At a recent stop in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Nick Sanborn is talking about community when he stops short to exclaim, with childlike wonder, “Oh, there’s a beautiful frog!” As the beat-making half of electronic folk duo Sylvan Esso, Sanborn is playing the inaugural Eaux Claires Festival with his partner in crime, Amelia Meath. Sanborn’s just set up for an impromptu drone collaboration with Volcano Choir’s Chris Rosenau, which will take place inside a geodesic dome. The whole thing has been organized by Justin Vernon (a/k/a Bon Iver) and the Dessner brothers, both of whom play in the National.
If this sounds like an indie rock dream, that’s because Sylvan Esso are living in one. In little more than two years, Meath and Sanborn have released a critically lauded self-titled record that’s spawned indelible singles like “Coffee,” “Hey Mami,” and “Play It Right.” They’ve spent that time touring relentlessly; in fact, it was an opening spot on tour with Volcano Choir that helped them secure billing at the bucolic, surreal Eaux Claires fest. When the tour came through New York, they played Webster Hall as a supporting act, but in a few short months, they’d go on to headline their own sold-out show at Terminal 5.
“That was crazy. I don’t know how to put stuff like that into perspective. It’s tough to feel talky about it, because I don’t feel like it’s really about me. I think we both just feel really lucky that people get what we’re trying to say. And that they keep wanting to see us come play the same songs,” Sanborn laughs. He and Meath strike a winning combination built from her smoky vocals and wise lyrics and his hypnotic, sensual beats, but their quick rise to acclaim didn’t only come from their seamless, mesmerizing dynamic; Sylvan Esso are extremely focused and diligent workers.
“Amelia and I have both played in a lot of bands before this one, and none of those have received the kind of attention [Sylvan Esso has], for a lot of reasons. But we each come from this long history of just grinding it out on the road because it’s the only thing you wanna do with your life,” explains Sanborn. Since the band’s inception, they’ve been on the road practically nonstop — all over America, Europe, and Australia, in fact. Now, they’re playing a string of festivals, from last spring’s Coachella till they hit Cincinnati’s Midpoint and Champaign, Illinois’s Pygmalion in late September.
The festival season “provides a necessary gear shift or chapter change that I kind of needed,” Sanborn admits. “When you’re on tour all year it’s extremely insular. You’re only hanging out with the same seven people, and doing the same show, and only playing to your own fans. You just try to make it real, and you don’t see anything else. And then you come to these festivals, and you’re hanging out with all of the bands who’ve been doing what you’re doing all year — all these indoor kids. We all made this weird life decision and now here we all are, and I get to talk about it and not feel like a crazy person. And I get to go see all the shows that I’ve been dying to see all year. It’s really warming my heart right now.“
The huge shows they played early on as a budding band — the tour with Volcano Choir, for instance, or a random gig opening for Beach House just after releasing the 12” single for “Play It Right” — helped them overcome any anxiety about their set translating to large crowds. They went “purposely minimalist,” Sanborn says. “It was just a guy with a computer and a girl singing and that was it. And there was something that made us kinda feel punk about that. I know it sounds weird, but it felt like that was all we needed. We figured out that it works at a different scale.”
That’s the attitude they channeled for Coachella and continue to use to bolster their live sets. “I don’t know if it worked for the audience,” Sanborn says, “but that was what pumped the two of us up.” Their unique alchemy, paired with that enthusiasm, puts Sylvan Esso sets over the top. NYC fans have a chance to see them this weekend when the duo returns to play a free Celebrate Brooklyn! show at Prospect Park. Sanborn says they feel “incredibly honored” to have been asked, and are stoked to have gotten to pick their opening act, Brooklyn-based dreampop purveyor Porches. In honor of the performance, we’re premiering an exclusive video of Sylvan Esso performing “HSKT” live last Halloween, complete with an array of skeletal backup dancers.
Sylvan hail from Durham, North Carolina, where they live in a sort of communal house full of musicians. Sanborn says he rarely misses home, but as this seemingly endless tour winds down, what the two will be looking forward to most is finding the time to write new songs. They’ve even added a couple of them into their recent sets. “I kinda can see the next record now,” Sanborn says excitedly. “I get it. I know what it’s gonna be like. Which was totally in the fog not even a month ago, and now it’s really comforting to know.” He says he tries to write things that will excite and inspire Meath, and says she aims to do the same to him when composing her lyrics and melodies. “I think that the lyrics Amelia is writing and the stuff that I’m doing both are really rooted in how our lives feel right now, which is both blissful and complicated,” he adds.
And so Sylvan Esso’s blissful, complicated touring life continues, with a quiet, creative stint in Durham up ahead. Though Sylvan Esso’s eyes rest squarely on that future, Sanborn appreciates being in the moment most of all. “When I’m on tour, I feel like I’m really grabbing ahold of every day and really living it. And I love being at home, but there’s less of that feeling, where I know what I did today, and I lived the shit out of today.”
Sylvan Esso play Celebrate Brooklyn! on July 25.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 23, 2015