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After breakthrough, Wye Oak follows unexpected path to 'Shriek'

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For Wye Oak to continue as one of Baltimore's most well-established indie-rock acts, change was necessary.

Sometime after the 2011 album "Civilian," singer Jenn Wasner began viewing the guitar — her instrument since she formed the duo in 2006 with drummer Andy Stack — as a liability.

Before then, Wye Oak's clever songwriting and dramatic rock sound had propelled the group from the city's DIY music scene to success on a national scale that included song placements on popular TV shows and a live performance on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." But when it came time to write the follow-up to "Civilian," Wasner suddenly hit a creative roadblock with the guitar.

So for "Shriek," Wye Oak's fourth album, released in April, she ditched it entirely for the bass.

What seemed drastic to outsiders — how could it be a Wye Oak album without guitar? — was actually Wasner preserving her creativity.

"If a particular instrument or a particular style just isn't yielding the same creative results, then I feel like I only really have one choice, which is to chase whatever feels inspiring," Wasner said as she drove last week through Texas for a tour that will wrap up this month with a homecoming show outside Baltimore's Metro Gallery. (The singer assured that she was wearing a headset while talking and driving.)

Wasner makes clear that she is a songwriter first, and whatever instrument she chooses to play is secondary. The attitude is indicative of a band that tasted a few drops of mainstream success but refused to compromise its artistry to chase even more. The goal for Wye Oak is not fame, accolades, wealth or even a more prominent spot at a festival gig. Instead, Wasner and Stack follow the same mantra: Do what feels right.

"The tools that I use to create are sort of less important to me than the foundation of what it is that I do, which is to write songs," Wasner said.

This assertion has been apparent to longtime fans of Wye Oak. Each release leading to "Shriek" has been marked with improvement. The cautious, independently released "If Children" (2007) begat a moodier, more confident approach on 2009's "The Knot." After an experimental EP titled "My Neighbor/My Creator" in 2010, the duo maximized its lush-but-meaty guitar-and-drum parts to unmatched heights on the critically acclaimed album "Civilian." (The AV Club named it the No. 1 album of 2011.)

"Shriek" has more electronic elements and relies heavily on the thick grooves created by Stack's drums and Wasner's bass. But the heart of it is still unmistakably a Wye Oak album, with indelible melody lines, dense layers and Wasner's haunting alto.

"I thought once people heard it, it would make sense," said Wasner, 28.

It's easy to forget, especially in Baltimore, that many were first introduced to Wye Oak within the past few years. The band was far from anonymous at the time of "Civilian's" release, but the third album raised the band's profile considerably.

Most significant was the title track's placement in a memorable scene in a 2012 episode of the popular AMC zombie drama "The Walking Dead." It's now the band's most recognizable hit (it has millions of more plays on the streaming service Spotify than the rest of the duo's catalog). It's a milestone Wasner and Stack appreciate, but it still leaves them scratching their heads.

"Neither of us really watch the show," Wasner said, before adding that they reviewed the scene before giving final approval. "We didn't realize it was going to be such a tremendous thing for people."

While Wasner said all similar opportunities for "Shriek" tracks are considered on a case-by-case basis, neither she nor Stack seems much interested in such things. For both members, Wye Oak is simply about conquering the next challenge — whatever it might be.

The most daunting challenge after "Shriek's" release was re-creating the album in a live setting. Wasner's swapping of guitar for bass would have been hard enough, but that wrinkle was compounded by the fact the duo wrote and recorded the majority of "Shriek" on opposite coasts (she was in Baltimore, Stack was in Portland, Ore.).

"We never actually stood in a room together and played the songs," said Stack, who was riding shotgun as Wasner drove. (He and Wasner formed the band as a couple but broke up in 2010.) "There was never actually any live arrangement ... until we had a completed record."

To make it work required "a whole lot of practice," Wasner said. For a band that seems allergic to "going through the motions," the rededication to performance was invigorating.

"It's important for me to feel that I'm pushing myself, and I'm doing something that doesn't necessarily come really easily," Wasner said. "It's actually a huge asset in that it's helping us stay engaged with the songs for longer."

Stack concedes that there was "a period of sheer terror as we were rehearsing" new material, but that the circumstances surrounding "Shriek" led to a more engaged live set.

"Being a duo and maximizing what we get out of a sort of limited setup has been the point since the beginning," Stack, 29, said. "Not having a full band to work with for these songs, it's meant that these live arrangements are a little bit different from the record, and I never think that's a bad thing."

Although Stack — who now lives in Marfa, Texas but still considers Baltimore home — said he and the Baltimore-based Wasner are "champing at the bit" to work on non-Wye Oak material (she hopes to record a full-length album as the solo project Flock of Dimes while Stack wants to score film and TV), they are happy to end the tour with a homecoming show.

On July 26, for the first time since December 2011, Wye Oak will headline its own Baltimore show — more specifically, the Charles Street Parking Lot at Metro Gallery, a venue chosen out of necessity ("There really isn't a location that makes sense for us at this point in our career in Baltimore," Wasner said) but also because it's a special outdoor setting.

"We get to play with friends of ours whose bands [Matmos and Wume] we love in a really nice space," she said of the "pop-up venue." "It's early and it's outside, so our families can come."

For a band that has toured heavily across the world for years, a summer night in Baltimore in front of friends, family and fans is an achievement well earned. So, how much more does Wye Oak have left? During the three-year break between "Civilian" and "Shriek," the future of Wye Oak was admittedly uncertain, and it's understandable to wonder if life after "Shriek" will be similar.

When asked what comes next, the band sounded anxious to decompress. Stack bought a new house in February but has only spent two weeks in it since.

Wasner, who said she needs "the freedom to live" away from music in order to create it, was noncommittal. Her answer sounds true to a band that seems to thrive off the unknown.

"I'm comfortable saying that we will continue to make music together in some capacity, for sure," she said. "But what that means? That's always going to be growing and shifting a bit."

If you go

Wye Oak performs July 26 at the Charles Street Parking Lot at Metro Gallery, 1714 N. Charles St. in Station North. Matmos and Wume will also perform. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $17. Call 410-244-0899 or go to themetrogallery.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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