Yeasayer’s Anand Wilder: My Life In Sound
A Johns Hopkins art instructor, a hi-fi experiment and some age-related hearing loss lead to Yeasayer’s latest opened-eared statement.
Presbycusis, better known as age-related hearing loss, happens to most of us, and if you want to have some fun with your relatives at a holiday gathering, then bring out a little frequency generator on your smartphone and determine who has got it the worst. If there are any little kids around, then once you get up to around 12khz or so, they’ll start covering their ears and shouting at you, “You can’t hear that? Turn it off!” while Gramps looks on bewildered, hearing nothing.
Way back in early 2017, I was asked to speak at my old high school outside of Baltimore, Md. Yeasayer wasn’t doing much at the time, so I figured, “What the hell? Why not say yes.” Little did I know that preparing for this TED Talk-style speech would stress me out to no end. What would I even talk about for an hour?
I ended up transporting my entire home studio from Bed-Stuy to my old high-school music room and nervously blabbing about the band’s beginnings—coming to New York after college with a suitcase, a few songs in my pocket and a dream. Then, I dissected one song from Amen & Goodbye as it progressed from Ira Wolf Tuton’s instrumental piece up to my demo to a full band-produced final product. And, before I knew it, the hour was almost up. I had them in the palm of my hand.
But I had to get one last project in—a hearing test for the audience. So I asked for two volunteers, someone older (who most likely had experienced age-related hearing loss) and someone younger. A tall bespectacled student who was wearing a blinding white turtleneck and had been sitting alert and upright during my entire presentation eagerly raised his hand, and was pitted against a familiar former classmate’s parent, who was a painter and art instructor at Johns Hopkins University. I played two versions of the same song, David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes.” One was a hi-res digital WAV file and the other was a very lo-res mp3.
They chose different answers, and were both very certain that they knew which was the higher quality sound. The rest of the room was split down the middle, with most of the students following the go-getter high school student’s lead. But the older man was correct, despite his hearing loss.
I asked why he had picked it and, although he was confident, he had trouble articulating why it was better, talking about the “the sound of the voice,” “the warmth” and “the high end,” while the embarrassed high-school student blurted out something very nerdy in his defense along the lines of, “I thought it had too much sibilance and needed to be de-essed.” The older man rolled his eyes.
Long story short, the older man eventually retired from Johns Hopkins with a Yeasayer feather in his cap, and the high-school senior—Daniel Neiman—graduated and moved to New York City to attend music school. Despite his questionable hearing, he became my trusted intern (for school credit!) and then recorded and mixed the latest Yeasayer project, Erotic Reruns, out now.
I always love a good recording engineer memoir—Phil Brown, Geoff Emerick and Glyn Johns were chain-smoking guys that started off as tea fetchers and ended up manning the boards for the most legendary records of all time. They usually begin their books with a preamble about their childhood, how they had perfect pitch in church choir, how they’ve always seen colors when they hear different timbres or some other mystical explanation for their auditory aptitude. So I’ve graciously written Daniel’s backstory for him here, and perhaps he can cull from the following interview when he writes his future bestselling engineering memoir, with the likely title of I Owe it all to Anand, My Life in Sound. A 3% cut of the sales will go straight to me as fair compensation for giving him his first big break in the big city. Really, it was my pleasure.
After failing that fateful hearing test, how did you prove your worth to Yeasayer?
Ugh, I’m never gonna live that down, am I? But it’s good to know I proved my worth to you guys! And guess what? I’m using a de-esser all over the new album, so I guess I got the last laugh.
Recording a band is an intimate process, and I take it for granted that you so easily became a part of our inner circle. Do you have any advice for other burgeoning engineers who wish to ingratiate themselves with grizzled old art rockers?
1. Listen to NPR. All Things Considered and This American Life are always safe bets, and you should probably know your way around Car Talk, too.
2. Have some knowledge about Japan. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but you should definitely have some.
3. Develop chronic lower back pain in the engineer’s chair. Empathy goes a long way.
Isn’t it more fun hanging out with your contemporaries than with a bunch of middle-aged married guys with kids?
You’d think, but middle-aged married guys with kids always have the best snacks.
Who’s the most talented member of Yeasayer and why?
You know I can’t answer that, Anand. It’s like when you ask a parent which is their favorite kid—they definitely have one, but they’re not gonna tell you!
Now that you’re finished recording with Yeasayer, what’s your next project?
I want to get back into making my own music alongside my engineering and production work. I think it’s important for people on the engineering/ production side of things to exercise their musical muscles as well as their technical ones. It’s often easy to get detached from the song, so staying sharp musically is a good way to re-calibrate.
Other than that, I have a few things in the works right now—mostly mixing stuff at the moment, which is always nice. I’m also planning on finishing up my new mix room in the next couple of weeks.
Multi-instrumentalist and singer Anand Wilder is a founding member of Yeasayer. The experimental psych-pop group recently self-released their fifth album, Erotic Reruns, which was written and recorded in response to the 2016 Presidential Election and its aftermath.
This article originally appears in the September 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe below.