Speaking with Shane Butler and Caity Shaffer of Olden Yolk feels like a great conversation with friends where one alleyway of thought leads into another. It’s a feeling similar to their latest album, Living Theatre, a gorgeous record that funnels a broad collection of musical influences, but also ends up sounding like some of the best of Yo La Tengo’s gentler moments. It’s an album full of amazing vignettes that flow one into another, utilizing instrumental tracks to frame the album’s structure, culminating in “Distant Image,” one of the best songs on the album and the de facto title track. As Caity Shaffer’s narrator walks down a suburban street, watching televisions flicker ceaselessly in one house after another, it recalls Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian” while also invoking a paranoid chant about technology that’s now older than all of us – something maybe more a part of life on Earth than even we as individuals are.
Aquarium Drunkard caught up with Butler and Shaffer via phone to discuss their latest album, the minimal period of time dedicated to making it happen, The Living Theatre, having not had your tongue cut out (yet), and setting up plans to get arrested on tour…
Aquarium Drunkard: The two of you gave yourself a very finite period to create this album – around three months. And this came after a lot of time on the road for the previous album. Had you done a lot of writing prep ahead of that time period, or did you give yourself that three months to write, arrange, record the entire thing?
Shane Butler: Each of us had stuff that was lingering for a while. Little tidbits that were there. But definitely not fleshed out.
Caity Shaffer: I think most of the songs were created during that three month period in their full form. One of them I started writing when I was 18. [laughs] So it was pretty old. But we also gave ourselves that time to devote to writing.
AD: What made you want to put that kind of restraint on the writing? Was it to just make sure it got done, or that you didn’t spend too much time overthinking it, or was it more like a writing task, like putting a constraint on yourself to spur creativity?
Shane Butler: I think more the first thing you said. The last record that we did was over a much longer period of time of writing, and we really just wanted to collaborate over the summer, see what we could get done, then put it in a studio and see what we could get done that way.
Caity Shaffer: I think we both tend to like to use constraint in our practices, but more than that, we were just feeling inspired to get to the next batch of songs. We had this period where we were going to be in a new place, we had chosen to come to Los Angeles for a few months, and it seemed like a residency of sorts. It seemed like the perfect time to incubate the ideas we’d been having on tour. Sometimes on tour you play the same songs over and over and it really encourages you want to get to the next thing. [laughs]
Shane Butler: I think also, the thing you said about not over-thinking, I think that sometimes it’s really nice to have a lot of time you can put into a record. In terms of arrangement, we had a long time with the last album because it was essentially a demo process that just lasted forever. Which is nice in some ways, but it was fun to see all we could do in a short amount of time without overthinking it.
AD: I’m really interested in the title of the album, Living Theatre, and since that’s a reference to The Living Theatre, and since that’s such a specific concept to name an album after, I found myself going back to refresh my memory of what it is. [laughs] It emerged from this post-war period that proto-punk and punk did, but I also hear 50-plus years of music reflected in this album. Can you expand a bit on what your thoughts were in naming the album Living Theatre and what that means to you?
Caity Shaffer: At first, I can’t say it was too intentional. I just had that lyric knocking around in my brain and we ended up using it in one of our songs, “Distant Image.” [“sacred is the living theatre / though it’s getting hard to step outside”] And when we were going back to describe the album, it seemed like such a perfect encapsulation of what we were trying to do in that three month period which was trying to live in some discomfort in terms of getting outside our normal habits of how to make music. We had this small space in L.A. and we were really just workshopping with each other to the point that we were being really honest about the music we were making and not being afraid to not say certain things and share the fullness of our expressions with each other. That’s what the Living Theatre movement was about as well. Breaking down some of those barriers of restriction and being fully present with the audience, and the person you’re making the art with.
Shane Butler: I think one of the reasons it really resonated with me is the state in which everyone is living right now – in social media and web-based media, we’re always putting on this living theatre. Our lives become this theater all of the time. So this old concept that comes from this movement back then now has this new meaning with the way social media interacts with our lives. I’m also glad you picked up on the different eras of music that came through in the album. There’s this great Gang Gang Dance song [“Glass Jar”] that came out in the early 2010s that starts off with them singing ‘it’s everything time!’ I think that’s a result of the living theatre that we live in now — that eras are all mish-mashed. There are a lot of bits and pieces that weren’t discovered before that are easily accessed now because of the Internet, so we can live in all these eras at once as well as living in the one we do now. Being able to put that into a musical framework was one of the attempts of this record.
AD: My introduction to the Living Theatre was Robert Palmer’s Rock and Roll: An Unruly History and he talked about Julian Beck and the Living Theatre, and La Monte Young and the Dream Syndicate and how those art movements tied into what the Velvet Underground and other music was doing. But this was in the AOL era, so I was able to devour parts of culture and spend time with them and think about them. But now it’s like a deluge. Everything is available. It’s the same thing with culture being mashed up and spit back out at us in this intense way.
