YACHT Rocking and Semiotic Sailing

So about once every five years I am impressed by a band that I catch in concert that I’m not expecting to be impressed by.  For the past five...

So about once every five years I am impressed by a band that I catch in concert that I’m not expecting to be impressed by.  For the past five years, that band has been YACHT.  I saw them for the first time about two years ago.  I was my best friend’s last-minute +1 to Making Time at the recently re-named Voyeur.  I knew that “the guy used to be in The Blow,” but that was about it.  What appeared onstage was the most confrontational androgyny since Placebo in ‘96 and the most stylish manner of kicking ass since… well, Placebo in ’96 (Although, YACHT were quite a bit more danceable and quite a bit less angsty… although that wasn’t immediately apparent from the center of the well-intentioned  riot that was knocking Philthy’s most fabulous all over the dance floor.  At one point my friend turned to me and said “I’m pretty sure we’re in a gay mosh pit.”)  I was immediately obsessed.

YACHT are Young Americans Challenging High Technology.  At the core of YACHT is Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans.  Not only do they make phat, accessible beats that induce ass-wiggling like Ipecac induces vomiting, but they’re as influenced by semiotics as they are by Michael Jackson and Nirvana.  As someone who teaches cultural studies at Temple University and likes to regularly throw down to synthesizers and honky funk, they’re pretty much the perfect concoction of exciting “work” and intelligent “play.”

In April YACHT put on one of the year’s best shows at the First Unitarian Church and in June they released Shangri-La, an album just as danceable as it is intellectually inspiring (albeit a bit lofty, but I have always thought that was a good thing).  If you missed their last appearance (or, even if not), they’re going to be back at the Church this Sunday, 12/4, and it’s likely to be the season’s most fun… badass… informative… loveable… raucous show, all in one.

I recently conducted what is officially one of my Top 10 (possibly even Top 5) interviews of all-time with Claire Evans, YACHT’s postmodern pixie… We talked about the current state of YACHT, the current state of the world, and all kinds of “cool shit” that I can usually only discuss with people who are forced to sit through my lectures.


Izzy Cihak: What do you believe are both the easiest and most meaningful ways that Young Americans can Challenge High Technology?

Claire Evans: When we say we “challenge” technology, we don’t mean it in the combative sense. For us, to challenge technology is to experiment, to test the limits of the tools we have at our disposal, to subvert software to strange purposes for which it was never designed: using presentation software like Keynote to make interactive video meditations, for example. We’re lucky enough to live in an age of unprecedented access to tools, to communication, to free knowledge. The most meaningful thing we can do is to simply take advantage of it, exhaustively create, learn, and then clamor for more.

IC: Your latest album, Shangri-La, is centered around the notion of Utopia. Are you and Jona big Thomas More fans, or was it some appropriation of his work that you found to be so profound and inspiring?  (If so, please do share.)

CE: Yes and no. We’re fanatical about research, and read as many works of Utopian literature as we could before undertaking the recording of Shangri-La. Of course Thomas More is a reference, but for what it’s worth, More’s “Utopia” isn’t ours. His is as close to a fascist state as you can imagine: travel around the island is allowed only with a draconian internal passport system, premarital sex is unlawful, punishable by a lifetime of enforced celibacy. Women have to confess their sins to their husbands monthly, and slavery is the economic backbone of the entire enterprise. Basically, it’s modern day America.

As we understand it, historical attempts to build physical Utopias have almost unequivocally ended in failure, death, or fascism. When YACHT speaks about “Utopia,” we don’t reference the specific island of More’s fantasy.  Rather, we’re citing the idea which he seeded and which countless others have since built upon: that of an impossible place. We believe that Utopia is “no place,” and is not an actual location as much as an idea, a direction, an aspiration.  YACHT’s conclusions about the practicability of Utopia are still in development, but we do have one important finding: Utopia is not a state, it’s a “state of mind.” Not a place, a time. Not a government, or self-government. Not future—now.

IC: Your backing band is called the Straight Gaze and there’s a portion of your website dedicated to YACHT’s semiotics.  You’re obviously interested in cultural theory.  Are there any particular theories or theorists that you find especially interesting or especially relevant to our current circumstances?

CE: Philosophy informs what we do perhaps more than anything else. See Mystery Lights came from a period of arcane research into esotericism, ritual, mysticism, and the occult, but Shangri-La is relatively starry-eyed: equal parts Henri Bergson, Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, and Buckminster Fuller. The YACHT cultural position owes a lot to the Frankfurt School, a heady dose of Baudrillard, The Whole Earth Catalogue, and more cyberpunk nihilism than we’d like to admit. As for what makes sense for our current circumstances, the book on that is being written in Zuccotti Park as we speak.

