C. Spencer Yeh is one loquacious dude. Pose a question to the guy, and it’s likely to return a treatise as discursive and winding as his improv pieces tend to be. In a world of limited print space, Yeh’s long-form conversational gregariousness runs a definite endangered-species risk: our email interview about Transitions (De Stijl) earlier this month clocked in somewhere in the range of 4,000 words, while The Village Voice‘s print edition article itself was confined to roughly 800 words. Now, in advance of the C.S. Yeh Band’s CMJ debut at Death By Audio, Sound of the City proudly presents everything about Yeh’s full-length left turn into the indie-rock world that we couldn’t cram into the dead-tree package.
What was the first song written for Transitions, and how did it take shape?
I’d say the first song “written” would be the idea to cover that Father Yod and the Spirit of ’76 song, “I Can Read Your Mind,” in some kind of 4/4 or more electronic style. I had actually originally thought about covering it for the Burning Star Core record The Very Heart of the World. I was working with a lot of the Lexington, Kentucky crew on that record, so I had some good people to help execute it.
I forget why it didn’t end up happening; maybe it just didn’t quite fit the concept of the record in the end. So fast-forward to when I started work on Transitions, I thought it would be an appropriate time and context to finally realize this, so that was one of the first tracks finished.
“I Can Read Your Mind” is an odd song, but in some ways it seems to be a wholly 4-D song, in that performer and audience are sort of one or connected when it’s on – sort of a psychic/psychedelic “We Are The World” thing. Like, I don’t know what it means literally, but I grasp it instinctively. Do you know what I mean?
I think I know what you mean, and I think maybe that’s why the original caught my ear to begin with, and why I felt an urge to do something about it even after so many years. Though Father Yod himself wasn’t on the original, or involved in any direct way as far as I know, maybe there are subliminal Yod-energies running through the words. There’s some pretty heavy assertions and feelings in there, and I hope I am not taken as being irreverent or frivolous. Maybe it’s the “Born in the USA” to my campaign.
Does anyone else play on this album?
No one else plays on the album. It was important to me to just keep it to myself for this first full-length, and to keep that whole process pretty closed off.
Is there anyone you turned to for guidance when you were writing these songs, directly, people you knew, or artists who kind of were an influence? Personally, Transitions brings to mind Dave Pajo when he first started singing, only he was going about it an acoustic folk vein, while you’re embracing electronics and a wide palette of textures.
I tend to be pretty secretive about works in progress, even with good friends, but this time I did show some people unfinished tracks, probably just because they were sharing their works in progress with me as well. Mostly I passed around early versions of the Father Yod cover, and did so knowing that track would most likely be buried towards the end record, and knowing that when the record was finally completed, that would be the most “recognized” of the tracks. But you know, I’m talking about being “recognized” by, like, a group of five people.
I feel like I did have a number of people in mind while making the record and might’ve asked some questions along the way, but in terms of dealing directly with the record, it was only Clint [Simonson] and Mike [Wolf] at De Stijl, Steve Silverstein who did the mastering, and of course working closely with Robert Beatty on the cover art. As for influences in terms of shaping my approach, attitude, whatever: sure, there’s plenty of influences, but it was important for this record that I figured out most of it myself.
I have a feeling that you’re going to get this question a lot, and that it’s one you’ll loathe, but I feel that I need to ask: is the Spencer of Transitions the one we’ll see for the foreseeable future, or just another facet of you?
Well, I still consider this a standalone project by the name of “CS Yeh” in the end, if that gives any insight. I’ve come to feel that way about other projects of mine, especially Burning Star Core – which had sort of been my longest opportunity for a while to experiment and test the limits of what I personally felt worked and didn’t in terms of these boundaries. Though it’s sort of the revisionism akin to lying about whether you had sausage links or pucks for breakfast, I look back and can tell myself when that project really began, and what along the way did and didn’t belong.
After a while a project starts to determine its own path, and even though you’ve made many of the decisions to send it along that path, after a while you can’t just jerk it around to do whatever you want it to – it sort of becomes its own entity and you have to be mindful of that. I suppose in some ways, I’m doing CS Yeh with these considerations in mind; there’s a lot of restrictions in place, but I find pushing against these resulting in something more interesting to me than “anything goes any time.”
You have to lure it and barter with money or candy or whatever. Am I talking about babies and children now?
