Interview: Wye Oak

Baltimore has become a hotbed of indie/alternative music over the past few years, producing the likes of Beach House, Future Islands, Dan Deacon and of course folk starlet Wye Oak. Having started playing music together as kids, duo Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack never expected to turn Wye Oak into anything more than a bit of fun, but now find themselves touring Europe and taking full advantage of the current trend for twee, touching folk musicians; a happy musical accident. AU caught up with Jenn on her recent trip to London, to discuss the band’s third release, ‘Civilian’, and just how far this happy accident can go…

‘Civilian’ has a sparser feel than your previous work. Did you go into the new album with that aim?

With the other records we’ve done, we’ve had the song and some kind of bare-bones live arrangement, and when we get into the studio, since it’s just the two of us, we have a tendency to just layer things as excessively as we can and just try stuff. Going into Civilian we were both pretty adamant that we wanted to keep it… not necessarily sparse, but we had a better idea of what we wanted to be included, that everything would have a role that it was supposed to play. I think we understood restraint a little better. Song wise, I think it’s certainly the strongest batch of songs I’ve ever written. Recording wise, we just had a better idea of what we were aiming for. We’ve ended up with a product we’re really happy with.

I believe this is the first album you haven’t produced yourself?

Well yes and no. We did have a friend in Baltimore who we worked with throughout the recording process, and then the mixing itself was handed off to a very talented guy called John Congleton down in Texas. He did all the mixing for us, but he wasn’t involved from the very get go. But yeah, we pretty much did all the other recordings ourselves. It was a good decision, though, because John is capable of so much more. He has an incredibly gifted ear, and he’s easy to work with. It’s the difference between telling him what we want to happen and having it happen, and saying what we want to happen and then spending days working out how to do it.

Was giving up the album a bit like giving up a child?

It was certainly a traumatic experience for me. It was for the better, but it was the first time we’ve relinquished any sort of control of any kind. It was important to do it, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Leaving the studio and waiting for John to deal with the songs, and the time he spent doing that was certainly challenging for me, as it was a bit like ‘I’ll call you when it’s done’, though we often tweaked it a little after we heard the mix. I’m a control freak.

Given the non-exclusive background of ‘Civilian’s production, is a bit more difficult to produce live?

Well, turning the tracks into live entities forces us to think really carefully about what the essential elements of a song are, what can stay and what can go. It’s absolutely key to our style of songwriting, and really starts to affect everything that we do along the way. It’s a valuable skill for us, that’s made us better musicians and better writers. It’s a challenge that’s an asset rather than a detriment to our band.

You’ve played with Andy basically since you were kids, originally under the name ‘Monach’. Does your long history show in your music now?

Yeah, we actually only changed the name from Monarch when we signed to our US label, and they pointed out that there were quite a few other Monarchs floating about. They’d had a few copyright issues with band names, so we wanted to preemptively avoid that mess. But yeah, of course we’ve developed so much over the years. As a duo, we’re really aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, as people and musicians.

Folk music’s a bit more high profile than it has been historically right now. Do you feel like that’s helped you along the way?

I don’t know, really. I feel like everything that’s happened to us has pretty much fallen into our laps. Not that we don’t work hard for it, but we never really expected anything from this band. The first record we made, we made as kids for fun. We didn’t really have any ideas in terms of making it into a career. We weren’t even actively working at being a band. We’re not at all industry minded, but we’re lucky to have people around us who are good at that. It was shocking to us that things happened so easily. It was shocking then and it continues to be shocking now. We’re in a weird little transitional phase now where were almost, but not quite, self-sufficient, and the only way we can survive is to tour, so we’re touring a lot.

Your recording process seems pretty prolific – this is the fourth record in four years – do you particularly enjoy recording?

It’s our favorite part of the band, making music and playing around with it in the studio. We’ve done quite a bit of stuff we’ve never released at all. When we recorded the EP, we had no idea what would come of it, if it would even be released. It was a lot of fun to make an EP without the pressure and gravity of it being a ‘record’. We got snowed in, we had a couple of blizzards, we spent the time in the studio and wrote some songs, and the label wanted to put it out. We really enjoy it, and we like to document things, so it was nice to actually put things out there. You can’t really force that kind of thing, so we should use it when we have it.

Beach House, Future Islands, Wye Oak… What is it about Baltimore that makes for such an unusually strong music scene?

It’s really taken off, and it happened all at the same time. Generally speaking, the scene would continue, though, regardless of whether people paid attention to it. It’s affordable, and I think that’s a big factor – artists don’t have to work demanding jobs to pay their rents. It’s also close to DC and New York. When lots of creative, talented people move to one place, it just starts to take shape. There’s a lot of collaboration, with plenty of people who are in five or six different bands. It’s sweet, and genuine, and supportive. It’s not competitive or judgmental, and we feel really fortunate to be a part of it.  It’s also extremely rare to go to a show in Baltimore that’s just one kind of music. You might go to a show and they’ll be a noise band, a hip-hop group, a rock band and a solo artist. No one thinks it’s strange to group these things together, so you get these really unusual bills. I find it far more pleasurable than seeing three or four hours of the same kind of thing.

What would you consider a success at this point?

I guess our aim is sustainability above any kind of huge commercial success. I feel comfortable existing in an intermediary kind of realm. I like to be a bit more intimate and more in touch with the audience than playing huge places. If we can put music out, have people interested in listening to it, and have a place to live and something to eat, that’s pretty much as much success as we can ever hope for. I feel very lucky, we can make the music that we want to make. We don’t really have a plan B.

As published in AU Magazine, June 2011.

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