You'd be selling YACHT short if you just called them a band. Sure, Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans make music that has been praised by many, including Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. But they are, in their words, "a belief system," and the two spend a lot of time on the visual aspect of the band as well: the shirts, the logos, the web design, the videos. So when you think of YACHT, don't just think of two people who make music, think of two artists. And when you read about their creative process below, it's easy to do. Their new album, Shangri-La, is out June 21 on DFA Records. Listen to "Dystopia (The Earth is on Fire)" from the album:
Read my interview with Bechtolt and Claire Evans after the video. Learn about how the key to their creative process is fizzy water. Lots of it.
JB: We consider YACHT to be a genre-spanning lifelong multimedia project, so the music aspect of YACHT, the songs themselves, are only one part of the creative outlet.
CE: They're probably the most recognizable, but we spend a lot of time working on the entire YACHT environment, the climate of YACHT. We do a lot of visual work from web design to t-shirts to videos to all the iconography and logos.
How does being a visual artist affect your songwriting?
CE: I think it does. Jona and I are sieves through which our experiences with the world soak through, and whatever comes out of our brains has been cobbled together through years of experience, whether it's reading or witnessing the world or participating in different kinds of art. We don't limit ourselves, and our tendency to be open minded about what we are capable of frees us. We can think about things in more nuanced ways because we have access to so much raw experience and stimuli. Being a visual artist is a part of that. It allows us to express whatever we want to express in whatever medium we want, and it gives us a sense of freedom to write songs.
A lot of songwriters who are illustrators start the songwriting process with an image.
CE: That happens with us a lot, though I'm not sure it's because we are visual artists. We are visual thinkers. Some of our songs have an imagistic quality. Some projects are highly visual, and we undertake them with sensory images in our mind. Some come straight from a rhythm, while others are much more textual.
How active are you in the inspiration process? Do you seek it out or let it come to you?
CE: It's a little bit of both. When we decide to undertake a project, it's an intentional work ethic, like, "We are going to make a record now." From the moment we decide we are going to do that, we open our minds to everything we want to include on the record, like the overarching idea. Then we educate ourselves as much as we can about the idea, almost like building a research library around it.
Our new album is about the idea of Utopia. From the time we decided to make the record, we attuned ourselves to that frequency. We read books about Utopia, like More's Utopia, Francis Bacon, Aristotle, transcripts of the Jamestown suicide. We read everything we could think of that was related to the subject. We tried to be perceptive of that idea in art, in literature, in popular culture. But we do go to a lot of art galleries and we watch a lot of films. We are interested in art and ideas. Whatever ideas we put into our system comes out as a YACHT-ified version of those ideas.
There is the undeniable element of the muse. But you must feed the muse and provide the muse with the tools it needs to articulate itself in the right way.
The best writers in the world are always very active in their environment. They are active seekers of inspiration.
CE: Yeah, there's a myth that the best writers are somehow separate from the world in which they live and that they are in the studio waiting for the muse to strike, then expressing this Romantic idea of pure creativity. That has nothing to do with it. It's about being involved in the world around you and trying to make sense of it, rationalizing it, separating yourself from it, articulating it, and turning it into something that you'd rather it be. We adhere to this Robert Anton Wilson idea of the personal reality tunnel: everybody has a different neurological experience of the world, and the best you can do is decorate your reality the best you can to what you want it to be.
When you write a song, it sounds like you start with an idea and mold the music around it.
JB: Sometimes we start with the music before lyrics, other times it's the opposite. But with this album there was an idea we wanted to fit everything to.
CE: I think we like to work within limitations. We like to do as much as possible with as little as possible not just in terms of the equipment we use and the access to studios, but also ideologically. We like to set boundaries. There so much in this massive chaotic universe floating around, we can't just pick and choose and write about whatever we want. There has to be some parameters. We'd rather create a microcosm than a macrocosm.
Do you have a typical songwriting process?
JB: It's super varied. It's taken a while to figure out how we like to work together as a collaborative duo. I don't think there is a typical way. We go with what feels right.
CE: We have the advantage of being two very different people. I come from literature. I was an English major and a writer before this. And Jona comes from music and a lot of other creative things. We think about things differently. He thinks about rhythm and I think about words. We both think about melodies differently, and the interplay between us can be conflict, but it can also be the dynamic energy that propels us forward to make things that we could not make individually.
What have you learned about your songwriting process from the other?
JB: (To Claire) Maybe you've learned that writing long form as opposed to writing pop songs is a totally different universe.
CE: It took me a long time to learn how to write lyrics as opposed to text. I've been a prose writer my whole life.
Do you have an ideal writing environment?
JB: For us, the typical location for the past two albums has been incredibly important to us. The last record we made entirely in Marfa, Texas. We put something together that we are calling the Western American Utopian Triangle that has Portland, Marfa, and Los Angeles. So those three places had a lot of personal meaning and psychic energy that we wanted to pull from and immerse ourselves in for six months.
CE: We're on the road a lot. So when we decide to make something new, the idea of making it in one place is important to us. We have a strong attachment to the places we work. Marfa, Texas was hugely important to us, and we made things there that we couldn't make anywhere else. We let places influence us deeply.
