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YACHT - "Party at the NSA"

Recent revelations about NSA wiretapping and online surveillance inspire a one-off single, website, and designer T-shirt from the avant dance music group. You can order the "Party at the NSA" T-shirt now, exclusively from Nothing Major.

Interview By John Dugan, August 16, 2013

Creative responses to the political issues of the day are nothing new. For the medieval bard, political cartoonist, or modern troubador in the Bob Dylan/Woody Guthrie mode, the machinations of rulling elites are always good inspirational fodder for expression. Today, however, digital technology allows that artistic expression to travel far and wide more quickly than ever. And that opportunity isn't being lost on artists, especially those with a habit of taking the means of production and distribution in their own hands.

This week, YACHT, Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans, has responded to recent headlines in the news on the National Security Agency's surveillance programs such as PRISM and XKeyscore by releasing a new single, an electro-dance party anthem with a searing guitar solo from comedian Marc Maron, appropriately titled "Party at the NSA." You can download the single at partyatthensa.com. YACHT has also teamed with Nothing Major to release a limited-edition T-shirt featuring an illustration by Tim Lahan, with all profits benefitting the EFF

Pre-order the "Party at the NSA" T-shirt here and download the song at partyatthensa.com.

We're always curious about the inspiration and challenges involved in mixing music, politics, and design in a creative project, so we shot YACHT with some questions this week, which Evans graciously answered.

Your response to the revelations about unwarranted NSA surveillance is a political party jam. Is that a good way to get folks to think about this issue?
One of the functions of music—and art in general, is that it allows people to sublimate their fears into new forms: laughter, joy, expression, whatever. For us, being musicians, making a song is the natural gesture. We make dance music, and we understand that dance music is for many people a form of release. "Party at the NSA" functions in that way, helping us shake off the anxiety that the hulking, anonymous presence of the NSA engenders. 

But there's precise intent, too, in making "Party at the NSA" a party jam. It evokes the classic punk-rock satires we grew up loving, like the Dead Kennedys's "Holiday in Cambodia," or the Descendents' "Suburban Home." To have fun at the NSA's expense while simultaneously doing something active, raising money, to fight against it—in our minds, this is a combination that works. A lot of people are subconsciously deterred from involvement in these kinds of issues because the very thought of what is actually happening in this country makes them anxious, and they'd rather ignore it. We want to reframe that impulse, giving people an engaging, spontaneous, expressive context for protest. Poetic terrorism, if you will. 

Did the idea of the download site or the topic for the song come first?
We wrote the song to release stress, but realized pretty quickly that we could use its energy as a force for good. We're really aware of the issue of illegal NSA surveillance and frequently discuss it. It's central to our operation: I (Claire) am a science and technology journalist, and I also happen to be a legal Alien in the United States, so NSA surveillance, which nominally only applies to foreign communications, directly concerns me. In all our travels, we've always considered the Internet home—safe, free, unifying. To think that the government feels entitled to trample around on our turf is not only aesthetically repulsive, but the precedent it sets, its lack of concern for the sanctity of the web or the privacy of its users, is really dangerous. This is act one of the dystopia. We can't let a total surveillance state creep up on us by dismissing the warning signs. 

Do you think the response from the music and design communities to the NSA program has been muted thus far?
On some level, it seems people have stopped being surprised by increasingly Orwellian revelations about the NSA. Of course there has been outrage, in many communities, but it's a difficult thing to know how to even begin to fight back against. There are definitely some great voices in the design community though; in fact, the type we use on the "Party at the NSA" site is called ZXX, and it was made by Sang Mun, a designer (and former NSA contractor) as a conceptual protest against surveillance. It's actually designed to be unreadable to machine scanning. Mun has written some really impassioned and intelligent things about it. 

Are we likely to see more artists and musicians responding to and commenting on the U.S. intelligence surveillance program? Can you think of any ways they can respond?
We certainly hope so. It's up to the creative community to find interesting ways–like Mun's defiant typeface–to make comment on this issue. We need as much discourse as possible. It should be deafening. We should be breaking the NSA's servers with our red-flag emails and aesthetic dissent. 

What is the EFF and how does it relate to "Party at the NSA"?
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a nonprofit that actively litigates on behalf of the public interest against U.S. government malfeasance and the large corporations that abet it. They have been staving off the tides of corporate interest and state surveillance on the web for over 20 years, and have a couple of cases in the courts right now that contend specifically with the issue of government spying. We considered a handful of charities for this project, and the EFF seemed to be the most specifically effective. Two-thirds of their budget comes from individual donors, so contributions like the one we're hoping to make are vital in helping them fight (and win) more cases. 

Who did the design for the "Party at the NSA" eye T-shirt? How did you decide to work with him?
The design was done by New York-based illustrator Tim Lahan. We'd been fans of his work for a long time and recently approached him to collaborate on some artwork for a mixtape we made with comedian Eric Andre. The image he made for "Party at the NSA" is actually very much unlike his other work, which usually contains a great deal of humor. We think it's perfect: striking, simple, and evocative. It balances the punk spirit of the project with the severity of the issue at hand. 

The eye also ties into the Lord of the Rings and the Illuminati. Are either of interest to you?
Not particularly. The writer and philosopher Robert Anton Wilson, who we love, made this great observation that all of these New World Order scenarios stem from the same paranoid human impulses that feed monotheistic religions—but the idea that the whole world has one specific narrative, overseen by one specific person or persons, is ludicrous. The world is just chaos, and no one's in charge. 

How did you get Marc Maron to do the guitar solo? Any chance of a Maron/YACHT collab in the future?
Marc Maron did the voice-over for a recent documentary celebrating the 12-year anniversary of our record label, DFA. Somewhere along the line he became a fan; he name-checked us a couple of times on the Internet, and so we reached out to say thanks. After seeing him shred in that Postal Service video, we cooked up the harebrained scheme of asking if he'd play a solo on the song. He'd worked with the EFF before, raising money to fight against patent trolls, so it seemed like a good fit. Much to our surprise, he said yes, came over to our house with an electric guitar and an amp, and killed it.

Visit YACHT online and head to partyatthensa.com for more info on the project.