Interview with Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak (April 25, 2014)

Courtesy of Merge Records
Courtesy of Merge Records

By Nick Stropko

Last week I interviewed Jenn Wasner, one half of the Baltimore-based group Wye Oak. We spoke about side-projects, the state of pop music in 2014, traveling, and the Baltimore music scene. Be sure to check out their excellent new album, Shriek, and look out for them May 5th at Union Transfer.

So, what’s the situation with having a home between various bouts of touring? It seems like it’d be pretty inconsistent…

Well for awhile I didn’t think it was necessary. During the fall for the touring we did for Civilian when we were really, really pushing it, I didn’t actually have a home. That made sense to me on paper, but it actually took a bit of a toll, as you can imagine. Since then, I have moved into a really nice house with a friend of mine–she’s really busy too, she’s a grad student–but we have a really nice house, and we do the best we can to take care of it, but between her schedule and mine…the best we can hope for is that it’s well-preserved. It’s lived in…but on and off, between the two of us. I’d say it’s really important to have a place to live in, even if it’s just for a couple days.

Understandable. A place that’s not a storage unit, anyway.

Exactly, which is what it was, for a little while.

Well, I looked at your tour schedule, and it seems like you’re hitting it pretty hard again.

Yes, but believe it or not, not as hard as we were. This is an improvement. I know, it seems insane but it is not as crazy as it was [during Civilian]. But it’s still a formidable amount. We’ve been on tour since the better part of March and April, and then we have a little bit of time off, and then we’ll be back in March for the better part of May, June and July.

In March, we toured down to SXSW with our good buddies, Future Islands, and then we went to Europe, and we played a bunch of shows over there. We went to Turkey, and a bunch of other places. Then we came back and went to Coachella, and we came back from that, and now we’re about to go on a proper US headlining tour.

I actually lived in Istanbul for a few months, so just for my curiosity, how did you like it there?

It’s the best! Gosh, I had such a great time. We gave ourselves a couple days after the show just to hang out, and I’m really really glad we did–it was absolutely one of the coolest, if not the coolest place, I have ever been.

I actually picked up, like, three phrases, and they all came in great handy for the show. I can’t remember it anymore, but–I learned it about five minutes before the show and then promptly lost it–I learned good evening, because I have a superstition that I have to start every show that I play, assuming that it’s in the evening, by saying “good evening.”

Is it difficult working out the logistics to go somewhere as far as Turkey to play one show? It seems like it would be tough to pay for airfare and things like that with one gig.

It’s tricky for us to fly in general, just because we are two people but we have way more than two people’s worth of stuff. That actually makes it really tough because of baggage restrictions and stuff like that. If we had more physical bodies to distribute the gear amongst it would be easier, but we really don’t. That is the trickiest part. It can be really expensive and really exhausting, because it basically involves me strapping like 100 pounds of shit to my body and grabbing a couple more bags on top of that and working my way through airports and train stations. So it’s no joke, but it’s way worth it. Getting to visit a place like Istanbul–in my wildest dreams as a child I would have never thought I’d find a way to do that. It’s absolutely worth it, it’s just hard work.

You have a new album coming out. It’s excellent, by the way.

Thank you for saying that!

This new album seems to be influenced by some of the stuff you’ve done as Dungeonesse, and maybe to a lesser extent as Flock of Dimes. Do you think there was an overt influence from that, or do you think it just seeped into your subconscious or or writing process?

My writing process, and my creative process in general, has changed a lot. Flock of Dimes and Dungeonesse have been a huge part of the learning process that I’ve been going through for the past few years, which has basically consisted of me learning how to take ownership of the production side of things. On the other hand, the way that I’ve come to write has changed my output in a pretty extreme way. When I’m integrating recording into the writing process from the outset, I’m able to integrate more interesting, more complex, more difficult compositional ideas from the get-go. As opposed to trying to work those in from the top down, it’s coming from the bottom-up. I think it makes the compositions themselves much stronger, and it makes me feel like I’m in control of the things I’m making and they’re more what I want them actually to be like, which is a hugely freeing things for me. A life-changing thing for me.

