When was the last time you used a fax machine? Those of us who are old enough remember a time not too long ago when you couldn’t walk into an office without bumping into one, and some enterprising individuals even went so far as to buy one for their homes. Now, in 2015, many people haven’t even touched a fax machine in a decade (or in their entire lives), but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to find one. Go to any FedEx, Office Depot, or Staples and you can send or pick up a fax, just like it’s 1985 again. And, starting today, that’s what you’ll have to do if you want to get the first look at future-obsessed pop band YACHT’s new album, I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler.
Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans spend a lot of time thinking about the future: what it is, what it means, and how even just the promise of it can shift culture. The future is often imagined in terms of things we’ll be able to consume (flying cars, hoverboards, Soylent), but implicit in that consumption is the things we’ll discard in its wake. "It’s not like technology is something that just develops in a single monolithic way and then as soon as it becomes obsolete it disappears and is replaced by something else," Evans said. "We live in a world in which we’re surrounded by things at varying degrees of obsolescence."
"We’re surrounded by things at varying degrees of obsolescence."
YACHT began as Bechtolt’s solo project in 2002 (Evans joined the lineup in 2008). Their albums are often thematic — 2011’s Shangri-La explored the idea of utopias — and their sound is somewhere between aquatic pop and mechanical malfunctions. As musicians (with a healthy amount of side ventures), understanding how people consume things — and the propensity for some of these things to fall into disuse — is a continual area of interest for Bechtolt and Evans. Our inclination to forget or ignore once-common technologies when something a little better comes along has created a little graveyard of unused machinery full of CDs, Walkmans, landlines, and ThighMasters. It’s in this space of tech-neglect that YACHT finds inspiration for I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler.
Enter the fax machine. The band’s newest project gives fans an early look at the album cover — if they’re willing to interact with the real world to see it. First, fans must download YACHT’s single-use web app, Fax.Ink (designed by longtime YACHT collaborators Daniel Bogan and Matthew Spencer), that locates the nearest fax-service store. Then, the app will fax a copy of the album art to that store for the user to go and pick up. The first 300 people to do this not only get a physical copy of the cover art (a photograph by Luke Gilford), but they’ll also get a manifesto written by YACHT detailing the history of fax art. After the cover is printed 300 times, the web app will stop working, and, like the fax machine, will eventually fade into obscurity.
There's another reason YACHT chose the fax machine as their album art messenger: its connection to sound. Evans says the way fax machines use telephonic tones to translate images interested her from a musical perspective. "A transmission that reflects or represents our sound, through sound, for people to physically pick up, is really compelling," Evans said.
The transmission of images through sound
Even still, why would a band so interested in what’s ahead want to ask their fans to go backwards? For YACHT, the fax project is a way to reimagine what near-obsolete technologies can be. "The fax machine existed in a time when it never really got to be explored as something beyond a business tool," Evans said. "What can we do to take that technology and activate it again? What can we do with the tools that we have now that didn’t exist in the peak of the fax machine’s popularity?"
Then there’s the relationship between technology and the real, physical world. YACHT is asking fans to go pick something up at a store, but they’re doing it with the help of an app. Evans calls it "an analog distribution platform" that’s enticing largely because it operates outside of the internet — and it offers a degree of control that’s all but lost in the digital age. "We’re thinking about it as, ‘How can we release an image to the public in a limited way before it’s released to the public in a broad way?’" Evans said. "And the only way to do that in this age is to release it as a piece of paper."
But it’s more than just a piece of paper. It’s a physical artifact in a time when physical artifacts — especially in the music world — quickly become dusty fossils of a previous era. Online, the album art is just another .jpg, but as a fax, it’s a limited-run art piece translated by a fading technology. And of course, YACHT promises it will still look good. "We did a test to make sure it looks cool, and the fax gave it this whole other life," Bechtolt said. "It looks like it was made to go through a fax machine."
YACHT has yet to release a single for I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler, but the album’s intricate rollout has already resulted in several projects, or what Evans calls "tiny monuments." The band announced their album last month by tweeting a link to Google Maps coordinates with a virtual pin. Shortly after, the band released drone-shot footage of Bechtolt and Evans standing on that corner. High above their heads was a big red billboard bearing the album’s name. After the album announcement, YACHT shared the track list in the form of a GIF-heavy listicle (a "tracklisticle") that was published on BuzzFeed last week. And after the fax project has run its course, YACHT says there will be more installments to come. "We’re in it for the projects right now," Evans said.
So are fax machines the new record players? Probably not. But their continued use highlights the fact that, in some respects, the world now doesn’t look much different than it did 20 years ago. "I think we’re in a point now where we’re beginning to realize that the future will be much like the present, only hotter and louder and more crowded," Evans said. "The thing about the future is that it’s mundane." That may ultimately be true, but for now, YACHT will do what they can to make sure it’s not.
I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler is out this fall.