There was a moment in early 2012 when it seemed like Wye Oak, at the height of its popularity, would cease to be.
Speaking with the Village Voice almost a year after the release of their breakthrough album, Civilian, the Baltimore duo laid bare that they were exhausted, they felt like human jukeboxes and were tired of playing their own songs, that anyone who liked their band was falling for a trick. In particular, singer and guitarist Jenn Wasner seemed at the end of her rope.
She told the interviewer she didn't understand why people took her band seriously.
"Whenever we have these little milestones my reaction in my head is 'I can't believe we fooled somebody else into thinking we're a real band,'" she said.
She called the loud-quiet-loud sound of Wye Oak as "cheap tricks."
There was reference to the "love/hate" relationship she had with the band and herself, and how she felt there were "a lot of the things we've had this year we don't deserve. I feel like there's a million bands that are ten times better, more visionary, more creative, write better songs, play their instruments better and they don't get the things that we have. And I feel a lot of guilt about that."
When the interviewer politely disagreed, she replied, "Really?"
"I remember doing that interview," says drummer Andy Stack, on the phone from his new home in Marfa, Texas, "and she was not holding back about her feelings and about that. She was pretty well wrecked for the whole enterprise at that point."
Sitting at a booth in the Station North café Canteen, Wasner remembers the moment well. "Oh, I love that interview," she exclaims, noting that friends, journalists, and other musicians still bring up the Q&A and the honesty contained within.
"I couldn't pretend that I felt differently at that point," she says. "I just-all my filters had sort of been broken down and it was very obvious to those around me that I was not handling it super-well."
She's able to laugh about it now, a sign Wasner seems to be in a much better place. She talks about her own struggles following Civilian in the calm, comforting tone of a person at peace with herself, especially in contrast to the person who sounded so detached and disenchanted two years before. She sits upright on the bench of the booth, arms crossed on the table when she's not poking at her lunch with a fork. Aside from the occasional sideways glance, she looks you in the eye when she speaks.
The journey from there to here was not always so smooth.
In the year or so leading up to the Voice interview, the band had played out relentlessly, headlining club shows and opening for literary folkies the Decemberists and moody indie-rockers the National on separate tours in large theaters and pavilions, including a Merriweather Post Pavilion date with the National that also featured Yo La Tengo. They appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to perform the song "Holy Holy." The widely read music site A.V. Club named Civilian, Wye Oak's third album and second released through indie-label powerhouse Merge Records, the best album of 2011. Governor Martin O'Malley invited the band to Annapolis to see the Wye Oak desk in his office (the Wye Oak is Maryland's state tree, if you didn't know).
The years before that had been typical of any band's, from when they first played together as teenagers in a four-piece garage band around 2002 to striking out on their own as a duo about four years later.
They independently released their first album a year later and in 2008 were picked up by Merge, finding themselves on the same label as Spoon and Arcade Fire and on the national radar.
After spending more than a decade together working on music, Wasner and Stack received the kind of recognition that can elevate a band's profile and prospects in a major way. And they came out of the long slog of tours and promotion realizing they could no longer be that band anymore. So much of what had gotten them to that point was too mentally and physically draining, particularly for Wasner.
They almost stopped being a band at all. Wye Oak was put on something of an indefinite hiatus. There wasn't a big dialogue about ending it, so much as both members tried to re-establish normal lives and do their own thing. But in separate interviews, both acknowledge they had their doubts the band would continue. Wasner admits it's probably the closest they've come to calling it quits since she and Stack broke up as a couple 2010.
Now, nearly two years later, the band is back with a new album, Shriek-and a sound that is entirely different. Wasner has dropped the guitar and the clanging chords that had become such a distinctive part of the band's sound for bass and keyboards. Stack's already-complicated setup of one-handed drumming and keyboard playing has gotten even more complex, using delays and triggers on the drum set to call up sounds and samples. The 10 songs are far more groove-centric, and many of the tracks are bathed in long synthesizer tones and minimal electronic beats.
Shriek is not the kind of record a band in Wye Oak's position typically makes; it's much easier and safer to make an album not unlike the one that took your band to the next level. This is an album of a band reinventing itself. A reinvention was necessary for self-preservation.
