Alex Schaaf's transformation from Yellow Ostrich to Human Heat
photo by Jonah Lorsung
Alex Schaaf is a Prairie du Chien native who spent several years leading independent stalwarts Yellow Ostrich. From his humble beginnings at Lawrence University in Appleton to the streets of Brooklyn, Alex and Yellow Ostrich toured the U.S. relentessly, scoring a recording contract with Barsuk Records and playing all the major independent music festivals.
After the band broke up, Alex relocated to Minneapolis in 2016 where he repurposed his side project, Human Heat, into a full-time music endeavor. He has a new album out now called "All Is Too Much" and the depth of the songwriting and musicianship is impressive. The album was recorded in Schaaf’s home studio, and was mixed and mastered by Zach Hanson (Bon Iver, The Staves) at Justin Vernon's April Base in Fall Creek, WI. It's easy to see why Alex was asked to join as a touring member of Tei Shi and Tallest Man on Earth before making the Twin Cities and Human Heat his focus. We caught up with Alex for a few questions.
I think we both have something in common. I lived on College Avenue in Appleton for a period of time. You were a music major at Lawrence University?
Yep, I did both music and English majors there, graduating in 2010. It was a great experience and I met a lot of interesting people there. Even better, they brought me back a couple times afterwards to play Yellow Ostrich shows there -- getting paid for the show + free hotel rooms from the school was quite gratifying, paying back my student loans one show at a time.
You've been known to play a lot in Madison. Wasn't one of the first gigs by Yellow Ostrich at Gates of Heaven?
Yeah! I think it was definitely one of the first 2-3 shows ever, at Gates of Heaven, those were really fun shows.
Before moving to Minneapolis, you called Brooklyn home for several years at the height of the New York hipster craze. What was that experience like?
It was the ideal time of my life to do it, and I'm glad I got the experience - it was obviously a big change from small-town Wisconsin life, which was what I was looking for. It was tough, but I'll always be a little bit proud of having figured out how to live there and make it work. I got lucky early on with getting a day job that was supportive of my music stuff, letting me leave for tours whenever I needed to, which was really the major reason I was able to survive there. And obviously the music scene was very lively and it was an exciting place to be. But then I just hit a point of wanting to do something different, experience a different way of living, and after 6 years there I felt like it was time to move on.
How did the remnants of Yellow Ostrich evolve into Human Heat?
I had technically started Human Heat while Yellow Ostrich was still going, towards the end there- just using it as an outlet for a different kind of writing, more electronic stuff with less vocals, initially. I used it as way to experiment with more atmospheric things, work on my production more, rather than focusing on songwriting. But after a while doing that, I kind of came back to the songs and for this album, focused more on just writing meaningful songs and melodies, also incorporating some of the production stuff I had learned but also embracing the pure songs more than I have in the past, even with Yellow Ostrich songs.
At one point you played in the touring bands for Tallest Man on Earth and Tei Shi. Sounds like a cool gig. How did that come about?
They were both great gigs; I knew Val from Tei Shi because I had been a fan of her stuff early on and we had them open up the final Yellow Ostrich show. Then she was in need of a guitar/keys player and it was the perfect timing for me, wanting to do something different. So I did that for a year or so, and then the Tallest Man gig came about through a mutual friend, which was a very lucky connection as it led to this amazing opportunity to tour the world with great people and powerful music.
The growth and maturity in your song writing really comes through with Human Heat. "I Need My Space" sounds like a deeply personal relationship type of song as does most of the new album. What was the catalyst?
Oh thanks! A lot of it was just my progression over the last couple of years, in wanting to write more direct, personal songs; not shying away from presenting something in a more simple fashion, compared to a lot of Yellow Ostrich songs where I was driven by a desire to deconstruct things, and to try and make it more interesting or challenging musically. This shift in styles coincided with some personal stress that was happening at the same time, which gave me a subject matter to really explore in the songs and to have them feel real to me, which was exciting from an artistic point of view, if not from a personal perspective.
What's in store for Human Heat with the release of the new album "All Is Too Much"?
Well this is just the start of everything, I'm going to try and push this as much as I can, playing as much as I can, while also working on new songs (already working on a few). I think my experiences have helped me see that it's a long game, and so I'm not as worked up on the day-to-day excitement of wondering when our instant success will hit. I'm more content to keep working hard and grow this over the long term.