When we set to record this new album, we brought nothing to the recording process. We just went to the studio, set up some things, got the keys from the engineer, then lived there for two weeks in each studio. We wrote it as we were recording it. We were drawing directly from our environment. This album is about place and about making a place better, so it's especially appropriate. That's the part about Utopia. It may not be how we record in the future, but for us its what seems most appropriate at that time.
Is there anything you must have with you when you write?
JB: Highly carbonated water was a big part of our recording process. Unlimited access.
CE: We have fairly strict color palette. We wear a lot of black and white, and remove all distractions. We don't do anything showy, we don't wear anything showy.
JB: The right candles.
CE: We're kind of monastic when we're working. Long hours, severe dress, minimal distractions. Writing is work. I consider myself a writer first and singer second, and there's nothing that I hate more than writing. It's hell. It's so frustrating. And yet I know it's what I love to do. You need whatever you can get to make the process easier, but making something out of nothing really shouldn't be easy.
Claire, you were a prose writer professionally before you were a songwriter. Did that career instill more discipline in you as a songwriter, because I imagine you sat down for long stretches to write when you did that.
CE: I think so. I was a science journalist, and the deadline and research aspect of journalism really has given me a leg up in terms of songwriting because I know have to be done by a certain point and I can't be flip about my influences and research.
JB: I'm incredibly disciplined. I developed a strong work ethic growing up, My parents own a small gas station in rural Oregon, and my first job was stocking the candy aisle, making the sandwiches, pumping gasoline. My work ethic was based on gas station culture. And now that I am able to do something other than that, I feel incredibly fortunate and I don't take it for granted. I love working hard.
The whole idea of songwriting as "work" is antithetic in the eyes of some songwriters, though.
CE: You have to work hard to make great things. You can't allow some loosey-goosey muse to move you. The saying about 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration is true. Ideas come, but they need a body. And if you can't build the body for them, they will die.
JB: Maybe it comes from us doing everything ourselves that we are able to see it as work. We don't have any engineers or producers. Just us. And It's not the kind of work that is stressful.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
JB: We are lucky to not really have that. On this last record, we had about fifteen songs going into the studio, and we edited down to ten. Every day there was work to be done. We left each day knowing there was more to do. Sometimes we had to leave songs for a couple of weeks and return to them, and those songs ended up being the best songs on the record.
CE: We work laterally instead of finishing one song and moving to the next. We worked on all the songs at the same time. If one was giving us trouble, we just moved on. Sometimes we found that an idea that we were trying to fit on one song worked better on another. We moved back and forth across the entire album instead of building on each song in sequence. But when we got writer's block, we closed the door, went home, slept on it, drank some fizzy water, and tried again. Sometimes you max out and can't do anymore, but all you need is a few hours of sleep and a fresh perspective, and you're back on track.
I've talked to some writers who say that writer's block is a myth. It's just a failure of courage, and you have to be unafraid to write badly.
CE: Absolutely. Most of the writing process to me is editing, after spewing as many words as possible on the page, then picking the 5% that actually works. Then beginning the process over. That can be daunting, especially when you have an idealistic vision of what you're going to make, and you think you're just going to walk into a room and put down on paper the finished product. Our songs are all tiny shadows of what they were originally intended to sound like.
How important is it to start and finish a song in the same emotional state?
JB: We try to see out each song as we write it. It's important to get it to someplace where we would be inspired to keep adding and morphing it.
CE: If anything, the changing emotions add more nuance and complexity to a song. Then it has the depth and complexity of real life.
Do you write your lyrics with pen and paper, or computer?
CE: Pen and paper. It's the speed with which I can write. I can't write as quickly as I can type, so it forces me to think while I'm writing. There's something about the movement of my neurons from brain to hand, the time lapse, that allows me to consider what I'm doing a lot more cogently than I could on computer.
JB: Computer. I can type things out immediately, then start editing as quickly as possible. The editing process is incredibly important. To be able to move things around, see how words work in a different order, how they sound phonetically.
So what's your revision process like?
CB: We can edit out whole sections of songs and not feel badly about it. When it comes to the recording process, we like to drive around in the car with the music and see if it translates to that experience.
JB: It's always been that way with YACHT. The car is an important place.
CE: We also reach out to friends and ask for advice. Sometimes we'll live with a song for a long time, just sit on it, before we consider it finished.
What does the role of motion play in your creative process?
JB: We are in the car a good half of our lives, so we pass through many ideas on our travels. For us, it's spaces, not traveling. Motion is just traveling from one place to another on tour. It's a time of dissemination of ideas, not creation of ideas. When we want to conceive ideas, we have to stand still.
I imagine you both read a lot. Who are your favorite authors?
JB: Robert Anton.
CE: I'm a big science fiction enthusiast. I love Philp K. Dick, Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood, Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany.
JB: Hakim Bey.
CE: David Foster Wallace. All the 60s new wave science writers. And Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, Getrude Stein. We try to hide as many literary references as possible in our songwriting, and we make it an Easter egg hunt.