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Photo: Chad Moore

Yeasayer Bring Episodic “Erotic Reruns” to 9:30 Club

A quick Google search on the band Yeasayer will show they fall under the genre of “experimental rock.” The Brooklyn-based trio consisting of Chris Keating, Ira Wolf Tuton and Anand Wilder have long been revered for their clever lyrics, electronic influence and inventive aesthetic.

But on their fifth studio album Erotic Reruns, released in June, the band looked to new sources for inspiration, drawing from the urgent and guitar-heavy sounds of seminal bands from the 60s and 70s. We caught up with Keating ahead of their stop in the District on July 12 to talk new music, the ideal setlist and why 9:30 Club is an important venue to them.

On Tap: Your new record Erotic Reruns has more guitar and rock influences than some of your past work. What inspired that sound to really come through here?
Chris Keating: I think we were looking to make something very immediate. I wanted the songs to be under three minutes and reference some of the 60s and 70s music I liked: some Bowie stuff [and] The Velvet Underground. We tried to make it guitar-based and not as electronic as some of our past albums.

OT: The shorter songs leave the album at just under 30 minutes (29:05 to be exact), which seemed like maybe a different approach to a full-length album.
CK: In theme with the title, Erotic Reruns, we wanted it to feel like a half-hour TV episode. People these days have a tendency to overload and pack an unlimited amount of material onto a streaming album. One of my favorite albums that came out in the last few years was the Pusha T album [Daytona] that was only seven songs long. I really appreciated that because I listened to it a few times and I was like, “Oh, a lot of other albums have like 21 songs on them.” We wrote about 20 songs and just decided it was a cool concept to come in under half an hour.

OT: The brevity almost makes you enjoy an album as a whole even more. Almost every album that I love has a couple of songs where I think, “I don’t really know why this is here.”
CK: It’s very rare that you can just listen to an album all the way through. And I think partly that is because we have this short attention span culture when it comes to music. It’s also partially because we want to curate our own singles, but it’s cool when an album can be played the whole way through. We tried to make it work that way.

OT: How did you decide what to include while avoiding filler or an overly long album kind of vibe?
CK: To be honest, I’m not really sure. At a certain point, you start listening through and you’re like, “Eh, I don’t know about this one” or “Yeah, let’s do that one” or “Let’s put out another seven-song record in a year.” When you start listening to them and you think [about] what works together in a group, some things stand out as outliers. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s really sort of an aesthetic decision.

OT: Yeasayer already has a rather large back catalog of music before you even factor in the new album. How do you curate the setlist you have now, and balance the old and new?
CK: We basically play the entire new album because it’s short enough. Then, we still have another 45 minutes of stuff from older records to play for [a total of] an hour and 15 minutes. You’re playing a new song, an old song, a new song, an old song. It usually works out pretty well if we time it right.

OT: It must feel good to incorporate a little bit of both. I would imagine as an artist who just made this new material, you’d really want to share it but not forget about older material or audience favorites.
CK: Oh, definitely. I hate it. I mean, just like everyone else, I hate it. I hate going to see a band when I know they’re only playing new stuff. We are very much of the mindset of, if a song was popular 10 years ago, you just keep it in the rotation. Maybe you shuffle some in and out. I guess there’s some level of artistic integrity to abandoning your back catalog, but I always thought it was a little frustrating.

OT: Speaking of live shows, you recorded your live album Good Evening Washington D.C. at 9:30 Club in 2013. Why did you decide to record it there, and what are you looking forward to being back there on your upcoming tour?
CK: Anand [Wilder] and myself both grew up in Baltimore. When we were in high school, the 9:30 Club was a really big deal. Whenever a friend was able to drive, we were going there to see bands like Pavement and Kool Keith, or The Roots and Weezer. It seemed like we were there once every few months. It was always just a special place. I didn’t realize how great it was until we started traveling the country and playing other clubs. DC is so lucky to have something like that there. I think it’s probably the best c lub of that size in the country, if not the world. It’s always a stop everybody looks forward to. It’s the kind of place where I’ll see a lot of family members and friends. I’ll look out in the crowd and see teachers from high school, which is really cool. Some random person will stop me at the dressing room door and be like, “Hey, we went to school together” or I might run into someone I haven’t seen in 20 years.

Yeasayer return to 9:30 Club on Friday, July 12. Tickets are $30, and doors open at 8 p.m. For more on the band and their new album Erotic Reruns, visit www.yeasayer.band.

