Q&A: Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner And Andy Stack On The Hype Machine, Touring For Almost An Entire Year, And Feeling Unworthy
A year ago this month, Wye Oak kicked off their 2011 with an opening slot for The Decemberists at Beacon Theatre. There was a snowstorm, and it was a pain in the ass to get home, but their set was a great kickoff to what's been, for the Baltimore duo, a great year. Their third album Civilian, a slowly revealing mix of slanted arrangements, dream-pop melodies and guitar riffs that sound like pixies getting sucked into jet engines, won them the best reviews of their career, and they've been touring nonstop. They've been around the world, covered Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana for the Our Band Could Be Your Life tribute show, and wrapped up the year with another Beacon opening set, this time with The National.
Singer/guitarist/songwriter Jenn Wasner has a complicated relationship with the hype machine. When I met with her and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack for dinner at the end of December, the two were clearly wiped from a long year of taking advantage of their increased exposure. Still, they were very open with Sound Of The City about the toll this year has taken, the making of one of the year's breakthrough releases and their plans for the futurewhich include a solo set by Wasner, performing as Flock of Dimes, tonight at Shea Stadium.
How's your year been?
Jenn Wasner: It's been a crazy year. We were just talking about how it's interesting to be back here at the Beacon because we started our year here in 2011, and we played a couple shows at the Beacon. 220 shows later, we're back, and we're wrapping up the year. It's probably been the most life-changing year I've ever lived so far.
JW: Things with the band have been great, I've been living out of a bag for eight months, pretty much giving every waking and sleeping moment to touring with this band, as we both have. It's been paying off, we've done some things this year that I never thought we would be able to do, played in some insane spaces with incredibly big bands, our record is doing well. It feels like the past five years that we've spent toiling have started paying off. I, for one, am ready for a rest, but I feel as though it hasn't been a waste. It's so much better to get through a year, knowing that it's come to something. I'm excited to take a rest and write some more songs and to go back at it next year.
Is this the first year where it felt you were an established band, and this wasn't just a hobby?
JW: I still don't feel like a real band. I don't think I ever will feel like a real band. I still feel like 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."
Andy Stack: But we've also been doing this for a pretty long time. This is our third record, this is our fourth year of... I think we've probably played a hundred or more shows in the past four years in a row.
JW: It's dominated our lives up until this point, for sure.
AS: It was exhausting, a lot of the time.
JW: I missed a lot of it, because I was just totally in my own... it's typical for me to constantly wish for the things I don't have. I'm sure when I get off of tour I will probably want nothing more than to travel again. Musically speaking, I think we've clicked in a way we've been trying to since we started. I feel like Andy interfaces with his setup like it's one big instrument now. I feel like there are a lot more doors open to use creatively than in the past, we've expanded our palette. We've only just started to experiment with sampling, not just with the keyboard but with the drum pad. We've done a little bit of experimenting with that and it's allowed Andy to play drums with two hands. We're just scratching the surface of it. I don't feel like we've reached the ultimate potential of what our band could sound like or be on stage or on record. Personally, I feel like we're just getting started.
AS: There's another level of that which is sort of going with what she's saying. You make songs and you get really excited about them and they feel really fresh and you feel like you're doing something you've never done before, and then you play them 500 times and inevitably they're not fresh anymore and you don't feel as excited about them. After doing it so much, to say like you feel like a real band...
JW: You feel like a faker.
AS: You feel like a real artist at the inception of an idea, and then after that it's the mechanical repetition of it, and to ask that after 200-plus shows, we probably feel like less of a band than before the start of the year.
JW: Honestly, I feel like a glorified jukebox, but that's because we've really hit it in excess. To be quite honest, our band started when we were really young. And it's not that there aren't moments that I'm proud of on those first couple of records, but in a lot of ways I wish the last one was our first record. I feel like that was the first one where we were able to figure out exactly what we were going for, and have the knowledge and the ability to realize it. I feel like our band is going to change very, very drastically from here on out in order to remain vital to us. Because very few people listen to the same music they were listening to when they were 19 when they're 29. So I feel like our tastes are evolving, we are evolving, and it makes sense that our music should, but we've been kind of playing catch-up because we've been playing so many shows.
