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YACHT: Evolution Through Mystery

By Veronica Murtagh in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 26, 2010 6:20PM

Photo via YACHT's MySpace
Nestled somewhere between U.S. Route 90 and U.S. Route 67, five to fifteen miles east of the sleepy west Texas town of Marfa, occurs a natural phenomena that has been the topic of anecdotes since the 1800's. The Marfa Mystery Lights (also known as 'ghost lights') appear unexplained, a series of multi-colored spheres that hover, shift, merge and then speed away. Unlike the other mysteries of the night sky, the Marfa lights appear at shoulder level, enveloping those lucky enough to be granted the transcendental experience.

DFA Records duo YACHT (Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans) visited Marfa and took up temporary residence. Experiencing the Marfa Mystery Lights and the subculture which surrounds them firsthand allowed the already conceptual duo's creativity to flourish. The result of their time spent in Marfa is See Mystery Lights, their first full album as a pair. As we chatted about the iconography surrounding the album and YACHT's art meets music positioning, it was obvious their shared experience in Marfa had not only affected the way its creators approached their craft, but how they saw themselves and their place in the world.

Chicagoist: With the release of 2009's See Mystery Lights, YACHT has emerged a fully realized conceptual project. How did you arrive here?

Jona Bechtolt: The album is a direct result of a shared experience that Claire and I had out in far west Texas, in Marfa. That's what the album is an homage to where the name is from. We went out there to try and figure out how people surrounded by these lights existed day to day, how they act, live and carry on their lives. We didn't know if we'd make music, a video, a documentary or write about it. We didn't know what was going to happen, but after living there for three months we looked down and we had this record. It was almost a psychedelic experience.

C: Is the current vision of YACHT something that had been in your head from the early days, or has the concept evolved with the music?

JB: I've always thought of YACHT as being something more than just a band. It's a full-on life project, a way to define every action. It's always been something more than just music.

Claire Evans: Certainly after our experience in Marfa YACHT became a larger project. We felt we had a responsibility to the lights and to our experience there. We did a lot of thinking when we were living there about various aspects of our personal philosophies and rediscovered our interest in mystery. That's what the appeal of the lights was for us, the mystery of it. We're both very computer savvy and we've never been far from the answers most of our lives. We've never felt something was beyond our grasp and too esoteric or mysterious for us to fully understand. So for us to have that experience of the lights, it was more than just seeing something cool, it was about realizing that there are still things in this world that are unknown and that we don't have the power to just Google it and find out what it is. That was life-changing.

JB: it became really important and helped us find a voice to talk about everything we had wanted to talk about previously.

C: When you were writing the album, did your experience in Marfa write the songs, or were you looking to different musical influences?

CE: We weren't listening to music very much at the time. All the musical influences you might find were all floating in the subconscious of our brains and came out indirectly. The actual process was completely motivated by the experience and not by anything else. The lights were a filter through which we managed to pour a very distilled version of ourselves into a message.

C: It's interesting to hear how your iconography came from this single shared experience, because when you look at your lyrics, videos, clothing, even the language of the writing on your website, the package feels so detailed, but at the same time not overly intentional. You've created this convincing world and left the door open for your audience to come in, explore and embrace or reject as they see fit. It's almost like a live installation.

CE: That's very much what we do. There's a thin balance between artifice and profound seriousness. The structure is kind of artificial, the language artificial and some of it is hyper-stylized, but it's all done because we believe so profoundly in what we're doing that we want it to be a complete aesthetic piece. We like to take it to as deep a level as possible because we have a lot of interests. We don't like to specify ourselves to just one subject. We feel like if we just devote all our energy to just the music then we'll become out of touch with everything else that inspires us. We want to be able to incorporate it into what we do.

C: Your songs seem to play off that. They have this interesting duality. On one hand they are full of metaphors and symbolism, but at the same time, if you isolate some of the lyrics like you get these very straightforward, honest statements like, "you can live any way you want". Again it has that feel of an experiment, allowing the audience to experience both sides and decide if they want to find deeper meaning or if they just want to dance.

