Mike Hughes 02/03/2011
Wye Oak are a two piece from Baltimore, made up of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack. They've been collaborating musically since they were teenagers. Wye Oak has existed as a band since 2007 and is reaching some sort of maturity. They're about to release a third album 'Civilian', on the well respected Merge label in the US with a new European deal via City Slang.
I caught them live at Koko, opening for Cold War Kids. Their music has epic melodies, galloping high above valleys filled with squalling clouds of noise and feedback. The new songs take the intimate buzz of the first two records to a whole new, more confident place. They have clearly worked out who they are on stage. Opening is both a great and rubbish place to be. The remarkable thing tonight was that with one minute to go, the audience were lolly-gagging, waiting for other heroes. Two songs into a set of largely unheard songs, the crowd were up and interested.
I met Jan and Andy after their set, in a dressing room crammed up high in the backstage.
I've talked to these guys before which makes it both better and worse. I confessed to having prepared some questions and was immediately met with their piss taking version of a journalist "What's it like being a duo? - Where did you get your name?" all delivered in dumb-ass voices. Oh well, so much for preparation. They mentioned Wikipedia and when I confessed to familiarity with their entry, was met with gales of laughter. We eventually got to some sort of interview.
Me - On stage tonight, you just seemed to be way up front, projected out there, whereas when I've seen you before, 15 months ago, you were...
Jenn - .... less comfortable with our setup?
Me - I don't know if that was it...
Jenn - Well we were.. only now are we feeling comfortable. It's taken this long, the setup is complicated. It's challenging, for Andy especially but for both of us
Andy - Yeah both of us are really exposed...
Jenn - Both of us are in the just now learning what the necessary components of the song really are. It's like a puzzle. There's only so many things you can add
Me - How did tonight's gig feel for both of you?
Jenn - Being on stage, I feel very anchored now. Even if I felt comfortable in the past, I was always also slightly terrified, not being sure of us, not sure of our equipment...
(They now have a sound technician, Adam, who is sitting on the floor doing important computer things on his Mac. Oh, hang on, he's of Facebook. Jenn and Andy both agree that now Adam has got their backs, much security has been added.)
Jenn - I feel comfortable now to stretch out sometimes and play things slightly differently - in the past it was a struggle just to duplicate what we had practised, now it feels like it is more fluid and alive and open to interpretation
One of the things Wye Oak is noticeable for is that while Jenn plays guitar and sings, Andy literally does everything else, to the point of playing keys with his left hand while drumming with his right. It is something to behold.
Andy - Jenn has been going through a incredible prolific creative spurt over the summer. We already had studio time scheduled and we had enough songs to record, you know, but then these other songs just kept coming in. Jenn always talks about songs being revisions of previous songs.
Jenn - Every one of the songs is a revision. I mean in a weird way, but in my mind it makes sense. I wrote something like 25 or 30 songs in a couple months which is a lot for me. I would finish a song and then think that it's not the best way that this song could be, so I'd write another one. Revision doesn't sound right because it would actually be a completely different song. It would just be the same basic feel or idea
Me - They started in the same place?
Jenn - Yeah. I'm an intuitive person, so I'd know I'd be basically trying to say the same thing or get out the same thing. To a listener it would sound like five different songs, but in my mind I know there's a progression.
Andy - In terms of being an active band, there has always been this tension between the recorded side and the live side. There are similarities but at the core of it they are a different thing, we are always treading in that tension between the two of them
Me - So am I gathering from that fact Jenn is pretty much the songwriting force?
Jenn - Pretty much
Andy - Yeah this new record is pretty much all Jenn. Early on, for our first record, I wrote some songs, it's pretty clear if you listen to it. I'm not really a songwriter, that's not to say there never will be, but it's not my natural disposition
Jenn - His thing is everything else
Andy - (to Jenn) Yes but you've taken this stance that songwriting is a craft, that you hone, and that's how it's developed for the past year
Jenn - Thanks! There are some songs that are natural and have been easy to me to write.... (Andy tries to interrupt) - whoa - I'm trying to compliment you, asshole! If you define a song as the words and the melody that's one thing, but the song is more than that, and the whole arrangement, that's no small feat. Without Andy I'd be pretty much incapable of realising my ideas...
