For the uninitiated, New York’s yMusic is the go-to group for “orchestral flourish” on indie rock records. Its six instrumentalists have worked with everyone from Beck to Bjork, St. Vincent to Sufjan Stevens, and now, Ben Folds. As announced this week, yMusic will hit the road with Folds this spring for a series of dates in which they’ll perform the album they made together, which is set for release later this year. We’ll get into that in just a second, in our Q&A with yMusic’s CJ Camerieri, a multi-instrumentalist who won Grammys for his contributions to Bon Iver’s sophomore album, and recently toured with Paul Simon and Sting.
This is all well and good, but yMusic is far from just orchestral back-up. They also create the kind of modern classical music that garners comparisons to Sonic Youth on Pitchfork, features production by alternative hip-hop favorite Son Lux, and presents original compositions from a number of the aforementioned indie heavy-hitters. The group’s second full-length, Balance Problems, is equally unsettling and stunning — true avant-garde modernism come to life via precise classical techniques. The band’s new video for “Music in Circles,” which Flavorwire is pleased to premiere, strikes a similar balance, thanks to some surreal pixelated glitch-art placed atop a modern dance piece. Watch below. (Though quite tasteful, it’s probably NSFW.)
Flavorwire: There are a lot of ideas represented in this clip, but the glitch-art adds an element of commentary regarding yMusic’s mix of modernism and classicalism. How did you see the video working in tangent with yMusic’s mission?
CJ Camerieri: To be honest, the inspiration for this video came 100 percent from Jason Harper, the director. He has been working with yMusic for almost two years now filming concerts, interviewing members and composers, and immersing himself in our musical community. When he said that he had an idea for a video for “Music in Circles,” we trusted his inspiration completely. We love this video because “Music in Circles” at its core is a simple and beautiful melody. I feel like the extended techniques that Andrew uses really relate to the glitch-art in how they both distort the inherent and simple beauty in the melody and the dance.
FW: Ben Folds has been very specific about yMusic’s role on his new album, saying: “On this record, yMusic are the rock band, straight up — not ornamentation. We call the ornamentation, ‘and strings’ which is beautiful of course, just not what we are doing.” So, tell me a little bit about what it is you guys are doing. How does it feel to be the primary band on an album like this, as opposed to an orchestral component?
CC: This is really a dream project for us. So much of our careers as both individuals and as a group are to do “and strings” or “and horns” on various projects and records. While we do love doing that, the chance to create these songs with Ben and be the core of the “band” was so exciting.
Ben was one of the first people to hear our newest record, Balance Problems, and upon hearing it he immediately wanted to use our ensemble’s inherent sense of rhythm and texture to make a pop record. He of course plays piano on the record, but the main source of harmony, thematic material, texture, and rhythm come from the ensemble (of which he is now a huge part of!). We set out to combine Ben’s incredible songwriting and ear for arrangements, orchestration, and improvisation with yMusic’s unique sound and musicality to create a thoroughly uncompromised record that highlights the strengths of everyone involved. We really feel like we’ve created something truly unique. Ben is truly an inspiring musician and person, and we feel so fortunate to have had the chance to work with him in this way.
yMusic in the studio with Ben Folds.
FW: How do you foresee the live interpretation of the album? Will it be difficult to recreate on tour?
CC: We recorded the entire record live in Ben’s incredible studio in Nashville. The arrangements were crafted by Ben, Rob, and myself in the mornings each day, and then the ensemble would come in and record what we had worked on. The engineering of the record was incredible and the room at RCA Studio A is one of a kind, BUT we will basically be performing the arrangements from the record in the live setting (with a few surprises) so it should be a seamless transition from recording to live performance.
FW: I’m sure you guys have heard it a bit by this point: Son Lux is a super interesting choice to produce a yMusic album. What did he help to bring out on Balance Problems?
CC: Son Lux is incredible. We have all worked with him in a variety of contexts over the years, and he wrote us our first-ever yMusic piece [the title track off yMusic’s 2011 debut, Beautiful Mechanical]. We wanted to find someone who could create a sonic landscape completely unique to classical chamber music recording, BUT whose decisions would be solely informed by the score. On this record he really is our seventh member. He makes a lot of very bold decisions as producer on this record, but he can back up each of them through an analyses of the score. I am so proud of the sound of this record that Son Lux and our engineer Alex Venguer created together. We wanted an ambitious, modern, and unique sound and mix of this record, and I really feel like we achieved it.
FW: You and your yMusic cohorts have collaborated with folks like St. Vincent, Bjork, Beck, Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, The National, and Dirty Projectors. Bands like ELO helped to cultivate an orchestral rock style initially in the ’70s, but the last decade or so has seen the popularization of orchestral elements incorporated with indie rock and folk. Any theories on what spurred and sustained the boom?
CC: We feel so lucky to be a part of this period in music where listeners are excited to hear orchestral instruments in bands. It’s been happening for a while now, and I think it’s probably a combination of both the access to quality music education in middle schools and high schools and a general shift in the music business. I see young kids in music schools today who graduate with a degree in classical cello or french horn, and their number one career goal is to play in bands.
yMusic has always approached our collaborations with bands with the same seriousness and attention to detail and nuance as we were taught to approach playing Bach, and has tried to bring the same energy and spirit that we feel when playing pop music to our performance of classical music. In our upcoming tour with Ben, we will be playing our regular yMusic rep alongside classic Ben Folds songs and our collaborative record material, and nothing could be more natural or exciting for us!