You may not have heard of Wye Oak, but you soon will. The Baltimore Duo's triumphant third album, Civilian, is primed for a spot on many of the 'best of 2011' lists that will be soon appearing throughout the press and blogosphere. I met the band and received some very honest answers...
The talented twosome behind the moniker, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack, have had an important year. Civilian hit the shelves in March and since then the band has been on the road, defying audience expectations of what a two-piece really is capable of. It's surprising just how much of a beautiful ruckus two people can make.
I first saw Wye Oak play in April this year, on the Toronto stop of their North American tour. I was astonished by the power and raw beauty of Jenn's vocals, which, sometimes subdued on record, flourished on stage, leaving the crown in hushed awe. Andy's one-handed drumming, one-handed keyboard playing was equally mesmerising, leading me to question whether the ability to pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time is something to still be proud of.
They've pushed themselves hard this year and their effort is beginning to pay off. Civilian, the albums title track, featured in the Season 2 trailer for AMCs The Walking Dead and the band has earned some high-profile support dates in the coming months.
I was lucky enough to get some time backstage with Andy and Jenn on a recent return to Toronto. After exchanging views on fringes, accents and the lack of decent places to eat nearby, we discussed life on the road and the realities of being a hard-working group on the cusp of widespread recognition.
This has been a big year for Wye Oak; you've released a solid contender for album of the year, embarked on your first headline tour and will finish 2011 with some arena-size dates supporting The National. How has the journey been?
J. We went into this year knowing it would be the hardest year we've ever worked as a band, to say yes to everything, put everything we had into it. We did and it's been a challenge in a lot of ways; we've played 200 shows this year, we both got rid of our apartments, got rid of our belongings and we never see our family and friends. If we weren't seeing the pay off it would be pretty much impossible, but we've been very fortunate, people have been taking really good care of us and we've been on tour with some really great bands. We've had an important year, but it's hard work, it can be lonely and it's difficult at times.
This year has seen you playing to bigger and bigger crowds. How does this feel, do you worry about losing intimacy with your audience or do you relish the opportunity to perform on a larger scale?
A. I think you do lose intimacy, but there are bands out there that make up for that in really breathtaking, interesting and inventive ways. We're not to that point yet, and honestly, after the year that we've had and some of the big shows that we've played, we've both started to feel that we'd be happy playing to 500 people for the rest of our lives because there is an intimacy there that you can't recreate with an audience of 3,000. We're pretty unassuming people and I don't think we really get off on feeling that we're controlling thousands of people. We feel like we're a club band and I don't really think that's going to change. It's been amazing to be put in front of people, but it's also made us realise who we are.
J. It's been an important step and I think it's really helped us appreciate what kind of show we really want to do and what it is we really enjoy about performing live.
You're presently touring as a support band, which is sometimes an unenviable position to be in. Do you have a strategy for capturing the attention of the crowd?
J. There's a certain inherent challenge to being the opening band. One thing we have going for us is that visually, we're a fairly unassuming, small band, so it's easy to defy peoples expectations of what we're capable of, because, if they're not familiar with our music, they'll see a two piece and they'll expect certain things.
A. The best strategy you can have, which is sometimes out of your control, is to be paired with a band that is musically a good match. There have been tours where we feel like we're playing great shows night to night to people who couldn't care less, and it's kind of falling flat. Much of it can be to do with peoples expectations based on the headliner and if you're not totally in keeping with that then people will be confused.
J. I think the goal isn't necessarily to win over every person in the audience, it's just to win over the people who are interested in what you do and hopefully we're able to do that.
Civilian is the title of both the album and its central, pivotal track. It's an emotionally evocative theme that echoes through the whole work. I've tried to draw my own conclusions, but I'd like to ask what it means to you?
J. I wrote these songs at the beginning of what we are doing now, which is basically sacrificing every other aspect of our lives to do this, to just tour constantly. It's hard to grow up and grow older in this very removed, very isolated bubble of existence, which runs parallel to, but completely separately from almost everyone in the world that you know. You see your friends and your family taking these paths and making these life decisions and these achievements and these accomplishments, and we have achievements and accomplishments of our own, but it's almost in a separate world. I think people have this conception of touring being this really glamourous existence where every moment is extraordinary and every day is amazing, but it's a lot of hard work and it's very lonely and you can feel very isolated. I miss my friends terribly, but no one really wants to believe that it's not everything that they hope and dream it would be. I think everyone to a certain extent deals with feeling isolated and detached, with feeling displaced, with the uncertainty of growing older and trying to figure out what they're going to do and where they're going to be.
