Feature | Interview: YACHT Embraces The Future (But Not The NSA)
The duo of Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans – better known as YACHT – returned last month with their fifth pop-disco dance album, I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler, promoting their multifaceted artistic experience through fax machines and billboards. If the idea of a flavor palette spanning LCD Soundsystem to Devo through the lens of borderless artistic immersion speaks to you, heaven awaits in the new YACHT release.
YACHT stands for Young Americans Challenging High Technology, and the band’s kaleidoscopic endeavors as writers, speakers, and performers earns the acronym. They have a line of sunglasses. They built an app, called 5 Every Day, that tells you five interesting things to do in Los Angeles every day. Claire is a writer for VICE’s science and tech journal Motherboard. That’s just the tip, given their innovative technological interventions that extend the message of their music.
The duo presented the video for their new single “L.A. Plays Itself” in a strange new way: the video was only viewable when Uber began surge pricing at 1.1x the normal rate in Los Angeles.
We caught up with Jona and Claire just after the release of their new LP to discuss the album, their multimedia proclivities and more, including geographical influence in songwriting and recording.
Crave: You have an awesomely dedicated fanbase – How has the reception been thus far for I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler?
Jona Bechtolt, Claire L. Evans: It’s been really positive. We don’t read reviews; we use the fans as a litmus test. If they respond, that’s actually all that matters—the whole endeavor of being in a band, for us, is about connecting with people, both by conveying messages through recorded music, and through the experience of being in a room with an audience in a live context. Being accountable to the fans keeps us honest, and our honesty is what our fans appreciate in us. It’s a homeostatic system.
Did you really think the future would be cooler? In what ways? What technologies/gadgets/human advancements had you hoped would come to be by now?
This album isn’t about gadgets. In fact, one of our biggest fears with the album title is that people will interpret our position being as one of entitlement. We’re not talking about wanting jetpacks and hoverboards—what’s the point of a jetpack if the icepacks are melting? There seems to be a confusion, generally, between “tech” and “future.” Technology is just an extension of the human experience—language is a form of technology. A pencil is technology. It’s about what we do with it. We’re not interested in zipping around on hoverboards or making Snapchat stories while the world crumbles around us.
What’s the perfect set and setting to listen to I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler for the first time?
Out of an iPhone speaker on a crowded train.
Can you explain how the “L.A. Plays Itself” plan with Uber came to be?
“L.A. Plays Itself” is a song about the experience of seeing Los Angeles from the window of a car—seeing the visual vernacular of the city, the street signs and hand-painted murals and yellow production location signs pointing to film base camps. Driving around Los Angeles triggers all kinds of false memories, visions of the city from throughout the history of film and television. For the video, we wanted to reference that experience, as well as the film the song is named after—the documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself.” So we produced 163 yellow film location signs, one for each word in the lyrics, placed them all over the city, then filmed them from the window of a moving car.
The Uber project came next. The idea was to disseminate the video in some way that put the city of Los Angeles itself in control—so we used the Uber API, a public API, as a metric for monitoring traffic patterns. When prices surge, traffic is surging in the city. We built a web player that only played the video when surge prices were active, effectively making L.A. itself the play button. Uber had nothing to do with the project, by the way.
How would you say location influences your songwriting/production?
Heavily. We’re really rooted to place. Our last few records were recorded almost entirely in the desert town of Marfa, Texas, and they both have a wide-eyed, mystical quality because of that. This album has some Marfa in it, but it was mostly made in Los Angeles, where we live. It’s hard to say whether or not that makes it an “L.A. record”—we’d like to think the themes are broader than any single city’s boundaries—but we are happy working in Los Angeles, we feel like it’s a fairly open-ended creative place, and that must have made an impact on the final product.
Do you have any plans for Creative Mornings in the future? The range of speakers has been fascinating and captivating.
We don’t put on Creative Mornings—we just spoke at one a few years ago. But it’s funny you bring that up, because we are guest programming a Creative Mornings event in L.A. in December. It’s more related to our app, 5 Every Day. We’re picking five speakers to speak for five minutes each about time.
The app market is vast – why did you start one, what is it, what niche does it fill? Does it allow you to communicate to your fans in a way your other endeavors don’t?
We didn’t set out to make an app because we thought we could become a successful start-up. We just identified a need for an unobtrusive single-serving platform that could communicate to our peers how interesting Los Angeles really is, and we decided to fill it. Basically: we wanted it to exist. The end result, 5 Every Day, is a little app that recommends five interesting things to do in LA every day–all things hand-picked and written about by us and our head writer. It’s more like a magazine than an app, really. We always joke that it’s “algorithm-free.” No tracking, no ads, no login, just people communicating to one another, encouraging each other to explore and connect with the city they all live in.
5 Every Day manifested its own community, and has grown beyond what we could have hoped. We now have a weekly podcast on the NPR affiliate here, KPCC, and guest-program events at places like the Getty, Cinefamily, and LACMA. It’s not really a YACHT project, but it’s hard to make that distinction sometimes—it’s very much our spirit, our voice, and it’s designed to uplift all the things we love about our city.
Given your “Party at The NSA” track and campaigns against government surveillance, I’d imagine you’re paying close attention to the yet-another-revival of the CISPA, which the Senate just passed. How can average Americans educate themselves on the truths they need to act appropriately?
Honestly, it’s overwhelming. “Party at the NSA,” which raised money for the Electronic Frontier Foundation after the Snowden leaks, was our attempt to galvanize ourselves and our community into concrete action—to do something about a thorny and complex issue, one whose truths so often can feel hidden from us. It’s easy to do nothing. People are being trained, by the countless apps and platforms tracking them, to trade privacy for convenience. We’d just encourage people to be mindful. To really consider the trade-off every time.
How has your axiom of “band, business, and belief system” evolved over the years, and where in that evolution do you see yourselves now?
That axiom is an exercise in transparency, and it’s as true now as it ever was. We want to be honest. Artists often shy away from explicitly stating who they are, because we live in a comment culture—and vulnerability, inevitably, breeds criticism from anonymous masses. But making music is a commercial enterprise, so we’re a business, like all bands are businesses, and we’re passionate about the things we believe in, which makes us a kind of belief system. All bands have belief systems, even if that belief system is just “rock and roll will never die.”