In 2009, Lawrence University student Alex Schaaf experimented in his dorm room on a musical project he called Yellow Ostrich. Under this moniker, Schaaf digitally released his first album, The Mistress, for free on Bandcamp.
The record immediately exploded all over the hipster blogosphere due to its enchanting blend of rock, folk and classic music. “Schaaf is clearly a talent to watch, and if the outpouring of music on the Yellow Ostrich Bandcamp site over the last two years is any indication, one with a lot of creative ideas needing to get out,” wrote magazine Under The Radar. “As a debut LP, The Mistress is an excellent place to begin and a sign of good things to come.”
With praise like that, it’s hard to shift gears. But for The Mistress’ follow-up album, Strange Land, Schaaf decided to expand Yellow Ostrich into a full three-piece band. Joining the roster for round two are Michael Tapper on drums and Jon Natchez on horns and bass. Together, the trio has put a gritty spin on Yellow Ostrich’s sound and has thus signaled a new musical direction for the band.
Strange Land goes on sale today from Barsuk Records. To celebrate its release, I chatted with Michael and Jon about the new record, being the new guys, the band’s evolved sound and more.
AN: Where does the name Yellow Ostrich derive from?
MT: I believe it came from a dream that Alex had. He has a sort of strange obsession with large animals. It might be sexual in nature, I’m not sure. Freud would probably say so.
AN: Strange Land certainly has a heavier sound than The Mistress did. What spurred this grungier shift in your music?
MT: It’s funny you mention grunge. Jon kind of hates grunge. Probably because he was in high school when that was happening and all the lacrosse jocks were into it. But Alex was only like 5 years old, so to him it’s retro and cool. But really I think the guitar-rock aspect of this record comes more from a big Neil Young kick that Alex was on when we were making the record. Which brings us full circle, since Neil Young is the grandfather of grunge or something like that.
AN: When Rolling Stone posted a free download of your new single, “The Shakedown,” they also called out the Neil Young influence of your band. What other musicians and other influences impacted the songwriting process of Strange Land that were not present on your previous album?
JN: Well, Neil Young was definitely a huge influence. We were listening to a lot of him when making this record. Other influences were Brian Eno and The Velvet Underground. They’ve always been a constant influence.
MT: From what I could tell observing Alex during the songwriting period, I think he was getting pretty deep into Bob Dylan too. Also, whereas Alex made The Mistress on his own, Jon and I were involved with Strange Land, so that probably brings in a bunch of musical influences that were absent from Alex’s previous work.
AN: You’ve opened for many musicians in the past, including Ra Ra Riot and The Antlers. But this month, you’ll be embarking on your first nationwide headlining tour. What about this upcoming experience are you most looking forward to? What are you most nervous about?
MT: I’m mostly looking forward to getting a little respect around the green room for a change. No more of this ‘you’re sitting in my seat, dude’ kind of stuff and a little more hummus plate with my name on it kind of thing. What I’m most nervous about is that this respect might still be absent.
JN: Well there’s always the standard, “I hope people come” response. I like to think that I’m happy just playing the music that I enjoy and I don’t really need the validation of a live audience. That being said, when you’re on tour, you want there to be crowds and you want it to go well. All you can really do is play the best music you can and then the rest of it is out of your control. In terms of what I’m most excited about, I’m just happy we get to play full sets. We’ve had great experiences opening for other bands but when you’re the opener, you’re only playing for 30-35 minutes. And we’re a band that really likes to play a lot. Our set is different every night and we do a lot of improvisation. Especially with my role in the band, I’m trying out new stuff on the songs every night. When you’re playing for only half an hour, it’s hard to get in the groove, for lack of a better word. You can’t really stretch out the songs and figure out how to make them different every night. But since we’re headlining, we get to really put a full set together and not feel like we’re leaving anything out.
AN: What song from the new record are you most excited to play for a live audience?
JN: My favorite song on the record is the last track, “When All Is Dead.” I’m really, really proud of that song. In a way, I think I’m most excited to play that live because it’s the most challenging song on the record to play live. Probably because there’s just so much going on in that song that you can’t really know how it’s all going to come together live. But in terms of just what’s a blast to play live, I always get a kick out of “Marathon Runner.” We’ve actually been playing that song live for almost a year now and I still love playing it.