(We're interrupted for a moment while Cold War Kids exit for the stage. They've kindly donated Wye Oak a bottle of bourbon from their rider, a nice touch of cameraderie)
Jenn - We have a very complementary set of strengths, that's one of the reasons we work so well together,. We're both the the kind of people that wishes we were better at the things that don't come naturally to us, and that plagues us sometimes. At this point we've obtained a bit more focus as a band. We're really aware of what comes naturally to each of us. That was what made making Civilian that much more easy and natural, that element of ego. Taking things personally wasn't there, it was just "let's execute this". Andy played guitar, I played guitar, the same with keyboards, I played some bass even
Me - So what can we expect from the album? I heard 'The Altar' on BBC 6music....
Jenn - Well that track's not really very indicative of the record as a whole. The album feel very much like a complete whole to me. If I could point to one thing, it's that we got a little better with restraint - constructing parts that had a purpose, to be heard in a certain way, not just piling on layer after layer indiscriminately; making a complete structure of the song. Knowing what to leave out is just as hard.
Andy - It's a really difficult thing to hash over the record that you have made again and again
Me - I guess you get so close to it?
Andy - Yeah, but the time you get most close to it is when you are in the throes of making it, and having to make these decisions. At this point it's like a reflection of the current moment
Me - What's the tour been like, how's it been in Europe?
Jenn - It's been good but support is tough, especially supporting bands that sound different from you is not always easy to do. The tour's been great, and these guys are wonderful, they're very sweet, wonderfully accommodating and fun. They're cool people.
Me - Did you see what happened tonight?
Jenn - No
Me - Before you came on, everyone was waiting for Cold War Kids, but within one song, they were all packed up behind me. I know you saw, because I saw you looking..
Andy - But in some ways, tonight felt like....not our crowd...and you know, I think London is like that sometimes
Jenn - I mean it's always a treat, this is a really cool room to play, but honestly I'm a kinda sweaty small rock club sort of lady myself. Or a basement. Or a penthouse..
Andy - A penthouse?
Jenn - Yeah, I'd like to play Puff Daddy's penthouse, that's my favourite venue in the world (both are cracking up laughing at this point). I feel most comfortable in life operating at a small scale, I don't think I'm cut out for enormity
Andy - That's been a huge lesson, touring, and opening for some huge bands and I think that's helped us realise the level that we feel comfortable at
Jenn - It's just where I'm at right now in my brain. It'll be nice to get back to the States. We're playing a headline run of clubs, and we'll be with friends
Andy - It's 25 or 30 shows, five weeks, a full run, then SXSW
Me - Are you coming back here for festivals in the summer? You've done End Of The Road before..
Jenn - We love End Of The Road, it's so great
Andy - Yes, there will be festivals....We've been saying we're in band puberty. A lot of uncertainty, people are waiting till the record comes out. We'll be back at least once, maybe three times this year
Me - What's the most ridiculous, stupidest thing you've done in the pursuit of all this?
Jenn (laughing) I kind of feel my whole life is that - just the idea of being a performer for a living is a pretty ridiculous thing. Often times I can be on stage, singing, and I ask myself "what are you even doing with your life, who do you think you fucking are?"
Andy pipes in - " I think your whole family feels that way. That's really valuable though. Nobody wants to see someone who is really questioning their life choices
Jenn - No, I don't mean it that way. It's just a never take yourself too seriously moment. It's like "look at you!" (adopts a disapproving mom voice) it could be worse but you life is weird and strange ....because this whole business is just one big frivolous insane clusterfuck of people trying to make shit and do things and go places... it's just a joke. But it's a great joke
Me - Andy, what about you?
Andy - Errr....there are things, plenty of things...
Jenn - We call them 'welcome to your life moments'
With this Jenn starts singing "Welcome to your life, it's exactly like you pictured it would be" as a home made ditty, and Andy relates a story that when you find yourself, for the second time in your life, using your own sock to wipe your ass, that's one of those moments "It's so glamorous"
Jenn gets serious for a moment about what makes it great at the same time is "when someone that I know or don't know, is made to feel something by what I've done..if they're moved in any way, that's the best thing about it all". Andy blows the moment by telling me that he's in it for the money. He's giggling.
The new album 'Civilian' is out next week. It's getting great reviews already, and I can't help feeling this is a band that will be adjusting their sights about venue sizes before too long.