By Esmail Hamidi
On Sunday, June 15th, I was given the incredible opportunity to see tUnE-yArDs and Sylvan Esso at Union Transfer. While it was not the only musical endeavor I had involved myself in that weekend -the previous night had been defined by an excursion to the Great Indoors in West Philly to see PILE and others, and the afternoon I helped out Nick Myers with putting Tweens on our airwaves – it was tUnE-yArDs! Nobody can beat the bizarre reputation of Merrill Garbus and her merry band. Since 2009, Garbus has been making music and touring relentlessly. The consensus among my friends was that it kind of had to be seen to be believed.
Before the show, I was also invited to interview Sylvan Esso, who were opening on this tour. The first listen won me over. Despite being almost entirely electronic, Sylvan Esso’s music sounds human to me. From a more technical standpoint, the production value is high. Amelia’s soprano is layered and complemented by the high level of deep bass in all of their songs. I struggle to pick out a structure in their songs, but that’s not a bad thing. They ebb and flow organically. The lyrics are conversational, and definitely have a stream-of-consciousness feel to them.
When I first met them, it was clear that Nick and Amelia make an extraordinary creative team. They welcomed me into their dressing room with smiles. There were moments during the interview where I definitely thought they were messing with me, the strapping young music journalist, but I was so okay with that. It was a pleasure to get to know their creative sides.
I’ll shut up now. Here’s the best chunks of the interview:
WKDU: So where are you guys coming from?
A: Washington, DC.
WKDU: Where’d you play at?
A: The 9:30 Club. The sound is so great there. The monitor guy actually knew what he was doing, and our vocals were mixed right.
WKDU: Awesome. So to officially kick off the interview: There’s a made for TV movie, and the soundtrack is your first album. What happens?
N: Well it’s made for TV, so that would PG it up a little bit.
A: Maybe it would be one of those babysitter movies. Like, “Oh no, a 12 year old boy ran away to a pool party with girls!” The babysitter’s like 16 and the kid runs away to a party and he’s like, “Oh no…how do I go in and talk to them?” It’s a coming of age tale. Yeah. Hot mom in there somewhere, in the mix.
N: Maybe a meddling private investigator in the mix?
N: It doesn’t matter, he can come in whenever.
A: Maybe it’s sponsored by Laffy Taffy. Laffy Taffy’s my latest obsession on tour right now.
WKDU: So that’s how you characterize your sound.
A: Well no…..that’s unfair.
WKDU: Anyway…What instruments did you play as kids?
A: [Nick] plays everything.
N: Bari sax, contrabass clarinet, string bass, bass guitar when I was 12.
A: Did you own a string bass?
N: No, when you’re in school and can’t carry all the big instruments back and forth, you can rent them from the school for really cheap. So it’s like “$25 bucks for the whole year? Well, yeah I wanna play the contrabass clarinet!”
A: [Nick] really likes big instruments —
N: … Instead of buying or renting or whatever.
A: I had a brief, terrible experience with the recorder, about six months long, and piano lessons.
WKDU: What’s your creative process? Do you guys have a special place to make music?
N: We just moved into a really musical house, so that’s awesome.
A: I write by ear, with singing, on a porch, and then I bring the ideas to — Sometimes he brings me a beat –
N: Or she brings me a hook, which changes where the beat needs to go — you get the idea.
WKDU: So your writing process includes a lot of voice memos on your phone?
A: Yes, lots of voice memos, and lots of frustration.
N: I produced most of the first album in my bedroom. I’m really into bedroom studios. Limited gear, unlimited time is my favorite. For this album I was in my bedroom, overlooking a garden, with my Juno 6 and Rhodes [keyboards], and it was great.
WKDU: So your surroundings contributed to the sound of the album?
A: Well, sorta….Most of the songs [on the album] were based on this idea….. there’s an all-male dance party in this apartment in the city, and it’s fun, but quiet. Not homoerotic, well, maybe a little, but just guys hanging out. They’re dancing in their socks, you know? On these thick old hardwood floors.
WKDU: A sock hop?
A: Yeah. And there’s this woman who lives in the apartment under them, and her ceilings are unfinished. So there’s all this dust and shit raining down on her and thumping and she’s like what the fuck? And she’s jealous, like she wants to get in on it, but also completely shocked.
N: [Amelia’s] obsessed with the idea of male friendships.
A: Yeah, it’s just awesome.
WKDU: Alright. What do you want someone who’s never heard your music to experience at the show tonight?
A: True love.
N: Oooh. Yeah, I guess that’s a good one. A good night, being the start of a series of good nights.
A: We want it to be this experience where you’re having fun, but also thinking and connecting. We want to be relatable —
N: We want it to sound like what it is — two dorks making unique, genuine, human music.
WKDU: So there’s this extroverted, party side, but this introspective experience too?
And there you have it. Later, their opening set did not disappoint – Amelia delivered an immaculate performance — exhibiting dance moves that very much lined up with the images she put in my head earlier. Sylvan Esso were calm and effortless in body language, but razor sharp in delivery. As fellow WKDU DJ Nick Stropko put it “Whoa….”
tUnE-yArDs were great too. All the hits were there – “Gangsta” stuck out as a highlight to me, trading the sax riffs on the record for synths. Garbus executed live looping with drums and uke super tightly. Her backing band was equally on-point. There was dancing. There was facepaint. I was into it.
Check out Sylvan Esso performing “Hey Mami” here (via Noisey).