Shane Butler: I think it’s funny because when so much is being thrown at you all the time – I know it’s a huge trend, even in fashion, where a lot of like, for example, 90s trends came back. But then it gets regurgitated and it’s the new thing, but it’s an old thing recycled into a new thing recycled into a new thing. And you don’t even know what’s vintage and what’s contemporary and what’s retro and what’s futuristic, and it becomes a really interesting time where everything can exist on a non-linear platform together.
I remember reading Please Kill Me back in the day, and it starts with La Monte Young, but then it ends with La Monte Young, too, when you get to the end of those punk years. And these artists would begin something with something they had no intention for and then it cycles back to them. I think that’s interesting.
Caity Shaffer: Yeah, I think one of our first experiences hanging out was going to visit the Dream House. I think that had a big impression on us.
AD: You put out a video for the single “Distant Image.” The title comes from a Paul Bowles short story which is kind of a wild tale. Can you talk a bit about how it connects to the song?
Caity Shaffer: Yeah, I don’t know if there is a direct connection. I’ve always sort of been drawn to that story. I’ve always told people about it. The story is about a linguistic professor who travels to a place to study the indigenous language, and by the end of the story he’s tied up and a prisoner of this group that picks him up and cuts out his tongue. He’s completely lost all of his ability to analyze language and even speak. So it’s this ironic and very bloody tale of an expert whose facilities are taken away. I guess the way that it relates to the song is the same feeling of being disconnected from language almost. I guess part of it is I studied English literature myself, and we all fail to find the right words sometimes. And this song is about that lapse in communication that can sometimes happen. It’s not about me getting my tongue cut out or anything. That hasn’t happened. [laughs]
AD: One of the things I like about the song is the imagery of seeing through windows the flickering lights of a television. I immediately thought of Plato’s allegory of the cave and seeing the flashing movements and having an understanding of what’s going on, but not knowing what’s going on behind it. And you can describe television like that in general.
Shane Butler: I think it plays into the Living Theatre idea also. I’ve always taken that story to be about being so obsessed with something to the point of mastery that it can destroy the very thing that led to the obsession. We get totally subsumed by the things we’re so in love with, so obsessed with, and then strip ourselves of that.
Caity Shaffer: Back to the image of the TV screen projecting on the walls, I’m from Pennsylvania and this happened to me the last time I went to visit my mom. I was walking down her street, and I saw all these people engaging with the television inside of their homes. And contrast that with maybe 50, 60, 70 years ago and you go down the street and perhaps you see people talking, having conversations. It’s this strange view of people in these insular and disjointed experiences with their televisions. And it just kind of stuck with me, even though it’s the most familiar image to me in the world. Walking down the street in New York City, you see the same thing. As the sun goes down, you see the lights popping up in windows.
AD: I love art that feels like it comes with a bibliography. I like that there’s this idea that someone’s going to pick up this album and they’ll find that the album title is a reference to something, or may lead them to read that Paul Bowles story. I feel like it’s like a guidepost to appreciating your album more, but also a way to send listeners down this rabbit hole. Are there other threads people could follow in that way?
Shane Butler: We devour a lot of culture. Things that happen in the news, small conversations, music. There’s a lot of stuff.
Caity Shaffer: We still are on this kick, but we’re kind of obsessed with detective shows, and I think in listening back, now that there’s been some time, I can trace this eerie line of being kind of in the dark.
Shane Butler: Like, creating fantasies for yourself. “240D,” the song that starts off the record – I was driving one day and this guy in this Mercedes 240D pulled up next to me at a stoplight and looked at me and kept looking over at me. And we kept driving, so there’d be one stoplight, and the next, and the next. And he kept looking at me. And I wondered what if this guy rolled down his window and told me some crazy story about some kid being shot or something wild that he just tells to a stranger. I’m wondering if some of that detective show stuff kind of causes us to create these realities based on the culture we digest. [laughs] And part of that also is that we’re so unaccustomed to talking to strangers. There’s a lot less human interaction these days. When I was a kid in New York, I’d talk to strangers all the time on the street. My parents probably weren’t happy. [laughs] To me, that idea, I really hoped for it. I was hoping this guy would say something crazy, and something I’d really have to think about.
Caity Shaffer: And this album is really inspired by contemporary events. I think we were very engaged with what was going on politically, and especially at the time we were making the album, the #metoo movement was coming to the fore. So a lot of that was on our minds more than trying to emulate some period of music or capture some sound from 1978 or something.
AD: So then my last real question: is your devotion to the idea of Living Theatre high enough that you’re willing to try and find a way to get yourself arrested while on tour.
Caity Shaffer: I think that’s the whole point.
Shane Butler: That’s part of being in a band. [laughs] words / j neas
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