In the summer of 2014, David Altmejd put three heads in a box and mailed them to the band Yeasayer. If a box of heads isn’t how one typically consecrates an artistic collaboration then that’s because the collaboration between the French-Canadian sculptor and the Brooklyn-based experimental rock band is not so typical.
Full set for the production of Yeasayer’s Amen & Goodbye album cover, with sculptures by David Altmejd. Photo courtesy of We Are Free.
Altmejd says that, at the time, mailing his sculptures to the Catskills—where Yeasayer was recording Amen & Goodbye, the band’s fourth studio album, due to debut Friday—just seemed like the intuitive thing to do. But it was also meant to send a message. As Altmejd told me, “It was a way for me to say, ‘Listen, I am a sculptor. I make objects. That’s what I do. Whatever our collaboration is, it’s going to really take shape and form itself around objects.’”
The heads in question weren’t of the once-living variety. Rather, they were, as the rest of Altmejd’s sculptures, amalgamations of organic and inorganic materials that form melted-away, hollowed-out, and grown-upon vestiges of a human form. The band was wooed, says frontman Chris Keating, who was on the other line of our call. (Keating, Ira Wolf Tuton, and Anand Wilder together form Yeasayer.) “We set them up in the studio and had them just staring at us for months. It was kind of creepy,” said Keating, laughing.
A shared sense of humor and affinity for the strange sewed the seeds of their collaboration, which bears its fruit on the album cover of Amen & Goodbye. Altmejd and the band crafted the cover’s characters—some sculpted, some played by humans—collaboratively. “Some of the names were obscure, some of them were just references from songs, some of them were different people we were influenced by,” said Keating. Altmejd says he didn’t want the sculptures that would grace the album to come from his own landscape and established artistic vocabulary: “I wanted them, the objects, to be coming from the band’s music, their work, their landscape,” he said.
The result is dazzling—all the more so for its physical manifestation in a day where cheap visual thrills can be achieved with the click of a mouse in Photoshop. Many figures, from infamous faces like that of Donald Trump to others relatively unknown, factor into the collaboration’s output. But Altmejd aptly cites his crafting of Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose body is the source of the “immortal” cells used by scientists to cure polio, as particularly exemplary of their ping-ponging process. The band wails her name in their synth-heavy tune “Henrietta” from 2012’s Fragrant World—its chorus of “ohhhhh Henrietta, we can live on forever” pulsates with a beat that somehow drones and crescendos in equal measure. And Altmejd, more than happy to oblige in realizing that pledge, lends Henrietta a new life (and a new body) on the album cover.
“I happened to be working on the head of Rosie O’Donald” for another sculpture, Altmejd told me. “I thought it would be kind of weird and funny and interesting if Henrietta Lacks was actually performed by Rosie O’Donald.” But, says the artist, “I was extremely distracted by Rosie O’Donald’s face. It was overpowering. So I just decided to get rid of it. I dug a big hole inside her face.” He adds, “The origin was Yeasayer, but then it became digested and kind of fragmented and rebuilt by me.”
Members of Yeasayer with sculptures by David Altmejd. Photo courtesy of We Are Free.
For a collaboration to be more than a forced collage, there needs to be some commonality in how those working together create their art. Across the spectrum of artist/musician team-ups one finds understandable if empty brand partnerships (Jeff Koons designed a Lady Gaga album cover) and complete misfires (Jay-Z’s tedious performance rapping alongside Marina Abramović). But as they’ve done their entire careers, Altmejd and Keating chart their own course. Altmejd’s sculptures even inspired Yeasayer’s video for “I am Chemistry,” a track on the new record. “Working with David has spoiled me because it went so smoothly,” says Keating. (“Awwwww,” laughs Altmejd). A fast friendship blossomed—as we spoke, the pair made plans to hang out at Altmejd’s new Queens studio this weekend.
Altmejd says that Amen & Goodbye was more or less only the second time that he has collaborated in the entirety of his artistic practice. But, when Keating was inspired to get in touch with the sculptor a few years ago on the off chance something might work out, Altmejd was primed for the experiment: “I really liked the band. And I had the time.” He pauses. “No, I didn’t really have the time. I guess maybe intuitively I knew that I wanted to do something that was completely different. I felt I was at that point in my life that I wanted to be pushed into a different space, you know?”
Sculptures from David Altmejd’s set for the album cover. Photo courtesy of We Are Free.
Beyond good timing and a cozy personal relationship, the two share a language of creation. “We try to have chaos when we’re recording. We try to just layer and layer and layer and then just scrape away,” says Keating. “To me it feels like sculpting, the process of building things up and breaking things down to find something you didn’t know was there.” It should come as no surprise, then, that the band’s duet with the equally materially-minded Altmejd is on key—even if it’s a strange key you’ve never quite heard before.
“When I was a kid, I was obsessed with album covers,” says Keating, citing the complete universe of costumes, music, and photography crafted by the Beatles for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “I think there was something about creating that world, so that if someone wanted to, they could look and find stories and relationships and dialogues.” Besides the cover of Amen & Goodbye, name somewhere else you can find Julian Assange, Griselda Blanco (“an infamous drug lord and murderer”), Albert Einstein, and Caitlyn Jenner in one place. Even the band hasn’t digested the cover’s full scope. “I just noticed the naked guy on the left, the bottom left, his reflection in the boxes, I didn’t know you could see his reflection,” says Keating. Altmejd laughs, “I didn’t notice that either.”
Yeasayer’s Amen & Goodbye is out on April 1st via Mute.