Wye Oak used to be known as the alt/indie band from Baltimore made up of a guy who could play seemingly dozens of instruments at once and a girl who wielded a wicked guitar and wrote cryptic, visceral songs with somewhat hard-to-decipher lyrics. With each album, they shed a little more skin, revealing depths to their songwriting and musical approach that showed developing skill. With their latest album Shriek, released this April on Merge Records, however, they’ve completely redefined the scope of the band and their music, all the while demonstrating a confident, deft command of their craft. What’s resulted is a reinvigorated duo that’s rewritten the rules and establishes Wye Oak as one of the most daring, creative and important indie bands on the scene.
Glide Magazine’s Peter Zimmerman sat down with Jenn Wasner to discuss the album, how they almost broke up during the two years of touring behind 2011’s Civilian (which we gave 9/10 stars), her Flock of Dimes solo work, and how it took switching from guitar to bass to reinvigorate the band and give a new entry point for writing music.
The last time we talked was in February 2011 – Civilian was about to come out, and I remember being so impressed that you were 24 years old with three albums under your belt. But that feels like a lifetime ago. And in many ways, I feel like the things we talked about then don’t apply anymore… you’ve changed the game with this new album. Are you at all worried that there might be some backlash or do you think people are on board?
I wouldn’t say that I’m worried, I’m more curious. There was a time after we made Civilian, after we toured really extensively behind it, that the way that I felt about my music and myself was really at an all time low. It was a real crisis period for me. It was a very difficult time, that album cycle. I think maybe when I talked to you, it was the beginning of it. It was tough, and it manifested a lot of really difficult personal emotional and creative challenges that I really had no way of being prepared for.
When I finally got home and it was time to decompress – when I finally got a home, I should say, because most of that time we didn’t really live anywhere – it became very clear that I had to detach myself in a lot of ways. I think often when people feel pain the easiest thing to do is detach. I wasn’t capable for a while of writing music the way I that always had. I wasn’t capable of finding inspiration in the same way and I think it was because I sort of disassociated with myself in order to protect myself, which is kind of like what depression is for a lot of people. There was a time when I felt that I may never write another song again. I totally lost my identity, the thing that I was most passionate about, the thing that brought me the most joy. Somehow after having this longer inward search and after a lot of emotional and personal introspection, heavy lifting, comes the hard work of getting to know one’s self again.
This record manifested itself in a time where I honestly didn’t know if I was ever going to be able to write music again. The fact that it exists is such a source of joy, relief and total overwhelming comfort to me that worrying about what people think about it is pretty low on my list at this point. I’m happy that I made it. I love it, I’m proud of it, I feel confident that it’s good. I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done by a long shot. Obviously, with whatever you do, there will be some people who like it, some people who don’t, and some people who don’t care. You can’t really base your decisions on that. Most important to me is that it exists and I love it and that’s worth so much to me at this point, especially coming out of the period I just came out of. I’m curious about people’s reactions but I don’t really care. I don’t want to sound callous, though.
There’s a fearlessness that comes through on all your records, especially in your lyrics, which I think speaks to that feeling you’re talking about, where you can’t care what people say, because this is your work, and it can be super personal and vulnerable, and you have to stand behind it. I hear that same fearlessness on Shriek, but mostly in the new sound you’ve embraced. What caused such a shift?
I think when you work the way that I do, where the source of your inspiration is so intrinsically linked to your emotional state and internal landscape, you really have to listen to yourself and listen to your needs. That’s what happened to me, I wasn’t listening to myself and I wasn’t listening to what I really wanted or what I was really feeling. Instead, I was listening to what I thought people’s expectations for me were.
We toured a lot behind Civilian — we played maybe over 300 shows in two years. It was crazy, and it changes you as a person. Emotionally, I really shut down. I guess when it came time to write again, going back to what I was saying before, I realized eventually after a lot of thinking that I was broken or that I couldn’t do what I’d always done. A lot of the emotionally intense, negative baggage that was tied up with all of that bacteria in my life became associated specifically with the guitar, and so the guitar itself was sort of a symbol of all of that – a symbol of what people’s expectations were for me.