"I think we felt like, with Civilian we kind of, I don't know, we made the statement of the band that we had been trying to be for however long, for like five years up to that point," says Stack. "We did it and then we really kind of drove it into the ground. We played like 300, 350-some odd shows with that material and I know for Jenn, obviously the guitar wasn't working for her.
"I think, sort of the whole ethos of that type of band, of this dynamic noise-guitar, powerhouse-duo kind of thing, it had been played out for her, and I think we both needed something different or else we would have just not bothered, we would have just moved on to the next thing. But we found something. We found a different version of ourselves."
After spending close to two years living out of suitcases, Stack and Wasner returned to Baltimore in 2012 without so much as a permanent place to live, but they eventually settled into a more normal routine back home.
In the fall, Stack and his girlfriend (now fiancée), a graphic artist and designer, moved to the artist-friendly small Texas town of Marfa and set up their own unofficial working residency of sorts.
"It was after that cycle I allowed myself the liberty of living and of having a life again, and having the space away from the band and having the space to grow personally, it brought me to this place where I wanted to live some other places," he says.
The culture shock of living in such a small town three hours from the nearest airport made the couple want to try Portland. Stack set up a home studio there and started writing music for commercial agencies (he hopes to start doing more work with television and film). But the couple's experiences in Marfa stayed with them and they moved back this past February.
"We felt like this town really just resonated for us and we got this sort of sense of peace and of, I don't know, feeling activated personally and creatively and artistically," he explains. "It's just-it's a pretty special place."
Wasner stayed in Baltimore and immersed herself in a life of routine and spent more time on solo and side projects she had tinkered with on the road to flex her creative muscles and keep her sanity-the looped-beat guitar-pop of Flock of Dimes and the dance-friendly, R&B-tinged Dungeonesse, a collaboration with Jon Ehrens of White Life and Art Department. She started doing a lot of yoga.
Perhaps most important was reconnecting with friends.
"I don't know if everyone feels this way about their friends and the people in their life, but I can't believe how lucky I am to be surrounded by-to know the people that I know," she says. "It's crazy. I mean, I'm just sort of constantly overwhelmed by how amazing the community of people that I exist within really is."
But it wasn't so simple as coming back and picking up where she left off. At the start, there was a lot of doubt about being on the road for so long, plus there was a looming existential crisis. The job Wasner had spent her whole life working toward didn't turn out the way she expected, to the point where she questioned if she even really liked it anymore.
"What a selfish way to spend your life," she says, summing it up. "It's so selfish and self-serving, and you should be doing something that's actually helping people and, it was just this whole, What an immature, self-serving piece of shit you are, go do something of worth, you know? You're just playing your silly songs; you don't even like them.
"It's just sort of like it was the total meltdown of the foundation of everything that I'd always thought about myself."
One of those friends, the musician and artist Lexie Mountain-who lived with Wasner briefly and joined the band on the road in 2011 for a month to run the merch table-sees this as a struggle many artists go through.
"People have really different journeys. I think she just sort of realizes she's tied into this particular journey and wants to see what else she's capable of," Mountain says.
"But also she really loves her friends, and it can be really difficult to be away from your friends and loved ones," Mountain continues. "She's one of my favorite people and easily, hands down, has been there for me as much, if not more."
Wye Oak didn't reconvene until spring of last year, for a tour in Asia. Stack remembers Wasner coming to Portland for rehearsals before heading overseas and saying she hadn't played a guitar in months. During the tour, they batted around the idea of doing another album, but, Stack says, "even at that point it didn't seem like it was really definitively going to happen."
For Wasner, getting to a place where she felt comfortable trying to write new Wye Oak material presented its own troubles. She would pick up a guitar and start to work and nothing would click. She tried nearly every day. Nothing. The instrument became an emblem of the time in her life presented in that Voice interview, when she felt completely detached from the songs on Civilian and the person she was when she wrote them. The time she felt, night after night, she was acting it out, faking it.
"It had sort of taken on all this baggage and all this weight. And because the kind of intuitive, empathic songwriting that I do really relies on a lot of these intangible feelings," she says, "it's really difficult for me to be productive in the face of those sorts of things, and so it had become this block."
This extended diffidence brought about a much-needed period of self-reflection, thinking about the things she really wanted, what made her happy. She talked to friends of hers who had gone through similar crises, and they helped guide her through it. Eventually, there came a personal reconciliation.
