Soft Screams: Wye Oak On The Anxieties And Introspection Of Shriek
The first thing you notice, of course, is the lack of guitar. That’s been the hook ever since the announcement of Wye Oak’s new album Shriek. Ever since we got our collective first taste via “The Tower.” After skipping up to the front of the class of “Bands That Make Guitar Music Invigorating And Exciting Again In 20-Whatever,” Wye Oak were set to return with their fourth album, the follow-up to their 2011 breakthrough Civilian, with a totally rewritten script. So, yeah, the first thing you’ll notice is that Shriek doesn’t sound a whole lot like the Wye Oak we once knew. A few listens in, though, the intricacies of this transition start to reveal themselves. There are subtler, deeper alterations at work on Shriek than might be evident immediately. Stuff that makes you not only start to feel like those first few albums were merely a collective but self-contained chapter, but stuff that also makes you wonder just how malleable this project could wind up being.
On a Wednesday reprieve between dual Coachella weekends, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack take the time to talk to me while resting up in a house overlooking the Hollywood Hills. Wasner describes an exceedingly un-Wye-Oak-ish scene for me: mid-morning mist hanging over the sun-drenched expanse before her, the Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory plainly in view. At one point, she gets delightedly distracted when a hummingbird flits past her on the porch. The preceding night I took a late night walk through my neighborhood in Brooklyn and there was snow on the cars. In April. That seemed like a much more appropriate setting to speak with Wye Oak, the band that made the hauntingly ethereal The Knot and Civilian. “I really never get tired of being here,” Wasner says of California, immediately contradicting my sense of where their music would make sense having anything to do with the people themselves. The contentment in her voice this morning opens up into a conversation that exposes how Wye Oak’s stylistic shift goes well beyond PR shtick — rather, born from a host of personal and professional anxieties, the realignment of Shriek was a crucial step in Wasner’s attempt to establish a sense of peace in her life and for the duo to find themselves again as artists.
A group renowned for making guitar music following up their breakthrough album with a record that would, seemingly, negate a major element of their appeal has the look of a few of those tried and true narratives we write onto bands. It’s the move of following your moment of highest exposure with a left turn instead of further refining the formula that got you to that point, the sort of gamble that when executed successfully can ensure an already critically acclaimed band a greater degree of fervor. It’s that recurring thing that’s been there on and off for almost two decades now, the idea of a guitar-centric band turning to synthesizers for some sort of reinvention; the shift from Civilian to Shriek may not be as severe as, say, the about-face Radiohead took between OK Computer and Kid A, but it’s a move of the same ilk. It sets Wye Oak up, inevitably, for some other moment in their story that will fixate on the return of guitar to their music.
All this might be true if Shriek weren’t a successful transition and an engrossing and rewarding listen in a way dissimilar to their previous work. It might be true if Shriek didn’t represent not just a superficial shift from favoring one tool to another, but a progression in how Wye Oak make music on a fundamental and mechanical level.
Wye Oak toured relentlessly in support of Civilian, with Wasner estimating they played some “350 shows in two years, but probably more.” Looking back, it was a time of newfound success but also extreme, rigid transience. “At the time, neither of us were really living anywhere,” Wasner explains. “We were crashing on couches even when we weren’t touring.” The cyclical nature of it all burned Wasner and Stack out on playing their own songs. “Every time I play a song I get a little farther away from the moment of inception. It feels more distant to me. There came a time where I felt less like a musician or a writer and more like an actor,” Wasner says. By the time they found themselves in the aftermath of the tour, when it came time to write a new record, Wasner couldn’t disassociate playing guitar from this period of her life. The listlessness of doing the same thing night in, night out, yet lacking much of a sense of structure, routine, or home had worn her down. Wasner’s decision to start writing with synthesizers was less an aesthetic choice than a necessity for the band to continue on, a way to get over. “No songs were possible for me in the set up that had worked for me in the past,” she continues. For a time, she thought Wye Oak might simply end, and that she might even stop making music professionally.
The answer was a complete overhaul of Wasner’s writing process. Where in the past she had sat down with a guitar or at a piano and improvised parts while improvising a vocal melody above that, the process of writing and recording Shriek drew on her recent interest in learning more about production. The entirety of Shriek was composed through her multi-tracking and layering, thinking about recording and writing as a simultaneous process rather than discreet steps. In hindsight, the 2012 song “Spiral” can be seen as a progenitor to Shriek, as well as what many of us may have immediately guessed a synthier, less grunge-y Wye Oak may have wound up sounding like. But where that song, strong as it is, may have pointed towards what could’ve been a half-in commitment to this sort of change — i.e., dressing up similar songs with a few new synths, but essentially still writing in the same vein — it was an early moment in Wasner’s new songwriting approach. The fuller results on Shriek represent not just a new attention to density and electronic textures, but also an entirely different use of rhythm and melody than on previous Wye Oak outings. The process of building her way up through a song opened Wasner up to new realms of complexity. Starting with guitar and voice always set some degree of parameters to begin with. Even if the new material will be more of a challenge to reproduce live, the process of writing it was completely liberating. “It feels like I can more naturally be myself when I’m not limited by what I’m physically able to do,” Wasner reflects. “I’ll never do it any other way again. It just allows me to write the way I always wanted to.”
With Stack living Portland, Oregon and Wasner still in their hometown of Baltimore, they worked alone and crafted the album by exchanging demos and details. In the past, Wasner would bring in the beginnings of a song and they would flesh it out together, in person. Comparing the process of Shriek to that of making an electronic album, Stack asserts that each of them writing in solitude, in a private space, was another crucial element to the reorientation of Wye Oak’s sound. “It made each of us write differently,” he says. “For me, a lot of the rhythmic and textural ideas were coming out of the production. They couldn’t have been composed if it had been us in real time.” Diverting from their former methodology, Stack and Wasner didn’t play the songs together until it came time to figure out how they would adapt the material from Shriek for their live show.
