Baltimore’s Wye Oak play hushed, sometimes loud, always lush pop. It’s refreshingly tough to pin the duo down, but not in some over-eclectic, pseudo-avant way. It’s also refreshing to say they legitimately know how to write songs with great hooks. The sound is at times folky, but also brims with noise — as on swirling Velocity Girl-ish “Warning.” Their Merge debut If Children weaves a certain sadness across tracks like “Warning,” “Family Glue” “Regret,” “I Don’t Feel Young,” “Obituary,” etc. Carrie Brownstein thinks they sound like Whitney Houston (hint: not really).
They used to called themselves Monarch before discovering a number of other groups also held the moniker, so they chose the Maryland state tree instead. As you’ll see in the following discussion with vocalist/guitarist Jenn Waster, they love Baltimore, so the shift seems preferable. Jenn’s a waitress at area restaurant Golden West Café. When she sings, she sometimes sounds like Kim Deal (see “Family Glue”) and has made me think of Throwing Muses.
Andy Stack, who handles drums and keyboard and also sings (rather E. Smith-style), is in the sixth year of completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He’s done in May. Congrats, Andy. Wye Oak were able to log (ignore the pun) free studio time at the school studio while working on their aforementioned debut, but for now we’re just focusing on Jenn’s work. Not that being a student isn’t a job, but … you know. If you want more Andy, check out this video of him playing the drum part for “Warning.” And, following the conversation about the ins and outs and chile sauce of Golden West, take a listen to the lovely “I Don’t Feel Young.” It falls on the quiet side of things. Until it gets loud.
STEREOGUM: How long have you been at Golden West Cafe? I noticed, via the website, that they relocated a few years ago. Were you there during that transition?
JENN WASNER: I’ve been working at Golden West for almost three years now. The restaurant used to be in a tiny storefront on the Avenue in Hampden; now it’s a much bigger place with about thirty tables, a stage, and a bar in the back. I started working there a couple of years after they made the move to the bigger place.
STEREOGUM: What shift do you work? Or does it switch?
JW: Tricky question, because part of the reason that I’m still working there is because of their unbeatable flexibility with my schedule. Generally, I work Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday nights, and Thursday during the day. But lately, with the amount of shows and touring we’re doing increasing seemingly exponentially every day, I have to be able to switch it up a bit. The general routine is that anyone who needs a shift covered puts up a sign and another employee usually snaps it up, no problem. A good part of the staff at GW are artists and musicians, precisely because you can get shifts covered for your show or tour, and come back in a couple of months still gainfully employed.
STEREOGUM: Had you been a waitress anywhere before this?
JW: I’ve been waiting tables pretty much non-stop since I was 16. I worked at a diner in Baltimore County when I first started out, and at another landmark restaurant in Hampden (which shall remain nameless) for a year or so when I first moved to Baltimore.
STEREOGUM: The place is “New Mexico cuisine” correct? Pretty diverse menu. Are blueberry pancakes a New Mexico staple, or are there some deviations from the central theme?
JW: I guess you could say that the southwestern fare is our specialty, but the basic concept behind the restaurant is eclecticism. We’ve got everything from huevos rancheros to pancakes to Asian-inspired noodle dishes to burgers and fried pickles … the list goes on. The menu is always changing, and almost all of the new recipes are a result of the staff brainstorming and experimenting with some of their own favorite dishes. It’s certainly not haute cuisine, but a lot of care and inspiration goes into everything on the menu.
STEREOGUM: What’s your favorite item on the menu?
JW: Probably a toss up between the frito pie (fritos, cheese, chile sauce, salsa … so terrible for you) and the buffalo tofu (like wings but better).
STEREOGUM: While snooping around the restaurant’s website I noticed an image of Barry Manilow Live along with shots of the place’s interior. It seems pretty epic in terms of knickknacks. Can you explain the atmosphere? What sort of music’s on the jukebox or stereo?
JW: The decor is epic, indeed. It’s always changing with the seasons and with the whims of the owner, Thomas, interior decorator extraordinaire. Old record covers are a big part of the look- they’re also the covers of our menus. Our latest acquisition is a huge taxidermied moose head that a manager picked up at an auction down the street. It’s absolutely enormous, and slightly terrifying. Everyone understands that the decor is a big part of the GW experience … anything goes, and sometimes I get the feeling that the result is as charming to regulars as it is confusing and disorienting to county-fied sightseers. (I actually had one awkward-looking man tell me once “I think I’d like this place a lot better if I still smoked marijuana.”)
