Jul 7, 2016
In The Middle With Wye Oak
Surprise releases are a risky move for artists who aren’t Beyonce-level–but Wye Oak has never shied away from risk. So when they quietly dropped their fifth studio album Tween at the beginning of June with little to no fanfare, it was as surprise, yes, but not a shock. The duo, composed of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack, built a loyal following during their years in Baltimore based off their folk-rock roots, releasing three increasingly successful albums that culminated in the triumph of 2011’s Civilian.
But touring behind that beast left Wasner–who already leaned toward funkier pop and R&B escapes in her side projects Flock Of Dimes and Dungeonesse–more exhausted than ever by guitar sounds. Of course, it wasn’t just Wasner; prior to the release of their 2014 album, Shriek, Stack told Spin magazine that he was excited to “put to rest the moniker ‘indie folk.'” Their guitar fatigue spurred the surging, kaleidoscopic synth palette that encapsulates Shriek, a shift, yes, but not a departure.
It was on the cusp of Shriek that I first encountered Wye Oak, at a tumultuous SXSW outdoor show that preceded the album’s April release; most fans were hearing a brand new sound from a beloved band, I was simply hearing a band I knew I would love. Shriek was my entry point for their music, which means I had a totally different perspective on their sound when I began working backwards through their earlier, rootsier albums. Perhaps because of this perspective, the sonic progression and transition of Wasner and Stack’s music didn’t feel quite as pronounced to me as some people made it out to be.
Maybe that was a narrative that people needed to latch onto, or maybe it is a product of our growing divide between digital/analogue and folk/rock distinctions; as we move forward these gulfs seem to recede, and perhaps that’s where Tween comes in. It’s a collection of songs from all throughout the duo’s career that, for various reasons, never made it onto earlier albums. These are new songs for listeners, old songs for the band, and proof that their evolution is ongoing and fluid, not a cut-and-dried before and after. Wye Oak will continue to grow, just like we all do, but for now they are taking a moment to acknowledge some of what has happened in the process of their becoming.
On one of the very first tour dates on for their extended run across the United States behind Tween, I had the chance to meet up with Wasner and Stack before their gig at Warsaw, a beautifully dilapidated old Polish community center turned music venue in Greenpoint, to talk about shifting sounds, putting out albums for the sheer joy of it, and embracing their transition through different eras and settling somewhere in the middle. Read our conversation below and check out the beautiful photos by Ebru Yildiz.
Before we get into talking about Tween–which I think is absolutely fantastic–I wanted to talk a bit about Shriek and your narrative since. Because I first heard I heard you guys live, at a show at South by Southwest, in like, a backyard. You were playing songs that were going to be on Shriek and that was my introduction to Wye Oak. It wasn’t until after that record that I went back to listen to your older ones. Everyone said Shriek had been such a huge change, but I felt like it maybe wasn’t that huge of a change.
Wasner: At least amongst us, and our friends, the idea of making Shriek seemed like it would be a good litmus test for people, because for me, because I’m a songwriter, the songwriting itself, the songcraft, has been the point and the purpose of everything we do. And the tools, which tools you would use to achieve that eventual end, are pretty much irrelevant–they’re not the point. When we were making that record our thought was, if we make ten kickass songs, will people still be on board even though they sound different? Or to put it another way–we want to be a band that appeals to people who like songs. So, we put that record out knowing that it was ten songs we we’re super proud of, and if people were on board with that, it meant they’d be on board with anything we did in the future.
Because then it’s about the songs, not necessarily about the look, or the aesthetic, or the style, or the instruments. We knew it would be a little bit of a litmus test for attracting the kind of music listener that we’d like to cultivate in our careers. People who are less interested in the means, and more interested in the end, is what we’re doing. It’s not to say that I don’t think the songs from our older records are equally as good, but they are aesthetically different. It was a a way of saying this is beside the point. The songs themselves were ours and I think a lot of people I know who are songwriters, or big music nerds, actually said what you have said, which is, like, I don’t actually feel like it’s that different.
