Short and Sweet: WMSE Talks to Yellow Ostrich

Alex Schaaf — like scores of youthfully energetic and inquisitive people before him — have had their brains fired up by science, astrophysics and astronomy (and especially the science, astrophysics and astronomy ideals and studies of Carl Sagan). Schaaf recently stumbled into the writings of Sagan that forged the insight and inspiration that turned out his latest batch of compositions as Yellow Ostrich. His album title? Appropriately, Cosmos [Barsuk Records]. Schaaf, a native of Appleton, Wisconsin, now resides in Brooklyn, and his time spent growing a solid base of admirers in his home state with his project the Chairs, matured into something more realized with Yellow Ostrich and his connection to likeminded musicians in his new home. Schaaf’s signature skill of utilizing both guitar and vocal hooks and looping them thoughtfully into a swirling and melodious caucaphony is one thing to hear on record and another thing to witness unfolding, live. It’s impressive. Joined by the nuanced percussion of Michael Tapper and new contributors, Jared Van Fleet and Zach Rose (multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez departed in early 2013), Schaaf’s band, although bigger, ultimately remains his vision as a mathematical musician and science brain  and his newest musical work has garnered the observation that it is “a study in the intersection of intimacy and bombast, just like Sagan’s original work.” (AV Club).

When did you first read [Carl] Sagan? Was your first Sagan experience pretty profound?

I first started reading his stuff like three years ago, and just slowly fell in love with it.  I just had such a quick connection to the way that he thinks and sees the world.   It kind of kicked off a way of thinking that I hadn’t really tried before, in terms of writing songs, which ended up working pretty well.

How was your prep time spent before writing and recording Cosmos?

I had been working on the songs for the past couple of years, just writing here and there.   But then at the end of 2012, we started working on them as a band, and just spent a lot of time reshaping them over and over until we had something that everyone was happy with.  It was slightly perfectionist but not too much.

Tell us about “Things Are Fallin’” (the title of the song + the title of the cover image for the album)…

The cover image is a photograph by Bas Jan Ader, a Dutch artist from the 1970s – he made a few short videos of himself falling, in different locations/set-ups.   They’re so simple and beautiful, it inspired the song “Things Are Fallin'” and then we took a still photograph from one of his videos for the album art.

Any new bells and whistles, production or gear-wise, that you pulled out for this particular batch of songs?

For this album we dealt with a wider range of sounds, compared to the ‘guitar rock’ of the last album – so we were working with a lot of synths and keyboards and getting sounds from many different things. We just got more interested in atmosphere and texture than in the past.  There weren’t any particular tricks besides working with great people who know what they’re doing – we worked with Beau Sorenson (Wisconsin native) to record it, and Paul Kolderie to mix it.

As a Wisco native, do you ever thing of re-working your earlier stuff as The Chairs, or are you full-speed ahead focused on Yellow Ostrich right now?

I think the Chairs songs are all sealed up at this point, I’d have to take the other guys to court to even attempt something…but no, I’m fully focused on Yellow Ostrich at this point. Maybe someday when I’m 82 they can release a retrospective box set with all those songs on it.  Yeah, that sounds like a good idea…

Yellow Ostrich performs at the Turner Hall Ballroom this Sunday, March 30th. 8pm, all-ages. Opening: Pattern Is Movement.