9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 202-265-0930; www.930.com

Photo: Greg Pallante

Meet The Exploratory Mercy Union

The first chord explodes like a glitter bomb, igniting a stream of surging guitar, driving drums and anthem-style lyrics that shine like the sun on the Jersey Shore.

This is the sound of “Young Dionysians,” the song that kicks off The Quarry, the debut album by New Jersey rock quartet Mercy Union.

“Dionysians” trumpets part of the band’s sound, firmly rooted in the heartland rock meets punk – a kind of Tom Petty mixed with Jimmy Eat World vibe – sound that’s been kicking around North and Central Jersey for the past two decades. But this fist-pumping, body-and-soul liberating rock and roll sound is only a piece of Mercy Union’s repertoire. Truthfully, the group does not want listeners to enter with any preconceived notions; that was part of how the members decided on their name.

“We didn’t want the name to give away any style of music,” says Jared Hart, Mercy Union’s front man and principal songwriter. “That’s what we started with, with trying to find things so that when people heard it they wouldn’t jump and go: ‘That’s a hardcore band’ or ‘That’s an indie band.’”

This mentality is also helpful when most of your band consists of members from some of the most prolific bands from the Jersey punk scene in the past 10 years. Mercy Union is, by popular parlance, a supergroup: Hart is the founder of The Scandals, guitarist Rocky Catanese hails from Let Me Run and drummer Benny Horowitz also anchors the kit for The Gaslight Anthem, the biggest rock group to blossom from the garden state in the new millennium. These are much-beloved bands in their circles of the music world, with dedicated fanbases enamored with those groups’ distinct, personal sounds.

The sounds of Mercy Union do not sever ties with all that history.

“I wanted everyone listening to it to have as much of an open mind I had when I was writing it,” Hart says. “Keeping the labels off of it and all the past stuff – it’s there, those will be our influences, but I didn’t want it to be the skeleton of the whole thing.”

“[We wanted] something catchy, [with] energy but also restraint in the smart ways. I kind of wanted to capture the energy of all our punk bands in the past and use our new knowledge in songwriting and life experience in general, smash it all together and see what we came up with.”

That last ingredient in the sound reflects all four musicians’ drive to explore beyond their previously well-traveled roads and to have space to “get weird.”

The band’s brand of weird may not be apparent on first listen; the group does not play in a crazy tempo, the guitars are not tuned to some alien setting and Hart sings as he does, with bellowing thrust but also choir-boy soaring.

“I think weird is just taking risks,” Hart says. “Changing time signatures, changing song structures in ways that you’re not comfortable with and more just challenging who you are as a musician and taking a leap and not worrying about it.”

“Layovers,” another track on The Quarry, exemplifies this ethos. The six-minute, acoustic roadhouse ballad of remembrance and regret directly contrasts with the group’s tight rock anthems like “Dionysians” or “Chips and Vic,” but contrast is the point.

Hart points to mixtapes in the hip-hop world – he was mainlining Chance the Rapper’s multi-Grammy winning mixtape Coloring Book while he was writing the first batch of Mercy Union songs – as a primary influence in shaping the band’s sound.

“The idea of a mixtape kind of blew me away,” he says. “Different songs that didn’t necessarily feel like they fit on a record, but when put into context as a whole, they do. That was a big part of where the songs on The Quarry went to and how we bounced around in genres.”

Looking at other tracks in Mercy Union’s live set, “A Lot From Me” drifts calmly along with an almost reggae vibe; “Silver Dollars” is classic Tom Petty, gritty and grooving rock and roll; while “Accessory” and “Baggy” mix 70s soft rock with a harder and more ambient modern approach.

Hart says the band’s name was intended to reflect the members’ strong feelings of unity tied to the vulnerability of starting this new project that would stretch them as musicians. It also reflects the group’s sound; a united body of gentle but energetic and empowering songs. There’s a couplet in “Chips and Vics,” the band’s debut single, another swelling anthem, that sums up what the band offers: “Can I be all that you need? / Can you see, maybe, if you can stand to stand by me?”

Mercy Union opens for Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers with Control Top at Rock & Roll Hotel on Tuesday, April 23. Visit here for more information on the show. For more information on Mercy Union, check the band out on Facebook and Twitter.

Rock & Roll Hotel: 1353 H St. NE, DC; 202-388-7625; www.rockandrollhoteldc.com

Photo: Oscar Merrida

Oh He Dead, DC’s Next Big Indie Soul Band

No one really died. When Oh He Dead singers Cynthia “C.J.” Johnson and Andrew Valenti first formed the band in 2014, Johnson wrote a ballad about a boy she’d fallen in love with. In the song, she walks in on him cheating, pulls out a gun and shoots him.