JB: We want people to be able to appreciate it on multiple levels. When we first set out to make the record we started with eight core messages. It was almost mantra-like, and then we expanded on that. We didn't want to just focus on lyrics, or tones or rhythms. We wanted it to be a complete package that you could appreciate on multiple levels. We wanted to put in as much as possible so people could strip it away, piece by piece, because we're fans of doing that with music that we like as well.

CE: It's important for us to be accessible to all different walks of life because we appreciate all different kinds of people. That was one thing that came out of our experience in Marfa. We spent time with some fascinatingly interesting and broadly diverse people. It was awesomely eye-opening and we realized it was important for us to be universal. From an outsider perspective that probably seems absurd because it's kind of esoteric music, but you can appreciate it as dance music. There's pop songs on the record that even children like. But at the same time there's also very dark points and serious core messages that are built in underneath. We're O.K. with someone liking our record just as a dance record, or a pop record, and we're equally O.K. with people going to a deeper place with it. Either way is a perfectly acceptable way of experiencing YACHT.

C: Along the way of playing all over the world, and interacting with diverse audiences, have you gained any new perspective that fed into See Mystery Lights that wasn't present in earlier works?

CE: I think we're very much designed by the places we go. Our tours don't really have beginnings or ends to them. It's more like this never-ending foray to wherever people allow us to go. We say yes to everything. It's very important to us and we document the hell out of our trips and talk to as many people as we can. Since the lights, we've had more incentive to spend a lot of time with people around the world and talk with them about their various ideas and reactions to our message. We've gotten a lot out of that.

C: You spoke earlier about how when you arrived in Marfa you weren't sure what the experience would turn into; an album, a film, writings. Do you see yourselves exploring these other directions?

CE: We have a lot of peripheral projects that we work on. We made a book recently that we refer to internally as our Bible. It's the fully flushed out YACHT Manifesto which we produced, designed and wrote ourselves. Every aspect of our life, our website, our t-shirt design, the video that plays behind us (live), our music videos, everything we make ourselves.

JB: We're extremely obsessive-compulsive and control freaks. We want to be in control of every element of YACHT.

CE: We rarely let anyone else do anything that has our name on it unless we deeply, deeply respect their vision. It's something that we're hyper-vigilant about and because of that we've had to teach ourselves to do almost everything. We'd love to expand. We'd love to make films and to do all kinds of projects that we've never done before. To us it's just a never-ending road of trying new things.

C: I think that goes back to the discussion of the level of detail and development in your iconography. In a sense you're a brand.

CE: We're really obsessed with the idea that people like us have access to the same tools as graphic design and media people. We just need to learn how to manipulate them in the correct ways to present ourselves the way we want to be presented to the world. We've created a brand for ourselves because we want to be perceived as being professional. It's difficult to tell when you look at a lot of our stuff if it was made by a professional design team or not. We like the fact that we can make ourselves look really sleek with tools that are super accessible.

C: On your site, you touch on this idea of free information, that music and the internet will in time both become free. As the music industry struggles to find ways to retain artist and label integrity and monetize, you put what the industry fears most boldly right out there and embrace this idea.

CE: We're very excited by the various alternatives to the major music industry systems. This is an exciting age. Whenever an industry like this falls apart, good comes from it. A lot of new life, new energy, and new and different directions. We don't want to be part of the old system, we want to be part of the new system. We don't see the point in fighting against piracy or copyright infringement because that's counteractive, it's reactionary and we don't want to be reactionary. We are part of that world. We participate in it. We torrent movies and watch them on our computers and we download records. We can't pretend we're not part of that world and be self-righteous about it because that would be absurd.

C: What can we expect in the future from YACHT, both conceptually and musically? Where does all this go, next?

JB: The only constant is change. It will always change.

CE: In six months you won't recognize what it was six months ago. It's always going to change and you can't get used to one version of YACHT or another.

JB: We're never satisfied with what it is in its current state.

YACHT with MNDR and Bobby Birdman, Saturday, February 27, at Empty Bottle, 1035 N Western, 10 p.m., advance tickets SOLD OUT, call 773-276-3600 for info, 21+.