“It’s sort of this weird no man’s land where everything takes a little bit longer,” Jenn Wasner says of Original Northwood, the northeast Baltimore neighborhood where she currently resides. “It’s not really super close to any major thoroughfares. But I don’t mind in the grand scheme of things. It’s pleasant. It feels pretty lush and green. I have good neighbors. I like it here.”
The Wye Oak singer and Maryland native has spent a lot of time off the beaten path as of late. Between 2007 and 2011, she and percussionist Andy Stack released three albums and an EP of a specific strain of indie rock: Beautiful and tempestuous, alternately fragile and robust, immediately identifiable by Wasner’s electric guitar play and Stack’s uncanny dexterity. The duo spent years cultivating that sound, exploring loud-quiet tensions better than pretty much anyone else around, coloring arrangements with keyboard and subtle electronics. With 2011’s critically acclaimed Civilian, it perfected the aesthetic. Then it walked away from it.
As has been well-documented, things didn’t fall apart so much as just drift uncertainly. After over two exhausting years on the road, Stack moved with his then-girlfriend from Baltimore to Marfa, Texas, and then to Portland, Oregon. Wasner, meanwhile, took a break from writing music. When she did get around to it, the songs bore little resemblance to Wye Oak’s. There was a winsome album from Dungeonesse, her R&B and dance-pop informed collaboration with White Life producer John Ehrens. There were singles as Flock of Dimes, a solo project of reverby, looped dream-pop. But after spending its first half decade releasing records at a steady clip, Wye Oak was creatively dormant. And it would take a bold shift within the band to change that.
“Wye Oak Embrace Reinvention, Abandon Guitar on Upcoming Fourth Album” read the headline when word of the band’s Shriek first emerged in late October. The spin was a tad sensationalist – the band wasn’t making its Shaking The Habitual – but, true enough, the album finds Wasner playing bass and keyboard rather than electric guitar. It’s still very much a Wye Oak record though, cathartic and melancholic in all the right places – it’s just that Shriek‘s songs slink and flutter and move.
Wasner, however, is content right where she is. “I’m fortunate that I have a career that enables me to live wherever I want. If an opportunity presented itself that I was really excited about, I could take advantage of it,” she told BYT a few weeks ago. “But left to my own devices, I’m very happy right here in Baltimore.”
What inspired you to pick up the bass guitar?
It was sort of a combination of things. I’ve always dabbled with a lot of different instruments, and I’ve played bass before. But the structure of the way the record came together is more about something that I couldn’t do and learning to work around that as best I could.
After Civilian came out, we toured for pretty much the better part of two and a half years, and I really burned myself out on touring and the lifestyle and the music. It was a really rough time for me personally, emotionally, creatively – all of the above. When I got home, I took a long time off, but after a while, it was time to write again. It became very quickly apparent that a lot of that really intense, negative emotional baggage that I had been going through had become associated with the guitar specifically. It became a block for me for that reason.
Making this record the way that it sounds and the way that it is wasn’t about me trying to make some sort of statement about the guitar or the absence thereof. It was more about learning how to sidestep that block and allowing myself to let go of the some of the expectations of what this band could sound like and what it was supposed to be, in order to get back in touch with whatever part of me that is able to create. I think that’s why there’s no guitar.
I may have also just run out of ideas that I was excited about with the instrument. But, either way, it’s such a strange, delicate process writing songs in the way that I write them. It’s tied in with a lot of emotional, intangible stuff. You just have to chase those feelings wherever they come from, and they may not come from where you expect or from where they have in the past, and if you allow those things to be all that you allow yourself to do, then these writers block situations occur. Part of my craft as a songwriter is learning how to tap into different parts of myself and learning how to draw from different sounds and different styles and different sources of inspiration.
Did you feel that with Civilian you took what had been Wye Oak’s aesthetic to its logical conclusion?
For sure. If I felt like we hadn’t done what we had to do with that aesthetic and with that set-up, then maybe I would have been more excited to make another record like that. But it was our third record – maybe fourth if you consider an EP to be a record – with a very strict set of aesthetic limitations. And, you know, I’m proud of Civilian as a record. I think it’ a great record and I’m not ashamed of it, but I do think that it was a culmination of that sound. It’s not something that I’m particularly interested in retreading.
Did writing with different instruments push your songs in different directions?
The thing that absolutely pushed my writing in a different direction was the method and process itself. It was a product of years of work and learning. The way that I’ve writing over the past few years for all of my different projects has been much more hands-on from a production angle. I do a lot of recording and producing ideas in real time, as opposed to sitting down with an instrument and piecing together the skeleton of the chords and melody of a song. I’m not really interested in doing that anymore. I feel like it’s too limiting.
What I’m able to do with my recording set up is incorporate the recording into the initial writing process, and that allows me to work with more interesting and complex ideas from the outset. It makes the composition better, because I’m just capable of incorporating more inventive, challenging, complex ideas at the very beginning of the writing process. That’s something that I had always shied away from, but the more I learn, the more interested I am in it, and the more exciting it is for me.
I play lot of instruments poorly to somewhat competently, and I would consider the instrument – if you can call it that – that I’m most fascinated with right now is my own fledgling production abilities. It’s completely and utterly freeing. There’s no middle man. The better vocabulary you have with something like that, the more capable you are of finding the sounds that you hear in your head more quickly with greater faithfulness to the way that you imagined them. That’s what’s was exciting about it to me. Incorporating them into the writing process right off the bat opens up a whole new world of possibilities for me. It’s something that I’m always going to be working on and trying to improve, but many years of work and effort culminated in Shriek. In that way, my writing process has changed forever, very much for the better.