IC: You may be the only band (other than maybe Atari Teenage Riot and Refused) whose non-musical influences are more apparent than your musical influences.  What have you found yourself listening to lately?  Do you feel as though there are any bands that YACHT considers to be peers or that you feel are doing similar things (musically or otherwise)?  You have discussed how, despite the fact that mantras are most commonly associated with religion, in our contemporary society of the spectacle (this is me projecting Debord onto you), the most powerful mantras come in the form of popular art.  Are there other artists whose mantras you feel a kinship with?

CE: That’s not too radical a projection. A mantra is a unit of language capable of creating transformation; we live in an age of extreme visual language, and it molds us implicitly. The only difference is intention. Most people, except maybe advanced mystics and shamans, can’t unsee the throbbing visual semantics of the world, can’t pierce the veil of maya, if you will. That said, we’ve been listening to the new David Lynch record, Crazy Clown Time, a lot of Arthur Russell, and the steady steam of old-school “back in the day” hip-hop and lap band commercials on Los Angeles’ 93.5 FM KDAY.


IC: In addition to your musical work with YACHT, you’re a fairly prominent writer, having recently co-authored the book NA/SA.  Do you have any significant literary heroes?  And how do you feel as though your prose relates to or works in conjunction with your musical output?  Is there anything you might tell fans of yours particular to one of the mediums to encourage them to check out the other?

CE: I like that you call me “fairly prominent.” My literary heroes are the science fiction renegades of the New Wave! People like Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, Ursula K Le Guin, Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler; I think science fiction is the most powerful tool we have to understand the world and anticipate the ramifications of our actions. It has an ability to be critical about the nature of reality, identity, and systems that few other genres have. If I could write science fiction, I would; instead, I write about science’s intersections with art, technology, and culture, because I see the science-fictional future unfolding itself all around me every day.  Of course this informs what we do with YACHT, by virtue of the fact that I don’t compartmentalize my brain. When I’m thinking about cyborg ethics, the Earth as seen from space, and art on the moon, that inevitably leaks into the discourse I have with Jona, and eventually “trickles down” into the work we make.

IC: In your bio you boast of YACHT having played in and on boats, caves, bathrooms, art galleries, and museums (I’ve seen you in a gay dance club and a church basement).  Do you have a favorite type of space to play, which you feel like is most conducive to your aesthetic?

CE: No, there is no optimal space for us. We’re always pushing to expand the boundaries of where a YACHT performance can take place; as  much as possible, we want the audience to lose their reference points for acceptable behavior. If we play in an art gallery or church basement, the context is different enough that we can step beyond the usual indie-rock concert stance–we can push, touch, and engage. We like Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone: ideally, that’s the kind of space we want to foster.

IC: Despite all of your friendly electronic danceability, your live shows more closely resemble punk shows.  (The last time I saw you the audience stormed the stage without being invited.  I’ve often described YACHT live as “The Stooges as a dance band.”)  What do you consider to be most influential to your performance style?

CE: We come from punk. Well, we come from the deeply engrained DIY culture of the Northwest, where “punk” is a feeling that represents everything from Poison Idea to Beat Happening. Because of that, we’ve always been very engaged with the physical reality of performing, of being in a room with people, of sharing something in lived space. In terms of performance style, our heroes are people who strived to remain authentic to their bodies and the extremes of their experience in the moment of performance: Jona looks to Kurt Cobain, and I’m totally knocked out by people like Exene Cervenka, or Tomata DuPlenty of the 70s LA punk band The Screamers, who was a trained mime and so completely expressive physically that he could just move a pinkie finger and bring the house down. It’s very difficult to be totally in your body on stage, to fight against the feeling of surreal dislocation, of floating above yourself. Managing to be there, in the moment, and vulnerable–that’s when performing can be transcendent.

IC: To end on a light note… since this is a Philadelphia based publication, I have to ask if you have any especially notable thoughts or memories of the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection (as we refer to it).

CE: The last time we played in Philadelphia, our show was merged, at the last minute, with Lightning Bolt. We’ve been fans of Lightning Bolt for years — talk about the Temporary Autonomous Zone — but it’s a pairing that probably never would have happened. It became one of the most powerfully unhinged, kinetic nights of our career. The floor and walls of the venue were drenched in sweat. It was pandemonium.


Band Interviews

During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.