An evolution from laptop-in-bedroom dabbling to full-fledged, fast-rising band seems to be the biographical trajectory of every other fledgling group these days, but for Yellow Ostrich frontman Alex Schaaf, the transition from solo act to trio appeared to be an effortless one.
Easily morphing into threesome with the addition of former Bishop Allen drummer Michael Tapper and multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez, Yellow Ostrich's sophomore release, Strange Land, out now on Barsuk Records, is an assured, assertive and confident leap from crafted loops to a raw, live sound.
The band embarks on tour on April 7 — along with opening dates for Los Campesinos! this summer, they play New York's Mercury Lounge on April 8 with TEEN — and Schaaf, Tapper and Natchez recently came in for a iive session where they played four tracks off of the new record. Listen to the session on TAS on 91.5 WNYE this Friday, April 6, at 11 a.m. EDT, streaming on The Alternate Side.
Below, check out highlights from that interview and watch live performances of tracks like "Marathon Runner" and "The Shakedown":
Josh Brisano: Michael and Alex, you all knew each other in college?
Alex Schaaf: No, actually, I was in college in Wisconsin and Michael came to my school with another band of his, Bishop Allen, and they played. I opened for them as Yellow Ostrich. That’s how we met. We were both moving to New York a few months later, so once we moved there, we got together.
Josh: How did you find Jon?
Michael Tapper: I played in bands with Jon [Natchez] before so we knew each other for a few years. When Alex and I were talking about findin another player, then we thought of Jon and asked him aboard.
Josh: I read somewhere that you might be considering adding a fourth member.
Alex: I’m sure at some point we’ll have a 20-piece orchestra, but for now it’s cool. We’ve figured out how to make this huge sound. Or how to make it sound more than a three-piece garage rock band. We’re enjoying the challenge of not adding more people, but figuring out how to do that with the three of us.
Josh: I was reading about “Marathon Runner” to you, Alex, was the constant need to figure out what you are and what you want to be. Obviously that’s important to you, because you wrote a song about it, but is that something that you’re still trying to figure out musically?
Alex: Yes. Especially when I was starting to do stuff when I was recording on my own. It’s so easy now to use a computer and make things in totally different genres and explore totally different sounds. Even with our setup now, we can do a guitar rocker, like [“Marathon Runner”] or a lush ballad. It’s always trying to figure out what sound resonates with you the most.
Josh: On the whole album, Strange Land, it feels more of a reality check. Like you feel like you’ve arrived and you’re reflecting on how you got here. Is that the theme you’re going for on this record?
Alex: Yeah, yeah. The last album was written when I was in college and it was about anticipation, things in the future and your expectations of things. This [album] was written after I made a big life change and moved to New York. It’s a lot about seeing what reality is, rather than dreaming of the future.
Josh: Now you’ve got a three-piece band. Was this album different as far as recording in a studio and having bandmates?
Alex: Yes, it was totally different than anything I’ve done because everything before this was me multi-tracking stuff in my room. With this, we went to a nice studio and recorded a lot, live in a room. It’s a totally different kind of recording, purposely, to capture more of our live sound and the sponteneity that comes when you’ve got three people playing together in a room as opposed to one person meticulously assembling everything. We intentionally did it that way.
Josh:Strange Land seems to have a lot more emotion. Even ballads. Is this your own personal growth or do you feel more confident now that you’ve received some success and you can write songs like that?
Alex: I don’t think I’d ever want or need permission or get to a certain place. It’s just that I like us branching out, doing more things. The last record was all vocal loops which was cool, but I already did it. Why would I do it again? I’m always trying to do something new and stretch to a new area.
Josh: I read that one of the influences on this album was when you were on the road with Ra Ra Riot and Delicate Steve. You were the openers and had to grab people’s attention and had to jam a little more. Was that the experience — being on the road and having to get the room’s attention?
Alex: I think a lot of these songs that we’ve been playing live for six months on a couple tours before we recorded them. We were fleshing them out, [seeing] what they’d become from the initial demo phase to what we ended up recording. A lot of that [was done] when we were on the road in opening [band] situations. I think it [allowed] us to play a little stronger and stuff in front of audiences that weren’t there to see us. That ended up making them a little bigger than if we’d just written and recorded them right away. It definitely influenced it for sure.
Michael: At the same time, it wasn’t though we were playing the songs a certain way and then we were on the road and weren’t getting a reaction and people were getting bored and we had to “pep it up.” I think there are plenty of ways to grab an audience. It’s all about finding your strengths. Some groups or singers can just destroy a room with the quietest, simplest ballad — by the nature of whoever that person is. For us, it was less a question of trying to mold our songs to a certain experience we wanted live than a matter of us finding ourselves and what we wanted to be as a band, intrinsically, rather than thinking that we had to do "x,y and z" live. It grew more organically than that.
Josh: There’s a controlled chaos to that song. How did it come together? You have so much going on in that song.
Alex: That one has been around for a while. The beginning part has been this quiet guitar. The middle part took a while; that’s the trick to making it chaotic, but still controlled.
Michael: The middle part came together in the studio a little bit, just with Jon messing around with a bunch of horns.
Jon Natchez: All the songs start as little demos or germs [of ideas] that Alex makes at home and that was one that just had his guitar and voice. I loved it when I first heard it — the lyrics, the structure and the melody. I think it’s a really great song. I’d always really connected to it and when Alex did it at home, that last chorus — which is an ascending thing on the guitar — he’d overdubbed a chorus of himself behind it that made it sound gorgeous, soaring and huge. That build was something that we really wanted to capture and elaborate on as a full band. And as Michael was saying, it just came together in the studio, I had all of these horns, and we started messing around. I was trying to overdub all of these horns and I started playing all of these different horns, walking around the room. The mics were fixed, so it created this neat effect that we stumbled into. Almost like found tape of a rehearsal. It locks in at the end in this aggressive way and we tried to make it soar.