I am really excited to move forward creatively, but it's going to take time. Just realizing we've gotten to a holding point where we have the luxury of taking a year and figuring that stuff out and working really hard on that end of things, and the next time we go out, we can be really excited about what we're doing. It's really rewarding for us to be able to take these songs to people who want to hear them, all the positive feedback has meant the world, and it's probably what's gotten us through this year, but I don't feel much of a connection to these songs anymore, personally, musically or sonically at all. I feel like my brain is in a very different place. I'm really looking forward to getting some time to figure all this stuff out.
Wye Oak, "Fish"
Is it tough when you're on stage to not feel like you're going through the motions?
Do you have to make yourself get back into the songs?
JW: I think anybody who says it's not tough after doing so many shows is lying. It is tough. However, there are shows that transcend for sure. We played with The National, we did two shows in Canada in arenas. The first was in Toronto and the second one was in Montreal. And the one that was in Toronto, I felt like I played very poorly, I felt like I was intimidating by the space and I didn't know how to handle it and I was really dissatisfied by what I was able to do. So I had that in mind when we were about to play the next day in Montreal, and that show was awesome. Whatever adjustments needed to be made, we made them and I felt much more in touch with the crowd, in spite of the weird obstacle of that giant space. It was a victory, and I actually had a lot of fun. Every once in a while, depending on the people who are there and the space, you can have a show that transcends.
AS: We have some friends who are close to Bill Callahan, and I hope I'm not going to end up misquoting him, but I thought it was really wise so I'll attribute it to him anyway. His whole thing about how to approach performing live, and the expectation and everything, he said, "When I just completely stopped having expectation, positive or negative, about how it was going to go, I ended up having better shows and enjoying myself so much more." After playing x number of shows and starting to feel a little mechanical with it, that's something you have to embrace. It's just releasing yourself to the moment and whatever the crowd is and the space and letting that sort of dictate the feeling of it. You've got to find something fresh to bring to it.
JW: The biggest thing for me is resigning to the fact that there is a difference between being a songwriter and a singer and being a performer. I have never considered myself a performer, and I don't think it's my greatest strength. I'm comfortable onstage, I've gotten better at it the more I've done it. In the future I see myself moving in to music production, something that doesn't necessarily have me onstage 300 days out of the year. I know that about myself.
AS: I personally want to get a casino gig.
JW: Six nights a week.
Mötley Crüe has one.
AS: I'm an entertainer!
JW: Seriously, though, what I'm doing... if you don't expect it to scratch that creative itch, it won't. But if you don't expect it to, you're going to get a lot more out of it. When I was finally able to understand that and admit that about myself, it became more about let's just do the job that I have.
So how much time off have you had since the first Beacon show?
JW: I would say we played 220 shows, and that doesn't include travel days. I don't know, exactly, but very few.
AS: Yeah, days off on the road are not really days off. And honestly days at home have been hardly days off this year. We've been on the road so much, we have both moved out of our apartments. We've both just been couch-surfing, staying at different places.
JW: I think the hardest moment for me was last time we were home, it was right before we went to Europe so it was in October. We spent a week at home and I didn't have a place. I had kind of exhausted my... my friends are amazing, but at a certain point...
They can only do so much.
JW: They can only do so much. So I started to go where the party was, and wait until the party was over and fall asleep on the couch. And that sucked.
AS: That was probably fun for precisely one night.
JW: And then every other night, not fun.
Wye Oak, "Holy Holy"
Did it grow in a way you didn't expect? Did more things just keep coming up as the album did better?
AS: You can plan maybe five months ahead, unless you're U2. This record has been a step up for us with our touring and the amount of touring we've done. We kind of knew at the beginning of the year what we'd be doing until April or something, and beyond that we would just see what happens. We've just gotten really lucky and gotten some really cool...
JW: I'm honestly amazed that people like this record as much as they do.
AS: (Falls back in chair, shakes head, laughs)
JW: I'm really shocked.
AS: That's the spirit.