You’ve been part of a great many projects and collaborations. Is there a sign for you that a project has limits or an early sell-by date? I guess maybe what I’m asking is this: how do you know that something is a going concern or a one-off?
That’s a good question, and you know, I tell myself that I think I know what and when these tell-tale signs exist. Yeah, this does open up a whole other conversation I’m happy to have, but I can tell you for certain once I start following these thoughts, I won’t know where to end. And while I have enough of a “it all depends” sort of stance – you know, you go on and change and develop, and your perspective changes and develops as well, and we can think of many examples where a project becomes even more fulfilling the more ups and downs and time you pour into it, at the same time we all can think of when a situation starts to stink. Also I have to think about which aspect of whatever it is that I’m doing and the context and dialogue around it – for example, it’d be ridiculous to treat my interest in improvised music the same way I’d treat, I dunno, my schaffel-beat productions.
Relative to the music consumption culture which includes C.S .Yeh, and also Burning Star Core, it seems like there is the idea that a project does indeed have an expiration date, but when that is or what the smell to say is, is constantly up for debate. As much as I am in love with the idea that one can have a near-perfect discography or path, and I very much enjoy playing games with these rules, I know my own practices just don’t always result in that. But, you know, time is becoming more and more precious, so I’ve been trying to be more conscious of this. I can always look back and willfully ignore certain activities or records and just pretend that it’s been a long red carpet all along.
What led you to cover “Rooms on Fire,” and what went into pursuing that arrangement? Your version is weird in that it’s recognizably a cover, but what’s interesting is that Stevie Nicks did a smoldering, soft-focus/barred-teeth 80s pop thing – so, period adult-contemporary, maybe – and your take is more 80s goth synth-pop. I actually like your version better, for whatever it’s worth; it’s like staring into a busted mirror for eons after having your heart broken or something.
You know, like the Yod and Spirit of 76 cover, it was another case of finally getting to something I been meaning to get to. A few years ago I was on tour with John Wiese, and we’d burn these mix CD-Rs to listen to along the way. We’d make lists of songs while driving and whenever we stopped, we’d pull these playlists together. He was the one who brought “Rooms on Fire” back to my attention, as a song where he had held onto a certain lyric/hook out of the “back of his mind” but he couldn’t identify the artist or song, and then we figured out who it was, and kind of went on a mini-Nicks bender from there. Down to even debating whether the Billy Corgan cover of “Landslide” handled this particularly awkward verse melody better than Stevie did. Like, Corgan didn’t go for this low note that Stevie did in the original.
Of course, a lot of what made Nicks’ songs take off was her performance and her voice, and based on what I know of her initial songwriting practices, very much just mumbling until something took shape; same with how Brian Eno developed the melodies and vocals in his early solo records. So that process of writing the song skeleton was tied to her innate abilities at the time, and of course, she being the best one to pull the works off. Enough that covers of that material very much rely on evoking memories of the original performance – so it’s like dressing up for Halloween or something. I think one time as an exercise I sat down to try to record a dancehall dub version of “Dreams” but it was so terrible and crappy and boring and just didn’t have whatever it is that makes the song successful, or at least an attempt to replace that magic with something else.
So anyways, yeah, I finally decided to tackle what I saw to be an interesting challenge for myself, and here we are. I am pretty happy with some of the synth string parts in there, the sorta “call and response” bits leading into the chorus – replacing the emotional gestures presented by Nicks in the original with some other tactics for a different kind of heartstring tugging. I didn’t go into it intending any sort of “I’m gonna dip Nicks into corpse paint” or anything. I certainly am not so much into the idea of “hijacking” an original through a cover and having to deal with it for four minutes.
“Laugh Track” reminds me of Kimya Dawson; it’s got that sort of vibe where you listen to it and there’s obviously a compositional grounding there, but at the same time there’s such a staunchness and intrinsic heft to the lyrics that it could live as an a cappella, like a taunt you’d sing at a schoolyard bully or to a friend while drunk. Like a nursery rhyme for adults or something, a PSA.
Yeah, you know, there’s a sorta sing-song feel to it, and really, that’s where the song came from: some fragment you’d hum to yourself, and it would slowly manifest into words, and eventually land in a song somewhere. However, it’s like the idea that you would make a movie around just one scene you’ve always wanted to see on the “big screen.” That doesn’t really work all of the time.
