Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner
The Merge indie-folk duo likes it (intermittently) loud
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In less than two years, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have gone from being in a little-known band (Monarch) with a self-released debut to being one of the most promising up-and-coming acts on the circuit: Wye Oak, whose debut album was recently reissued by indie tastemaker Merge. (A follow-up, The Knot, is due in July.) Before the Baltimore noise-folk duo's show at The Black Cat tonight, The A.V. Club caught up with singer-guitarist Wasner and talked about the relationships that are (or aren't) at the center of The Knot, the band's "delayed" approach to making records, and surprising audiences with a lot of volume.
The A.V. Club: How's the tour going?
Jenn Wasner: It's been going great. We've been on tour with our friends Pomegranates. It's interesting because their music is extremely happy and joyful and smile-inducing, and then we play and our music is melancholy at best. So it's been a little bit of a juxtaposition between these two sets, and people have kind of been like, "I'm not sure how you guys want me to feel right now."
AVC: Speaking of melancholy, it sounds like The Knot is centered on a single, souring relationship. Is that a proper reading?
JW: Considering the title of the record and the themes of a lot of the songs, we both knew that it was going to be received, at least initially, as a relationship-themed record. And to a certain degree, I'm totally cool with that because it's true. But when I was writing a lot of these songs, they weren't just about my own individual relationships. A lot of the songs are vague enough that I could be talking about a fight that I had, and it could also be about something that I witnessed growing up as a child, or something that I'm noticing in my friends' relationships that's mirroring my relationship.
AVC: If Children was recorded in 2006. How does it feel to finally have new material?
JW: I can't possibly express to you how excited I am to not have just this one record. The whole cycle of recording and releasing If Children—and then releasing it again a year later—was great, and it totally changed our lives in a lot of ways, but it was definitely a challenge, because we wrote the songs and then six months later we recorded them, and then six months later we released them, and then, a year later, it was released on Merge. I feel like we dug ourselves a little bit into a hole because everything that's new now, we've been working on for a year. And the stuff that's really new isn't even on the new record that hasn't come out yet. So we're kind of working on it at a delay.
AVC: When you were doing press for the If Children rerelease, was it hard not to say, "Well, we've got all these songs that are coming out next year."
JW: We're really bad at censoring ourselves, so we have this habit of saying, "Yeah, I'm really sick of that record." And then being like, "No, you should buy it." [Laughs.] We're getting better. People tell us we shouldn't trash ourselves as much as we do. But it's really hard because we're self-deprecating individuals, and when something's been around that long and you put that much effort into it to begin with, it's only natural. I think people who really like to listen to their own music, there's got to be something totally wrong with them. It's not natural to enjoy listening to the sound of your own voice that much. And after spending years working on it, if you're not tired of it, you probably haven't done the job right.
AVC: On both If Children and The Knot, the guitar is more textural, and it rarely takes the melodic lead. How do you approach playing guitar?
JW: At least for recording that's accurate. I write on guitar for the most part—sometimes I write on piano—so I write all these lines as guitar lines, and as we play live, just because we're limited to the instruments that we have to work with, I'll play them on guitar. But when we record, we try to mix it up and use different sounds and textures, so I'll very rarely use a guitar for the guitar line that I wrote. We ended using a lot of violin on this record, and the pedal steel as well. As a result of the guitar being so utterly dominant in our live show—because it has to be; it's one of two melodic instruments that we have—we tend to rebel against that when we record, and totally go for excess, and try to get as many different textures in there as possible.
AVC: There's this YouTube video of you guys playing "Family Glue" at the Golden West Café in Baltimore, and during the quieter opening, there's a lot of chatter in the background. Then the loud part of the song happens and it drowns out the chatter, and when you return to the softer part at the end of the song, most of the chatter has died down. It seems like you really consider the crowd when crafting the structures of your song.
JW: We won't admit this to ourselves often, but the way we play live is based on loud-quiet breaks, like super-huge jumps in volume and distortion. Sometimes it's really important to explode with huge amounts of volume. Whether it's out of a creative impulse, or just an angry one where it's like, "Hey everyone, look over here!" We wanted to have the option of having dynamics and volume work to our advantage in certain conditions. And it's fun to absolutely dominate a room for a couple of seconds.