with YACHT's Claire Evans
and Jona Bechtolt
Author: Zoe Leverant | Photographer: Lia Bekyan
ACHT is not just a band. They're an idea, and a belief system long concerned with philosophical inquiry. Their debut album examined magic; the next, religion; the third, utopia. On October 16 they released their fourth record, I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler, a longform lament about the disappointments of the digital age. It’s also their first record since relocating to Los Angeles, which the pair—Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans—have found to be a mecca. Hopes&Fears spoke with Evans, who’s also a prolific science and tech writer, and soon to be host of Vice's Motherboard TV show, about this latest chapter in YACHT’s journey of discovery.
Hopes&Fears: You’ve said this record is very much about LA. LA is very different from the places you’ve lived before: Portland, Oregon and Marfa, Texas. More alternative places, sort of metaphysical places, whereas LA has a certain superficial reputation in the world. How has that been? Why are you thriving there?
Claire Evans: I think one’s experience of Los Angeles is very subjective—it means a lot of things to a lot of different people. It has a reputation for being superficial, which is insane to me. I think that comes from people’s experiences of driving across it without experiencing any of it on the ground. Once you get out of your car and start poking around, everything is an amazing mystery. There’s interesting history and strangeness everywhere that we find fascinating. LA is a blank canvas.
Portland was lovely, but it has a micro-identity in terms of what you can do as a musician. People expect you to have a certain kind of sound, and it’s a very small community that’s something of a fishbowl. Marfa is an incredible place, but also a fishbowl. LA is incredible. It can be anything. You can exist in so many levels and don’t have to take part in only one scene, especially if you’re curious. It doesn’t demand anything of you, it doesn’t require a set identity of you. As artists that’s very liberating. We don’t have to be anything in particular. We can just do what we want.
And we can get stuff made — not movies, actual stuff: postcards, t-shirts, art objects. The means of production are just there. We made perfume a few years ago and wanted a nice glass bottle for it, so we went to the glass bottle district of Downtown LA and found the right one, without any fuss or preciousness. You just get stuff done, and that’s very satisfying as maker-people.
H&F: That’s such a big part of your identity as a band — you don’t just make music, you’ve always made things. Years ago you made a manila envelope MacBook Air case, and you just did a sunglasses collaboration. Branding has always been part of the music industry, but what you make feels a little more organic and exploratory.
CE: I appreciate that observation!
H&F: And yet you always keep coming back to music.
CE: Jona and I [both] learn by doing. In order to learn how to do things, we have to make them. We love to look behind the veil at means of production, we love to discover the weird, arcane language of a design practice. When we made the sunglasses, we had to learn the nomenclature of all the different parts of the sunglasses, the names of the finishes.
Everything we take on helps us do better things for the band. It’s information-gathering. We learn, and then bring it into the toolkit. At the end of the day, the band is always the center point, the fire around which all these things gather and stay warm. We’re also total control freaks, so for us the idea of someone else making something for us — even a t-shirt — seems so in vain, because why would we let someone else do it if we know how to do it ourselves? And we happen to know how to do a lot of things.
Music is rewarding in some ways, but the music business and the game can be demoralizing. So it’s useful to do things in different disciplines, remember that it’s not all about Spotify streams. It’s about making things that are real. Music is ineffable, too, so to make a tactile object is satisfying in a way that music sometimes isn’t.
H&F: That ties in very much with the concept of the album, that we are living in the future. And in our future-present, the means of production are accessible to us in an unprecedented way thanks to things like 3-D printing.
CE: It’s amazing—take our home computer. From that computer issues forth not only the music that we make, but the packaging and design that surrounds the music that we make, and also the platform that disseminates the music that we make, where we communicate with our team and our extended community and our fan base. It’s all centralized into one node, which is incredible. I think we underestimate how powerful that is.
H&F: But in the video for “I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler” you’ve surrounded yourselves with very trendy technology that is probably going to be embarrassing in five years — I can imagine us looking back and shaking our heads: “Vaping? Hoverboards? Really?”
CE: Oh, absolutely, the video was supposed to be funny. People tend to confuse “technology” with “future”, but just because something is technological doesn’t mean it’s futuristic or that we’re living in the future. It means we’ve let our attention wander into this realm of gadgetry while forgetting about some of the larger things that are happening outside and around those objects — to create them, to sell them to us, beyond the boundaries of those objects.
One of our biggest fears around this album is that people will think we’re coming from a place of entitlement, that we wish we had jetpacks or real hoverboards, but it’s really not about that. It’s about how all of those things seem so ridiculous in the face of the actual problems the future presents for us.
H&F: You’ve mentioned the persisting social problems of the future in a lot of interviews. And you incorporated Uber into one of your projects, which is exemplary of this issue — they’ve fixed this problem for us with technology but did so by exploiting labor in a way that’s happened for centuries.
CE: Totally, there’s nothing new about it. It’s just new platforms for the same forms of exploitation.
H&F: The video also parodies our handwringing about technological isolation: people whiz by each other on hoverboards and bumble around blindly in VR goggles.
CE: That reactionary take, that we’re all isolated and not communicating with one another — like a family dinner where all the teenagers are looking at their phones under the table — it’s not a very helpful way to think about technology. Yes, that’s a problem, we are “alone together,” as Sherry Turkle says. But that forgets the fact that, when people are on their phones, it’s not like they’re looking at a mute object. That phone is a portal into so many other things, so many other forms of connection. So really, we’re valuing some forms of connection over others. I don’t know if condemning it is necessarily a valid way of dealing with it.
H&F: Do you have faith in a future where technology moves us past these persistent sociological issues?
CE: I say this a lot, but technology is what we make of it. Language is a form of technology, a pen is a form of technology — as is a submachine gun, as is Twitter. They’re all extensions of ourselves. I am cynical about what we’re currently calling technology, which is connective technologies and apps and virtual reality. I don’t think that is going to liberate us. If the forces of control and technology are in the hands of the people, and people connect without the medium of a massive, monolithic corporate force, then I think we’d be in a good place. But we’re not there right now. Some things need to radically change in terms of the way that power, income, control, and connection are structured.
H&F: The manifesto on your website ends with, “The path will be long and strange, and you’re welcome to join us.” Where is the path headed next?
CE: Man, if only we knew! That’s the great thing about the future, is that no one can really lay claim to it and no one knows what direction we’re going in. For Jona and me, we’re always going to be obsessively trying to make interesting objects that are perhaps a little too complicated for the world, or for the media landscape that we live in. But we will forge forward always in the interest of provoking conversations with people that are interested in talking to us. That’s us. As for what the rest of the world is going to do? Your guess is as good as mine.