A writer should know that they may have to sacrifice that one part for the sake of the whole; that’s sort of known but hard to accept, yeah? Fortunately, the “movie” in this case is the entire record, not just song after song, so I developed “Laugh Track” knowing about where it would be in relation to the album, so that it would play a particular role in there: you know, that sort of departure of sorts towards the end of a record. Not a throwaway hopefully, but more of a question mark or contrasting piece to relieve the task of having to listen to a record the whole way through – the closest to a ballad I suppose the record gets to. The synth horns were directly influenced by the horns in Richard and Linda Thompson’s “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight,” going back to the whole “call and response” thing I mentioned with the Nicks cover.
[What has the process of putting together a band to perform Transitions live been like?
So far, easier than I imagined, both in initial thoughts and also execution thus far. Honestly I avoided and procrastinated about the whole idea of doing this material live for the longest time. Like wisdom teeth extraction. However, when I finally had to deal with it, I pretty much knew who I would want to approach. I did have a sort of “dream band” but I’d need a grant, and for all these people’s lives to suddenly empty out, including my own. I’ve been lucky though, because I have, like, 75% of who I’d hoped for so far.
I mentioned two of them already in my previous answer – Daren Ho and Ryan Sawyer – both of whom I know and have worked with prior, and are excellent individuals and are being very generous with their time and efforts. I’m currently working on one or two others, who aren’t confirmed right now so I can’t name them. I’d ideally like to get Trevor Tremaine, who I’ve worked with in Burning Star Core and would be amazing, but it’s just not possible right now due to circumstances on my end. I don’t know how interesting this answer is, just seems pretty typical and straightforward. I will say I was absolutely appalled when I started singing at rehearsal. I was talking with someone about this recently and they suggested “electronics to help with blending the voice into the music better.” I was like “reverb?” “Yes.” Ha. And all this time prior I tried to avoid reverb as much as I could, when I would use my voice as other means. Boy, it’s going to be my friend now.
When I finally had to get my wisdom teeth removed, I was terrified of being put completely under (the surgeon who I approached – a friend of my family’s – insisted that he won’t do the procedure any other way). I remember getting the mask put on, asked a couple questions, and before I knew it, I woke up on a table. I felt fantastic. The surgeon was washing his hands in the other room, going “you have hard teeth. Really hard teeth.” I think there was a shoeprint on the chest of the shirt I was wearing.
It would seem that we had similar wisdom teeth removal experiences, in terms of the drug effect. It’s so sudden that it’s like an hour or two of life is just gone, in a blink. Ah, yes, the reverb. It was startling, but effective.
Yeah I was really “anti-reverb” when playing improvised music live for a while – everything just sounded a little too “musical” and I wanted the sounds as I thought I heard them to come through. Not that I was going for anything intentionally grotesque but I felt like kicking around these acoustic sounds really loud and dry, just made it more visceral. It can be generally harder to deal with. If you woke up and a big fluffy cat was sitting on your chest, you’d be ok, but if it was a cat skeleton, you’d be fucked.
The first two songs on Transitions feel like love-in-limbo songs of a sort: “The New Guy” is kind of scratchy/scruffy trad-rock situated in the fading aftermath of a failed or fantasized relationship, synth-run buried “Starts With A Look” going for telegraphing the way the a new love might emerge and some of the assumptions that underlie intimacy. What made you open the record with these songs?
Well, “The New Guy” was actually the last track I finished during the sessions; originally “Starts” was going to, heh, start the record. But “Don’t Make Me Chase You” sort of made that instrumental redundant. I thought it best to just get to the point, and have every track be able to stand alone. In terms of content, “The New Guy” sort of pulls together a variety of thoughts, my own experiences, other people and their experiences – you mentioned a PSA – there’s some half-serious “warnings” in there. “Starts With A Look” is more of a loose narrative I suppose. First-person “Jack and Diane” meets Nic Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now.”
On some very, very weird level, “Don’t Make Me Chase You” reminds me of a cross between Yello’s “Oh Yeah” and one of those extreme Hamsterdance-esque hard-Internet graphix memes from the past decade of culture. It should have its own snap dance, even though one would probably have to be a cartoon to do that dance.