Having experienced such exhaustion during and after the Civilian tour, how are you feeling about returning to the road?
Touring in and of itself is not something that I hate – it’s touring in excess. And, unfortunately, with the way that things are set up for us right now, we are touring more than we would ideally like to, just because it’s how bands promote their records and how they make money. But we continue to edge further and further towards being a band that’s most excited about working in a studio and making records, and less so with live performance.
I’ve been enjoying the touring that we’ve done so far and I’m looking forward to more, but I know that there will be a time in the pretty near future where I’m frustrated and burnt out and want to go home, because that’s pretty much always what happens. Touring takes you away from everything in your life. And it takes it me away from what I consider to be my real craft and what’s important to me, which is actually working on music and writing and making records. That’s what I’m best at too. It’s tough and frustrating for me to be away from that as long as I have to be.
I really do want to make a solo record. But I’m not super concerned about the timing of it. I’ve already released a lot of singles as Flock of Dimes, mostly because I felt very strongly that those songs were singles. They did not feel to me like a cohesive record. They were written in very different ways and felt like a collection of singles.
I don’t want to rush into anything, though. When I release a solo record, I want it to be as good as I think that it can be. I’m going to take my time with it. But that’s the next thing. It’s sort of already on my horizon. I’m trying to write with an eye towards that.
And Jon [Ehrens] from Dungeonesse and I are always working on stuff together. We’re not sure what will come of it. Before that [first] record came out, we were just always working on tracks for fun, and we continue to do that. So, we’re working on some stuff, but who knows where that will go, if anywhere.
What’s been your response to fans’ reactions to the s new sound? Have you noticed a change as people have heard Shriek?
This record, as any record in the world, is not going to be everybody’s piece of cake, which is fine, because that’s normal. But I’ve seen very little negative backlash from the people who have enjoyed the kind of music that we’ve made in the past, because I think that once people hear it, they realize that, for the most part, the foundation of what we’ve always done is still very much intact.
Aesthetics have never really been the point of the band, nor have they been the focus. The whole guitar thing got really out of hand. It was never a fundamental part of what we considered Wye Oak to be about. It was always our mission to create soundscapes that were in the service of the songs themselves. It was a songwriting vehicle first and foremost. Period. But I think that it was very easy for people to get distracted by it. I guess that I should take it as a compliment. People like my guitar playing – that’s cool. But it was never the thing.
There was a lot of negative energy before the record was released. There were people like, “This is gonna suck for sure!” But, by and large, most of the people who like the kind of songwriting that we do and have done have liked the record, because I think that it’s the best collection of songs that we’ve ever made. The guitar – or lack thereof – has very little to do with it as far I’m concerned. [Laughs]. If you’re on board with the initial concept of “It’s a songwriting vehicle and the songs sound different from one another based on what the songs are,” then people tend to be on board the the songs.
People tend to oversimplify. It’s the way of publicity in general, which I find sort of entertaining, but also unfortunate. Things are hyper-simplified for easy public consumption, Like, “She hated guitar! So she played the bass!” Well, in reality, I played just as much keyboard on this record, and I wrote some of the songs on a drum loop. Some of them were based on the bass stuff, but Andy and I shared instrumental duties for the entire record. I’m playing bass a lot on stage, but there’s not a piece of this record that doesn’t have my fingerprints on it, and same goes for Andy. It’s very much a shared enterprise. But it’s harder to put that into a concise paragraph than it is to say, “She switched from guitar to bass.” [Laughs] That’s understandable, I guess.
What is the onstage approach for this tour? Are you reconfiguring old songs? Is your guitar making the trip?
Oh, the guitar is still very much a part of our show. We’re playing old songs. What my set up has become is a three-pronged situation: I’ve got bass, I’ve got guitar, and I’ve got keyboard in a little semicircle, so I can bounced around between those three things depending on what we’re playing. The old songs are very much the arrangements that they have always been, because that’s how they were designed to be, just as the new songs are very much designed the way that they are.
It’s a lot more rewarding for me with the additional variety of instruments. And, from a future perspective, the writing that I do down the line won’t necessarily be limited by what our live set-up is. Which is great. It’s super freeing. However I write a song and however it ends up sounding, there will be a way to communicate it.
Has Wye Oak ever considered enlisting a third person? You two work harder than –
Than we have to? Yeah. [Laughs] We’ve definitely considered it, but we both feel really strongly that if we were to bring another person in, it wouldn’t be Wye Oak. It would have to be a different band. That particular limitation is such a fundamental part of how this band was conceived. It’s always been so essential to not just the way we sound on record, but to how we perform. It wouldn’t feel like the same thing. We both feel pretty strongly that, for better and for worse, it’s just the two of us. But there’s a lot that we can do with just the two of us, and we’re still feeling like we can explore things and continue to find that we’re not limited by it.
What was the No Other tour experience like for you?
That was a blast. I had such a good time on that tour. I actually think that the DC show was a real highlight for me too. Something about that night just really felt great.
I had gotten a call from Alex [Scally] from Beach House back last October and he mentioned the project. It sounded really funny. I mean, I relish any opportunity to collaborate with people that I respect, friends especially. It sounded like a really good time. And it turned out to be exactly what I was and expecting, which was this delightful, ego-free celebration of this great record, and a celebration of great music and friendship. There was a lot of hard work that went into bringing something like that together, but it’s such a close knit group of people. Even the new faces that weren’t necessarily Baltimore people were fast friends. Everyone just treasured the experience. It was a very special thing – you don’t really get to do something like that ever. Nobody gets to go on tour with a fifteen-piece band and play this music that’s very much of an era. It’s very powerful music and lot of people have very intense emotional connections to it. It was really an honor to do it.