Interview with Yellow Ostrich Mastermind Alex Schaaf
by John Noyd
Alex Schaaf of Yellow Ostrich
Starting in Prairie Du Chien before landing in Brooklyn NY by way of Appleton, singer-songwriter Alex Schaff has gone from recording in his bedroom with a drum machine to fronting the indie-rock band YELLOW OSTRICH. With a bold new album and a tour that takes him back to Wisconsin, MAXIMUM INK took the opportunity to ask Alex a few questions.
MAXIMUM INK: With an album titled, “Cosmos,” and song titles, “Terror,” “In the Dark,” and, “Don’t Be Afraid,” it seems like you were tackling some deep issues.
ALEX SCHAAF: A lot of the album was inspired by astronomy. I really got into Carl Sagan; read all of his books and watched his TV series (which the album gets its name from). I quickly came to realize that “science” wasn’t as boring as I thought, that the way the universe works is amazing and awe-inspiring and that the real explanation for things is way more magical and incredible than any of the alternate explanations that are out there. Those kinds of things were running through my head when I was writing a lot of the lyrics. I took those ideas and adapted them to a smaller, more down-to-earth perspective. The songs aren’t really about space or astronomy; they’re about regular people and day-to-day life, with the added perspective and knowledge that studying the way the universe works brings to you. I love that in a normal day we can both think, “the sun’s going to die someday, we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do next,” and, “Do I have enough room on my DVR to record the new Mad Men episode.” I got really interested in the way those two perspectives co-exist.
MI: There is a nice loose unpredictability in, “Cosmos,” that is often absent when the songwriter has formal musical training. How do you balance knowledge and intuition to achieve a satisfactory balance between the two?
AS: Thankfully I don’t have an enormous amount of technical knowledge. I did go to a music conservatory for college and studied theory/composition, which was very helpful, but I think Yellow Ostrich is more about intuition and feel and vibe and atmosphere rather than focusing on chord changes and time signatures. I’ve grown to realize that music should be felt and not just heard; it should inhabit your body and get into your chest rather than something that’s intellectually stimulating. There’s definitely value to having both those things in there, but lately I’ve been leaning more towards intuition. Sometimes it’s helpful to have limited knowledge in something in order to stimulate new ideas. For example, I play guitar, but not very well, so I have to figure out things I can play within my limited technical ability and sometimes that results in more creative and interesting parts than if I was more technically gifted.
MI: The band’s line-up changed last year. Has this new arrangement shifted the dynamics of your performance or the creative process within the group?
AS: It’s been great with Jared and Zach, they both add new things to the band and it’s a really exciting dynamic, but we’re still really collaborative like we were with Jon. Everyone contributes different ideas and we come up with something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. I also like having four people, because we don’t have to rely as much on looping parts and using the computer when we play live.
MI: What do you miss most about Wisconsin and what’s the best thing about living in Brooklyn?
AS: I miss Spotted Cow and cheaper living, but I like Brooklyn because it’s very stimulating and an exciting place to be. Also there are six or seven record stores within eight blocks of my house in Greenpoint, which is pretty insane and great.
MI: Your sound encompasses a number of influences, what bands do you think you sound like and what’s been the strangest comparison you’ve encountered with what other people hear in your sound?
AS: I think of us as a rock band that uses a lot of electronics and subtle touches, so it has the soul and power of rock and roll, but the arrangements are not just guitar-bass-drums - there’s more emphasis on vibe and atmosphere and texture. That’s something that Radiohead does really well, along with bands like Liars, the National, Bowie and Eno. Once someone mistook us (physically, in person) for Fleet Foxes, because Michael and Jon had long hair and beards, and proceeded to interview us for ten minutes before we realized that she thought we were Fleet Foxes. It was very funny for us and very embarrassing for her.
MI: If you could have one thing on tour that’s currently out of the question what would it be?
AS: I’d want a tour bus with Larry David as the driver.
A dynamic blitzkrieg of seething cerebral talent, Yellow Ostrich plays Madison’s High Noon Saloon March 29th and Milwaukee’s Turner Hall March 30th. Opening for them is sharp, two-piece electro-soul motivators PATTERN IS MOVEMENT, promoting their forthcoming self-titled release with their first tour since 2008.(3314) Page Views Yellow Ostrich Online:
• Facebook • Wiki
CD: Cosmos Record Label: Barsuk Records
• Purchase Cosmos on Amazon
• Download Cosmos on Amazon