MT: Most of the songs from the new record we’ve been playing here and there at shows, although we’re excited to be able to pack the set with new material. There are a couple, though, that we haven’t played live much (if at all) that we’re excited to finally do, like “I Want Yr Love” and “When All Is Dead.” Those two sort of came together in the studio, and we’re exciting to have finally fleshed them out to play live. Hopefully they rule and don’t suck when we do!
AN: What do you personally find to be the biggest differences in Yellow Ostrich since expanding from a solo project to a full three-piece band?
MT: My impression is that Alex wanted us to play with him mostly for the live show, so that he could have a little eye candy up on stage.
JN: That’s a really interesting question. I wasn’t part of Yellow Ostrich when Alex recorded The Mistress, so that’s an album I don’t really have a personal connection to. It’s something I listened to and absorbed at a distance. So it’s almost like comparing apples and oranges. Since I’m so much closer to Strange Land, it’s hard for me to compare the two. That being said, part of what makes me so excited to be in Yellow Ostrich is how amazing of an artist Alex is. He’s a great musician and a great songwriter. Comparing The Mistress to Strange Land shows me a lot of growth and maturity in Alex’s songwriting. I hear a younger person in songs like “Hahahaohhoho” or even “WHALE” to some degree, both lyrically and musically. They’re good but now I feel that Alex is heading to much deeper emotional places and that’s the main difference I hear between the two albums.
AN: Do you find that you have a deeper connection to the songs on The Mistress now that you are part of the band and you incorporate them into your set lists?
JN: Well, sure. It’s not like if we’re playing a show and if a song from The Mistress is in the set, I check out. When we were putting the songs from The Mistress into the live format with the trio, I of course felt a new connection to them due to the process and to the band. And while I might not have a connection to the writing of the songs on The Mistress, I definitely feel connected to them when I play them live. And before when I said I didn’t connect to those songs, I didn’t mean emotionally. I really dig them and I think they’re good songs. But it’s obviously different than playing Strange Land songs because there’s something about shepherding a song from day one that makes you feel a little closer to it.
AN: Part of what makes your signature sound both so intriguing and unique is your use of layered and looped vocals. Is this something you factor into your songwriting or is it an element that doesn’t come into play until final mixing and production?
MT: I think vocal looping was sort of a foundational element of what Alex wanted to do with Yellow Ostrich at first, when he was working on his own, and a lot of the songs were specifically written around vocal loops. But in the past year and a half or so, since Jon and I have been playing with him, the songwriting has been moving more and more away from vocal looping as a foundational element. And when we do use it, it’s a little more as a textural element. I think it’s something that we still like and that Alex is good at creating, but we also didn’t want to feel constrained to that or to let it become a crutch. So on Strange Land, there still is some of that but less than on previous records.
AN: Many of the lyrics on Strange Land seem to focus on coming terms with the realities of adulthood. Did you set out to structure the record around this theme or did the end result surprise you?
MT: I personally don’t really know what Alex was thinking or intending when he wrote the lyrics. But I think it makes sense that those themes would be there, since he wrote all the songs in his first year after college, having moved from Wisconsin to New York City and really being on his own. I think it kind of shows some honesty in his songwriting that that would come out so clearly, even if it was not entirely intended as a theme.
AN: You’ve posted many covers of different artists’ songs online. What’s the best Yellow Ostrich cover you’ve heard so far?
MT: There’s been a few, and we always think it’s awesome whenever anyone does a cover – it makes my heart swell like I’m watching Friday Night Lights. But one of my faves is a couple of kids doing “WHALE” on like a cello and handclaps or something at a high school talent show and ruling it. Another one is a men’s choir doing “WHALE” totally a capella with kind of a real 6/8 feel. Kind of awesome.
AN: For fans of The Mistress who haven’t heard the new record yet, what do you think will be the biggest surprise when listening to Strange Land for the first time?
MT: The ending. There’s a crazy surprise ending, but you have to listen to the whole thing nonstop for it to really work, but boy is there an incredible payoff if you do it. I can’t even hint at what it is, no spoilers.
AN: Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to me! Best of luck with Strange Land! You guys should be really proud of it.
MT: Thanks! Been a pleasure!
JN: Thank you, Alex!