Sylvan Esso is a BRILLIANT (and fairly recent) musical project created by Nick Sanborn (Megafaun) and Amelia Randall Meath (Mountain Man), and when the band dropped its 12″ (which features “Hey Mami” and “Play It Right”) back in the summer, I was able to play catch up via phone. Apart from that release (which you should definitely check out if you’ve somehow managed not to already), Sylvan Esso should definitely be on your radar this week as they’ll be playing DC9 TONIGHT! During our convo way back when (read: a few months ago) I asked Nick about all sorts of things, from the Durham, NC scene and the band’s dynamic, to which video games have the best soundtrack potential. You can read up on all that below, and be sure to catch the show later tonight. In the meantime, grab a copy of the 12″ for your very own right here.
Well congratulations on the 12″ being out today! Did you eat anything celebratory for breakfast, or have you eaten yet?
I literally just woke up. This is my celebration right here, talking to you. [Laughs]
Maybe you can do some musical note-shaped pancakes after we finish up.
That doesn’t sound too bad. Maybe a waffle.
I’d support it. Now, do you have plans for a full-length anytime soon?
Well, we’re working on it now, and we’re going to keep working through the next couple of months at least; we’ve got a lot of material, a lot of new stuff that we’re almost halfway done with. We’ve got this trip, and then we’ve got pretty much the whole month of August free, so we’re going to try to buckle down and get some of the new stuff done then.
That’ll be great! Now, how did you guys decide to embark on this project in the first place? Because you’ve obviously got other stuff going on as well, so what was the catalyst?
Well, it was kind of a lot of things that came together at once; I did a remix for Amelia’s band Mountain Man, and we both thought it went really well and we liked how our stuff worked together. Then we hung out a few months after that when she was on tour with Feist, and right away she was like, “Hey, I think we should do more of that.” At that point my Megafaun stuff was kind of winding down, and we thought it might be fun to explore, so we started trading stuff via email. The 12″ is really that first remix that became a Sylvan Esso song, which is “Play It Right”, and then “Hey Mami”, which is the next song we did. So we’ve just been working consistently ever since we started the band, and it just slowly worked out that we were really excited about it, and it’s become the top priority now for each of us. We’re both just really excited; it feels really good.
Fantastic! Now, if you had to articulate a mission statement for Sylvan Esso, would you be able to do it?
It’s pretty broad; I guess in general we just really want to make interesting pop music.
Well, you’re succeeding.
We’re both really into pop, and in every other group we’ve been in, we’ve kind of held back from those impulses. I think we just finally each felt like we could try something like that, that was just our most base kind of pop ideas that hopefully didn’t suck? [Laughs] I don’t know, I think it’s just a really interesting time for pop right now; there’s kind of a twofold thing happening, where on one side you’ve got the Justin Timberlake kinds of things, and a lot of cool new things are happening, but we’re also so forgiving of those kinds of pop stars. I think it’s because we want a pop record that we can like so badly. I mean, I do; I bought the Justin Timberlake record and I love it, but when he says, “You’ll be my strawberry bubblegum, and I’ll be your blueberry lollipop,” it’s like, “Okay, Justin. We can get through this.” And on the other side, there’s all of a sudden all this cool, weird, underground shit happening that I’d consider to be pop, like Jai Paul and all this stuff that’s really accessible but really thought-out; no corners were cut. So I think that disparity kind of spoke to us, and we just wanted to do something that felt real and cool, at least to us.
Right. And are you both based in Durham now?
Yeah, now. We’re kind of both new to there, though; I moved there in September, and Amelia moved there in January.
And are you liking the scene there? How do you find it in terms of being a creative person? Do you find it easier to be in a place like that as opposed to a New York or an LA?
Amelia moved to Durham from New York, but I’ve actually never lived in New York; I have an idea of what it would be like, and I think I would function way better in Durham than I would function in New York. One of the things about Durham that’s fantastic is that it feels like a city of “doers”; everyone kind of does exactly what they say they’re going to do, which sounds simple, but it’s kind of a really big deal to me. [Laughs] So that’s really cool, and everyone’s really supportive; I feel like when I go to a party or a show in Durham and get into a conversation with somebody I maybe don’t really know and they ask me what I’m doing, they’re asking because they’re actually interested and want to know. You know what I mean? I just think Durham’s a really cool place because of that; it’s really genuine. This is not to say that New York or LA are pretentious or whatever, but Durham is most like Wisconsin where I come from, which is particularly unpretentious in that way. The creative community is really big and diverse and weird, too, and the cost of living helps. It’s a real blessing for a creative person.