JW: I mean that in the way that... I'm always surprised... I guess it's just my nature... it's not a very catchy record. I think it's definitely a grower.
That's good, though.
JW: I'm surprised that enough people gave it the time.
I think that it's interesting. One thing people talk about a lot is that the internet-music culture has become more and more fickle. You'll have a blog band that's popular for a week or a YouTube video that gets a trillion hits and everyone seems to hate it, or hyped acts that people don't care about. It seems rare for a band to have an album like yours, a slow-burn success that people come to over the year and find more in it the more they listen to it. I know people who thought it was a good album, and then months later had really connected with it.
JW: Good. That's the idea. I mean, it is pretty subtle... it was intentionally obscured in a lot of ways that make it less immediately accessible to a lot of people. It's probably the hookiest thing I've ever written, but it's not hooky. Not that I'm opposed to it in the future, I feel more excited by that idea than anything else. I'm just surprised that people were willing to give it enough time to... because I suffer from the same oversaturation as everyone. At a certain point this year I actually made the conscious decision to stop reading blogs. I love the internet. I think it's the best thing ever, don't get me wrong. If you use it as a tool to teach yourself things, that's different than just carelessly absorbing news bulletins. The sheer quantity was crushing, it was stressing me out. My stress level just decreased substantially a week after I stopped trying to be up on everything all the time. I think people are oversaturated, I know I am, and so when I hear something and it doesn't catch me right away, it's rare that I give it the time.
So in January you thought, "I didn't make a very catchy record, people won't get it, we'll be done touring this by April"and then you toured it for a year and The AV Club called it the Album Of The Year.
JW: Which is weird.
That's how that happened.
JW: That's pretty much how it went down. We put out head in the sand and just went for it. We toured a lot. We said yes to everything.
AS: We kind of made the decision at the beginning of the year: "This is what we're here for."
Wye Oak, "Civilian" (live in Amsterdam)
When did you first get a sense that this album was connecting in a way that your previous ones hadn't?
AS: Probably a week ago.
AS: I don't know, I always think it's on an individual level. It's somebody sending a note to you and saying "this really affected me." Avoiding the hype stuff, is pretty crucial for one's sanity.
JW: Yeah, similar to what I was saying before, I also decided to quit paying attention to what people were saying about me, which I think is just as important. What it really comes down to is not so much the reviews but individual people being moved by certain songs. It makes me want to continue.
Has your tour been mostly headlining dates or opening gigs?
AS: It's been pretty split this year.
Is it tough to get a sense when you're doing these gigs how many people showed up early for you and how many people are killing time?
JW: I'm a very self-deprecating person, and I don't really pay myself compliments, but I will say that we've done a lot of opening gigs, and I think we're pretty good at winning over audiences that don't know us. It's cheap tricks. What we do live a lot of the time is cheap, the whole loud-quiet-loud... not to say that there isn't subtly involved too, but we're usually pretty good at winning over audiences that don't know us just by defying expectations. That's something that has never been an issue for us. But it's definitely more fun, playing for audiences that are your audiences.
AS: Assuming that those audiences actually are audiences and not empty rooms. Which in the past has always been the case.
JW: And this year has started to change, which is really awesome.
AS: I shouldn't say always been the case.
JW: I'm finally at the point where I'm starting to relax. Even if I'm we're in some random city that we haven't been many times, I'm at the point where it's not like "nobody's going to show up." In the past it's "is anybody going to show up?"
Has that happened, where nobody shows up?
JW: Not no one, but it's been close.
It really sounds like this is the album where things clicked for you in a way it hadn't before, and that you had a clearer sense of what your band is.
JW: Like I said we started really young, so we've been learning as we go all along. We finally have been playing together and recording and we've learned enough about what we do that we were able to realize the ideas we have, completely. The first couple records were more like learning records for us. It took us some time. Our first record came out when I was 19. No one does anything all that great when they're 19. Well, some people do, but I don't.
Wye Oak, "Warning" (live in 2008)
Is this your first band?
JW: Pretty much. First real band. We played together in high school, but this is the first band I've been in that's toured, first experience with songwriting and recording and producing records.
Oh did you two know each other in high school?
