"It's like almond," Anand Wilder says, "like the nut."
No, this isn't a setup for a nut joke. Wilder, the guitarist/vocalist of the abruptly acclaimed, suddenly sanctioned experimental rock group Yeasayer is, at my request, clarifying the pronunciation of his first name. "It was definitely a problem in elementary school and still is today. But it's okay. I'd rather be Anand than David or something."
Sure, on the surface, Anand is merely instructing me how to say "Anand." But in a larger sense, he is also explaining how he — and by extension, his band — is predisposed to embark upon the road less traveled. And make no mistake about it, that divergent course is a conscious choice. Anand and Yeasayer could conveniently go a different way. For instance, Wilder's middle name — an easy-enough substitute for the more mysterious Anand — is Matthew.
Yeasayer, and MGMT are scheduled to perform on Thursday, January 24.
Yet Wilder's quest to follow his own path doesn't rule out the embrace of role models. Consider his preschool conversion to the cello. "My sister was playing violin at 4. I was just trying to compete with her, do everything she was doing, so when I was 2, I tried playing the violin. And then when I was 41/2, I realized I didn't like standing up. And I saw Yo-Yo Ma on Sesame Street, so I really just wanted to be like him. I got glasses like him and everything."
Wilder doesn't wear glasses anymore (at least not in press photos), and though there's cello — and about a hundred other instruments in a musical stew thicker than your grandmother's gravy — on Yeasayer's debut, All Hour Cymbals (the disc that's causing a virtual hailstorm of huzzahs and hosannas from the music press), Wilder doesn't own one himself.
"I played it until I left for college," he says. "Really, I was always borrowing cellos from relatives or from friends' parents and stuff because they're pretty expensive to buy. And when I went to college, no one was willing to let me borrow a cello. And it didn't really make sense to have a cello in a tiny little dorm room."
That tiny dorm room was in Philadelphia. After attending Park School in Baltimore with friend and Yeasayer co-founder Chris Keating, Wilder headed to the University of Pennsylvania.
You might expect Wilder's parents — when considering his pricey diploma — to dream of another career for their talented son, one that entails more hours in a boardroom and fewer in barrooms. But no.
"I don't think they really forced me or pressured me to go to an Ivy League school," Wilder says. "I think it was my own kind of idiocy and my own competitive nature. I was like, 'Oh, well, it's the best school I got into; I might as well go to it,' when I probably would've been a lot happier at a smaller liberal arts school where I could've explored musical outlets more. So they're the happiest I've seen them. I mean, they love being able to look my name up on the Internet."
"She calls me every day, telling me about the blogs," he says. "My mom cannot differentiate between a 15-year-old blogger saying how my jacket's ugly and a New York Times article about our band. So I have to hear about how I should cut my hair because they're calling me a hippie or whatever on the Internet."
After graduating from college, Wilding and Keating reunited in New York City — Brooklyn, to be exact, the same borough where previous musical Park School alums Josh Dibb (a.k.a. Deakin), David Portner (Avey Tare) and Brian Weitz (Geologist) of Animal Collective had settled just a few years before.
That the five experimentalists attended the same high school is not yet common knowledge. "I'm actually really, really happy that no one has picked up on that," Wilder says.
"I was in a play with David Portner when I was in ninth grade," Wilder says. "I always looked up to those guys. They were always seeking out new music. I was in a band in eighth grade when they were doing their stuff with Automine. And I called them for advice when we were signing onto Monitor Records. But I'm glad. You know, we get enough Animal Collective comparisons as it is, just because we're, you know, somewhat experimental or whatever."
The musical connection to their former classmates is not an isolated incident. Yeasayer has, in fact, garnered a girthsome grab bag of presumed influences. Enough, ironically, to render their sound unique.
There's Animal Collective, of course (though that one's a stretch). And Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio and Akron/Family. One reviewer even remarked upon the similarity of Yeasayer's Cymbals to the soundtrack of Disney's The Lion King.
"I guess a lot of people compare us to the Arcade Fire sometimes," Wilder says, "and I don't really understand that one."
Yeah, me neither. Unless the describer is taking the easy way out by referencing another popular band that happens to utilize a number of wide-ranging, non-traditional instruments to successfully communicate with an ever-expanding indie audience (for the record, I'll shout out Lindsey Buckingham and Peter Gabriel, though Cymbals track "No Need To Worry" is pure midcareer Pink Floyd).
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"Obviously, I can't deny the Roxy Music or Talking Heads or Paul Simon or Brian Eno comparisons," Wilder says, "because they're all pretty appropriate, I think."
Yes, world music references (at least world music filtered through the fingers of thoughtful young men with advanced educations) understandably abound. Throughout Cymbals, layers of harmony swirl over a bedrock of polyrhythmic beats while any number of remote, sampled stringed instruments cut through the middle like a young Edgerrin James. Cymbals' early-release single, "2080," for example, proffers lyrics of particular premonition and portent ("In 2080/I'll surely be dead/So don't look ahead/Never look ahead") above a series of sprightly strains. And that's distinctive enough for now.
"I feel like our attempts at sounding different are paying off with some of the notoriety we're getting," Wilder says. "I mean, for me, the only goal we have is to make stuff sound different. I feel like the way to be innovative is to experiment with sound, and see how far you can stretch sounds and formats of songs and still remain within the pop kind of formula."
So far, so good. And you can bet that Mama Wilder — loud jacket and hair length aside — is some kind of proud.