your ear on The Mistress, but often they were the last things to be nailed down in the studio.
“It’d be a lot of starting with the vocal loops and then coming up with the vocal melody and then coming up with the words after that,” Schaaf says. “Most of the songs, the words were last. I rarely will write words without having a melody or song. It’s a lot of doing the music first and then figuring out what words work. A lot of lyrics are more kind of impressionistic where it’s just like saying what comes to mind and fits with the music, and then I have to kind of step away and see what words I’m using.
“Sometimes I don’t figure out what a song is about until afterwards, once the words have come out unconsciously and then I go back and interpret them, rather than going in with a big message or something that I want to portray.”
The Barsuk release marks the first time The Mistress will be sold as a physical CD (it was previously available on vinyl and as a digital download). It’s funny, then, that while Yellow Ostrich makes the transition from a web-based project with strong ties to sites like Bandcamp and Kickstarter to a more traditional business model, their frontman spends his days helping others digitize their lives.
At his day job at Brooklyn’s Digify, he works to convert old 8 mm film to DVD. It’s not something he has a background in—in fact, it was a gig he didn’t even know existed until he saw the Craigslist ad for it—but it’s finding its way into his music.
“I have a new song that’s inspired by it,” he says. “It’s really cool because some people will just bring in a whole box, and then you’re basically going through their whole lives. It can be creepy—like One Hour Photo kind of creepy—but you see their whole lives, like this elderly woman who walks in, you get to watch film of her entire life, from her being born to where she is now. You feel like you know these people, and it’s fun to make up stories about what they were doing when you see these silent films. It’s interesting and it makes what otherwise would be kind of a tedious job doing this kind of stuff fun. The fact that it’s people’s lives makes it interesting.”
There’s no word on when we can expect to hear the new home movies-inspired track, but if the frequency of Yellow Ostrich’s past output is any indication, we probably won’t have to wait very long. “There haven’t been many moments over the last couple of years where there weren’t newer songs in the works.”