Ugh, tell me about it. It’s ridiculous what it costs to live here. Anyway, now that you’re both in Durham, do you physically get together to jam or rehearse, or are you still mostly trading things over email?
Yeah, through this serendipitous situation, she ended up moving in a block away from me, so we hang out all the time and trade tracks. And the whole reason she moved to Durham was to kind of work on this stuff, so we’re working a lot right now on everything. Usually when I’m off work we’re working on something or figuring things out.
And is the teamwork fairly organic, or do you guys have set roles?
I’d say she writes most of the lyrics and does most of the singing, and I do most of the production, but it’s a really chill, organic process. We’ve done the co-writing thing at this point just about every way you could possibly imagine; there’s no set pattern. It’s kind of fun, it doesn’t feel stagnant. It feels like a band. It’s a cool situation to be in, especially as a producer.
How does all of that translate into a live setting? Do you have backup vocalists, or are you mainly looping things in?
Right now it’s both of us standing right on the front of the stage, and I’m manipulating the tracks and looping and processing her voice, and she’s singing. That’s kind of it right now, and that’ll probably be it for the foreseeable future; we have dreams of having it be a four-piece at some point, but that’s probably way down the road.
Right. And it looks like you’re touring for a bit here, at least up until August when you mentioned you’d have some time off…
Yeah, in September we go on tour with Volcano Choir, and we’re just so excited about that. We feel so lucky, it’s so cool. And their new record is insane, so it’s going to be a lot of fun. Right now we just want to play as many shows as possible so we can kind of feel out how the material goes in a live setting, and see what we think is working or not to maybe help inform the record a little bit as far as what we think is viable.
Totally, that makes sense. Now, I was listening to a little snippet of an interview you did for Bandcamp, and it was the bit about the video game ghost babies that come out of the trees. So I was going to ask (this is super hypothetical), if you could soundtrack any video game that exists (or even go mega-old school with a board game), what would it be, do you think?
That is such a good question! That’s my favorite interview question I’ve had in so long. I would love to do a video game, but oh my god, what would it be? Me and Amelia are both really into the weird emerging dudes in their basements making video games, like the Superbrothers who did that gameSwords & Sorcery that we were talking about. If you haven’t played it, holy shit, it’s so cool and weird and gorgeous. I’m not a dude who plays games on my iPhone, but that is THE game to have on your iPhone. I’d love to work with those guys and do their next game, or the guy who did Braid. Did you ever play Braid?
No, I haven’t!
You gotta check it out; you can download it for $10 or $15, but it’s this gorgeous game, and the sound on it is fucking impeccable. The guy who created it basically thought that technology was moving too fast, and that we needed to go back and perfect what we already had, so he decided to make the perfect two-dimensional platform game, like Mario-style. And it’s about reversing time and changing your decisions…god, it’s just beautiful. But what would be fun to do historically? I’d have to go way old school, like the first Final Fantasy. Like if you could do something new to an old game, how much fun would that be? Like Final Fantasy I, or there’s this awesome game for Super Nintendo calledEarthBound that I would just love to do. I should think about that question for another hour and let you know. But probably something like that, though; any of those weird adventure quest kind of games. Those would be the most fun to do, because you could make something that developed as you moved through.
That’d be incredible. I hope that ends up being an actual possibility somehow!
Yeah, that’d be a total dream. We’re both big into that, and into scoring in general. I think scoring a video game would just be so much fun. A movie would be a total dream, too, but the possibilities of scoring video games are just so broad and fun for anyone who’s into sound design; it’s not just this linear thing, there’s all this other stuff you have to think about like looping.
Totally. Now, before we wrap this up, have you got any Sylvan Esso #HASHTAGS of wisdom to impart?
Hashtags of wisdom?! Whoa, I feel like that’s an awesome oxymoron. [Laughs] That presumes that I’m wise, which is a big assumption. #LIFERULZ #DOASMUCHCOOLSTUFFASPOSSIBLE
Ed. note: the spelling of #LIFERULZ was my brain’s own interpretation of the #HASHTAGOFWISDOM, mostly because it sounded more extreme, which in turn seemed more wise. Regardless, follow Sylvan Esso on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest updates.
*This interview originally ran on BYT NYC November 20, 2013.