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Be specific: YACHT talks "Psychic City"

Without question my favorite song of 2009 was "Psychic City (Voodoo City)" by YACHT, the duo of Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans. It's a bouncy, goofy, sweet, optimistic leftfield electro-pop tune that lurches and gurgles along, with chants, grunts, nods to Althea & Donna, Outkast and Brian Eno and is made perfect by Evans's deadpan speak-sing vocals. It stands on its own as a great pop song but the backstory makes it even more interesting.

It's actually a cover of an obscure 1987 song by Rich Jensen from a cassette-only release on K Records. (The band provides a quick history on its Web site.) YACHT recorded the song and the entire "See Mystery Lights" album in Marfa, a small Texas town known for its mysterious lights (hence the album title), a decision that fits with YACHT'S embrace of all things spiritual and mysterious. This is, after all, a band with a manifesto that includes the following: "YACHT is about group consciousness. YACHT is about the individual man or woman. If you believe these assertions to be contradictory, consider the Triangle: it is both a collection of points and a shape."

"Psychic City" is the song where the mystical and modern meet at the perfect sweet spot, and we talked to Bechtolt and Evans about the song's inspiration, execution and embrace.

How did you come up with the idea to cover the song?

Bechtolt: Rich has been a longtime supporter of YACHT and sort of a father to YACHT for the past three or four years. Rich was the president of Sub Pop and he started Up Records in the mid-'90s and any time I've had any kind of industry or publishing or technical question I've always gone to Rich and asked him. He's always been super-great with that kind of stuff and super-great as a regular friend. And so when Claire and I decided to live in Marfa after having the lights experience we decided that we wanted to turn other people on to that experience, and just Marfa in general. So our first month we were living there we decided we wanted Rich to come out and visit.

He spent a week with us and in the middle of that week there was a big party at this writing residency house. And in the garage there was an impromptu dance party and performance by this amazing man Tim Johnson who runs the Marfa Book Company. He gave a poetry reading and then Rich did a performance where he sang "Psychic City." We had heard him sing the song a couple times before that and we heard it on his album, "Two Million Years." And there was just something that clicked. Being in Marfa, being in this little garage and being surrounded by Marfa natives. It became tied into our experience with the lights. It just made complete and perfect sense to us that we should try to give special meaning or special purpose to that song. It felt like it was just part of our whole time there.

(Grunting and South Korean singalongs, after the jump.)

YACHTClaire Evans and Jona Bechtolt of YACHT. Most likely.

Evans: There's something about Rich's original presentation of "Psychic City" that we think is very courageous. He's sort of an older man at this point and he used to be called "The Screaming Poet" when he lived in Olympia, Wash., in the late-'80s and early-'90s. And the way that he performs that song is very vulnerable and strange and he kind of sing-screams it. He doesn't really sing it. It's more of a very physical poetry performance. It's always out of context and it's always kind of jarring and a little bit ugly in this way that is fantastically punk. Like, more punk than anything anyone we know has ever done.

And so we wanted to ... I don't know. There's a certain element of us wanting to take that song and make it pop. So people who weren't ready for the experience of Rich Jensen could accept it, and at the same time to soften it a little bit for our own ears. But the whole idea of re-imagining "Psychic City" came from just a desire to pay our respects to his legacy because he was such an important guy in our part of the world. He still is. Now he runs this thing called the All-ages Movement Project which helps make and establish all-ages spaces for music all over the country. It's a non-profit, it's such an awesome thing. So to take his song that was such a tiny blip at the time and turn it into something that is easily acceptable, downloadable and commercial and pop, in a way, is our way of sort of thanking him for all that work he did.

So you have this jarring, vulnerable punk song, and you want to soften it up. Was there any direct process to doing that?
Bechtolt: The whole thing was kind of a whirlwind. When we made all of the "See Mystery Lights" music it just kind of happened. We didn't really have an intention at all.

Evans: We lived in Marfa for two months and the entire experience of making a record was almost akin to a direct revelation in religious experience. At the end of the two months we looked down and we realized we had made something tangible and we didn't really know where it came from or the process of it. We spent all our nights out in the desert sitting on the top of our car with blankets around us looking out at this phenomenon, and all our days in this little desert house just making music. It just seemed so natural and organic. "Psychic City" was probably one of the easiest songs to make. It just came immediately.

It's this very other-worldly atmosphere that you're describing but the song is easily digestible pop song. There's also this sweet optimism to the song, the way you guys present it, mainly due to Claire's vocals. I guess that's just a matter of your style fitting the song.

Evans: I guess that's fair to say, my style being my style. I'm not -- obviously -- a trained singer. Or a particularly grandiloquent singer. But I sing the only way I think I can which is sort of this weird, slightly deadpan sing-song style that has just developed. I think it's an organic extension of that particular history of '90s singing from the Northwest and DIY culture.

But at the same time it's also just bad singing. Which I think is kind of important because the production of the music on our record is very meticulous. Very intentional and very pop. And if the vocals were the same way I think it would be overly saccharine. I hope that's the element I bring to it, at least. That deadpan, untalented second layer that makes it punk. (Laughs.) No, I'm serious! "All my favorite singers couldn't sing," to quote the Silver Jews.

Don't need to tell me, that was the title of my college radio show. Anyway, the catchiest part of the song might be the chanting and the grunting. Did you feel self-conscious at all doing those kind of silly parts?

Evans: The "Psychic City" grunt was part of our vernacular at that point because that song was a favorite of ours.

Bechtolt: We were just doing that a lot around the house. Hoo-ah! Hi-yah!

Evans: Doing that original Rich Jensen-style verse of that song is an incredible feeling of liberation and modern primitivism that you can get into, if you want to. It's really fun to yell it out. So at that point we were just already yelling it a lot. And it feels good. It's very cathartic in its meaninglessness.

The song has been pretty well-received. Were you happy that this one seems to be the favorite?

Bechtolt: Yes, definitely. We had no idea until we started playing shows what songs would have a life at all. So it was really exciting, the first five times we played it we were like, "Holy [expletive]. This is the one. This is the song." We just got back from touring Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, China and Brazil. And that was the song that really united the audience. It was really special and exciting. I loved it. I love thinking about Rich when we play it.

Evans: I think also because the chorus is so nonsensical is has this sort of trans-linguistic value. People in other countries really love that song because they don't have to know English to sing along. Which is kind of a huge thing. (Video from South Korea.) Also, the more successful "Psychic City" is the more, hopefully, money Rich Jensen gets because he has all the songwriting credit on it. A lot of it. And he can use that money to restart his awesome publishing company.

By David Malitz  |  December 29, 2009; 3:28 PM ET
Categories:  Be specific  | Tags: Best of 2009, YACHT  
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