“About a week later, we had practice,” Valenti says. “It dawned on me to ask, ‘Whatever happened to that guy in that song that you wrote?’ She responded, ‘Oh, he dead!’ We all died laughing.”

After collecting themselves, the then duo decided to immortalize the phrase, resolving to begin their journey into the music business together. Their first big break came at the Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival in 2016, and it was all the confirmation they needed to keep going.

“I think it was a very pivotal show in our trajectory where we looked at each other afterward and felt like, ‘Okay, we can do something with this,’” Valenti says.

Oh He Dead will be playing this year’s Kingman Island Festival on May 4, but fans may be surprised by what they hear. The once strictly country folk band has transformed into what is perhaps best described as indie soul. Their new sound is much groovier, with an R&B base.

“Someone in the crowd [recently] told me that people were grinding at one of our shows and I just started laughing,” Valenti says. “I never thought I would be in a band where people would be grinding to our music.”

They cite the addition of new band members as the primary cause of their evolution. Guitarist Alex Salser brings his jazz background to the group while bassist John Daise offers an R&B influence.

“I think everyone has a unique skill and knows what their role is,” Salser says. “It’s been really special to utilize each other’s different talents. It doesn’t feel like anyone’s fighting for the spotlight like in a lot of other bands I’ve played for.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is Johnson’s strikingly smoky, textured voice that lingers long after she’s stopped singing. It’s no surprise to learn who she idolizes and emulates most as a vocalist.

“My inspiration was definitely Fleetwood Mac,” Johnson says of her influences during her formative years. “I listened to them a lot in high school. I love Stevie. Her voice is just something, that raspy voice. I was like, ‘I want to be like Stevie!’”

Though difficult to categorize, Oh He Dead’s unique sound has earned them a growing fanbase in the DC area.

“I think the reception we’ve gotten from our crowd [in DC] has been super encouraging,” Valenti says. “We played Union Stage last week. There were over 300 people in the crowd, and I don’t think any of us have had that kind response with original music.”

Oh He Dead seems to have finally hit their stride, finetuning their sound and discovering their own audience. The band is currently working on their debut album, which they plan to release this year. As far as their hopes for the future, Johnson puts it best.

“I want to win a f–kig Grammy!”

Learn more about Oh He Dead at www.ohhedead.com, follow them @ohhedead, and catch them at Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival on Saturday, May 4. Tickets start at $35.

Kingman Island Bluegrass and Folk Festival: 575 Oklahoma Ave. NE, DC 205-799-9189; www.kingmanislandbluegrass.info

Photo: Shervin Lainez

Mountain Man Wake Up on New Album

North Carolina (by way of many places) band Mountain Man have a sweet way of describing the eight year hiatus they took between their debut album and their new release, the spectacular Magic Ship.

“We like to say that Mountain Man ‘took a nap,’” says member Molly Sarlé. “We all moved to different parts of the country, so it took quite some time for us to end up in North Carolina again.”

After reuniting to participate in Eaux Claires, the festival curated by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, the trio made up of Sarlé, Amelia Meath and Alexandra Sauser-Monning decided to “take it one step at a time” and create Magic Ship together.

The result is a beautiful and emotional collection of vocal-forward folk. Sarlé walked us through their creative process, the album’s themes and more leading up to their stop at The Barns at Wolf Trap this week.

OT: How did being away from each other, creatively and physically, affect this album?
Molly Sarlé: I think it played into it in the sense that we all drew from our experiences – and had very different experiences, both musically while working on other projects and in our lives in general, that shaped the songwriting on this record. Although, some of the songs were around before we took our hiatus, we just hadn’t recorded them yet. It was gratifying to be able to record those.

OT: Can you talk me through the themes and ideas throughout Magic Ship, musically and lyrically?
MS: We weren’t thinking of any particular themes while we wrote it, although I think overall something that stands out to me is that – like on the song “Guilt,” the last song on the record – is kind of about getting a bit older, because we kind of wrote the first album in our early 20s, and the second in our late 20s and early 30s. It’s about just getting to a place in life where you know yourself a little bit better and accepting yourself for who you are.

