Mario Klingemann & Jaclyn Campanaro
When Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans, the members of the indie synth-pop band YACHT, started to work on their new album, Chain Tripping
, they decided to go in a different direction and incorporate artificial intelligence as part of the songwriting process.
That decision made the writing and recording process particularly challenging.
“We thought that meant we create an algorithm that would go through our back catalog, and we’d hit a button, and it would spit everything out,” says Evans via phone from a Houston tour stop. The group performs with Juiceboxxx at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 11, at the Grog Shop
. “We thought the project would be about submitting to that output and trying to make it our own in some way. In the process of working on the album, we realized the state of the art is not where we thought it would be, and we’re a long way away from algorithms replacing musicians in any significant way. We had to be much more involved in the process, which was ultimately really good. We realized technology can’t replace the creative work we normally do, but it can complicate it and supplement it in a really exciting way. At the end of the day, it’s still our music. The way we got there this time was just way more complicated than it’s previously been.”
Evans says the duo abided by “really specific rules” for the album to ensure it wasn’t just music generated by AI but a YACHT record generated by AI.
“[In the future,] we would want to liberate ourselves from some of the constraints,” she says. “We’d still want to use some of the tools and in the couple of years since we started working on this project, the tools have grown infinitely more sophisticated and integrated into consumer-level music recording technology. By the time we get back to the studio, we may use some of those tools as part of the arsenal, but I don’t think we’re going to make AI music the rest of the time.”
The group recorded at an isolated studio in West Texas, and Evans says that she and Bechtolt really liked the isolation.
“We were working with this very complicated technique generating melodies from a process that interpolated melodies from our back catalog,” she says. “We would feed the machine melodies from our own music, and it would spit out Midi data and different notes. We picked things we liked and then everything was performed live on traditional rock instruments like drums, bass, guitar and keyboards."
Songs such as the fluttering “Hey Hey,” a song that features soft vocals and a Devo-like bass riff, and the glitchy “Loud Light” retain Yacht’s signature sound and sound like modern interpretations of the New Wave sound pioneered by acts such as Blondie and Talking Heads.
For the live show, the duo expands to a trio and plays all the music live.
Evans explains that YACHT, which started as a solo project some 17 years ago for Bechtolt, has had many iterations over the years. It then expanded to a duo and then a quartet. It even operated as a quintet at one point. Now, it’s downsized to a trio that includes longtime collaborator Rob Kieswetter.
"Joan [Bechtolt] was working solo and needed various female voices now and then," says Evans when asked about how she first joined the group. "I would come in and sing something that he would manipulate. We found that was working for us, so I became a full-time member of the band."
Though the group started in Portland, OR, it’s been based in Los Angeles since 2011.
“I went to school in California, and we always wanted to move to L.A.,” says Evans. “We love L.A. I’m going down with the ship that is Los Angeles. I think it’s the most interesting city in the country right now, and it’s a great place to be an artist, especially for the kind of work we do that involves collaborating with other artists outside of the world of music. It’s easy to find qualified, competent, interesting weirdos in all spectrums.”
In 2016 after a sex tape hoax got the band some decidedly bad press, the group took a bit of a break. Despite taking time off from Yacht, Evans and Bechtolt were still plenty busy.
“I wrote a book and toured around the world talking about it. We did the [public art] Triforium project and released an EP of songs, but we didn’t tour very much,” says Evans. “We’ve been doing music for a long time and doing weird projects for a long time. We’ve been taking risks for a long time, and one of those risks, I’m sure you hear, didn’t pan out exactly well and we needed the time to recalibrate and figure out who we are and why we do things and what our motivations are. We wanted to get back to the purposed, which is building community and making works rooted in deep curiosity and openness and excited energy about technology and people. It was a classic period of recalibration and introspection."
Evans says the group enjoys a challenge and regularly takes on art projects that are way beyond its skill sets.
“We fake it to make it and come out of the other end with musical skills,” she says, adding the band was just nominated for a Grammy for Best Immersive Audio Album. “We love to learn. That’s why we took the AI project on. We wanted to learn what artificial intelligence is and how it works and what its implications are for artists and society at large. We then wanted to make something meaningful out of it. It’s not just an educational project for us, but it’s about showing out audience what we learned and educating them about how AI works and what the aesthetic boundaries are.”
YACHT, Juiceboxxx, 9 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 11, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588. Tickets: $15, grogshop.gs
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