Music is also a huge part of the scene at GW. As I mentioned, many of the staff are musicians, and almost everyone is a music geek. We’re allowed to play pretty much anything we’d like, and more often then not our own bands and fellow Baltimore bands’ records get frequent rotation. (“Can you please turn that down/off?” and “What are we listening to? It’s terrible!” are frequently heard uttered from some of our less adventurous clientele.)
STEREOGUM: Seems like it’s a busy place. How many tables do you usually deal with at one time?
JW: It depends on the night. Anywhere from seven to twelve, approximately. Definitely fewer tables when we’re busy. We’re particularly packed on weekend nights and brunches.
STEREOGUM: There are some rules on the site like, “we feel our chile sauce is essential to the dishes that include it. for this reason, we are unable to serve such dishes without sauce or with sauce on the side.” Pretty hardcore. Do you run into customers who want to break the rules? Ask for substitutions? Is the chile sauce really that good?
JW: The chile sauce is awesome. A lot of people think our rules are unreasonable, but the truth of the matter is that we’re just watching out for the customer. Most of our dishes are unconventional in some way, and if you’ve never had them before, you can’t really understand what you’re ordering by the description alone. As far as the chile dishes, ordering them without chile is kind of missing the point. I guarantee that you’d never want to eat them without it. The substitutions thing is totally great as a server and an institution. People kind of misunderstand that idea, I think. They’ll say “but what if I want my sandwich without cheese??!?!” To which I’ll respond: “Seeing as that’s an elimination, not a substitution, I’d be happy to oblige!” We definitely work with people with dietary restrictions. It’s not as crazy as it sounds.
STEREOGUM: The owners posted a number of notes about tipping — like making sure folks aren’t cheap on burger night (Editor’s note: Monday) just because the burgers are cheap. Are cheap tippers an issue? Or are these things more posted as a gentle reminder?
JW: Gentle reminder. There are going to be cheap people at any restaurant — it’s just a fact of life. I tend to judge people on their ability to treat those in “service” positions with decency and respect … and, although we’re fortunate to have a large base of awesome regulars, there are those in this world who get their kicks from asserting their authority and bossing people around. We try to discourage those people from patronizing our restaurant in whatever way we can. Also, although I think on the whole it’s a total misconception, GW has a bit of a reputation for being slow when we’re busy. I’ll never understand how people can expect good, homemade food from scratch to appear as quickly as a burger at the drive-thru.
STEREOGUM: Do any customers recognize you?
JW: Baltimore is a small-town-city, so I get recognized plenty, but it’s usually by people I know… : ) Every so often I’ll get a shout out from someone who’s heard our music, but it’s rare. I guess it’s possible that more people recognize me than I realize … although I’m skeptical, because we’re certainly just getting started with this whole semi-successful band thing.
STEREOGUM: The folks at Merge mentioned you’re really into Baltimore. Can you recommend some other food haunts for visitors? Bars?
JW: Baltimore rules … but the thing that makes it different from other cities is that, whereas most cities have their cool things on display, in Baltimore, you really have to know where to look. The neighborhood where Andy and I live, Hampden, is a cool spot … it’s definitely reaching its maximum peak on the gentrification scale at this point, but there are still plenty of young artists and musicians around. (The bar at Holy Frijoles, the Mexican restaurant down the street, is a popular spot. And there’s a new late-night coffee shop on Falls and 36th called El Rancho Grande, which is a great place to meet people and make friends. It’s — quite literally — like hanging out in someone’s living room, and you never know who you’ll find there. I also go to One World Cafe a lot … they’ve got a huge selection of awesome vegetarian/vegan food.) I’ve lived in Baltimore for a while, but I’ve never felt like I’ve completely got a hold on the restaurant scene. You never know when you’ll stumble upon some amazing, delicious food in some hole-in-the-ground you’ve never heard of.
STEREOGUM: OK, so who do you view as the more essential Baltimorean: Cal Ripken or John Waters? I’ll throw Dan Higgs into the mix as well.
JW: Um … Can I have all of the above? Actually, that’s funny because I wait on Dan Higgs at the GW every now and again. John Waters gets his fan mail sent across the street. And Cal once ate at GW, too … he sat in a booth henceforth christened “The Iron Bench.” CAAAAAAAL!