It has been a wild ride for Sylvan Esso, metaphorically speaking, and in this case, literally, after a series of technical and navigational difficulties on the West Coast portion of their latest tour.
“We had one bus catch fire, and then the bus driver drove us to the wrong place,” says lead singer Amelia Meath over the phone, her demeanor still remarkably positive. “Instead of going up Route 5 from Berkeley to Portland, he drove around Route 5, and so we woke up in Nevada.”
It’s mid July, and despite the travel chaos, Sylvan Esso have plenty of reasons to be in good spirits. The band’s organic-meets-electronic pop sound and nuanced lyrics have caught on with audiences around the world, making each and every performance a spectacle of lights, music, and energy in communion with fans. Their 2017 record, What Now, was loved by casual listeners and critics alike – and even earned them a Grammy nomination in the Best Electronic/Dance Album category, firmly dispelling any notion that they would be a “one and done” kind of band. And in the present, the duo – Meath and producer Nick Sanborn – are in Boise, Idaho, preparing to play yet another sold out show that night for several thousand people.
“It looks like today is the day that it finally calms down and we can actually enjoy being on tour, which we haven’t been able to yet.”
BYT: Ok, first things first: is Idaho in the Northwest part of the country? I have no idea where Idaho is.
Nick Sanborn: How do you have no idea where Idaho is?!
Amelia Meath: I don’t really know where Idaho is on a map.
Sanborn: Were neither of you taught geography?
Meath: We’re from the East Coast! It’s just up and down for us.
BYT: Candidly, I only moved to the States when I was 18, and I’ve been East most of the time, so all that flyover shit is just that for me.
Sanborn: Ok – you totally get a pass. But Amelia does not.
Meath: It’s the dyslexic thing! We totally skipped geol…geol…geography? [Laughs]
Sanborn: [Laughs] Oh my god. This is getting worse before it gets better. [Laughs] Yes – Idaho is in the Northwest of the country and it is immediately adjacent to Montana, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington.
Meath: Nick is good at school. It’s one of the more annoying aspects of his personality. [Laughs]
BYT: It seems you would have made a pretty decent geography teacher, Nick. And it’s good to talk to you again – it’s been a few years since we spoke about the Made of Oak record; Amelia, I think this is our first interview.
This will be me fifth time seeing Sylvan Esso perform in DC, and every time you come back to town you’re playing to a bigger audience. From DC9 a couple of years ago, to headlining the 9:30 Club in 2017, and now back in town to play at The Anthem. How does it feel to experience this kind of audience growth?
Both: It feels great. [Laugh]
Meath: [Faux skeptical] Yeah I mean, everything is going well, which is amazing.
Sanborn: This whole tour is kind of crazy. Every place is five or six thousand people at least, and some of them are ten. I mean – we sold out Red Rocks! It takes me back to playing the Hi-Dive [in Denver] and then a couple of years later it’s hard to believe we sold out Red Rocks.
It’s tough to keep a finger on, you know? For us it feels like a really linear progression.
Meath: It’s nice because we’ve never been not working our asses off. I’m very grateful that a bunch of people didn’t decide that they liked our band all at once, when we went from DC9 to doing this. I’m really grateful that it’s just been stepping up.
Sanborn: It feels like every time we come back to DC, whoever came to the last show brings a couple of friends to the next one. That’s just great.
Meath: Is there anything better than that?
BYT: That’s literally what I’ve done each time I’ve seen you guys. [Laughs]
Both: Yeah! You’re the reason the business model works! [Laugh]
Meath: Thanks for making our band successful – marketing sure as hell doesn’t work anymore.
BYT: Through this growth in audience, have you noticed a shift in the type of people who come to your shows?
Sanborn: The only shift I’ve noticed is in size. We’ve been lucky in that our audience has always been pretty diverse, especially age-wise, which I think is kind of crazy. We have a lot of parents who are fans, who played the music in the house so their kids became fans – and they come to the shows together. There’s a lot of that. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a band where the audience has consistently been kind of everybody.
Meath: There are different ripples, but they’re regional. In California there’s a lot more hoopers and people who are into weird sex cult-y stuff. [Laughs]
BYT: But isn’t that all of California?
Meath: Yeah! Basically!
