If you think breakups aren’t sexy, you haven’t heard about the one Alex Schaaf went through.
The former Yellow Ostrich founder immortalized it on All Is Too Much, the sultry, bumping, full-length debut from his new electropop project Human Heat. And while the details are veiled on the album’s 11 tracks, it’s not hard to infer from Schaaf’s heavy-hearted lyrics and emotive vocals that some shit went down.
During our phone interview, Schaaf won’t spill any secrets or point any fingers, but he does offer some general background. “It was a breakup that hit me harder than ones had in the past,” he says. “At the same time, I was writing songs and trying to make the album. I made a choice at one point to embrace it and not be afraid to make gloomy songs. I’ve had sad songs in the past with the Yellow Ostrich stuff, but those were always a little more abstract for me personally. They weren’t as much based on specific, real events. I was excited in the artistic sense to use these really raw feelings and try to make them into a song. It’s about the very universal experience [of a breakup].”
Ambivalence, long-distance complications, and being replaced are recurrent themes on the album. Schaaf’s lonesome voice echoes over solemn keys as he sings to an anonymous phantom “you.” In “Close to My Chest,” he warns you not to get too close. In “Best for You,” he hopes you don’t get that job half a world away. In “I Need My Space,” he, obviously, needs some breathing room. In “Someone Closer,” he doesn’t blame you for finding a new lover. But in “Remember When,” he falls apart every time he sees you. That’s a lot of emotional ground covered – and that’s less than half the album.
The ex in question has heard the songs; Schaaf let her preview the album before its Sept. 15 release on Offline Records. “I sent it to her with the caveat of ‘It’s inspired by that but it’s not about that specifically.’ It is a strange thing and hard for other people to hear maybe but it felt like something that was honest,” Schaaf says. “I don’t want to write things that are straight out of my diary. That’s not interesting to me. It’s how to take that experience and make it universal or something that can connect to other people.”
I only wish that there had been time to see your flaws / Maybe it’d be a little easier on me now—“Your Flaws”
Schaaf has experienced more than one kind of breakup recently. The Brooklyn-based Yellow Ostrich, known for its guitar fuzz and vocal looping aesthetic, disbanded in 2014 after four years and as many full-length albums. “We wanted to end it on a good note and then move on to other things,” he says.
Schaaf started the Human Heat project shortly after that. “I wanted to explore a different style of music and explore doing everything myself this time,” he says. “I wanted to get into a more of a slower, electronic space.”
Working alone “felt pretty natural,” Schaaf says. “In Yellow Ostrich, I would write the basic song. I always wanted to leave it up to the other guys to come up with cool parts that I couldn’t have thought of, but I would at least have an initial idea. I would send a demo with drums and bass and keyboard on it already and say, ‘Go from here.’ Now, it’s doing the same thing but being able to see it all the way to the end, which is pretty fun and exciting – and also takes longer, because I can endlessly tinker with each part of the songs. It’s harder to know if something’s good. There’s not someone else in the room giving me instant feedback. It can be a little longer and harder to trust your instincts.”
Human Heat does involve some guitar, but keyboard, organ, and synths are primarily responsible for the pulsing, sensual sound. Schaaf’s friend Zach Hanson added drums and Jon Natchez (The War on Drugs) contributed horns to two tracks. Human Heat isn’t so far out in the electronic soundscape that it can’t translate to live shows, though Schaaf didn’t perform or do any promotion for the project right away. Instead, following Yellow Ostrich’s demise, he took gigs playing and touring with other bands.
I know I missed your call / I watched it ring and go unanswered / It’s nothing personal / I must be on some great adventure—“Slippery”
First up was a tour with Tei Shi, a New York City-based indie pop artist. “I’d always had this big itch during Yellow Ostrich, like, ‘I just want to play in someone else’s band and not have to worry about any of the details. Just tell me what to play,’” Schaaf says. To be onstage and play music without the pressure and stress of a frontman’s responsibilities was exactly what he needed.