JW: Yeah. I met Andy when I was 15.
AS: 10 years ago.
JW: I joined his high school band. I was the girl keyboard player.
AS: The token girl keyboard player.
JW: That was me.
What was the band called?
JW: Not telling.
AS: Shall not be mentioned.
JW: He who shall not be named.
AS: Not that it matters because I don't think you can really think you can...
JW: No, you can. You can if you know, that's why no one shall ever know. There's Youtube videos?
AS: There's all kinds of shit. He who shall not be named, that's what the band was called.
If people can find YouTube footage of Paul Rudd at a bat mitzvah, they'll track you down.
JW: Someone will find it eventually, but I'm not going to help.
AS: Jimmy Page was the lead guitar player.
Are you ambidextrous?
AS: (Shakes his head.)
So are you right handed or left-handed?
Which hand do you play drums with?
AS: I play drums with the right hand.
How long did it take you to get comfortable with playing drums with one hand and keyboard with one hand?
AS: A couple of weeks. Or infinitely long, depending on how you look at it. I'm still sort of fine-tuning and figuring out how to get the most out of the set-up.
JW: You improve on the regular. You're still getting better.
AS: I don't really think of it as separate thing anymore.
JW: That's the best part. When we used to rehearse, I'd bring a song in and he'd learn it on drums first, two hands, and then you would learn it on keyboard, and then you would learn it on both.
AS: Which I still do to a large degree.
JW: But you're a lot faster and you can kind of do it all at once. And if we want to improvise, we can. You know how bands can kind of screw around? That was never a possibility for us. Everything that he did on that set-up had to be rehearsed, but now he plays it like one instrument.
Wye Oak, "I Hope You Die"
You were talking about resting and then getting back to work. This might be premature, but you do have any ideas about what you want to do with the next album?
JW: I do, but I don't want to show my hand just yet. I have an idea, I've been listening to a lot of sample-based club and electronic music. I don't want to just be a guitar-centric band anymore. However, I'm not stupid, and I know my strengths. And when it comes down to it, I'm a songwriter. That's what I do. And I love writing songs and I'm really interested in expanding the sounds that we use and the textures that we use and the palette that we have and figure out a way to make that work. It's all about coming up with a new process. For me guitar is something that I'm really comfortable with now, so it's harder for me to get anything out of it. So, I've been moving more in to electronic, synthesizer-oriented music. Not to say that we're going to make a super-synthy dance record, but I'm interested in incorporating some of those textures into my songwriting. Because I know that we are at heart a song-oriented band.
AS: I think it's easy to think about, and I think we've done this in past as a band, to be like "we want to do something totally new. Completely reinvent our sound." Elements change, but we're still who we are.
JW: This time I do want to change, but it's going to take some time.
AS: But your voice is your voice. Our melodic sensibilities and rhythmic sensibilities are more established then maybe we're giving credit to. Like the Destroyer record [Kaputt] that came out this year. A total reinvention of the sound, but it still sounds like him.
JW: Total Dan Bejar. I think you're wrong, though. There will always be elements of our style, but shoot for the moon, man. Fuck it. I'm just trying to really, really challenge myself. Personally speaking, I probably shouldn't even say this, but this band... I have a really love/hate relationship with it, similar to the love/hate relationship I have with myself. This thing, playing guitar, singing and writing songs, that's the easiest thing in the world to me. That's the thing that I do best, it always has been. Our success as a band kind of just fell in to our laps at a young age, so I've never really had to challenge myself. What I did at the get-go is what I'm still doing now, and in a lot of ways I think it's stunted my growth. Because I spent a lot of time working on one end of things at a time when... a lot of my friends and peers were growing and changing and evolving and I was touring and playing the same songs over and over again. I'm not saying I would trade it, but I'm trying to be super ambitious about where we go on the next record, because I don't want to make something that's okay. And it's not for anybody else, it's for me. Honestly, I feel like 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.
I would politely disagree.
I think you two have a great musical chemistry, and that's what comes through.
JW: Well, that's good. I think it's my job to be self-loathing, because it makes me be better.
