Just about two years ago, Wye Oak released their stunning fourth album, Shriek. It was one of our favorite albums of 2014, and a crucial moment for the band. The relentless touring behind their breakthrough Civilian left them burnt out, and they had to find a way to reinvigorate and reimagine the band.
From a listener’s standpoint, it worked incredibly well — Shriek didn’t sound much like the Wye Oak of before, but immediately expanded what Wye Oak could mean in the future. And it was simply a great album. From the perspective of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack, it seemed to have worked, too. I caught up with them before their set at Easy Tiger at SXSW on Thursday night, the three of us huddling in a metal stairway in a parking lot that offered some moderate refuge from the collision of three separate shows echoing together from nearby.
When I spoke to them before Shriek came out in 2014, they were still processing the uncertainty about the future that had hit them in the wake of Civilian. Last week, they seemed much more at peace, with clear visions about how this band can continue — clear visions about a future that once seemed unsteady.
About that future: Wye Oak debuted three new songs at Thursday’s show. Unsurprisingly, they were all gorgeous. Now wielding several new tricks after Shriek, Wasner and Stack seem to be approaching a sound that weds elements from throughout their career. Wasner was back to playing guitar, but the songs aren’t a straight-up return to pre-Shriek Wye Oak. The first song they played moved at a steady lope with a floaty, nearly dream-pop melody from Wasner; it might’ve been the most obvious synthesis of different versions of Wye Oak. The second and third were both completely stunning. The second track began with a stuttering electronic beat and quickly escalated into a gallop that didn’t let up for the song’s three or so minutes. A breakneck, catchy song, it feels destined to sit well alongside the Wye Oak tracks that make good soundtracks to aimless roadtrips. (See also: “My Neighbor,” “Civilian,” “Hot As Day,” or “Shriek.”) The third new song also steadily grew, but this time from an ambient and meditative first half into a dramatic conclusion. There isn’t any percussion in that one for half the song, but as soon as Stack counts in his entrance, you can feel him igniting the tension built up by Wasner’s voice and guitar along the way. The song begins as an insular drift, and ends as a storm. If you’re a Wye Oak fan, you should be excited.
Before I got to see that new stuff in action, I spoke with Wasner and Stack about what they’ve been up to, and where they see things going. It sounds like we have some things to look forward to.
STEREOGUM: The last time we talked, I had just moved back to New York and I was sitting on an air mattress in an unfurnished apartment, recording the call into a GarageBand file. I felt very professional.
JENN WASNER: I was sitting on a beautiful porch in California. I remember that interview.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, we were talking about a hummingbird you were watching.
WASNER: It was my birthday, I was turning 29.
STEREOGUM: Oh, wow, you were pretty young when Wye Oak started then.
WASNER: Yeah, I was 19. This is year 10 of Wye Oak. Well, technically, we used to be called Monarchs. But it’s year 10 of this band. A goddamn decade.
STEREOGUM: How’s that feel?
ANDY STACK: Old.
WASNER: It feels, actually, great.
STEREOGUM: Did you ever think it’d be going on that long when you first started playing together?
STACK: I would say so. We had already played some music together for some years before that. I feel like we were pretty serious when we got into the band. We certainly didn’t have any other —
WASNER: Life plans?
STACK: Yeah, any other direction for our lives.
WASNER: I actually think the bigger issue is I wasn’t thinking about my future in any capacity. So if you asked me if I would still be playing music in 10 years, that would just be like, “What’s that?”
STEREOGUM: So, given that it’s the 10-year anniversary, do you two have anything planned for this year?
WASNER: We actually only realized this was the case [that Wye Oak is ten years old] a couple days ago. [laughs] We don’t really think that way in general about anything. We realized, and we were like, “Oh, we should do something!” But that was kind of the extent of that conversation. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Jenn, you’re putting out a solo record under the Flock Of Dimes moniker, right?
WASNER: Yeah, I just finished it up as a matter of fact. It’s nothing like the soundtrack I did for [the play The World Is Round]. That was for one specific creative project that me and my friend envisioned together. It won’t sound like that. A one-off, if you will.