It’s not like I didn’t feel proud of Civilian when we made it or didn’t want it to be released, but I do think the amount of touring that bands are expected to do can be really, really damaging and destructive, especially to creative people. It totally whittled away everything that I liked about it and left me this shell. I felt like I was getting up on stage as a glorified jukebox and spitting out the same material every night, which I had no connection to. It’s a terrible feeling. I’m not an actor, I’m a writer. I’m less of a performer than I think I am a songwriter or a musician. You shove yourself into that role and it changes you.
It occurred to me that the guitar had become a symbol for me of all of that and that was where the block was coming from. It was liberating. Freedom is so important when you’re trying to express yourself. You have to feel free to chase that inspiration wherever it may take you. The second I allowed myself to let go of what I thought I had to give people or what people were expecting of me and decided that I was going to make whatever I wanted to make and that was going to be that, it was all of a sudden a flip of a switch and I was excited about writing again and the songs came very quickly.
How does that conversation happen between you and Andy? How did you bring up possibly getting rid of the guitar?
We had had many conversations basically saying we’re not going to keep this band alive unless we can think of a valid creative reason that we’re excited about. We’re not going to do it because it’s a paycheck. Neither of us were into that idea at all. Even though we had worked for the better part of a decade where we were able to make a small living off of it and we were really proud of that, we didn’t feel we could continue with it unless we could come up with a real genuine idea that we felt was worth exploring from a creative angle, not just logistically because we have to pay the bills.
It was sort of open at that point, like “Hey, if we write a record and have an idea that we think is cool, we’ll make a record and if we don’t, we’ll figure something else out and go our separate ways.” It was important to us. It was already sort of up in the air. I had this idea, that visually speaking, when you look at our band on stage – you have me singing and playing guitar, you have Andy playing his drums and keyboard stuff. Then it occurred to me that with one very simple change, if I played bass instead of the guitar, then all of a sudden I’m A) playing an instrument that’s new and different for me that I’m really excited about and is a challenge to play while singing B) it inverts what Andy and I are responsible for, as he was handling all of the lower register stuff. All of a sudden that’s my territory and he’s handling the upper register stuff that the guitar used to occupy.
What we really wanted was a new thing that we weren’t tired of. It was a way of achieving that while the band still looked the same on the surface. The second I had that idea, I knew we had to try it. I just called him on the phone and I think I ranted and raved at him for ten minutes about it. He was like, “Yeah okay that sounds great.” He’s learned that there’s really no stopping me when I’m in that zone. So that was sort of the impetus of it and from there the whole thing started and we began writing things back and forth.
In between Civilian and Shriek, you put out a lot of music as Flock Of Dimes, and then with Jon Ehrens as Dungeonesse. Did doing those other projects help break the ice for this new version of Wye Oak, or did you do it because you were so stuck and couldn’t write for Wye Oak at the time?
I think it’s a little of both. The real important thing about making those songs for me is that those songs are a result of me learning a lot of stuff that I now consider to be completely inseparable from my creative process. Those songs are some of the first that I’ve made with help – a lot of the credit goes to Mickey Free who helped me produce – those taught me a lot of what I’m still working on today – just sort of taking more control of the production aspect of things and being able to produce and record in real time as I’m writing.
Everything I do I’ve been self taught, with the exception of taking a lot of piano lessons. Aside from that, every instrument that I play, I’ve done in my own highly personalized way. For some reason, the act or art of producing felt less like an instrument and more technical, like there was a right and wrong way to do it, and I wasn’t allowed to try it until I learned all the rules. Then it occurred to me in the process of writing and recording those Flock of Dimes songs, and with the encouragement of a lot of people, that just like any instrument I play – if it sounds good, it’s right. The second I started treating these things as instruments and sort of just living and learning the same way that I learn everything I do, sort of fiddling around until something makes sense and something sounds good and not being frightened off by it, it totally changed my life.
I can’t tell you how grateful I am for having started down that road. It’s a huge undertaking and it’s something that I’d like to get better at with time. I feel like I’m so much less limited, that I’m looser and when I have an idea, I’m able to realize it more immediately than I ever was before. That was integral in writing these Wye Oak songs. They mostly happened in a box. I was in my studio setup at home building them and sort of being able to realize ideas I was having as I was having them. It allows for such an increase in complexity. You can change these things and immediately document them. It changed the way that I write. That skill is probably the most important thing that’s happened to me creatively. Those songs are the artifacts from that learning period in my life.