However, I will say that, to me, there’s a very distinct separation between all of those projects. It’s always very very clear to me when I’m writing something what it fits into, what it’s for. For the Wye Oak songs, there was never a shadow of a doubt to me that they were Wye Oak songs, not because of the aesthetics, the sonic timbres or whatever, but what’s fundamentally going into the songs, the style of the song. Whereas fundamentally, Dungeonesse songs were written with a template in mind. They’re pop music, through and through. They’re not the kind of songs I would ever write in my own voice as Wye Oak or even as Flock of Dimes–I was sort of playing a part with that record.

 I understand that because they share some more surface-level surface textures with the other projects, people might want to jump to conclusions. Songwriting-wise, the foundations of the songs themselves are very much Wye Oak songs, and that was always fate/destiny. I understand why that wouldn’t make sense to everyone, because they’re not writing the songs [laughs].

Do you see the songs you write as Dungeonesse as not being in your own voice? When you write for Wye Oak, is it a more personal voice for you?

Every single project I have is, in part, a guise. There are very very real and true and super honest, vulnerable parts of the Dungeonesse record that I culled from myself. I can’t really write without drawing from myself and my own experiences–it’s not really possible for me.

Songwriting in and of is itself a craft, right? What goes into the process, and how you shape it, and how you self-edit, it’s never going to be your own pure unfiltered thoughts and ideas coming out of your mind and mouth. It’s not autobiographical, none of these projects are. Not even Wye Oak. There’s a certain element of shaping and editing, a style and a sound and a persona that’s always gone into that project as well. But they’re all very personal, mostly because I’m not capable of writing something that’s not personal and filtered through my own personal experience. It’s more how you chose to shape it. And that’s the craft that songwriting is to me. It’s a certain bag of tricks that everyone works with, and expanding that–expanding what you’re capable of, expanding the style that you’re able to draw from and play with–that’s why I think I’m drawn to the kind of music that is still fundamentally based in form and structure. You’re dealing with these structures that have a lot of history and they have existed for a long time. Trying to find yourself and your place within that canon is really interesting and exciting to me for some reason.

I think that’s true of any songwriter who is trying to find their voice in what is a long and storied history, where a lot of different things have been done. It’s a great challenge to try and find where you fit in and a place where you can be distinctive in pop or rock or whatever.

Yeah! It’s super interesting to me. Regarding the conversation of what authenticity really is, I bristle at the idea that music that sounds like pop music is somehow lesser on the authenticity spectrum than music that sounds like Wye Oak, because I think that’s a really shortsighted way to think about music and art in general. It sort of worries me about the record Shriek, because some people will and have had the reaction where like, “this music sounds like pop music, but it isn’t pop music, so they must have just done a bad job.”

I think about this all the time. One of the things I struggle with a lot when I was making this record is there is a certain–I can’t believe we’re having this conversation in 2014, but there is a certain argument that’s in the mix right now of what constitutes a real instrument for example. That stuff really gets to me! It’s placing an emphasis on the process in a way that is, I think, really short-sighted and foolish, whereas with artists who are really concerned with making their art, it’s the end rather than the way you get there that counts. It really is troubling. I never wanted to be affiliated with any movement that’s like, “We play real instruments, like guitars.” I really couldn’t feel any less that way. I’m interested in good composition, I’m interested in new ideas, I’m interested in new sounds. You can write a great song on a guitar, but you can write a great song that happens entirely within an electronic landscape. It frustrates me so much when people are still focused on these very surface-level aesthetics that they’re not willing to take that step to examining the quality of what’s happening underneath it.

On a somewhat related note, I was reading some interviews you did right around when Civilian came out talking about how it was sort of a grower of a record, and how you were somewhat surprised at the success it got not too long after its release. Meanwhile, the record you put out with Dungeonesse could be argued as being immediately accessible. While there’s depth to it, the melodies are very upfront and catchy. Where would you put Shriek on the spectrum of immediate accessibility versus [being a grower record]?

