By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Break Line The Musical.
Yeasayer’s Anand Wilder and long-time friend/composer Maxwell Kardon delivered unto us their long-awaited 10-track rock musical, and though the narrative is compelling, it’s the story of the album itself that makes Break Line The Musical a worthwhile ride.
Inspired by an old Quaker folktale, 10 tracks take you on a journey through the fictional town of Greenbelt, PA, where opportunity and progress incite betrayal. Though the music draws largely on classic 70’s rock operas, there’s a distinctly modern thread woven by this duo’s lithe Brooklynite hands.
First conceived of in 2004, Wilder and Kardon worked sporadically on Break Line for years in between various other projects. Yeasayer’s success eventually allowed Wilder to connect with a mass of talented musicians, who he then enlisted to help bring the album to fruition. To name only a scant few of more than 20 all-star indie collaborators, there’s vocals from Aku Orraca-Tetteh (Dragons of Zynth), Haley Dekle (Dirty Projectors), Quinn Walker (Suckers), Ryan Kattner (Man Man), and Wilder himself, plus instrumentals from Ira Wolf Tuton (Yeasayer), James Richardson (MGMT), K Ishibashi (Kishi Bashi), and Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend). Recording “wunderkind” Britt Myers (Chairlift, Yeasayer, Passing Strange) helped usher in the final recording stages.
An exploration in contemporary arrangements, cinematic effects, and classic rock aesthetics, Break Line memorializes the past while permitting us a telling glimpse into the indie-rock present.
BTR caught up with Wilder to chat about what it takes to bring a concept like this through to completion.
What’s your background as a musician and what brought you all together for this project?
I’ve been doing music since I was a very little kid. I started off playing cello and singing in school, then I started getting more into rock bands in junior high and high school. The musical really started as an off-shoot of a band I had in college with my friend Max and another friend Evan. We tried to make normal rock songs with personal lyrics, but they never really worked out. And then for some reason, after we had this concept of making up songs about this fictional coal-mining town, everything really started flowing. I was really excited about it and we started talking to some people about recording it, but Max and Evan left the country and I was finishing college and, you know, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. And then Yeasayers started pretty soon after that.
Actually, some of the first Yeasayer shows we played some of the songs from the musical, because we didn’t have enough original material. Like the song “It Doesn’t Seem Right,” that Ryan [Kattner] sings on the record, Chris [Keating] used to sing that live. And “Wedding Day” I used to sing live. And then eventually once we had enough new songs it didn’t make much sense to keep singing about blowing up mines.
[Laughs] And when did you meet all those eventual collaborators?
Once Yeasayer started to tour for real, I started meeting all these amazing musicians that could really help bring the project to life. It was basically after the first year of touring that I was like ‘oh I can go back to this project and sort of make it cool.’ Because I never wanted it to be me singing all the songs, which is why I resist the term “concept album,” because that always seemed to me like an artist singing all the different songs, and I always wanted a musical where the whole joy of the album was the variety in the vocals.
What were the main inspirations behind the project?
Hmmm… every song has a different inspiration, but we were obviously very inspired my old musicals like Bugsy Malone and Little Shop of Horrors. Oliver, Sound of Music, the classics–love Rodgers and Hammerstein. And then also some bombastic rock music like Queen, Neil Young and David Bowie. But we always wanted it to be like a musical that was written in the 70’s.
What was different from working on this, as opposed to Yeasayer?
Well Yeasayer is a lot more… I guess contemporary. We’re always trying to be as cutting edge as possible. And the Yeasayer songs are gonna be much more abstract and personal, using drum machines and samplers and a lot of weird treatment of sound, whereas this we were really trying to go for a more earthy, classic sound while still trying to be experimental with regards to the structure of the songs. We wanted to make a lot of suites where you start off in one tempo and then shift drastically to something else. It was all about trying to get the perfect minimal arrangements that would support the vocals, and getting the vocals as good as possible.
What was the writing process like?
It was a combination of lyrics and melody at the same time. Certain songs, like “Better To Die,” we had to change a lot of the lyrics, because originally it was sort of a Greek chorus singing the song, and that’s how the musical got started. Then we realized it needed to be more of a narrative element that this boy is singing about. So it went from being like a traditional song sung by a union to being a more personal song. And then for “Hold You Tight,” the original line was “Darwin it’s not so bad,” and it was going to be a prostitute singing to Darwin… but then we realized that didn’t make any sense so we changed it to one of the characters’ daughter’s singing to him to try and convince him not to blow up the mine.
What was the recording/producing process like?
It was a bunch of different phases, actually. After about a year of touring with Yeasayer I took about two weeks to record in a studio in NY for a lot of basic tracks, then did another year and half of touring with Yeasayer for the album Odd Blood, and then after that I went back to the studio because I felt a couple vocals weren’t right. So it seemed like it took us a long time, but actually, the time that it took us to record was fewer hours than Yeasayer’s album, it was just because it was never my top priority. My main gig was Yeasayer, so I would just squeeze it in. A lot of my recording was done at home, I would call up my friend Sam [Muglia] and say come over and play some flute. Or Austin [Fisher] to come over and lay down a guitar solo. And then finally in 2011 we went back into the same studio with Britt Myers, the same guy that mixed Odd Blood. And then the last two years has just been trying to get the record label to put it out and getting the artwork finished.
Album art for Break Line The Musical.
That artwork is awesome, could you tell me about it?
I had a lot of close friends who have been really supportive from the beginning, even on my shoe string budget I was able to get all this amazing work out of people because they knew it was such a fun vanity project. So my friend Genesis [Belanger] made all these sculptures. A lot of them are made of plaster and ceramic and are kind of these fantastic prop elements, and the idea for the art was to have them all laid out on a table in the backstage of a theater. And then she made all these pieces of coal, out of Styrofoam I think, and that’s what the cover is–it looks like coal falling. Even in early 2005 when I made Photoshop images, I always had the idea of coal sort of falling apart. I’m so happy with how that turned out.
Are there any songs that are particularly close to your heart?
I mean, “Better To Die” is always gonna be very special to me because that was the first one that we wrote. And I’m not even really sure how we wrote it or how it came together, it just kind of happened. And then “Fathers and Brothers” I wrote at a very sad moment in my life, and I think the way that Aku [Orraca-Tetteh] performed it really took it to the next level. So I guess those songs are more close to my heart than the more theatrical songs, though those are really essential to the musical.
Any plans for the project in the future?
Yeah the original plan was to put all the songs form the story onto the album, but once we realized what we had we needed to cut some songs so that it would flow better, even though it took away from some of the narrative. So I’m also making a song book right now that will have all the songs from the musical, sheet music, piano lines, the melody and lyrics. As far as a live performance goes… for me that would involve like a complete changing of career paths. And I have so much respect for people who dedicate their lives to one particular craft, whether its a band or the theater or the art world, I don’t know that I’m equipped to suddenly switch to doing that. BUT that’s not to say I wouldn’t be completely thrilled if someone wrote to me and said ‘hey I’m loving this song book and want to put it on at my high school or at a fringe theater,’ I would definitely give my blessing. Though, honestly, I always envisioned it as a soundtrack to a film that was in my brain, and that’s why we have so many sound effects to help you visualize what’s going on.