Nick Sanborn likes to play in the space where nature and machines meet. The producer and mastermind behind electronic project Made of Oak, best known as half of indie pop duo Sylvan Esso, is at his home in Durham, North Carolina, when we speak on a Friday in late October. Somewhat fittingly, Sanborn’s house, full of his keyboards, synthesizers, and drum machines, is on the grounds of a bird sanctuary in the heart of the Durham-Chapel Hill metropolitan area. It’s a place of respite and relaxation, but Sanborn knows it’s too good to last.
“Just today marks being home for a week, so that means it’s about time to leave,” he says over the phone with a weary laugh. “It’s an accomplishment for me right now – I’m stoked.”
Sanborn and Amelia Meath, vocalist for Sylvan Esso, both veteran musicians, have been catapulted into fame and indie acclaim since the release of their band’s eponymous debut album. Despite the trappings of fame, Sanborn remains humble and grounded.
“There’s a lot more pitfalls when you’re younger and haven’t been through as much shit,” he shares, with a knowing tone. “I’m grateful we get to do what we do for a living, and it’s a wonderful goal for any musician.”
As Sanborn prepares to head back on the road in support of his solo project, his words reflect the thoughtful, intentional, and somewhat mischievous nature of his music.
“It’s mainly a relief, and I feel lucky that it’s both happening, and happening now,” he says with a hearty laugh. “If this had happened when I was 22 this would have been a disaster.”
Where are you heading to next?
We go to LA on Sunday, and I’ve got some work to do there on a different record, and then me and Amelia play the last show of the cycle on Tuesday – which is crazy. Then I start solo shows on Wednesday. [Laughs] We play Tuesday, I play Wednesday/Thursday, andThursday is the official beginning of the tour. It’s sort of tough -it’s like 11 shows total, split between both coasts. And then I’m home for a long time starting on Thanksgiving, which is amazing. I don’t know what life is going to be like. I’m going to have to find stuff to do.
What’s Amelia going to do while you’re on tour? Is she joining you on the road, or will you be getting pictures from the beach in Tulum?
She and a friend, as well as one of the women who was in Mountain Man – all three of those ladies are road tripping back across the country, because one of them is moving to the [Durham] area from Southern California. They’ll be on the road the whole time I’m on tour. Basically, they’re going to be on tour without playing shows, which sounds awesome. [Laughs]
I mean, it’s a road trip. It’s the most American way to see the country.
Yeah! And they get back like two days before our tour does, and it will wind up being almost perfect.
Actually, my buddy and I drove across the country back in March, and we would freestyle rap over songs to help us stay awake on longer stretches. We actually did a pretty decent freestyle over “Hey Mami” – sadly, forgot to record it, but I figured you’d appreciate knowing that.
[Laughs] Oh man. Should you guys decide to put that down sometime, feel free to send it to me. I’d love to hear it.
What sounds and artists inspired Made of Oak? I know it’s hip hop/electronic fusion, but are there specific acts or producers you have in mind when making music. Is there a goal or level you strive for?
There are definitely people who have inspired me to think that making instrumental electronic music is a viable thing I can do, but I don’t think I’m trying to get to somebody’s “level” or do something that they did. So, yes and no.
A couple of my earliest instrumental hip hop things play like Prefuse 73’s first record, Vocal Studies + Uprock Narratives. It’s great, though I haven’t listened to it in a while, and it might sound dated now. It was this record that came out on Warp, and it was this really inventive use of an MPC, and totally different from anything I had heard before. And I kind of did this backwards from most people – I listened to this first, and then I discovered J Dilla after that. And I realized you could just listen to rap beats; that hadn’t even occurred to me before, that you could listen to rap beats [without vocals]. That coincided with my jazz obsession, and that spiraled off into craziness. [Laughs]
Somebody I really admire is Kieran Hebden, who makes music as Four Tet. For a lot of reasons – but I read this interview with him one time where he felt like he was finally at a place where he could go see a really good, and really inspiring show without feeling like he had to go home and make something that’s “like that.” This all came out of wanting to go home and make something that is that good, but is “me.” That’s kind of what this all came out of. Me coming to the first stage of that step to zen, you know what I mean? [Laughs]
Right, and that’s why I mentioned levels – Dilla was actually the person I had in mind when asking that question.
Obviously, I think Dilla started and then ended a whole genre. You listen to other people who try to do a similar thing to what he did, and it’s so much worse. [Laughs] All it does is make you want to listen to Dilla. He was the shining light of that particular art form, and I don’t think anyone is ever going to touch what he did.
The biggest thing – what I love the most about what he did – is that he inspired everyone to be original. You know? He didn’t sound like anyone when he started, and he still doesn’t. Listening to Donuts now, or Ruff Draft, or Welcome 2 Detroit – those all sound crazy! I feel that when I listen to other producers that are equally inventive, anything that takes a hard left but still makes an accessible, media friendly rap thing, like Timbaland and Missy.
Thinking about producers local to where you live, what are your thoughts on 9th Wonder?
9th Wonder is a genius producer. His ability to work with samples is just – he does it in a way that the more you listen to it, the more you realize it’s unlike anyone else. You can really hear his voice in how he cuts things up, and that’s the most attractive part to me of a producer.