"There's this whole cliche about the miserable artist, the suffering artist, that great art comes from sadness and trouble, but in my experience that has not always been true," she says. "And in this case, learning how to feel good about myself again, learning how to trust myself again, learning how to allow myself to be vulnerable, to forgive myself-all these acts of self-love and self-tolerance were necessary in order to get to a place where I could be creative; where I felt that what I had to say and what I had to make was of worth."
And that included the notion that a Wye Oak album doesn't necessarily need to have electric guitar. It didn't start out as such an essential element back when they began releasing music under the name Monarch. Stack was more of a multi-instrumentalist, and much of Wasner's writing had been done on a piano. Over time, the dynamics of their sound, particularly in a live setting, were grounded in the loud-quiet-loud, six-string attack.
One of the things Wasner did during the downtime was head out on tour with local polyrhythmic instrumental quartet Horse Lords to play bass guitar. The different instrumental approach and new skill set sparked her interest, and the idea of trying to write new songs with a bass proved to be a revelation.
"It occurred to me that it was up to me, that I could decide to let [guitar] go, and the second I allowed myself to sort of let go of what other people's expectations of what our band could be or would sound like," she says, "it was instantly a flood of ideas and songs. It was honestly like flicking a switch. I think it was just like giving myself permission to chase that inspiration wherever it took me and not necessarily where I thought it was supposed to, but where it actually was coming from."
Wasner and Stack began ping-ponging ideas across the country by email. Each would work in a home studio on a song sketch or an idea and send it, some more fully formed than others. The exchange restored a level of excitement that had been missing.
"It started to feel like, Oh, there's still a creative connection here and something that we can sow together, and it doesn't have to be the same thing that we've done in the past," says Stack.
The recipient would start writing over whatever they had received, and the push-and-pull of the collaborative process played out: portions were sculpted on, songs were fleshed out. For four months they wrote this way, and the distance apart and unique methodology actually proved to be a benefit as they felt out a new sound.
"We were able to just have these intimate, private moments to ourselves, individually, where we could really fuck stuff up and kinda fall on our faces and then be like, 'Oh, that didn't work,' or 'I hated this but I liked that other thing,'" says Stack. "And having that privacy, in a sense, brought out ideas that we may not have really shared with each other in the first place. And it made us go a little deeper into it."
Wasner's personal growth informed the lyrics. The opening songs feel a bit darker, more melancholic. "Before" begins with a plinking gait, but when Wasner, immersed in buzzing synths, hangs on the words of the melody "I tell you stories/ but truth be told/ I can't remember/ what came before/ that's how I know/ that's how I know" and reaches for the upper part of her register for "And I am brand-new/ and not so whole/ that's how I know," you feel completely crestfallen and adrift.
"The Tower," with its staccato keys, ventures into themes of crushing guilt: "Embrace the tower of it all/ it is a cloud that hangs for days/ it is a giant in the dream/ holding/ the neck/ of me."
As the album progresses, the song cycle mirrors the real-life one. The sparse "I Know the Law," near the album's end, delves into those acts of self-love which became so necessary and important, and into shaking off people's expectations: "In order/ to preserve this life/ I have given my life/ precedence over yours." Closer "Logic of Color" is a bouncy, affirming coda on the process of writing and opening yourself up. "Everything that you see/ is free/ and so is what I make/ and so is what I claim to be."
There's a cadence to some of the lyrics, especially "Before" and title track "Shriek," that Wasner describes as soothing, almost meditative with the use of repetitive mantras-not unlike the place she reaches when practicing yoga.
"It's interesting because the place that you find when you meditate well or properly, or when you really let yourself go to that place, it's sort of like in between waking and dreaming, where you're conscious but you're not. It's like a consciousness that's sort of somewhere between a dream landscape and reality, and you're aware of reality but you're separate from it," she says. "And, interestingly enough, that place is basically the same in so many ways to the place that I feel like I tap into when I'm having a real epiphany-style writing moment, where time just disappears."
By the time they arrived at Rare Book Room in Brooklyn last fall to begin recording with producer Nicolas Vernhes, most of the songs that ended up on Shriek were pretty well mapped; a lot of studio time for previous albums was used for that kind of composing and working out arrangements. Vernhes, whose credits also include Deerhunter, Wild Nothing, and Marnie Stern, helped to record better-sounding parts for certain pieces of drums, keyboards, and synths.