Stack: The the process and the substance sometimes gets obscured in the promotional cycle, because people have to grab the thing that is used for promotion, and it just gets amplified. And for us, that was not new. It wasn’t necessarily the defining thing. There were also, like, interesting things about making the record that were really different process-wise. Like, for the first time we made a record while living on opposite coasts, and so the process and the way that we collaborated became very different than what we had done for six, seven years.
Wasner: At that very show that you were talking about at South by Southwest, we had a bunch of friends there in the audience. One of my friends told me–because this was the very beginning of the cycle, so we had no idea how people were going to react to this record at all–that this lady standing next to my friend was like ‘Oh! This is not the same! These guys are really different! This is not the same band at all. Wow, I’m really surprised.’ And initially the woman was kind of bummed out by it, but after two or three songs, she was like…. ‘These are really good songs.” I think then we played “Logic of Color” and that one won her over. So it was cool to hear about an old school fan going through that in real time.
The other thing I think is interesting, is that a lot of bands have the opposite problem. Where they just make record after record after record and it all sounds the exact same. Like, ok this is a Strokes song, but I don’t care about it at all, because it sounds like a hundred other Strokes songs. So in a way it’s a blessing to have people talking about how you’ve changed and evolved so much as a band–because that’s sort of what you want to be doing on some level.
Stack: Definitely, and I think Shriek is our best record; that’s how we feel about it. But when we toured on it initially, we didn’t feel like the songs were necessarily connecting, which I think is partially just contributing to that people are familiar with it. Because on this tour we’ve been playing, obviously, like brand new material off Tween–maybe “new” isn’t the right word for it–but also stuff from Shriek. This time around those songs have been hugely successful live, people are really excited to hear it. Maybe now that they’ve sunken in. But it’s cool to realize we have these different eras, and people are taking all of them in and embracing them. That feels really validating.
Wasner: It’s funny, because when we first toured on it–before it had been out very long–audiences would begin clapping when I picked up a guitar. Like yay, finally! And now, the past few shows we’ve played, though, years later, it’s the opposite. Which is really unnerving, because we have this idea in our head like “All right, well, we’ve got to throw these guitar songs in to please people….
It is sort of a revelation that you guys should just do whatever you want.
Wasner: Exactly! That’s so true. But it is definitely cool and gratifying, now that the record’s been out for a couple years and people have had a chance to live with it, that it’s the Shriek songs that are getting the clapping.
As such a fan of Shriek and only hearing your older era stuff by going backwards, what I love so much about Tween is it doesn’t quite go to a new place, it sort of it’s like ‘Okay no, we’re going to stay here for a little bit.’ It’s another ‘trust yourself’ moment to decide that these songs need to be on a record. In a way that’s also a bold move. So, I wanted to talk about that decision.
Wasner:At some point, you learn to self-edit, but these songs made the cut in the long run because we came back to them years later. I am notorious for getting tired of stuff really fast, and I move really quickly; when you’re in the initial moment of creative inspiration it’s the best feeling, and then the further away you get from it, the harder it is to inhabit that space. But these songs, we came back to them years later, and still liked them. And if we still liked them years later, we should probably put them out. We’ve done this for ten years and figured out what appeals to us within this project, and the tools or the instruments are not the point. We’re we’re getting these sounds from a lot of different angles, and I think that is what I hear when I hear Tween. It’s all different approaches blending together.
The album title too, implies that. Tween is a word that’s so derogatory, and you’ve taken it and imbued it with this really beautiful power.
Wasner: The thing that word hearkens back to, for me, is that before we started playing music as a living, for our jobs, it was something that we did for joy; for fun, because we loved it. And we still do! But inevitably, when you make the choice to change something into your job, it changes the way you feel about it, and you have to make a constant effort to figure out ways to tap back into that initial joy–before it was tainted by all the things that come with having a career and all the compromises that you inevitably have to make. So releasing this non-album, surprise collection of weird songs that no one else knew about–it harkened back to the time when we didn’t have to think very hard about the shit that we did. Simply We made these songs. Here they are! So not only is the word Tween really appropriate, but it encapsulates the youthful vibe of having all these unencumbered, unburdened, feelings about music that we made. It’s also literally in between two records, so there’s that more obvious side of it. But I tend to gravitate toward the more joyful connotations.
Tween is out now via Merge Records. Get it here.
All photos by photos by Ebru Yildiz.
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