Sanborn: In the best way. [Laughs]
BYT: So much of your music operates at the intersection of organic and synthetic sounds – even more so on What Now. It feels like you doubled down on the Sylvan Esso “style” for that record. Was that a conscious decision?
Meath: We were just trying to be more confident and more ourselves that we had been on the first record. So yes; it was conscious in that we were trying to make good music. We were really trying to not phone it in, and to come up with something creative and interesting.
Sanborn: I’m not sure it was a premeditated thing. I think it’s just the sounds that we’re naturally drawn to, the sounds that feel like they’re telling a story. With this record it seemed like we could do that and people would know what we’re saying. When you know your listeners will understand you, you can use a broader vocabulary.
BYT: Both of you are veteran musicians, releasing music with other projects – and on your own -before. Despite that, did you feel the weight of ‘expectation’ associated with releasing a second Sylvan Esso album? Does that apply to this band?
Sanborn: Oh of course – we were terrified. It feels way better now.
Meath: We were so scared. Now it’s good, because we did it and it’s done, but thank god that I’m never going to write a “second record” again.
Sanborn: I’m definitely going to make a second record again (as Made of Oak), but I don’t think anyone will give much of a shit about it, really.
Meath: Oh come on!
Sanborn: It was really terrifying. Like you said – we had both been in a lot of bands, and nothing had ever worked quite the way that this had. We got handed the keys, and it was tough to not be nervous about fucking it up, and ruining a good thing. So, I think it’s really easy in anything like that – not just music – to be your own worst enemy and get in your head and be the one worrying the most about yourselves, which is not super helpful.
Luckily, we eventually saw the light and figured out we just had to make music we wanted to make and we were excited about. And then we did that, and we’re really proud of it.
BYT: Amelia, you once said you need “emotional subtlety” to make a record. And Nick, going back to the answer you just gave, what experiences do you draw from to try and make a record that is authentic to both of you?
Meath: That’s a real toughie, dude. This is going to sound like a vague answer, but it’s the thing that I draw on: honesty and not being a scaredy cat. It’s very easy to get scared when you’re trying to be bold and make creative decisions. When you start trying to walk away from honesty you kill the music.
Sanborn: Really quick. I think what’s lovely about being on tour is that there’s no emotional range while being on tour. We just had to go home (to write).
Meath: We just had to go home. You can’t feel very many things while you’re on tour, because if you do you accidentally ruin everyone else’s day because they start feeling what you’re feeling. You have to sort of “Data Out” – like Data from Star Trek – remember?
BYT: It sounds like you’ve got a pretty big crew with you, from what you were telling me about the travel issues on tour. How much control do the two of you have over the stage production and light design of your show? Is this something you’re also dabbling in?
Sanborn: We’re very hands on when it comes to everything.
Meath: Anything you see related to Sylvan Esso, chances are we stared at it and okayed it, or talked about it for way too long – ad nauseam. But we’ve been really lucky to meet and then hire some incredible people who are very good at thinking on their own. So much that sometimes if we get too involved we stifle their creative ideas.
Sanborn: I think we’ve gotten really good at translating to the people who work with us how we want something to feel. And then we let them do what they’re good at to let them aim their piece of the show in the same direction we’re aiming our piece of the show. And that’s a real skill, and we’re lucky to have people who can hear that and make that translation.
Meath: Yeah – take that direction and make it their own.
BYT: That must take some of the burden of concern off your shoulders.
Meath: Yeah. We’re still concerned all the time. [Laughs] But not about what they’re doing – there’s just still so many things to be concerned about.
Sanborn: That’s the thing – you take stuff off your plate, and then you find other things to be concerned about. [Laughs]
Meath: Yeah, you’re like “Ohhh I’m going to worry about this now!” [Laughs]
BYT: You’ve been touring What Now for over a year. How do you keep these songs interesting to audiences, and more importantly, interesting to you?
Meath: It’s really easy to keep it fresh if you just look at the faces of the new people that you’re playing the songs for, because it’s a new audience in a new room. It always feels different. Don’t you have stories that you tell over and over again to different groups of friends because they’re good stories? It’s the same thing.
Sanborn: Just playing in front of people is so rewarding that our belief is that if we’re engaged and having a good time, then it will feel fresh for the audience. The minute we get bored that’s when it all falls apart. And boredom when you’re on stage is such a choice.