OT: I am curious about the song “Underwear,” specifically. This is just my interpretation, but I recently moved and it’s crazy to me how I feel that in my early 20s I needed a lot of stuff to be happy, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve felt that life is a lot more simple, and I know the things I actually need. That’s just how it resonated to me, and It’s one of my favorites on the album.
MS: Amelia wrote that song, but I can tell you that my interpretation of it definitely relates to what you said – but I think more in an emotional landscape context. The older you get, all you need is in a particular kind of closeness or intimacy.

OT: Was there anything different in the writing or recording process of Magic Ship?
MS: The recording process was definitely different. We recorded it in Durham [North Carolina] at Nick [Sanborn of Sylvan Esso] and Amelia’s studio, with Nick, and last time we recorded the record in our friend’s attic in Philadelphia over two days. This time it was spread out over a few months. And the writing process was pretty similar in that we usually just get together and bring the songs we’ve worked on individually to each other, then write our own parts and see if they work for Mountain Man or not.

OT: You’ve all known each other for a long time now – how has that relationship changed?
MS: We’ve all grown up a lot, so I think the roles have changed in that we all take a little bit more equal responsibility spread across all three members.

OT: I would imagine being part of any band is a very intimate experience but even more so in a band like Mountain Man where your primary instruments are your own voices. Can you tell me more about the connection you have to your bandmates?
MS: We call each other our wives. It’s almost like we’re married to each other, just because of how much we shape each other’s lives through making music together, but also through our friendship. It’s wonderful and pretty intense. It’s like those friendships where the people you’re working with know you so well that you can’t hide anything from them.

OT: There are a few cover songs on this album – “Bright Morning Stars” and “Baby Where You Are” – why did you decided to not only cover them but put them on the album?
MS: “Bright Morning Stars” was a song we used to sing a lot before we took a hiatus, and was taught to us by a really wonderful vocal coach at Bennington College, where we all met. “Baby Where You Are” is a cover that Amelia suggested from a record that had been in heavy rotation at a house that she and I once lived in at Durham called The Hughes.

OT: I’m curious about the llama and alpaca imagery on the album art – why did you go with that?
MS: They’re alpacas! One is named Dorota, I can’t remember the other one’s name, but they’re friends. They live at a healing animal farm, so they’re healing alpacas. We decided to do a photoshoot with them because our manager Martin actually had a dream in which we were taking pictures of alpacas in a bar. We were really sweetly presented to it – he said “I don’t want to step over any boundaries but I had this dream,” and we were all like “oh, 100%, let’s make this happen.”

OT: You’ve also been busy with some solo work. Can you talk more about that?
MS: I have a solo album that’s coming out on Partisan Records this summer. This is the same record label that we released our first album as Mountain Man on, and my record is produced by Sam Evian. We recorded at a church that’s also a recording studio called Dreamland in Woodstock, NY about a year ago.

Mountain Man play The Barns at Wolf Trap on Friday, March 29. Show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets are $25-$30. For more on Mountain Man, visit www.wearemountainman.com.

The Barns at Wolf Trap: 1635 Trap Rd., Vienna, VA; 1-877-WOLFTRAP; www.wolftrap.org

Photo: Emily Shur

Neko Case Talks New Album, Inclusivity & Sweden

While recording her 2018 album Hell On, Neko Case’s Vermont home burned down. No one was hurt, and she soldiered on. The end result was a powerful record containing reflections on nature, its potential for destruction, God and more. Heavy subject matter aside, the album’s beautifully joyous moments – such as the Beth Ditto collaboration “Winnie” – shine here as well. Case talked to On Tap ahead of her two shows this weekend at the Lincoln Theatre about her seventh studio album, the partnerships that came with it and inclusivity in the music industry.

On Tap: I wanted to ask about the opening line on the title track of “Hell On,” especially the line God is not a contract or a guy, God is an unspecified tide.” Can you tell us more about that song and how it became the title track and album opener?
Neko Case: That song was written in the middle of writing all the other songs. It wasn’t made the first song on the album because of that as the opening line. The concept of God doesn’t mean enough to me for me to try to make a statement with that. I think writing that song felt really good. It was very sing-songy and it was one of those [moments of] euphoria inside your own head, and just making things for the pure joy of making things. That’s one of my favorite ones.  That one came quickly to me and it was a real joy to work on.

OT: What about working with Beth Ditto on the standout track “Winnie?”
NK: I work with strong, outspoken women in music every day. But Beth, I asked to do it because she’s a phenomenal singer and that particular part in the song was almost like casting a role. The song wasn’t really working and I thought maybe there should be a different voice. Beth was just the most natural person to voice that character. That song also was written out of absolute joy and the euphoria of just feeling very confident about those things, which is the gift that the character of Winnie gives to the person that is being sung to in the song. It’s almost like a little play.

