For most people, the so-called “tween” years — that liminal span between childhood and teenagedom — are pockmarked with artless interactions and a gawky incongruence with the world at large. Not so for Jenn Wasner, one half of indie rock duo Wye Oak. “I have this sweet, naïve, positive association with it,” she explains. “When I was younger, music was a pure source of joy and inspiration; it wasn’t encumbered by all this weird baggage. [But playing] music changes the way you relate to it.”
Wasner and bandmate Andy Stack formed Wye Oak ten years ago; that means, as an entity, they are now in their tweens. But she says that’s not why she named their latest record Tween — the title just seemed appropriate for an album (surprise-released online today and out physically August 5 on on Merge Records) whose tracks are outtakes. The songs presaged a transition for the band, between their 2011 breakout LP Civilian, and their most recent, 2014’s Shriek, on which they radically changed their sound.
The reinvention was born out of Wasner wanting to try a new direction without going overboard. Their compact setup until Shriek had been her airy vocals and melodic guitars layered over Stack’s low-end bass and emphatic drumming. They’d built a large fan base, particularly in their home scene in Baltimore; the setup worked well for them. She still wanted something different, though. “It started with: let’s take this formula and invert it so that it appears to be the same but is totally new for us,” Wasner remembers. So she learned to play bass, letting Stack take over the synths. Three months later, they had enough material for Shriek, but ditched a batch of songs they’d penned prior to the changeup. That material is now Tween, a collection of soaring, atmospheric pop anchored by denser, brooding art rock.
“It’s not that we didn’t like [these songs] or weren’t excited by them, it’s just that they didn’t fit with the concept [of Shriek],” she says. “Making a record [is] similar to writing a novel. There’s an overall aesthetic, and you make decisions based around wanting something cohesive. And sometimes, you have songs that are [like] short stories, that don’t fit into that bigger picture. It didn’t make me want to release [these songs] any less — it was just that they never found a home.” Thus, the surprise rollout: It’s not a chronological follow-up to Shriek.
The economy of Wye Oak’s two-member setup necessitates smart, intentional production, as evident on Tween as it was on Shriek. “In making Shriek we’d both grown leaps and bounds as producers and gotten a lot better at what we do,” says Wasner. Most of Tween’s tracks were only roughly sketched, and armed with fresh sensibilities, Wasner says fleshing each one out post-Shriek was its own epiphany. “We did a lot of bringing them to life in a way that really felt exciting to us and who we are now. Songwriting is such an intensely vulnerable, ego-based process, so it was satisfying to work with a little bit of distance.”
Not just mental distance: Stack now lives in Marfa, Texas (after a stint in Portland, Oregon), and Wasner moved to North Carolina about a year ago. They’ve had to adjust, but it ended up honing their sound, too. “A lot of our best creative moments tend to happen in isolation,” says Wasner. “[We] have the space to work on our own time, at our own pace, [then] reach out when we’ve an idea that might be interesting,” she explains. “We’re very productive that way.”
Wasner says skipping the usual promo drudgery leaves her able to enjoy Wye Oak’s summer tour, which kicks off in mid-June. It’s akin to that musical freedom Wasner felt when she was a tween. “You hear and absorb so much [that] it’s easy to become jaded,” she says, “[but Tween is about] getting back to a place where you can be passionate and have this unruined love of the thing that brings you joy.”
Wye Oak play Warsaw on June 21.