A. And it goes so far beyond the touring lifestyle, it's universal.
J. Yeah, I think those things are exacerbated for me to an extreme degree just by the way that I spent those formative years, you know. Hopefully people can see themselves in it because it is about loneliness and isolation and about decisions; it's about figuring yourself out and trying to find a place for yourself in the world.
Has touring changed your creative process?
J. Oh yeah, it's just taken it out back and stomped on it's skull (laughs). It's basically crushed it into a thousand tiny pieces and I'm trying to figure out how to piece it back together. I'm trying to make music, write and record and be productive, which is such an essential thing, it's something that ever since I can remember has always been so crucial to my state of mind and wellbeing. I don't think we'll ever tour again as much as we have done this year, because you have to have a balance. You can't appreciate anything without balance. I'm definitely looking forward to recovering the bits of myself that aren't necessarily affiliated with just doing this all the time.
Do you find that your relationship with your songs changes while on the road? Playing them on a daily basis must have an impact on your connection to them.
J. To be honest, I don't feel anything when I play these songs anymore. It's not voluntary, it's just inevitable, it's weird. It's weird to have something that you know is so viscerally linked to you and your brain and your emotional state at one point, and to literally feel nothing. I can play it, I can deliver it, I'm in the moment, but I don't feel the things that I felt when I made it, nor would I want to; it would be really awful to have to go through that every single night of my life. It's new for the audience, but for you it's the same and so it becomes a very, very different thing. It's similar to a relationship; at first it's very exciting and new, and should you choose to be around that person 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the rest of your life, then eventually the way you feel about them changes. It's like with anything, moderation is key and so the way I feel about my songs is really weird right now, I feel like they're keeping me from writing new songs, which is frustrating, but at the same time I know that there are people that want to hear them and I'm happy to do that. It's just a very strange situation to be in.
You are seen by many as a band on the verge of breaking through. Do you let this thought cross your minds? If so, how do you feel about it?
J. When we signed with Merge, our label in the States, it was definitely a case of "we can make this whatever we want to make this", and we went into this thinking that bigger is always better. This is probably the first time I've said this in any interview, but after this year I feel like my expectations of what I want this band to become are very, very different because, for the first time, we've seen what it's like to tour at a large scale in a more mainstream arena and I don't think it's something that I want.
So the question now is how to control that and how to sculpt what we do into what we want to do. For a while I thought I had to make every decision that can make you more successful, more popular. There are aspects of touring on a large scale that are really great, but for the most part I don't think it makes up for the downside. I think the key is going to be making the kind of music that probably would not thrive in a mainstream environment. We're a song based band, we're never going to be super crazy, but for the most part I think we need to take some time and figure out when to say yes, when to say no and what really matters to us as far as where we go and who we play with and when. In that way this year has been extremely valuable.
Do you think you've reached a position where you can control what you do?
J. I think I understand how to now.
A. You have to, it's your life. It can get out of control. You always have control from the start, but you start giving pieces of yourself away and if you do it enough you have nothing left that you have ownership of.
J. Once bands and artists get to a certain point, people feel like they have ownership of you and what you do, which to a certain extent is true because you owe them for any success that you might have, but I think it is important to remember that everyone deserves to decide what makes them happy and how they want to spend their lives. I don't necessarily see myself wanting to tour at all for ever. I like doing it now, but I doubt I'm going to be wanting to tour or even perform, period, when I'm in my 30s or 40s. It would be really egotistical though, to think I deserve, or that I'm entitled to, some level of success, income or attention. If I make a decision to not perform in the future, then I don't necessarily expect to be able to make this my day job. I love music; it will always be the biggest, the most important part of my life without a doubt, because it always has been and still is the only thing I really give a shit about. It sucks a lot to have the thing you care about most in the world suffer all the ill effects of being your day job.
A. We're towards the end of as intense a year of touring as I think anybody ever does.
So what's your plan for the new year?
J. Take some time off and I'm just going to write as much as I can, that's all I want to do. I'm just going to hole myself up with my little recording setup.
A. Not having a plan is the biggest plan. It'll be the first time in a long time that we've done that.
J. Music will always be the great love of my life, but what I want to do with it is still yet to be seen.
Wye Oak are currently on tour and playing tonight at Milan's, Salumeria della Musica
For other tour dates and more information about Wye Oak, click here.
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