OT: You also partnered with Bjorn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John to produce Hell On. How did he end up on board?
NK: I started to work with him because I just love what he does. Not only is he a musician, but he’s also an arranger and a producer – he does it all. He was such a great person to work with because I was looking for new sounds. I was looking for someone who had that same kind of ravenous feeling. We have friends in common and there are so many projects he’s done that I am such a huge fan of that are a main staple in my musical diet. He works with a lot of women and men equally, and I thought he had really great balance. He is confident enough to put himself in there but then to also know when stuff isn’t working. He’s open to new ideas.

OT: You recorded the album with him in Sweden, right?
NK: There were a lot of benefits to that. One was I got to be in Sweden for a month and a half. He really wanted to do it there because he has two school-aged children and that made it a lot easier for him, so I was like, “Great! Everybody wins, this is awesome.” Then me being away from home while I’m working on a record is often very good because there are no distractions from my daily life that force me to take my mind out of what I’m doing. I went from my comfort zone to his comfort zone. The Swedish music scene is really strong, they have a lot of resources. The Swedish government takes care of its citizens, so there’s a lot of resources for people. It’s pretty awesome and stunningly beautiful, and the food is amazing. I threw myself into a totally happy situation [laughs].

OT: I know your home and barn unfortunately burnt down while you were in Sweden recording the record, and there is a lot of fire imagery on the album art like the crown of cigarettes you’re wearing. Was that intentional?
NK: The cigarette hat thing I had quite a long time before that, but it ended up tying in with the album art in both ways because I ended up using some of the burnt scenery in the album art. The house burnt down right as Puerto Rico was underwater and right after Houston had flooded. During the making of the record, most of California was on fire. I wanted to use some of [the burnt house] in the artwork because some of it is really beautiful in the aftermath, and I wanted to have an unspoken solidarity with people going through the same thing. A lot of people had a lot worse things happen to them than I did, and we’re all lucky to still be here together.

OT: As a woman who writes about music, I’m often incredibly frustrated by some of the narratives around women in music and some of the things they are subjected to. So when you see things like this collaboration panel of women producers you participated in, it’s incredibly inspiring. I often find myself discouraged. How do you avoid feeling that way?
NK: Basically, there are women who are producers and they are not getting hired. A lot of the time, it’s because people just don’t know we exist so seeing a woman being publicly lauded and loved for being hired to produce something is so major. Then when it’s people you’re a fan of, you’re like, “Oh yes!” I think it’s the first time that I’ve ever gotten to [see] something where a woman has produced a work and it’s not her own work. I hope that’s the first of a long line of amazing shifts and I want to just scream it from the rooftops. People don’t know that women produce records. They just don’t.

OT: Do you think it’s just that artists don’t know or that they don’t care to seek out women to produce for them?
NK: I don’t think that it’s born of anything so different than the colonialist patriarchy – same old, same old at the end of the day. But the fact is, we’ve always been there and we’ve been innovators and inventors and pioneers for as long as all of these technological mediums have been in existence. So yeah, it started with the sh-tty patriarchy and sh-tty sexism. I want to make sure we don’t end up just saying, “Here’s the women producers over here!” because that doesn’t invite all women. Women have told me – who are trans or people who are non-binary or gender fluid – [they] feel uninvited. We don’t want to start some sort of ranking. We just want to make sure there’s a database of knowledge that’s here. There is room for everybody else to get credit, so check them out. Hear what kind of innovation they have or what sounds they’re making. One of my favorite musical innovators is Wendy Carlos, and I think a lot of people think of her because she’s a trans woman and that’s all they think about. They don’t think about all the incredible things she has accomplished.

OT: So how do you combat that sort of thinking?
NK: We’re basically short headline reading everyone in society right now. It’s so hard to include everyone in that. So making sure we have a database of language and of knowledge to make sure that people understand the gender of women – whatever that means – is not the polar opposite of masculinity or of men. We’re not trying to define anything like that. We’re just trying to raise visibility and make sure other people are invited, which is not always easy. But it’s also not hard at all. It just takes a little bit of time and consideration, and this is what people want.

Neko Case plays Lincoln Theatre on Saturday, January 26 and Sunday, January 27 with Margaret Glaspy. Tickets are $46, and doors open at 6:30 p.m.. For more on Case, visit www.nekocase.com.

Lincoln Theatre: 1215 U St. NW, DC; 202-888-0050; www.thelincolndc.com