I think of the song “Spiral” that you did as Wye Oak, too, which you’d done for an Adult Swim singles series. That to me really signaled a major shift for you, sonically. Was that part of that learning period?
Yeah, definitely. That was also an early stage of me and Andy writing remotely. He hadn’t moved yet [to Portland], but we weren’t really performing and I remember I sent him the demo and he added stuff to it. This is actually kind of a fun story you might enjoy: I wrote that song when I was living in this warehouse. it was really beautiful space called the Soft House in Baltimore. I really loved it there, but like most warehouses, the walls were very thin.
One of my roommates was this really gifted marimba player. He plays percussion marimba, xylophone, vibraphone… stuff like that. I was writing this song and was sort of in the zone with it and putting everything together and all of a sudden, he stopped practicing and I realized unconsciously I was writing this song over what he had been practicing in the next room. So I said, “Hey you know, would you be willing to put together one of your cool marimba loops for us to use in this song because it turns out it was kind of an important part of the song when I was writing it.” Andy recorded that and mixed it himself and did it on his own remotely and it was one of the first examples of writing that way and making a song that way. It really worked and I’m really happy with the way it turned out so at least unconsciously we already knew that was possible.
“Logic of Color” is one of the songs on the new record that blew me away the first time I heard it, which was actually at the Merge Records showcase at this year’s SXSW. On stage, you mentioned how much you love singing that song… I don’t think I’ve ever heard you be so exuberant about a song before.
I love singing a lot of these new songs because I think specifically it was the first time I really allowed myself to sing and I think a lot of what people are noticing about this record — well, a lot has been made of the lack of guitar — but I think one of the equally big if not bigger departures is the way that I treat and the way that I feel about my voice, which has been a long process for me.
I think every singer struggles with it, with their relationship to their own voice. It’s been something I only recently embraced my voice for what it is and also sort of thinking of it as an instrument that I can work on, improve and be skilled at and proud of. I think because it took a long time to get to a place where I was comfortable with that, I finally felt like I didn’t need to hide it or obscure it in some way. Interestingly enough, that realization which is relatively recent obviously made its way into the melodic construction on this record. Also like what I was talking about before about writing and producing simultaneously, immediately it frees you up to write more complex melodic ideas. When you’re writing on an instrument and you’re playing the instrument, that takes up a certain amount of brain power, especially when you’re not really familiar with what you’re playing- everything you write for your voice while you’re writing on your instrument, if you’re me — which is to say I’m not really skilled on any instrument I play mdash; it takes up a certain amount of brain power, so it automatically lessens what you’re able to do with your voice.
When I’m recording, I usually make a drum loop, then write a bass line, then write some keyboard parts and I’ll have this track that’s not finished but sort of a rough sketch, then sing over that. If I’m just concentrating on singing, the things I’m able to sing are much more complicated, interesting, and exciting to me. That was never really a possibility for me before. So I’m just writing these melodies that I’m really excited to sing. It’s so freeing to be able to do that. Also feeling a new level of comfort and acceptance with my own voice and what it is and what it represents to me and just seeing what it is, and be proud of it and not hide it, was huge for Shriek.
That song specifically- I love the melody and I love to sing it, it’s just fun and satisfying. It’s also the most unabashedly joyful song on the record, mostly because it’s one of the earliest tracks that I wrote and it’s one of those tracks that’s about making art and it references the kind of transparency, vulnerability and simplicity that I think has always been at the heart of what I do. In learning how to accept that and fall in love with that again and be unashamed and unembarrassed of it and allow myself to be vulnerable and allow myself to open myself up to people to be seen, all those things it was sort of like a breakthrough moment. It’s the combination of that feeling of joy and relief and gratitude, and it’s catchy as shit!
For someone who cares so much about lyrics, though, does it upset you to think that maybe people could see Shriek as more dance-y and therefore put it on and not pay as much attention to the words?
It’s twofold. Lyrics obviously are very important to me, kind of the most important in a lot of ways. I’ve always sort of tried to walk this line of… well, lyrics have to be intensely personal and specific to my experience in a lot of ways. I think one of the things that specifically makes a Wye Oak song a Wye Oak song is that I struggle to leave space for the listener in there. Which is not something I think all great songs have to do. There are a lot of different ways to write a song. It’s been my unconscious shaping guiding principle for this project and a lot of projects I do is to leave space in the song for the listener to find themselves. It’s a really fine line, and I love playing with the ambiguity, it’s one of my favorite parts about writing. I see how far I can go without taking the listener out of that moment.
When people tell me about their experiences with my songs often times people say, “I don’t know if this is right!” and I think that’s so funny because there is no wrong as far as I’m concerned. I tell people if that was your experience and that’s what you found in it and that’s what is real to you, then that’s right. That’s the idea. I take a lot of pleasure in hearing what people’s interpretation of my songs are, and what their own experiences are, because that’s something I take particular care to leave room for in the songs. It’s not my experience with them and what they need to be is right and everyone else’s is wrong, they’re intentionally designed so all of people’s interpretations and experiences are also right.
It’s really exciting when someone tells me something about a song that I wrote that I would have never thought of in a million years and when I make them explain it to me, I say that makes perfect sense, that really does apply. That’s awesome, because I did my job. That’s always the fun for me in writing lyrics. They’re personal and specific but they’re also designed to be somewhat universal and to have that weird ambiguity when you’re not entirely sure what’s going on there.
The song “Civilian” very much encapsulates the feeling and mood of that album, and here you are again with “Shriek,” which feels very much emblematic of this project.
That song was the first song that I wrote for this record. It was the first song that I wrote at all in a very long time. I can still remember the excitement. I was just ecstatic that it had happened- I couldn’t believe I could do it.
It was funny because the word ‘shriek’ – I feel like sometimes certain words find me in my life and I became fascinated by them for reasons I don’t understand immediately. I’d become fascinated with the sound and meaning of that word. When I wrote that song, it seemed to fit perfectly because it’s the vulnerability of what it was that I was trying to do, which was both terrifying and exhilarating. It really took a animalistic, onomatopoeia style word to encapsulate it. I loved that as sort of a guiding place for the whole record.
It was the start of all of the other ones to come. I love that song, I can’t tell you – it was just so wonderful to be able to do that again. The song itself is still really helpful for me in performing. We usually play it sort of early in the set, because it’s kind of designed to have this really repetitive mantra that actually calms me in a meditative way which helps me to deal with my own weird feelings about being on stage. A lot of the songs come from that place, a place you can’t’ articulate them, but they’re from this animalistic, cathartic, deeply internal place. That’s why that word is important.
Knowing what happened with the relentless touring cycle for Civilian, have you and Andy renegotiated the way you’re approaching being on the road?
We’re being very careful. The amount of touring that we’re expected to do and the amount of touring you should have to do is really unnatural and weird. Some people can really do it and feel ok about it, and some people really can’t. We’re going to be touring a lot. The funny thing is, we set limits and said we’re not going to tour that much, but that means we’re going to tour for the better part of the next six months, which is still a lot! You’re basically doing nothing else when you sacrifice every other part of your life. And that’s us saying we’re not touring as much. It’s totally nuts.
We’re keeping that in mind because there’s no opportunity that’s important enough to risk losing your love of this thing in the first place. If I burn myself out to the point where I no longer care about music or this band or being alive in general, what is the point of it? Then there’s no band, there’s no songs, and there’s no you. I think we did have to learn how to say no and how to protect ourselves and care for yourself and the other part of ourselves that doesn’t involve just doing this. The only way this can happen and continue to happen if it’s in a healthy way and in a way we that both feel good about and excited about and a way that feels free creatively and personally.
You have to know your needs and you have to know your limits. You have to stand behind them and learn how to stand up for yourself, because there’s always going to be someone telling you to do this and this and it’s in your best interest to do this. You have to know your needs are important. It really bugs me because I think people expect you to be the way that you are just long enough to make this thing that they want to sell, then stop being that way and let them milk you for cash for the next three years. The way I am is the reason this stuff exists; if I don’t preserve that, there won’t be anything for you to sell and make money off of. You have to learn how to protect yourself. In that way, our experience, although it wasn’t pleasant in some ways, it was an important learning experience as well.
The band recently started the second North American leg of its tour supporting Shriek. They headline the Phono Del Sol Festival in San Francisco this week, then head north before crossing through the Midwest. For tour dates and more information, visit their website.