Following the release of their album I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler, we sit down with conceptual-pop twosome, YACHT.
YACHT aren’t your average LA pop-group. It all began as the solo effort of Jona Bechtolt – as, of all things, a design studio operating under the acronym Young Americans Challenging High Technology – and when occasional Vice contributor and polymath Claire L. Evans came aboard, took various guises throughout the 00s. The duo have been performance artists, electronic comedians, and even a “two-piece avant-garde karaoke group” (no, me neither…).
In their current form, though, they’ve released a string of critically acclaimed albums (Shangri-La and See Mystery Lights are particularly special) and spent the last two years recording their latest effort, I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler. It’s an intelligent and self-assured album that’s a sometimes playful, sometimes earnest reminder of why YACHT are one of the most exciting groups out there. We got the opportunity to talk to the duo about their artistic method, the weird world of YouTube personalities, and what it’s like to perform on an actual yacht.
You guys are both vegan, is this an important aspect of your life style?
On a personal level, yes, although we don’t make a big deal about it publicly. The way we see it, everyone will be vegan in 10 years.
You refer to yourselves as a group of artists rather than a band, why?
Because “band” isn’t the right word. Everything in the world with our name on it originates from our computers: web projects, essays, image manipulations, GIFs, video, design and merchandise. We make art objects and semi-narrative projects that extend the life of our music beyond the file. We have an app, an edition of neon signs, a fragrance, a line of sunglasses, we program films and throw large-scale events in Los Angeles. We’re deeply passionate about making music, but in practice it is only part of what we do.
Brilliant Christmas song. Do you find it weird living in LA at Christmas time then?
Los Angeles over the holidays is Los Angeles at its best: bright, crisp, empty.
How much do you think your home of LA influences your music?
We might be too close to tell. Los Angeles is a wild and expansive place, and its identity is always shifting. We like being in the vertex of change, and the fact that this city is so many different things at once means that it’s never imposed any kind of solid identity on us. What is an “LA band”? What is “LA music”? Nothing and everything.
You’re very responsive on social media, how much of an effect do you think it’s had on your music.
Jona and I both come from DIY and punk scenes in the Pacific Northwest. We’ve always done everything ourselves, because what we do is deeply personal and built on the idea of uplifting people through connection, and we see social media as an extension of that ethos. That’s the positive part of social media on a small scale, the way it levels us. The negative part, occurring on a large scale, is extensively explored on the album: the way that leveling creates a false equivalence between personal performance, celebrity, geopolitical events, activism, and commerce.
What was it like to do a TED Talk?
Young Americans Challenging High Technology. Tell us about how you decided on the name?
For years we spread the misinformation that Young Americans Challenging High Technology was an after-school program Jona attended as a child; in 2008 or so we discovered that most music blogs would reprint band press releases unedited, so we decided to create some new myths about the band’s genesis. Now that lie has become canon: it’s on our Wikipedia page. The truth is Jona saw the phrase on sign on a decrepit old building in Portland, Oregon, in 2001—he was making solo laptop music at the time—and thought it was appropriate.
Your TED talk seemed to focus largely on the idea that art is about expressing yourself, and you’re doing it for you rather than anyone else. Have you always been able to make this distinction?
Yes. That’s the only way to survive. Fortunately, our MO since the beginning has been make as much as possible with as little as possible, for ourselves above all. I said this in the TED talk, but if we were to rely on external input to bolster our confidence, if we required an audience to make work, then the cultural economy of 2015 would be unbearable. There’s too much other information to compete with; and even though the complete archive of our work is available online, we simply can’t rely on anyone—not the audience, not the press—to take the time to seek out context. Especially if your context predates, or exists primarily beyond, the web; Gang of Four, for example, have 6,375 Twitter followers. Does that represent their cultural impact? No. Will someone who has never heard of Gang of Four assume it does? Yes. Everything is ephemeral and self-contained, like a flash of light.
You’ve been touring for about 12 years on and off which is a bloody long time. Do you think you’ll ever get sick of it?
Jona’s been touring since he was 13. He dropped out of high school to play in a punk band with his brother. Touring and playing shows remains the lifeblood of our operation. It’s too easy to feel like we’re operating in a void, but a show is a reminder that we are real; people come, they know us or they want to know us, and they’re open to a collective experience in place and time.
When you worked with Mitchell Davis on your music video, had you discovered him through YouTube?
Mitchell was (and is) a very serious YACHT fan. We didn’t even know there was such a thing as a YouTube personality until people started coming to our shows and asking us about Mitchell. They wanted to know if we knew him, why he loved us so much, why he had YACHT tattoos, if we were a cult. He’d been using our instrumentals in his videos and talking about us. We found it fascinating. Eventually we reached out to him, and then met a few times before deciding to work together on “I Walked Alone,” which is a song about cyclical patterns—thought it was fitting, the fan making the video for the band instead of the other way around. If you look at the comments on that video, it’s 70% people flipping out over his two-second appearance.
You once held a gig in an actual yacht, what’s the best/ weirdest gig you’ve ever done?
“YACHT on a yacht” was definitely up there in the best/weirdest category: the PA caught on fire and the ship captain came down into the main deck to scold us, kids were throwing life vests around in the crowd like beach balls, it was madness. But we’ve done it all. We played in a club in Xining, China, on the Tibetan plateau, for a crowd of businessmen, surrounded by police in full SWAT gear. We played with Patti Smith at a beach club in the Hamptons. We played under the stars in the ghost town of Terlingua, Texas. We played screaming in the dark without any instruments at a festival for thousands of people in Poland when the power went out. It’s been a long strange trip.
You make a lot of things that aren’t related to your music, like your app, why do you think that’s important for you to do creatively?
We need to stay busy or we’ll collapse. And anyway we don’t really draw distinctions between “band” projects and “non-band” projects; it’s all just stuff we make together, alone or with small groups of collaborators.
Imagery is really important to you, why do you think this is?
Because images are the world. Even books depend on their covers.