After touring with Tei Shi for a year and a half, Schaaf got a gig with the Tallest Man on Earth. “It was the biggest thing I’ve ever done, size-of-the-tour-wise,” he says. “There was a tour bus and everyone in the band and the crew was super great and made a whole family of friends there. To be able to play Red Rock and these amazing places that are on my bucket list.”
His two touring experiences were as different sonically as they could be. Tei Shi’s electronic-based style uses backtracks; Tallest Man comes from a more folksy, traditional singer-songwriter background. “I feel like all experience is good – learning about different levels and touring. I’ve experienced the extreme ends and now I can do my own thing more effectively,” Schaaf says.
As much fun as being a band member was, though, it didn’t quell Schaaf’s hunger to make his own music. “It’s way more personally fulfilling to do my own stuff in front of 100 people compared to playing in someone else’s band in front of 2,000 people,” he says. “They’re different kind of satisfaction.” he says.
I just want to feel settled / At least that’s what I think / I’ll take any old answer / Please just make it quick—“Feel Settled”
After his tour with the Tallest Man on Earth, Schaaf was ready to leave New York. “I’d been there for like six years, which was feeling like long enough. I started a band there, ended the band there. Just when I thought of doing the whole cycle again, I was more excited about doing it somewhere else and trying out the cheaper life with more space.”
It was mid-December of 2016 and that “little breakup” of his “put the nail in the decision to move,” he says. He chose Minneapolis on something of a whim; the Wisconsin native knew he wanted to return to the Midwest and Minneapolis felt like “the most exciting place compared to other Midwest cities.”
Once settled, Schaaf finished up the recording the Human Heat album he started back in Brooklyn at his home studio. Hanson, who has worked with the likes of Bon Iver and the Staves, mixed and mastered the album at April Base studios in Fall Creek, Wisconsin.
The fall tour in support of All Is Too Much will take Schaaf to Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York, and along the way he’ll learn if his Yellow Ostrich fans will follow him into this new, vulnerable territory. “I think when I ended Yellow Ostrich, I was a little optimistic about how easy it would be to transfer all that to a new thing,” he says. “I realized, ‘Oh, yeah, no one cares about the solo project of one of the dudes in the band.’ It is kind of starting from scratch. I’m interested to see how it goes. It’s a long game. This will be around for years and many albums and so this is just taking the first step to get it started.”
As for playing such personal material, created in solitude and privacy, in front of a crowd of strangers, he says, “Hopefully you’re not reliving the original emotions every time you perform them. That’s kind of what I want to do – to be authentic and giving the crowd my all, not just phoning it in – but you have to separate from it to some degree just to survive. Once you listen to the songs and play them hundreds of times each, it becomes more abstract and you focus more on musical details and arrangements and not necessarily the subject matter.”
The ground is cold and it’s all I can feel / Who are you telling me what is real / Live your own story, I will live mine / Or I’ll try, yeah, I’ll try—“Real to You”
Since his arrival in Minneapolis eight months ago, Schaaf has immersed himself in the local music scene. “I feel like I’ve gone to more shows since I moved here than I saw in all of the six years I lived in New York,” he says. “It’s exciting. New York doesn’t have a music scene, like a specific group of people doing something together. There are a bunch of tight micro-scenes. It’s a great place to do music, but it can be harder to find your corner because there’s so much going on. Here, it’s more focused. There will be nights when there’s lots of shows, but it’s like, ‘This is the one show,’ and you go there and you see everyone from all the bands you know, which is exciting to me because that was harder for me to find in New York.”
Minneapolis can also be clique-ish, but while Schaaf admits the scene can feel cold to outsiders sometimes, he doesn’t see it as intentional. “There’s a natural core group of things happening, but I feel like it’s open to new things and different styles,” he says. “If the scene’s not as focused on a specific genre of music, I think that makes it more interesting. It’s a pretty cool vibe.”
With: Norwegian Arms, Fiji
Where: Eagles 34
When: 9 p.m., Sat. Sept. 16
Tickets: $7; more info here