Yeah, actually, that track came from an idea I was messing with for a potential new Burning Star Core album, but it started to stray way off-course from that, so I developed it as a C.S. Yeh track, though it is sort of the odd person out. Throwing an instrumental into a first record is a vague homage to my own studies and conclusions of records I really like the arc of. I didn’t want the record to get too out of hand, but I think it works as a halfway point on the record, and it sort of points towards future directions with the project.
One of the things I like most about “Whose Life” is that it’s such a total puzzle, a perspective wipe-out. It feels like there’s a desirable feminine subject who’s being addressed, but from verse to verse the speaker seems to change, and then on some levels it’s possible that the subject herself changes – is she a fancy, pedestal-perched model? a young daughter? – but then the listener feels a bit punked because that scuzzy, spindling guitar snarl at the end of every course is, forgive me, so orgasm-representative. What inspired this song?
Interesting, I never thought about the “orgasm” association with the guitar. I thought the guitar sounded a bit more like staying in and reading a book.
I am into switching perspectives within a song – an early tongue-in-cheek working title for this record was going to be something like You You You/Me Me Me, because I thought it was always a little more interesting for songs to use proper nouns vs. pronouns, to be as specific as possible, as a device, to pull the lyrics-listener in towards the song, versus trying to wrap the work around an imagined listener. Actually, I first thought about this sort of thing with that Nurse With Wound track “Finsbury Park, May 8th, 1:35 PM (I’ll See You In Another World)” on “Rock n Roll Station.” Very very specific. And you know, the music is considered abstract or whatever, but it has this intensely specific title. Spooky shit.
So “Whose Life” is from one person’s perspective, and kind of invokes these somewhat typical situations that people writing “hey you” songs deal with. Longing, wondering where you’ve been, who’s that dude, we miss you, what are you running from, you moved to the big city, you left the big city, you’re awesome, you suck, etc. There’s a little bit in there also pulled from semi-clichéd guidelines for reading body language and flirting. It’s just what was on my mind at the time. I’m now thinking about the whole deal with songwriters (or hell, writers in general) wrestling with whether or not to use the names of people they know – even if the material isn’t about them – and how they may worry that their friend might suspect some kind of snipe, even though it’s totally not there. So then you aim for these less-common names. Well, “Madison” used to be hot a decade or two ago, but it’s all over the place now.
When I interviewed you about a year ago for Sound of the City, you talked a bit about the experience of putting these songs together after I asked you about the “In The Blink of An Eye” single. You told me this, and I’m paraphrasing somewhat: “I’m not free from the constraints that I can’t really play guitar, nor sing.” Do you still feel that way now, or are you more confident in your abilities to wrestle with conventional rock instrumentation and songwriting? Does it feel like something has shifted inside of you?
I feel like that statement, when I take a step back, feels a bit apologetic or whatever. It makes certain assumptions on whoever it is I’m telling it to. I guess what I was trying to communicate was a sort of self-involved positive – that because I “can’t” do those things, hopefully the struggle to emulate may result in a greater personal imprint. That statement reads as a backhanded way of saying I’m self-satisfied and somewhat proud of the long scenic route I had to take to get wherever it is I wanted to go. Doesn’t make me any less nervous and worried still, though.
Did I talk about what some people call “real person” music? To me it’s a little to the side of whatever is generally termed “outsider” music. Records made by people who really want to play guitar, or sing, or whatever, but aren’t talented in a typical way, or whose visions don’t just sink into convention, but they go for it regardless? They want it so bad.
Granted, I don’t know these artists personally, so I hope I don’t come off as projecting my own assumptions on them, but to me, all that extra nerve and effort can really come through. It can be vulnerable, it can be lonely. I find when it’s “Christian” or whatever music, extra great, because there’s an even deeper motivation behind the music. Of course, there’s examples in all disciplines of many artists like this who ultimately are being delusional hacks, who are terrible to deal with, but you know, there are plenty of exceptions as well.
I suppose I would put Robbie Basho’s singing somewhat alongside this stuff, as it’s totally amazing, but I guess it was kind of a curve ball. Anyways, of course I’ve learned from working through this record, so maybe the next time around I’ll feel less rusty, and also more open to bringing others in to help. The challenges and obstacles previous now instead become mundane: the black diamond of record making.
The C.S. Yeh Band plays Death by Audio on Friday, October 19, with Circuit des Yeux, Samara Lubelski, and Messages.