And I like that the more you listen to it, the more you get out of it. When I first heard Civilian, I thought, "Oh, this is one of those quiet bands." And the more I listened the more I realized there was a lot going on there with the layered dynamics and the interplay between the keyboards and the guitar.
JW: I don't think I'll ever stop playing the guitar entirely, but I want to push myself, because you get in to a creative rut with anything that you do. I started out trying to escape that by using a lot of alternate tunings, which I still do, and I love that. But past that, one of the things that got me through the year is that I have my mobile recording set up a little bit better, and I work on music pretty much anywhere. Just trying to learn, just making these dinky beats and be more self-sufficient in that area as a producer. I think I'm capable of doing it, I just need time to practice and learn. It's been a joy to learn to really challenge myself to do something that's not necessarily in my comfort zone, and to do that is really empowering. It feels great. I think I am who I am, but I want to fight against that, because I think they best artists don't necessarily settle for what they're best at, they push themselves. That's what you're supposed to do. I won't ever feel I deserve the things I have unless I push myself, and I haven't been doing that this year. I've been touring like a maniac. That's going to change.
Wye Oak, "Mother" (live at The A.V. Club )
You say you don't deserve this. Do you feel like a fraud and the album isn't good enough?
JW: Oh yeah. Honestly, I'm only now just now getting to the point where I can say that it's good. Especially coming from Baltimore. Baltimore is just so full of geniuses. Just straight-up, visionary, inventive, adventurous minds. Just packed. People who don't give a shit about who hears their music outside of Baltimore, and they are brilliant and they are prolific and they are productive. And they work at a restaurant. And here I am, you know, flying around the world, traveling and playing in front of thousands of people, and I know that they're better than me at what they do. At least they've spent more time and they've grown more and they've learned more and they've made more. This year I've made ten songs, they've made maybe 50. I'm spending a lot of time on the business end. And it's not to say that I'm not capable of that, I just haven't been doing it. So I don't feel like I'm deserving, I do feel like a fraud a lot of the time and I'm not working to my full potential. Because I'm distracted by the trappings of quote-unquote success.
I'm glad people like the record, but I feel like it's getting more credit than it deserves. But I'm grateful and I'm happy.
[Tape player stops for a second. I take a second, delete a few files and turn it back on.]
So your band is no good, go on.
JW: (Laughs) No, I...
Your album is terrible.
JW: No I just mean...
AS: This is seriously the way it goes.
Do you feel this way?
AS: Uhm... no, I don't.
AS: I mean, between the two of us, I'm always the more level-headed. I'm very close to this music; I've seen it through from the start. I have less emotional attachment to it then Jenn, and just less of a manic attitude about art in general, and it's what makes her so powerful as a writer...
AS: And the difference between us has proven to be the thing that makes it work, creatively.
JW: There's a reason why we have a two-person band. He's probably the only person in the world who will put up with my bullshit. I know this. The obnoxious, control freak maniac. I can't help it. When it comes to the one thing that I actually care about in the world, I am difficult, and opinionated and stubborn. I don't work well with others. Andy is the only person who can and will crack through that.
AS: I was afraid you were going to say "won't shut up."
Was it clear at some point that there was no way you could have another person in the band?
JW: I don't think we've ever needed to, honestly. Everything I've ever thrown at him, he's risen to the challenge. I've never felt like I have anything less than a full-band behind me. Plus, like I said he's the only person on earth who would be willing to put up with the crazy maniac I become when it comes to working on creative...
AS: I think a lot of people would be willing to put up with playing with a band with you at this point.
JW: Mmmhhh. No. I'm awful. But I'm really, really nice in every other way. I hope.
Except to yourself and your bandmate.
JW: Well, yeah. I don't take most things seriously. But when I do take them seriously, I take them very, very seriously. I try not to take myself too seriously, but I do care a lot about the music that I make and the way it represents me, which is why I'm highly dissatisfied with what we have done. Which is not to say it's not worth something or it's not good, but it's not something that I feel is the utmost that I'm capable of.
Jenn Wasner plays as Flock of Dimes tonight at Shea Stadium with Lexie Mountain and Alex Drewchin. GDFX DJs.
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