In the video for Yellow Ostrich's "Mary," a young girl dashes through woods, then trips and falls in slow motion. The cover for Ostrich's fifth album, Cosmos, features a still from videographer Bas Jan Ader tilting sideways, ready to fall. Likewise, the album features a track called "Things Are Fallin'." It turns out that dropping, tumbling, keeling over, and other cruel gravitational tricks are popular themes for frontman/guitarist Alex Schaaf to explore.
"It's the line between stuff like Jackass -- oh, people falling down, something funny to laugh at," Schaaf says via phone. "Gravity is such a simple thing. We take it for granted. It's acting on everyone here at the same time. We're powerless against it, something that's such a huge thing that we don't think about . . . It's like an alternative to religion, kind of -- the huge forces that control our lives that we kind of take for granted."
The Cosmos cover does an excellent job of summing up the album's themes, but as you might have guessed, the title itself comes from the book and TV series starring Carl Sagan.
"I really love this whole thing about how studying space and all that scientific stuff and astronomy is totally connected to our everyday life. It's not like, 'Oh, we're off studying the stars; we have problems back home," Schaaf says. "[Sagan's] really good about bringing it all together and making it seem really magical and amazing, the forces that are acting on us everyday. I like [how] his science writing doesn't dumb down the stuff, but they'll invite everyone to think about these big things."
Even when they're about massive celestial objects like moons and stars, many of Yellow Ostrich's songs are introverted and deal with the small, inner emotions of someone who both longs for human connection and wishes to hide from it. "Neon Fists" discusses world weariness and social anxiety. "Stay at Home," off 2012's Strange Land, begins with choppy drums and punk-ish riffs, but despite its upbeat charms, it wants to push you away. On "My Moons," Schaaf asks, "Don't you love when you can't be found?" but soon notes that once you "Find a cave . . . They'll flush you out."
Even since moving to Brooklyn from his home state of Wisconsin, Schaaf still finds ambivalence and alienation.
"Going to a place where there's millions of people, it's not any different," he says. "In some ways, it can be more isolating because there's so many people that it's easy to feel anonymous."
But that isn't to say Yellow Ostrich is all glum or self-loathing. In fact, Schaaf seems to have a twisted sense of humor, as demonstrated by 2010's The Morgan Freeman EP, in which he lifted lyrics from the movie star's Wikipedia page. Starting with "Morgan Freeman's Early Life," it also includes tracks such as "Morgan Freeman's Automobile Accident" and "Morgan Freeman's Alleged Relationship with His Step-Granddaughter." Schaaf says the Shawshank Redemption star hasn't responded to him yet.
"I'm just waiting for the phone call," Schaaf says, laughing.
The video for "Marathon Runner," featured on Vice's Noisey website, shows a world of gold, glittery hockey masks, secret dance moves, and kids in '90s-style windbreakers attacking a Mickey Mouse piñata. Schaaf says he does actually enjoy running, but doesn't do it anymore.
"I'm not anywhere near a marathon runner, but that's my aspiration, my motivation," he adds. The balance of astronomical muses, the morose, and the absurd is what makes Yellow Ostrich dynamic and multi-layered. His lyrics demonstrate what it's like to be stuck in a 21st-century rut yet still search for meaning and connection, even making a joke now and then.
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