From its humble beginnings in Alex Schaaf’s Wisconsin dorm room, Yellow Ostrich in its current three-piece incarnation has had quite a full plate since Schaaf’s move to NYC about a year ago. Signed to Barsuk Records this summer, Yellow Ostrich will be celebrating the re-release of their debut full-length The Mistress today, August 16th, followed by a substantial US tour with Ra Ra Riot and Delicate Steve.
The highly melodic project is smeared with tight harmonies and well-timed loops, striking that elusive balance between pop ties and experimental tilt. Over the last couple of years Schaaf has released three EP’s under the Yellow Ostrich moniker, each with a movement climbing a rung or two with distinct eccentricities and themes–all roads leading to The Mistress.
In anticipation of their upcoming show this Friday, the last NYC play for a while, Alex was down to answer a few questions about the project, touching on the move to New York, his vocal arrangements, and how it feels staring down the barrel of the band’s upcoming tour.
and don’t forget to pick up a copy of The Mistress HERE
A lot of bands move to Brooklyn from other areas that don’t necessarily have the same concentrated interest in indie music. You relocated from Wisconsin last year, what did you feel was most at stake with the move? Do you feel settled at this point?
The music scene was definitely a big reason why I moved to Brooklyn, but it was also just a way to sort of do the opposite thing that I had been doing. To go from small-town life to the opposite extreme, was just something personally I needed to do, and the whole music scene made it an even easier decision. I definitely think it was a good choice so far, I feel pretty settled in with the daily life of the city. I live in Greenpoint, so I just need to learn some choice Polish phrases and then I’ll be good to go.
One of your trademarks is all of the looped harmonies that run through many of your songs, especially like the Fade Cave EP–I’ve read that over the years you’ve participated in choir, did that help your ear and ability to write the different vocal parts? Are those arrangements ever challenging to pull off live?
I did a lot of choir stuff growing up. I also was going to church every week, which is a cool place to hear the kind of four-part harmony Bach Chorale type stuff that I would study more closely in school later on. And then when I started recording my own stuff, I was really into harmonizing with myself and how I could make my own little choir.
That kind of hit its peak with Fade Cave, where I just wanted to use the voice as much as possible. But even now I’m working on that vocal arrangement stuff in a more subtle way. It’s challenging to pull off live, but I’ve done so much singing through recording and playing that I’ve gotten used to harmonizing with myself, in terms of making loops. And with the other two guys now we can do some cool live harmonies. Definitely takes work to get it to sound good, but it’s worth it.
Did the transition from a solo project to a three-piece change the way that you hear your own music vis a vis other artists giving their input? Was it difficult to find other people willing to commit to your project with the level of enthusiasm you feel for it?
It didn’t change the way I write songs, necessarily, but it changed what I do with them after writing the initial chords, lyrics, melodies, etc. Instead of fleshing it all out and figuring out arrangements, I make a conscious effort now to refrain from thinking of those things so that we can flesh it out as a band and have more input from the other guys.
It wasn’t too difficult to find the right guys, I knew Michael first and then a few months later he got Jon in, and it’s worked out great. It’s just a different way of thinking about things, where I create the initial spark and then drop that into the room and try to work something out of it together.
It’s cool you have the words from The Mistress posted on your website–are the lyrics an important dimension to your music?
They’re important in some songs more than others, especially on The Mistress album. Some of that stuff is more impressionistic and about imagery rather than specific words and phrases. But lately I’ve gotten a lot more into writing lyrics and working them out and making sure they convey what I’m trying to convey.
I go in and out of phases where I use words more as sound and feeling, or if i use them more as specific language and structure that convey something. I think I have yet to write any great lyrics, but that’s just part of the struggle, to try and top whatever I’ve just done.
In October you guys are heading out on a pretty big US tour with Ra Ra Riot and Delicate Steve, which looks like you’re going to be hitting up some amazing venues. You toured all through the spring as well, how do you prepare, like physically and mentally, for those long stretches on tour?
The tour back in the spring was pretty exhausting, but a lot of fun. And it was a great way for us to get really tight as a band; when you play every night, that’s just the best way to get tighter. I haven’t figured out the best way to prepare for them yet, just kind of going through it and seeing what happens, and hoping I don’t burn out. But I have figured out how to put a hold on my NY Times subscriptions so that they don’t pile up on the doorstep while I’m gone. Yeah I’ve got really stressful issues like that to worry about, clearly my life is pretty hard.
Get yr tickets HERE