Wisconsin-born Yellow Ostrich takes flight

2011-11-16T07:00:00Z Wisconsin-born Yellow Ostrich takes flightANDY DOWNING | 77 Square | adowning@madison.com | @andydowning33 madison.com

Like a character in the fable “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse,” Yellow Ostrich frontman and Wisconsin native Alex Schaaf relocated to New York City in August of 2010 to experience a lifestyle radically different from his small town upbringing.

“I finished school and figured it’d be a good time to experience the most extreme form of big city life I could find,” said Schaaf, 23, who was born and raised in Prairie du Chien. “Even just riding the subway everyday was a great way to plunge into New York. It was the epitome of city life, where it was dark and dirty and you’re riding with every kind of person.”

In contrast, the singer described his childhood as “classic small-town life.” His time in high school — “I sang in choir and played…basketball, football and golf,” — sounds straight out of central casting for the role of All-American Teenager #3 in the rumored “Friday Night Lights” movie.

Considering the frontman’s relatively straight-laced background, the weirdness permeating Yellow Ostrich’s debut, “The Mistress” (Barsuk Records), a fragile effort built around the singer’s multitracked falsetto, comes as a surprise.

“This album…felt like something I hadn’t heard,” said Schaaf, who brings the indie rock trio to The Sett at Union South for a show on Saturday, Nov. 19. “I wanted the vocals to function as more than pretty melodies, so I used them as a structural, rhythmic element.”

Witness the hypnotic “Hahahaohhoho,” where Schaaf croons atop his own looped vocals, which repeat the tune’s nonsensical title in a mechanical cadence reminiscent of a steam engine chugging steadily along.

The frontman’s focus on vocals — though he started playing piano as a kindergartner, he still calls himself a singer foremost — is rooted in the time he spent performing with the jazz vocal ensemble and choir in high school.

“It was a big influence in getting me to sing and think about harmonies,” he said. “Singing was always a big thing growing up.”

In many ways, “The Mistress” could be summed up as Schaaf’s attempt to explore the full capabilities of the human voice. At times, his pipes echo a distant foghorn (the solemn “Mary”), while other times his vocals are layered until he sounds like a one-man Beach Boys b-side (“Hold On”).

Despite the record’s more experimental bent, it sounds downright approachable compared with a trio of EPs the singer recorded and released under a number of self-imposed restrictions in August 2010.

Like the 2003 film “The Five Obstructions,” which found Lars von Trier challenging Jorgen Leth to remake his movie “The Perfect Human” five times while faced with a series of obstacles, Schaaf set strict boundaries on himself during recording sessions for each of the three mini-albums.

He recorded one EP, “Fade Cave,” using only vocals and a drum machine. A second, “The Serious Kids,” is billed as “an experiment in dance music” and sounds something like melodic robots attempting to recreate ’80s new wave. “The Morgan Freeman EP,” meanwhile — easily the oddest of the bunch — derives its lyrical content solely from the famed actor’s Wikipedia page.

“I knew I wanted to be in a band and write songs, but my tastes tend to change very quickly,” said Schaaf. “It was like, ‘Am I going to be a country person? Am I going to be electronic?’ I did those (EPs) because it was like, ‘Lets try this and see how it feels.’”

Fittingly, Schaaf’s move to New York was inspired by a similar urge, and though he’s now adapted to big city living, he does look forward to this homecoming trek — and the cheaper booze prices that come with it.

“We’re playing at Lawrence University in Appleton, which is where I went to school,” he said. “There’s a place on campus there called the Viking Room, which is this classic college bar with really cheap PBR, which is something I’ve sorely missed since moving.”

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