Back to the Future Part II takes place in the year 2015, also known as right now. You'll note that we don't have any flying cars or self-lacing shoes. If this strikes you as complete bullshit, well, YACHT has your back. The Los Angeles-via-Portland pop scientists examine the frustration of living in a world that never quite lives up to its potential on their new album, I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler. "Maybe we don't deserve those things," says band member Claire L. Evans about all the fun toys Doc Brown promised up, "because we don't even have human rights, morally accountable police or gender equality."
While the album, the group's sixth, deals with some weighty concepts (the key song is called "War on Women"), it's their most unabashedly danceable offering yet. "We're really interested in the interplay between complex ideas and approachable music," she says. "I think we just got better at it."
YACHT has always carried itself more like a multiplatform art project rather than a mere music-making concern. To promote the album they organized a fax machine scavenger hunt for their fans and created a GIF-heavy "tracklisticle" for Buzzfeed, but their most ambitious non-music undertaking is 5 Every Day, a website and app that Evans and bandmate Jona Bechtolt founded that lists five interesting things to do in Los Angeles. "There's so many things happening every day in Los Angeles," says Bechtolt. "So we thought about it for six months, we prototyped it and were like okay, yeah, we have to do this.' Hey, maybe the future didn't turn out to be a complete bust.
So you've been doing a lot of multimedia stuff recently, like with the fax machine stunt, where you sent the album's artwork to fax machines and then sent your fans to track them down, or the Buzzfeed gifs tracklisticle. How much of that is just promoting the album and how much of that is like a natural extension of the ideas of what the album is about?
Jona: I think it's 100% natural, and it just happens to be promoting the album, but these are projects that we'd probably do anyways and that we spearheaded, rather than the label trying to get us to promote the record or anything like that.
Claire: Yeah, making a record is a thing on its own, but we also see making a record as an opportunity to take on a whole bunch of different kinds of online and offline experiences for artists and designers. It's really fun to have an opportunity like a record; you have an excuse to do weird stuff, which is what we love to do anyways.
So where did the idea for the fax machine album cover art quest come from?
Jona: I don't know. I've kind of always liked fax machines. I was in a pop-punk band in the mid-'90s and we, in earnest, used fax machines to spam record labels and show promoters to get them to try to book shows and maybe work with us in some capacity.
Claire: You know, before the Internet.
Jona: Yeah, it never worked. I'm also really interested in different ways of image processing. When fax machines send images, it's a binary of one and zero, black or white. And the way that it processed the album cover, I just really loved.
Claire: Fax is a technology for us that's really interesting, just in the sense that it continues to exist in the world, even though it's not the primary mode of communication for people, but we saw it as an opportunity to kind of engage with this latent technology that is just sort of sitting there waiting for something weird to be done to it. The combination of its slight inferiority of image quality and its limited distribution was really interesting to us.
It reminds me of the way that younger bands these days are putting their albums out on cassette. It's such an obsolete, dead medium that in a way becomes kind of nostalgic and romantic.
Claire: I think that's an inevitable part of the way technology is developed and then passed by. The things that are limiting about technology then become the things that are charming about them and you don't realize that often until they've come and gone.
So tell me about the ideas behind the album and the album title, I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler. Would you both consider yourselves to be futurists?
Claire: I think being a futurist, like a self-defining futurist, is kind of a racket, frankly. We're both very interested in the future, and I am an editor of science fiction and I care a lot about the future, we're both always paying attention to technology, but nobody has a claim on it. That's what's interesting about the future, you know? Anyone who comes up and tells you that they know what computers are gonna look like in 25 years, run away, because they don't, nobody knows.
Jona: But it's always fun to see people fail. David Byrne said that computers would never be used to make art or music.
Claire: No one's predictions of the future are ever right. I think for us, it's a question of looking forward and understanding the present. That's what's interesting about science fiction is that it tells us way more about the present of its writing than anything about the actual future. It becomes like a time capsule. "This is about the Cold War." Futurism is the most accurate way of representing the present that there is.
And for this one, you've brought in some bigger names on the production side. In the past, you've always been kind of a self-contained unit. But for this one, you worked with Jacknife Lee and Justin Meldal-Johnsen. How'd that come about?
Claire: Yeah, I mean we've made every record ourselves for the past 12 years.
Jona: Yeah I mean our bass player, Bobby Birdman, has always been a collaborator before even playing with the band. We've never imagined ever working with anyone other than one of the three of us, and so when we got to meet Jacknife, we were very afraid of even the potential of working with someone else, just because we kind of make everything in a vacuum. We like what we like. It's hard to talk about ourselves and to explain where we're coming from and so it's much easier when we collab with someone we've been friends with for more than ten years and they're like, "Yeah, I understand what you want to make and what you like."
Claire: It's interesting to see how other people hear your music while you're making it. It's useful to have that outside ear.
Jona: We just always assumed that we were the greatest pieces of shit. And then Jacknife, from the outside, was like, "No, this is actually good, this is how I'm actually hearing it," which is so humbling and also overwhelmingly positive.
So were there any particular ideas or like directions he suggested that surprised you that you don't think you would have thought of on your own?
Claire: In terms of what they brought, I think that there were definite structural things that were helpful, just like "Hey, what if you cut this part in half or like turned it upside down, would it sound better?" And then we'd be like, "Oh yeah, we hadn't even thought of that."
Jona: Yeah, we never really prided ourselves on like reading every manual and learning every technical thing about creating music. We've always approached it with a much fuller perspective or feeling as much as we can -- without having years of relying on every piece of perfect software. I've always tried to use computers like... if I can't just jump into something without reading the manual, then it's not worth working in. So, having like a team of people work on this record that have way more technical knowledge, it's really interesting and a great resource to have access to.