"They had done a lot of work, a lot pre-production, prior to me coming, so it was really great," Vernhes says by phone. "Everything was kind of in place, it was about getting the right takes and putting it together and eventually, of course, mixing it. And all that stuff happened pretty easily."
Of course, a batch of new material arose, and there were those happy accidents where some computer glitch or mistake aided in the discovery of an altogether new, cooler idea. Discussing those is when Wasner sounds most excited.
"Learning to hear those and single those out and use them, it's just like the most fun thing in the world," she says. "I could do it all the time and be so happy, so content. It's just so much fun."
But when SPIN interviewed the band in the studio and wrote about the drastically different, bass-heavy sound, the shift wasn't embraced by all. Stack bemusedly recalls reading message boards ("I mean, you try not to read message boards and that kind of thing, but of course, whose will can be that strong?") and seeing people bash the change in direction without so much as hearing a note.
"And what ended up happening right off the bat was people being like, 'Wye Oak with no guitar? Count me out. This record is going to totally suck,'" he says with a laugh.
They seemed to hedge a little bit when "The Tower" was released in January, tweeting, "Feel compelled to say a couple of things-first, don't fret if you don't see a show in your area, cos we're just getting started . . ."
"Also-the gtr has always been and will always be an important part of our arsenal . . ."
"But this band has always been first and foremost a vehicle for songwriting. It's about the songs themselves . . ."
"And that's all I'm gonna say about that for now. Oh, and thanks to everyone who cares! We're so excited."
There was an understanding they were throwing a curveball at fans-many of whom they had just brought into their corner with Civilian-that saw them as a guitar band, even if they never saw themselves that way. Asked if that's the case, Wasner responds: "I mean, I was aware of it, but it wasn't something that I was willing to adjust. I think trying to make something, anything, is so difficult and is such a challenge in so many ways, in even the best of circumstances. If you go into it trying to satisfy anybody but yourself, you're just gonna be caught in this feedback loop of uncertainty."
"But yeah, trying to satisfy other people is a big part of why I struggled so much. I think I'm a bit of a people-pleaser in life in general, and some of that tends to carry over and it's not really a good thing," she goes on to say. "So, side-stepping that was a real challenge, but it was one of the more rewarding things I've ever managed to do."
Stack says guitar has never really been the point anyway.
"It's still Wye Oak. It's still Jenn's songs and her voice and her sort of melodic sensibilities. And it's still my production and my ideas about how to create tension and arc in the music. And whether it's on guitar or accordion, it's still us-hopefully not accordion," he says, laughing. "I certainly hope that never happens. I know I've been living in Portland for the last year, but come on."
A few days after we talk, Wasner is set to go to two brunches with friends and celebrate her grandfather's 80th birthday. A weeklong break of total freedom in Baltimore, with art openings and shows, is drawing to a close.
After that comes heading out to the desert of California for the massive Coachella festival. May kicks off three straight months of touring. Wasner says she's going to bring a recording setup along to be as creatively productive as possible on the road. Just as important, the band has gotten better about being able to say "no" and knowing its limits.
There's still sort of an apprehension when both Wasner and Stack talk about their roles as live performers. Watching the xx in Marfa the night before, Stack saw the British group's stage show and larger-than-life presence and thought, "Oh yeah, Jenn and I could never do that," he recalls with a chuckle. "We could never be this band. I mean, the artifice side, the sort of entertainer/performer side of the whole thing is so, so hard for us."
Says Wasner: "I sorta feel like writing and creating is my purpose and I'm always going to be doing that no matter what. And touring is something that I enjoy under the best circumstances, but in excess it is difficult and in excess it takes me away from what I feel like my real purpose actually is."
But they are far from ungrateful. Even after the dispiriting experience of two years ago, both members talk about how lucky they are to have done this for so long, and for their own working partnership to continue to be so productive, as they've more or less grown up together. Much like in the Voice interview, there's still a bit of surprise that their collaborative project has reached the level it has.
Reflecting on her restoration of self, Wasner offers perspective.
"It was brutal. But, I mean, very necessary. I honestly wouldn't do anything differently. I wouldn't trade it, for sure."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun