Wye Oak: A Thoughtful Look at Civilian

Wye Oak’s haunting and utterly entrancing third album, Civilian, was released back in March, to rave reviews and many championing them as a band to keep close on the radar. Civilian is the most concise and compelling example of Wye Oak’s artistry, unafraid to leap into the depths of sorrow, heartbreak and melancholy, but without losing their sense of adventure and humor. It’s certainly one of the finest releases of 2011, and is worthy of the praise through and through. 

Wye Oak is composed of two members: Andy Stack on drums/percussion, keyboards, bass, etc. and Jenn Wasner on guitar and vocals. Most are surprised when they find out it’s just the two of them in the band after hearing their music, because the arrangements are so beautifully thick and rich. Even when they play live, Wye Oak is able to command the stage with such a presence that it might feel crowded and fussy to add a third member. It’s a brilliant synchrony between Wasner and Stack, and as they’ve shown time and again on their relentless touring for Civilian, Wye Oak is not a flash in the fast-paced indie rock consciousness; rather, they’re in it for the long run.

Glide Magazine’s Peter Zimmerman spoke with Jenn Wasner on the day before Civilian’s North American release. Despite the massive amount of press Wasner did for the album, the conversation below is articulate, ruminative, magnanimous and complex. A woman clearly wise beyond her years, Wasner’s growth artistically and philosophically will be nothing short of exciting to watch. In the meantime, here is a brief look into her approach to writing, her musings about Wye Oak’s genesis and her feelings about Civilian’s creation.

You and Andy are quite young — only 24 years old. Yet, as Wye Oak, you’ve already released three albums and an EP. Not too shabby.

It’s mostly because we got lucky! We were making music in high school, and soon afterwards we made the record that would become If Children. We weren’t really planning on it being an actual release. We were into self-releasing, but then Merge Records got ahold of it and liked it. But, yeah, we definitely had a heads up by starting early.

How did you and Andy know get to know each other?

I met Andy when I joined his band in high school to play keyboards. Within the first five minutes of meeting for the first time we were playing music together. We continued playing all throughout high school and became really close friends. When people graduated and went their separate ways, we wanted to develop some sort of project. We had the two of us, and that’s how Wye Oak came about.

You both used to share vocals early on in the band’s recordings, but that’s now shifted, with you singing vocals exclusively on all of Civilian’s tracks.

Generally speaking, when we made the first record (If Children), we weren’t really a “band;” we just grew a collection of songs together over a few months. We didn’t have a live setup or a vision for what our band would look or sound like in any way. We made that record, and like I said it wasn’t even meant to be a record as much as a collection of songs. It wasn’t really indicative of what our live show was like when we first started playing for people. We built the setup of him playing drums and keyboards simultaneously, and later we wanted to have a certain focus that was lacking in our high school years. It was definitely fun playing back then, but it was also really scattered. When we came up with this current live setup, we decided it needed a definitive focus. It made sense to have me singing and playing guitar, and then writing most of the songs. But Andy has so much going on, too, because he’s constantly going between four instruments or more.

Civilian comes out this week, which must be quite thrilling. But you’ve been promoting this new record for quite some time already.

Honestly, it’s a relief that it’s finally going to be out in the public, because we’ve been waiting essentially since September to see it released. It feels like an eternity. Also, with the amount of press and touring we’ve been doing, it’s surprising for me that Civilian hasn’t really been heard yet. Obviously, it’s been heard by some, but it hasn’t been widely available. It feels like it’s been around a lot longer than it actually has.

The scheduling of things is a bit tough, though. When you’re recording and releasing an album, you’re working at a certain level of delay, just by the nature of how labels and press work. We finished this record in September, so we’ve learned that you just have to be patient. In our brains and our hearts, we’re very excited to be moving forward– taking definite steps toward the future.

You’ve been playing the majority of Civilian live for a while. Have you gotten any feedback from that perspective?

Yeah, we’ve definitely played most of them. But there are a couple we haven’t yet figured out how to play live (laughs). Well, maybe just one– the first track, “Two Small Deaths.” But, yeah, we’ve been kicking these songs around for a while. It’ll be nice to see, though, how people will react when we play them and they’ve now heard the songs more than once or twice in concert. I think there’s a definite difference between when you take in a brand new song live and when you’ve had time to listen to it on record.

Is there some comfort, though, that by the time you launch the first official leg of the Civilian tour that you’re no longer road-testing much of this material?


It’ll be intriguing to hear the live workings of many of the songs from Civilian, because there’s such depth sonically to the work. It’s very much a headphones record.

I think it’s the kind of record that’s a real grower. I think it will take people some time to get used to some of the songs. They’re not exactly catchy in a lot of ways.

I don’t normally do this sort of thing, but recently I’ve been doing so much internet research that I’ve been stumbling across some stuff about this record. I usually try to avoid anything about myself on the Internet at all times. But, I’ve been trying to keep up with all the interviews I have and haven’t done for Civilian. I saw somewhere, though, where they said, “The new Wye Oak record is only boring the first time.” That’s exactly what I want! I definitely feel this album is more subtle than a lot of music we’ve released in the past.

Also, we really focused on exactly what we wanted with Civilian. It was very intentional. We put so much time into the arrangements of the songs. Everything is very particularly placed. A lot of stuff doesn’t necessarily show up on the first few listens, but opens up over time. I’m glad a lot of people in the press have taken the time to let it open up, and I hope when it’s released tomorrow listeners will do the same! I’m really grateful that people aren’t listening once and passing it over.

Civilian in and of itself is radically different than your previous work. I’m interested in hearing about your writing process for this album. How did you structure it? Was it different than how you’ve written in the past?

What was probably most different was that these songs were written in a relatively brief period of time. I wrote the title track in January of 2010, but I wrote the rest the following summer, between June and July. But, this writing process was very interesting for me, because I went into it knowing that I wanted to alter my approach. I wanted to think outside of the normal structures I default to, working less in the traditional verse/chorus structure. A lot of these songs are in parts, like A-B-C rather than A-B-A-B, or they’re in halves, like “We Were Wealth,” which has two distinct bodies. I definitely wanted to play around with those conventions.

The biggest thing that I realized was that if I worked on songs every day for several hours, which is what I did that summer, it became, in my mind, very much like a skill that I could improve upon. In the past, I would write and play songs, and then I’d consider it finished at some point. For Civilian, I would write songs and then come back and revise them, redoing them, in many cases, multiple times. I wouldn’t necessarily settle for the first, or even second, versions. So, what you hear on the album are often the fourth or fifth edits of that one song. I should point out, though, that when I say edits, I really mean “versions” of the songs, because to me it all made sense, but to someone on the outside the different versions probably sounded totally different from one another. When I was writing, I would often try to say or accomplish something in particular, but I couldn’t quite get it there, or exactly as good as I thought it could be. So, in my mind there’s this trail of point A to B to C, and then to the final one that ended up on the record, but to anyone else that might not be so logically apparent.

I had a lot of time on my hands before recording this album. I spent most of that time just being alone in my room, working on music. Because of that, I was willing to put more time and attention into figuring out where those songs wanted to eventually be. In that way, I’m really pleased with the way Civilian turned out, and I think they’re probably the best I’ve written so far.

When you’re writing alone, do you have someone, or a group of people, who you feel comfortable going to for feedback?

Traditionally, I have a really hard time doing that sort of thing. And I should point out that I really think doing that’s a strength. It’s something I’ve been wanting to improve upon for a while now, so with this record I tried to get Andy and say something like, “OK, here’s this song– it’s not entirely finished– it’s just an idea. What do you think?” There’s a couple of instances where I played unfinished songs, or ideas of songs, for people before they were what I considered as complete, which I’m glad I did, but I do have a really tough time with it. I’m one of those “my own worst critic” kind of people, and I’m definitely a bit of a perfectionist, so I like to keep things close to my chest before I think they’re ready to share. But, I would definitely like to be better at collaborating with people– bringing other people into my process. I definitely tried to do that with Civilian, but more often than not it was an internal process for me as a writer.

Civilian also marks a fairly major shift in your songwriting, as you embrace much more deeply personal subjects for this work.

They’re definitely more personal, and they’re certainly much harder to please– less veiled, I guess, than other songs I’ve written in the past. It feels good, honestly, to share them. The whole idea behind writing them was part of a healing and growing process, and it was cleansing in many ways. In order to complete that process, though, I think you have to share them with people. You have to get past them to the point where you can let them out into the world. That’s the only way I can prove to myself that I really have gotten past it, or been able to reconcile myself with it.

Now that I’m able to stand up and sing these songs in front of people, I often think about how I felt then while writing, and then how I feel now, which is to say different, or older and stronger in some ways, and I understand a bit more about myself and the way I want to live. I can definitely look back at those times, but I don’t necessarily have to revisit it. I can remember what it’s like to feel that way, but I don’t need to inhabit those feelings every time I perform the work. It’s a way of acknowledging those experiences, but not be controlled or dominated by them anymore. And that’s much more of a celebration for me. It feels good!

There were times when we were making this record where I couldn’t get through a full take. I would get into the middle of it and honestly have to stop and go do something else, just in order to get calm again. The fact that I’m at a point now personally and emotionally where I don’t have those moments– where I feel strong enough to take these songs and perform them and now feel that way. It’s more something to be proud of. It feels like a celebration of something I’ve been able to work through, rather than I’m constantly dredging up old feelings.

Were there any songs that didn’t make Civilian?

There were lots. Lots of songs that didn’t make the cut. But, you know, they were often the ones that I mentioned before, where they were older edits of songs that then did make the album. They have lyrical snippets that they share with their completed counterparts, and maybe some melodic ideas as well. But, they weren’t, in my mind, really fully realized songs yet– but we did record them at points. Also, there were some that were at a point I was pleased with, but they didn’t feel like they fit in with this record.

Honestly, everything I do is more instinctive than anything else, so oftentimes when someone asks me to describe or define the decisions I made as a songwriter or putting together albums, I have to admit it’s more of a gut feeling than really anything else. But yes, there were definitely finished songs that didn’t get put on Civilian, because they just didn’t feel like a part of what this album was about.

Are we going to see anyone join Wye Oak, or is it going to stay you and Andy?

When we started this band, it was meant to be a temporary setup where we were basically playing along together until we could find other members, but in that time we grew to love the setup that we have. It’s become such a part of not just the way we play live but also the way I write for the band and how we approach arranging the work. It’s become such an essential part of who we are as a band and what we sound like that it’s fairly obvious to us, at this point, that any additional member would pretty much constitute a completely different band. I generally think that Andy and I haven’t exhausted what we’re capable of as a duo just yet.

For more information, please visit wyeoakmusic.com. Wye Oak is on tour for most of 2011’s remainder, supporting The National, Okkervil River and Explosions in the Sky in the US, and then headlining a late fall tour in Europe.

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