At times Shriek can sound like the work of an entirely different band than the one who produced Civilian. At others, it’s a logical extension of their old music. There are enough through lines to Wye Oak as a project that work as connective tissue, transcending the obvious structural and sonic differences between the stuff they used to write and the stuff they’re writing now.
Wye Oak has always been, is, and likely always will be the duo of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack. In the band’s earlier days, they were a couple; now they’re not. “That definitely feels like some past life shit,” Stack remarks with a wry laugh, before explaining that they’re both now in happy relationships with other people and that he plans to settle in Marfa, Texas with his fiancée. Still, the closeness and intensity required from making Wye Oak’s music seems to have either stemmed from or built up one of those inextricable working partnerships between Stack and Wasner. Where the process of writing Shriek in isolation from one another would at first seem antithetical to the nature of Wye Oak, all it seems to have done was add a shade of contrast to their music.
This, perhaps, is the major unifying factor of Wye Oak’s music: the presence of binaries and tensions, of basic incongruences that beg to be ripped apart. Before it was how Wasner’s dreamy vocals floated above her scathing guitar breaks or Stack’s rolling, primal drums. Now it could be the way they can take a long-lasting partnership and crack it back open through removal. “I think a lot of my other music is about relating to other people, and this record’s very much about learning how to relate to and understand myself,” Wasner says. The interaction between Stack’s and Wasner’s ideas and processes is what makes a Wye Oak song what it is. For Shriek, the added ability to record alone seemed necessary for the record’s amount of introspection.
Maybe the fourth or fifth thing you’ll notice about Shriek is there are hardly any sounds on the record that the word applies to. The name derives from the fact that “Shriek” was the first song Wasner completed for the record. “For her, it set the tone of everything else she wrote. That was the working title of the record while we were writing,” Stack explains. In one of those sharp Wye Oak contrasts, that song is built on the sort of melody you hear in actual dreams; Wasner’s chorus melody is breathy and welcoming, blissed-out. With unnervingly propulsive percussion and feedback squeals, “Paradise” is perhaps the sole song that seems like an obvious reflection of what the word “shriek” would immediately evoke. As Wasner explains, it was an intentionally ambiguous choice — as she likes all their album titles to be. “I knew I wanted an onomatopoeia, a visceral, animalistic expression of something,” she says. “You can have [a shriek] of existential horror, you can one of absolute terror, you can have a shriek of joy. It’s not really possible to feel one thing at a time.”
Where the band’s soft-loud dynamics and elemental guitar/drums sound used to make catharsis the primary and obvious function of their music, the stuff on Shriek sneaks in its climactic moments, extending out from those sorts of abstractions that occupied Wasner’s mind during its conception, as well as the abstraction that inevitably came along with the two of them working remotely. Wasner still identifies catharsis as a major reason she feels compelled to write, but points out, rightfully, that there’s a more “subtle and mature display of it” on Shriek. Elliptical riffs and synths give way into transportive choruses — like the one in album standout “Schools of Eyes,” where Wasner’s multi-tracked vocals weave in and out of each other. This material has the sound of worlds opening up to you, rather than you tearing them open. Much of Wye Oak’s guitar-based music fell in line with the latter. The peaks and valleys of Shriek are gentler, gauzier, softer — perhaps catharsis via salve more so than rupture.
The exact way of conveying them might be different, but these are the sort of ideas and experiences that are endemic to Wye Oak’s music. If Shriek is ultimately the end of a process of Wasner and Stack exploring new conduits through which to get those concepts across, it also seems like it has permanently reconfigured their understanding of what Wye Oak can be. “We’re not a guitar band,” Stack argues. “We’re not a drum band. Or a folk band, or a shoegaze band, or whatever people say. It’s about melody and arc. It’s about a fundamental feeling that we go for.”
For Wasner, there was no other way Shriek could’ve been. “It sort of created itself,” she reflects. “That was a process that I went through to be able to find peace with myself and be comfortable enough in my own imperfection and vulnerability. To make it there. That’s why it’s the way that it is.”
Wye Oak tour dates:
05/02 Millvale, PA @ Mr. Small’s Theatre
05/03 Lancaster, PA @ Chameleon Club
05/05 Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
05/06 Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
05/07 New York, NY @ Webster Hall
05/09 Boston, MA @ Paradise
05/10 Montreal, QC @ Il Motore
05/11 Toronto, ON @ Horseshoe Tavern
05/13 Chicago, IL @ Metro
05/14 Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Hall
05/15 Minneapolis, MN @ Fine Line Music Cafe
05/16 Omaha, NE @ The Waiting Room
05/17 Lawrence, KS @ The Granada
05/18 St. Louis, MO @ Old Rock House
05/20 Nashville, TN @ Mercy Lounge
05/21 Atlanta, GA @ Terminal West
07/05 Dallas, TX @ Trees
07/06 Austin, TX @ The Parish
07/08 Phoenix, AZ @ The Crescent Ballroom
07/09 Solana Beach, CA @ Belly Up Tavern
07/10 Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey Theatre
07/14 Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge
07/15 Seattle, WA @ Neumos
07/16 Vancouver, BC @ Venue
07/18 Salt Lake City, UT @ Urban Lounge
07/19 Denver, CO @ The Bluebird Theater
07/21 Columbia, MO @ Mojo’s
07/22 Louisville, KY @ Zanzabar
07/25 Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle (Merge 25)
Shriek is out today via Merge.