Photo by Mercy McNab Ural Thomas performed alongside some of the greatest soul singers in …
Live in Portland July 13, 2018 | Revolution Hall
Wye Oak is Baltimore, Maryland’s Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack–an indie rock band five albums into their career, and they’re making albums that go above and away from established rock tropes. In a way, all songs are love songs (or unrequited love songs), but Wye Oak’s love songs are less about interpersonal romances–they’re about intrapersonal love, the love of life and difficulty of staying in a glassy-eyed infatuation with it.
Wasner’s side project Dungenousse puts her into ‘90s pop territory, and on her first solo album, using the moniker Flock of Dimes, she explores the panoply of creative freedom on the debut If You See Me, Say Yes, showcasing more beats, less drums and a trio of foggy guitars. When she’s not with Stack she’s still making earnest music that struggles to pinpoint the emotions we don’t have words for.
Wye Oak’s first album If Children (2007) is a solemn, slow swinging guitar and drums album, where songs are vocalized in whispers. This is not anymore obvious than on “Family Glue,” where Wesner dunks on the futile family obligations we go along with: “Never use your hands/Our blood has given into it/Save the holidays for me/Dress as love for Halloween.”
Their zeitgeist is 2014’s Shriek; the reverb-heavy guitars are replaced with soft synths and keys, giving them a much more dream-pop aesthetic. The titular track anticipates a judgement of coldness associated with electronic instruments, with subtle background layers that, at first listen, are convincing enough to be a field recording of seagulls over the surf. The big difference between the first half of their discography and the later half is the change from a garage band minimalism to the lush electronic angularity of the last few albums.
The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs is the newest writing since the solo endeavor. The title track is a dark questioning of life, smeared in an ambiguous, yet pointed philosophy (“I search for patterns, sense that isn’t there/You can have everything, and still you have nothing”). On “The Instruments,” Wasner’s voice is magnetized, drawing the music around her to match her cadence, blending the voice in with the bass and treble, lying just beneath everything else. And when the chorus hits you hear her still in shallow water, but in with the tide, just higher in proportion to everything else, and her yearning is louder than anything.
ELEVEN: I hear you’re moving. Where are you headed?
Jenn Wesner: I’m in North Carolina, moving from a house I currently live in by myself but I’m moving across the street to a house with roommates.
11: You like living with people?
JW: I’m used to being on tour so I’m used to being around people all the time. I prefer to live alone, but it’s a luxury I can’t really justify because I’m really just not home much. So in the interest of saving money while I’m mostly on the road… it’s a necessity. It is what it is.
11: How long have you lived in North Carolina?
JW: About three years, three-and-a-half years.
11: How do you think that has affected your albums in the last three years?
JW: I initially moved specifically because I had never really lived alone, and I felt like I had more creative energy than I really had the time and space to capitalize on. Baltimore is the best and it’s one of my favorite places in the world, and it’s full of many of my favorite people in the world, but it’s also full of many distractions. I was specifically trying to find a place where I had more solitude and fewer distractions to work on music. I also just needed to do that, you know, because I moved to North Carolina I’ve made three records–I made two Wye Oak records and a solo record. I also don’t think I could keep up with the pace of what I’ve been doing if I hadn’t given myself the time and space and resources to make it possible.
11: This current album has a very existential feel to it, do you think that comes from living alone?
JW: I think it just comes from how I am, honestly. It’s from the particular kind of person that I am, and the specific cocktail of anxiety, and despair, and angst that is all around us, to an extent that I think is unprecedented, and also our exposure to it, the amount that we’re able or expected to take in from all sources at all times. I think I’ve always been something of an overthinker. Anxious about the future and sort of trying to analyze and maybe feel excessively responsible for things that are out of my control. In some ways I think making records is one way to burn off some of that anxious energy.
11: There’s a track on The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs titled “Lifer.” Lifer is a term often used to describe people who spend their whole life at one job. I’m interested to hear what you think of that.
JW: There’s a purposeful ambiguity to the title, because it’s not just about my experiences it’s also about someone else. In some ways it’s about my own commitment to my creative process and the sharing of that with others and the struggles that compete with that, but in another very literal sense it’s just about not killing yourself. It’s about making the choice everyday to stay alive and continue to try and fight whatever struggles that life has handed you. In the end, it’s about direct inspiration from my experiences, and not just for me.
11: Do you find yourself running out of experiences after having made seven-plus albums?
JW: I don’t think I’ve run out of experiences to draw from, I can certainly imagine getting to that point in my life where I just don’t feel like I have a desperate need to create things anymore. It hasn’t happened to me yet. I think to a certain extent, output requires input. Having something to say about life requires living and relying on your experiences and what it feels like. I don’t feel as though my own personal worth and value hinges upon the things I create or their recognition.
11: The afterglow of praise doesn’t really last long, does it?
JM: It’s really just the process of making it for me that’s very therapeutic and rewarding, and everything that comes after that is not really… like I’m kind of the person that finishes a record and says “Cool, I did it, I’m done,” and at that point in a lot of ways the process is just begun. If you think about the process of sharing it and promoting it and selling it, those things are completely separate from the actual creation of the thing. I don’t need that and I don’t benefit from it as much as the whole process of creating a thing. It’s very important to me.
11: Can you tune into those feelings again once you get back on stage?