I go to a lot of beat battles to see what people are doing, and that’s the part that gets me down. I feel like people are doing the same thing, or trying to be the same person: they all have these big beat drops, or have the “oh shit, Ma! What happened?” moment. At the end of the day, what all of us are ultimately attracted to over time is voice. That voice like 9th has, or Dilla had – when you hear that, you know it’s them, and I really respect that.
The Made of Oak songs definitely give a sense of having a clear aesthetic or perspective, and these are songs that feel like they are self-contained and made to be instrumentals. It’s got a very different sonic palette from Sylvan Esso.
Absolutely – I mean, there’s no room for vocals on these tracks. The stuff I do with Amelia is a lot different because I’m only 50% of the band, and I cater what I do based on how she reacts, and I feel like she does the same for me. The biggest difference is that Sylvan Esso is much more minimal, because I leave much more space for her. If I’m doing something by myself, I want it to be complete and finished and not have you wish that there was something singing around it. Did you happen to see the video we put out a couple days ago?
No, I haven’t seen it yet.
Check it out before you put the interview up, because I think it kind of speaks to that. We made a rap video for an instrumental song. Rap was a big thing I was playing with when I came up with the concept, and it emphasizes this thing that everyone thinks you’re missing, I guess – one of the many things. [Laughs]
The opening track, “Penumbra” could easily be a track composed by Yann Tiersen, or a piece of musique concrète – it just has this element of tonality interplaying with found objects and natural sounds. Do you research and read about avant-garde music and art, or is this coincidence?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Like any nerd, I love really out-there music. I listen to a lot of very far out drone and noise – I’m way into that stuff.
The thing with found sounds is much more about the feeling like you can reach out and touch something in the music. When things are completely electronic, there’s a separateness, or a feeling that it’s at arm’s length. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; I think a lot of electronic music feels distant or alien on purpose, and sometimes that’s good. But I like my stuff to feel really welcoming, and when it’s uncomfortable I want it to be physically uncomfortable. Are you talking about that slamming sound at the break?
So, that’s not planned! I was playing the Rhodes part, and I had placed the microphone at the top of the piano – you can kind of hear the clack of the keys. My roommate Donna slammed the oven door just at the halfway point, and I just left it in. I thought it was such a beautiful moment, like a crease in the page before we moved on.
I love that kind of stuff. In “Coffee” there’s this creaking sound at the end of the song, which is Amelia opening the door after finishing her vocal take. It sounded so good that we just decided to leave it in.
You totally just stole my follow-up.
[Laughs] I just think that kind of stuff makes you feel like you’re in the space with the song, like you’re right in it instead of it being played for you. It’s confusing and welcoming at the same time, and I love stuff like that. You can cut that stuff out, but ultimately I don’t know if it really serves the listener.
It almost makes the music diegetic, as if you’re inhabiting the same universe as the recording.
Yeah, and that’s the same reason I do stuff like mic’ing the top of that Rhodes. The clack of the keys – that’s such a real, physical sound. And just plugging the Rhodes in sounds great, but there’s all that room, and I just thought “wouldn’t it be better if you really felt like you’re leaning on top of it?” It’s this clunky, aggressive, strange thing with so much more character. And I love shit like that.
One of my favorite recordings is Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert – he was playing this relatively shitty piano, and there are all these natural imperfections in the recording, including him grunting and stuff. It just adds so much character and vibrancy to the piece. I can see echoes of that here, even though it’s “electronic music” it retains a human element.
I’m really attracted to “human” music, and it’s one of the reasons I love playing with electronics. There’s a friction point there, where it feels alien, but it isn’t – we made all the things that make those sounds. It’s all human. The more you play with imperfect electronic sounds, the more human it becomes, and you reach a teeter-totter where you don’t know what it is, or who is playing who.
I love mixing those elements, or even taking a really clean 808 with the chords played on a super compressed upright piano. When you combine them, your brain immediately says that they don’t go together. And when you let go – it always works. It always conveys intent, too, which is something I love. It’s kind of how the Internet press machine works these days. It’s difficult to say things with nuance. And a lot of people assume things were mistakes, or overlook what you included as part of the message. Any time you can force someone to deal with the fact that everything was intentional, so many interesting things happen with how they interact with what you made. It immediately raises internal questions that were supposed to happen from the beginning. [Laughs]
Most folks don’t know that this project actually precedes Sylvan Esso, and that both you and Amelia were in relatively successful bands before teaming up. Do you find it strange that you’ve only recently received such strong accolades, despite doing this for a while?
[Uncertain] No? But it should be, maybe, but it’s not. I guess I feel really lucky that it’s happening to us, at all. We made something that a lot of people can connect with, and that’s a really rewarding feeling. Apart from that, I’m just glad it didn’t happen to me earlier. I don’t think I would have dealt with it nearly as well – not that I’m dealing with it particularly great, or anything. [Laughs] There’s a lot more pitfalls when you’re younger and haven’t been through as much shit. I’m grateful we get to do what we do for a living, and it’s a wonderful goal for any musician. It’s mainly a relief, and I feel lucky that it’s both happening, and happening now. If this had happened when I was 22, this would have been a disaster. [Laughs]
I feel grateful that I have the experience that I have. We’re about to go on this run that’s much, much smaller venues than Sylvan Esso plays, to not a lot of sell-outs, and that’s great – that’s my wheelhouse. I totally know that circuit, and I’m excited about it. I love those venues. I can only imagine playing to 1000, or 5000 people every night in my twenties – that could make you a real dick. Or it would have made me a real dick; there are way better people than me out there. [Laughs]