I think somewhere in the middle. It’s very accessible sounding, and I think the things that have drawn people to our music as Wye Oak in the past, the tension and the dissonance, are in more subtle, less easy and obvious places. I think it’s a more subtle record, I think it’s a more mature record. I think it’s less flashy for that reason. I think it’s very easy for someone to listen to a record where there’s these big, huge, epic bursts of noise, and be like “Woah, that’s crazy that happened!” That’s not an inappropriate response because that’s clearly the response we were going for, but there’s also a part of me that’s much more interested in exploring how to find those places in a more subtle way. Because so much of what I do is tied into the person I am, and my emotional landscape, and what feels true and genuine to me at any given moment, this record is coming from a much more peaceful place. A much more mature place, from the place of acceptance of growth. There’s not as many blustering mood swings in my life now as when I was 24–thank god. Who’s to say, I may feel that way again in the future, but to try to make a record that sounds that way from the place that I’m coming from now would be really disingenuous and probably wouldn’t even work. It wouldn’t sound real, to me.

I think it would be somewhere in between because those things are all still there, but they’re just more subtle. It’s definitely the kind of record that rewards the patience that it was crafted with.

When you write for the record, do you take into account how you would perform it live? Do you ever have to make concessions for being able to pull it off for two people, or do you just not factor it in at all and hope that you can figure something out between you and Andy [Stack, her partner in Wye Oak]?

I guess for awhile we had the live setup in mind wen we were making our record, but even then, we’ve always been studio first. [W]e never want to make a concession with the way a record sounds for the sake of being able to perform it more accurately or more true-to-record. That’s really not something we’ve ever done from the get-go. With this record in particular, because we’ve been a two-piece for the entire duration of our band, everything that we do, a lot of the compositional ideas, even, take place on record first. These recordings exist before the live performances and in a lot of ways I think they’re the definitive versions.

Fortunately, we’ve managed to find a setup where we don’t have to compromise much. They’re going to be different, but they’re not just different because of the way we’re playing them, they’re different because of the environment you’re hearing them in. Hearing these live at a rock club or a festival is very, very different from listening to music in your room, or in headphones, or in a car. In a lot of ways, that is sort of unfortunate to me, because we can play these songs live, and I think we do a really good job of playing them and communicating them, but the environment of a sterile rock club doesn’t feel like it jives super well with the way the record is. You want it to sound good, but as far as the atmosphere and vibe, it’s the kind of record that would be so much better to hear in a living room or something. I don’t feel like we have to compromise much, but maybe the biggest compromise of all is actually playing them live in the first place. I feel like that’s not necessarily how they’re meant to be heard, but we do the best we can.

You could always play some living room shows in Baltimore if you felt so compelled.

We’re always torn between our desire to have the atmosphere and vibe be right, but on the other hand we’re such total perfectionists when it comes to the way that our songs sound. We are, and should be, a studio band, because that’s where we strive and what we’re most excited about–crafting these sonic landscapes and perfecting them, and you lose so much of that control. So much depends on what room you’re in, what kind of PA they have, who’s mixing it. I’m not sure we could play [a living room show], because it would need to be a pretty pimped out living room [laughs]. It would need to have some pretty serious audio capacities to pull it off.

I actually wrote a lot of songs, as much of me being made as a bass player, on the piano. So I’ve been trying to figure out solo piano versions of them as well, which is complicated physically but I think can be done. Maybe something like that could go over well.

It’s interesting that you say that you prefer to do studio stuff because you tour so hard. Do you do that our of necessity? Is that just how you pay the bills as a musician in 2014?

Yes. Yes, that is absolutely true. Even now, I’m trying to find some wiggle room in that reality. It’s not that I don’t enjoy touring, it’s that I don’t enjoy touring in excess. I don’t really enjoy most things in excess, but especially touring. The irony of it is, in order to make a living as a musician, you have to tour a lot, which takes you away from the actual act of working on being a musician. I get really frustrated when I can’t work on new music and practice the skills and write. It’s frustrating. On one hand, being a musician for a living sounds great on paper. You know, do what you love! What I actually love is making, writing, creating, recording, making records, making songs. Not necessarily so much playing the same 12 songs every night for 200 days. It seems like this hilarious, super ironic torturous feedback loop.

A lot of people really like it. I think it depends what you make your music for. A lot of people write incredible, beautiful music that is designed for a live setting, and the performance is just as much of their art as the record is, if not more so. I’m discovering for me that, while I can [perform] and part of me enjoys it, I think I more enjoy the writing and creating and the making records–producing and that stuff is what really got me into this in the first place. It’s what I really enjoy the most.