So you released your tracklist on Buzzfeed with a bunch of gifs for each song. I couldn't tell if you were purposefully subverting Buzzfeed, gif and Twitter-type culture, or celebrating, or mocking in it. What was the idea behind that?
Jona: Yeah, so we're 100% subverting it. We wanted to make fun of Buzzfeed and coming up with the idea "tracklisticle" was 100% in jest. Claire: I mean, there's this culture now of just being a fan in the 21st century, and this endless treadmill of trying to make sure that you're up on all these playlist platforms and that you're distributing things in the most unique and interesting and innovative way. Like, you can't just put up a song anymore, you have to put up a song and some type of gimmick. It has to be a 3-D VR experience (laughs), which is fun for us because we love design projects, we're not one of those artists who are like "fuck the bullshit." But at the same time, it's a lot to ask of people who spent their time working on a song. It's tough, trying to write material within that restraint, like the restraint of the tracklisticle, that can still be profound and interesting and reflect what our world means to us. It's not about reducing it to its simplest element and dumbing it down and making fun of it, but how can we use these parameters, which are parameters being imposed on us and other artists, and do something meaningful within that framework.
Yeah, because on the one hand, stuff like Buzzfeed and Twitter are kind of dumb and we should all be better than that. But on the other hand, it's kind of fun and hey, it gets the message out there.
Jona: Well, the tracklisticle is not dumb.
Claire: Yeah, well, Twitter is dumb. But it's also the most important tool of protest. So there are all these things happening in layers and layers and one thing I'm interested in is trying to hit both the high and the low, and hopefully at once, because that's the world that we live in. We all want to do projects that are both intellectual to a certain extent but at the same time can be reduced to 140 characters. And if you can do both, then I guess you can kind of integrate yourself into the larger picture.
The band was originally based in Portland, right?
Claire: Mhm, yeah.
When did you move to LA?
Claire: We moved to LA four years ago. I went to college here. What made you decide to pack up and move there?
Jona: We've been on tour around the world and every weird little corner, and LA is our very favorite city in the world. I can't imagine living anywhere else. And we definitely don't want to live anywhere else right now.
Claire: And I'm one of those LA street geeks who's so interested in, like, water politics in California, all that stuff. I mean, LA's just a weird, improbable place. It was never meant to be here. The environment cannot stand existence, and yet, by sheer force of will it created itself and engineered itself into existence. And I feel that every day.
And on the same topic, what was the idea behind the 5 Every Day website and app you're doing?
Claire: We started it when we first moved back.
Jona: We moved here and we were just trying to figure out where to look for worthwhile events and restaurants and anything like that, and stuff like
Time Out and Zagat kept falling short for us. And we were like, "Where's the cool version of this?" These guides are fine, but how come none of them were well written?
And do you two still write it yourselves every day?
Claire: Yeah, well. I wrote everything for about a year and a half, and now we have a head writer that I collaborate with, he's also a co-host of the 5 Every Day radio segment on NPR down here.
Jona: But yeah, we still do the majority of the curating work, which is really simple. We just use Google spreadsheets to share everything.
Claire: Yeah, it's a lot of work, but it's such a valuable resource for people, or that's what we're told anyways. It's so meaningful to us, because it allows us to give back to the city that means so much to us and to educate people about what's interesting about LA. It's not just like, "Hey, this band's performing tonight," but like, "Hey, did you ever notice this building? Well, it turns out this building doesn't have any windows because it's where all the films in Los Angeles are archived. Did you know that?" This is weird shit, learning about everything around you. What's fascinating about Los Angeles is that everywhere you go, there are hidden histories and you just simply ignore them because things are kind of ugly and spread out and everyone's driving in cars, so you don't pay attention, but there's so much happening. It's fascinating here and so we kind of wanted to share and reveal that to people.
So it sounds like a full-time job. How are you able to do that and do an album with a very complicated media strategy?
Jona: Time management. Just getting deeper and deeper into time management.
Claire: We get up early. We drink a lot of coffee. And blow off our friends. You wake up early in the morning and you have one thing that's really important that you have to do that day so that becomes the priority of that day. And the next day is something else.
Jona: There's other stuff we're not telling you about. It's endless.
Claire: But yeah, we do almost everything ourselves. I mean, we're at home working. Unless we're on tour, we're in our home office at the computer creating material for the world.
Jona: We don't have friendships; we have projects.
Claire: He means we collaborate with all of our friends. The best way to make friends with us is to get us working on a project with you.
Okay good, 'cause otherwise that sounded really sad. Now, one song that seemed to jump out and be the catchiest was "Don't Be Rude." With Twitter, and social media, people are shouting at each other and drowning each other out all the time, and I feel like this call for simple civility seems kind of weirdly radical in 2015.
Claire: Yeah, I would agree.
That was my take on it, where did it come from for you?
Claire: "Don't Be Rude" is kind of about like the simplicity of...survival requires certain element of niceness, and that's what the song's about. It's like, we all know we're in this maelstrom, but sometimes you just have to get your head above the storm and be like "la la la, my ears are plugged" and enjoy living, because what else can I do?
Right, if you think about how unfair the world is, how dark things are, or how fucked the environment is all the time, you'll never get anything done.
Claire: Yeah, and you'll never be able to do any good.
Right, well that makes a lot of sense in a way I think. You know, you have to sometimes be kind of naive, like you said.
Claire: I mean, ignorance is bliss might be too simplistically a way to think about it, but as human beings, we throw ourselves into things again and again, even though we know the results are going to be the same, because of some type of fundamental ambition that we have as a species. We continue to fall in love, even though we know that it's gonna end badly every time, because there's value in that, in the trying.