JM: I have a harder time with that process than most people do, I think. Occasionally I will, but it gets harder and harder for me to tap into that brainspace everytime I play a song. That’s probably the essential difficulty of my life: trying to make a career out of the things I make because I do have such a powerful emotional connection to, and attachment to, the things I create in the moment I created them, but everytime I play a song I get a little further away from it in my own life experience. So as the years go by it starts to feel more like I’m acting or pretending or inhabiting an outdated, or dishonest version of myself. That’s not really the way I like to feel when I’m performing but it’s kind of mandated by the process of asking people to pay money for a show. People want to hear the songs they’re familiar with. For nostalgic reasons they connect it to, or are sent to a place. The irony being the songs people want to hear the most are the songs I’m most disconnected from. It’s always been this weird existential rub in a live show for me. Sometimes we strike a balance where things kind of align and I’m able to have a pretty good time, but a lot of the times it feels weird and disingenuous.
11: Do you forget what you wrote some of those songs about?
JM: Yeah, if not in total, there will be lines where I’ll go, ”What did I mean by that?” Or maybe years later I’ll be like, “Oh god! I didn’t realize at the time but that’s really awful. What a terrible person I am for writing that down.” It’s very purculuor psychology to confront your past self, which is someone a lot of us would probably like to distance ourselves from. It’s not very pleasant to be reminded what a fucking idiot I was when I was 23–everynight of my life.
11: Well and when we’re 23 we think, “I was a fucking idiot when I was 18.”
JM: Exactly, and I’m probably a fucking idiot still. But I haven’t learned yet the things I have to learn about being 32. I’d like to get on with that process and make sense of it, but the bulk of my time is spent reminding myself of what I was thinking when I was an actual child 10 years ago, and it’s just so deeply unpleasant. It’s sad, weird, ironic detachment.
11: It’s very easy to get stuck in a weird, toxic feedback loop, returning to remember the good times while forgetting the bad parts, too.
JM: And it changes every time. We cannot properly remember the past. It’s like playing a game of telephone with your memories. I’m sure a lot of the songs I’ve written aren’t even close to my memories or the creative interpretations I’ve made of those memories, and on top of that I’ve told them over and over again. It’s really trippy if you think about it. I’d probably be a less anxious person if I didn’t have to be confronted with them repeatedly.
11: Do you think that’s why so many artists are known for their suicide?
JM: Oh yeah. Say you take someone who creates art that is personal and emotional; what you’re taking is a very sensitive person, a person with an amount of kind of sensitivity and openness, and you’re putting them in a situation in which all of the worst things about that sensitivity are expanded on. You’re putting them in one of the most difficult situations you can for someone who is inclined in that way. For me, it’s when I’m not on tour, I have my routines to take care of myself–I can exercise, be outside, work on music, get a good night’s sleep–I can keep a lid on it. But you take away all someone’s routines, put them on the road, force them to perform everynight, to make other people happy, and it’s just an absolute breeding ground for insanity. It makes you crazy. I struggle with it because it’s the only way for me to make money from music because people don’t buy records anymore. You’re taking sensitive people and dropping them into the fucking fire. The fact that anyone would be surprised by that is what gets me.
11: How much time do you have before you need to start working on the next album?
JM: Hypothetically speaking, I have as much time as I want, but the question becomes: How much time can we afford? Because after we finish a tour, we don’t have a lot of money left over. I’m sorry this is all sounding a little dark, I’m not feeling real optimistic about my life or my career. I can take as much as I want, and I probably will, but I also have to figure out a way to make money.
11: Have you taken other jobs?
JM: I have, and I probably will again. In the past I’ve waited tables, I’ve walked dogs–which is maybe the best job I’ve ever had. Maybe I’ll do that again. I think most musicians, with the exception of a very very privileged few, are not really able to be make a whole lot of money, even when the public thinks they are very successful. There’s just less and less money to be made. The musical well has dried up substantially. Everyone is just scrambling to figure out how to stay afloat.
11: It is strange to pay to see someone’s show and then have that same person serve you a drink at a bar across town later that week.
JM: Some people can really handle, and thrive in an environment where they’re playing a 150 shows a year, and for those people music is still doable, but for someone like me it’s really hard to do. I think a lot of musicians are not well suited for a lifestyle. I’ve also never really wanted or had to, fortunately, phone-in a record because I needed one. That’s how mediocre trash gets put out into the world. Someone is trying to make something before they have something to say.
11: When Shriek came out you said you were pretty fed up with the guitar, then Tween was very guitar heavy and this new album backs off more. Where are you at with the guitar?
JM: To come correct, I was never really fed up with the guitar, it was more that at that particular moment I had kind of felt like I had tapped out that particular source, and I had needed a new source of ideas. Finding the mindset of being inspired requires being in situations that are new, and at that point I had written many, many albums primarily with a core guitar and I felt like I had done everything I could do with it. It wasn’t even a matter of making a choice. It was either write the songs that I like or write no songs. It had become an embodiment of something I had already done.
11: Do you feel like you’ve exhausted this current lineup, that you need to switch things around?
JM: Well yeah, it’s not really about the source as much, it’s about the mindset. If you’re in the right mindset you don’t even need the instrumental. You’re telling yourself a story to get in the right brainspace, and you have to believe the story and at the time I just couldn’t get there with a guitar. Now I feel completely differently because I was able to make that record, it was the record I needed to make to get to a place I could do something else. That journey is a place close to you for a creative person. It’s a series of stories you’re telling yourself over and over again in order to get back to the same place of being inspired.
11: Do you have an idea of what it takes for the next album in order for you to get to where you’re talking about?
JM: Only in the most basic teeny tiny inklings of an idea. I just have little things like–I think something Andy and I both are drawn to now, probably because we’ve spent so much of our lives playing in a quote unquote loud rock band, we’d really like to make some quiet music, and play some very quiet instrument shows. And that’s not really enough to anchor an entire record yet, it’s more like, “Oh let’s keep that in mind.” Basically what do you want to get out of the next thing you make, and how do those things come together? A bigger picture starts to take shape.