It’s frustrating being away from your job [while on tour]. I try and keep up with it. I try and bring a small, moderate recording setup on tour with me so I can work, but there’s just not a lot of time. Even when you’re working a day job, for example, you still have your nights and weekends. Touring is a 24 hour job. I think that’s the most frustrating thing about it for me. There are certainly things about it that I like a lot. I love being able to travel, and being able to see all the friends I have in places all over the world. It’s just that when you do it in excess, which is basically what you have to do to make a living, it becomes like any other job–it becomes a grind.

Does that lead you to doubting the sustainability of your career then?

For sure. Absolutely. I feel as though I’ve been very fortunate to be where I am right now, because I do feel as though music is my calling. There have been times in the past where I’ve been very discouraged, but right now I’m less discouraged and more hopeful that I can work from here to build the kind of life where I’m doing what I want to be doing most as much of the time as possible, and doing something that doesn’t take me away from what I think my true calling is, which is writing and working on music every day. It’s what makes me feel okay in my skin and okay in the world, to keep working, to keep trying to make stuff, and to keep trying on ideas. It is really hard, particularly hard with the way the music industry and the landscape has played out. It’s really difficult to make a living as a musician, especially if you don’t want to tour. However, i think I’m in a better position than most to figure out if that’s possible. If it’s not, it’s totally okay. I think people go through life, they try different things to see if they work for them. I’ll always be making music for as long as I’m alive–I have no doubt that is the case. However, I’m young and there’s plenty of time for my life and my lifestyle to change. I’m certainly not freaking out and panicky about it. I’m curious to see if it’s possible. If it’s not, I’ll keep making music, and Andy and I will probably keep making records. For the people who are interested, they’ll still be out there, even if it’s not necessarily part of the whole industry machine as much as it once was.

Was your process much interrupted by Andy’s moving to Texas? Did you find your recording, or writing, or arranging the album to be hampered in any significant way?

If anything, I think it was improved and encouraged. I was talking before about the process that I sort of gravitated towards, writing and recording simultaneously, learning how to take the production of things into my own hands and increase my skill in that area. I was on that path, but the fact that andy moved away and there were things I wanted to share with him–it would have to be documented and recorded and produced in a way that’s convincing and sounded good. That becomes a necessity, and that necessity made songs and the record as a whole that much better. I probably would have gravitated to that process in some way regardless, but the fact that I had to really encouraged me to get better at it and work that way. I think that resulted in some of the best work I’ve ever done. If anything, it was a really good thing for both of us.

I was really excited to see that you’re touring with Braids. Were you familiar with them before you started touring with them? They also put out a guitar-based album and then a couple years later came out a more electronic based album, and I think you could draw a few analogues between what they’ve been doing with their musical progression and what you’ve been doing with your own. Were you familiar with them? Did you choose them? How did that work out?

I wasn’t super familiar with them, but there was a whole list of music that was sent to us by our booking agent. Their music really stuck out to me–I thought it was really inspired, and it stuck out more than a lot of the stuff I’ve heard. It’s most important to us to tour with bands that we’re excited to see every night. It’s what makes the process enjoyable. We actually haven’t met yet, but I”m looking forward to talking to them and picking their brains in that regard. It’s cool, because I’ve met some of my closest friends that way, having music introduced to me and hearing it and being like, “You know what? This sounds great. I want to meet these people. I want to tour with them.” So that’s how that went down.

You guy are obviously strong proponents of the Baltimore scene. Do you have any Baltimore-based bands that you would recommend or that you’ve been really enjoying lately?

There’s a ton of music here that’s really exciting and awesome. Everyone’s on the Future Islands train right now, but I’ve been singing their praises for years, and they’re still one of my favorite Baltimore bands, and I think they’re new record is their best. One of my favorite Baltimore bands right now that I think I often cite because it’s one that most people haven’t heard of but are phenomenal is Horse Lords. I actually have done a couple tours with them filling in on bass. There aren’t many bands that I would do that for–that’s how much I like this band. They’re phenomenal and I love them a lot.

Other than that, I feel like I’m surrounded by people who I’m really inspired by. Dan Deacon. Lower Dens. It’s always hard when you’re put on the spot because for everyone that everyone’s aware of there are a million more that no one’s heard of.