STEREOGUM: Will the album be out this year?
WASNER: Umm…maybe. We’ll just see, won’t we?
STEREOGUM: Would you tour behind it?
WASNER: I might, yeah. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Andy, would you tour with Jenn for that?
STACK: I think I can say more definitively than anything she’s saying that I would not be playing in Flock Of Dimes.
WASNER: No, Andy will not be playing in Flock Of Dimes because we already have a band together and we spend a lot of time together. Wye Oak is going to be, if anything, more active this year than we have been for a little while. It’s going to be a little bit of a challenge learning how to balance the schedule. This is my first fully solo thing.
STEREOGUM: What was it like writing that vs. writing for Wye Oak?
WASNER: You know, the songwriting process doesn’t really change all that much, honestly. Though I will say that I generally have a sense when I’m writing of where it’s going to make sense. But I also know that when I’m writing for Wye Oak, that I have the luxury of utilizing the great instrumental and production strengths of Andy, which I don’t have as much. I maybe write differently in that I know I can trust him to pull off some ideas that I might not be able to pull off on my own. A lot of it is just instinctual, it’s just a feeling.
STEREOGUM: Do you find yourself drawn to different sounds when you’re in Flock Of Dimes mode?
WASNER: You know, it’s been really important to me and to us to set a precedent with Wye Oak specifically that Wye Oak doesn’t sound like any one kind of thing. And that’s why our last record was so important, and why that’s really invigorated us working on new music now. It’s very important to us that we can be free within the structure of our band and make any kind of music that we want to. Otherwise, we’re not excited about it if we feel like we’re only supposed to deliver this one simple thing. So now we have this wonderful precedent that we’ve set…we both are probably better at everything we do than we ever have been. We’ve been together for, like I said, 10 years. I feel like I’m a better songwriter. Andy’s skill set has been super finely honed. We’ve both been doing stuff outside the band. It’s especially rewarding to get to work together because we know each other’s strengths so well at this point. But, yeah, in general, if anything, making a record by myself has made me feel very fortunate to collaborate with other people. Because it’s super hard!
STEREOGUM: Andy, you toured with EL VY recently. Is that still your main outlet besides Wye Oak?
STACK: It was certainly the most publicized. It was the first touring that I’ve done in a while. But I’ve been writing a bunch, been doing some film work, and getting into writing for commercials. I’ve been doing quite a bit of it these days. It’s been pretty cool. It’s actually been pretty rewarding and helpful for all my other endeavors.
STEREOGUM: In what sense?
STACK: Just in the sense of sharpening your tools. When doing that work, you can’t get hung up on ego or artistry so much. There is an artistry to it, but you basically just have to dig in and get it done. It’s made me a lot more prolific and productive. That’s stuff you can take to any project that you work on.
STEREOGUM: What commercials have you written music for?
STACK: I haven’t had any, like, slam-dunk McDonald’s stuff. I had an Environmental Defense Fund thing that I did. I was involved in a Maryland tourism campaign last year. That was an interesting project. For those kinds of things, you wind up doing a lot of stuff. If you want to. If you can get into it. But, yeah, I feel like we got to a point a few years back with Wye Oak where it was really the only thing that either of us were doing and it was starting to be toxic and it was eating itself alive a little bit. The realization we had was — and this is part of what Jenn’s talking about; being whatever sound we want to be, and why we made a record like Shriek that was reinventing the sound of the band — it was because we couldn’t continue that way. We had to continue to explore and we have to be able to explore in other avenues. So we’re both involved in other projects, and I feel like when we come back to this, we feel like, “Holy shit, there is real musical chemistry here.”
WASNER: It’s the open relationship of bands. It’s important. You gotta do it.
STEREOGUM: In the past, there were a lot of implications that touring behind Civilian almost killed you guys as a band, and Shriek almost didn’t happen, and then Shriek had to be the way it was to allow you two to keep moving forward. When we talked last time, that album wasn’t out yet, so it was sort of like, you guys were satisfied with what you came up with, but you were still waiting to see how it all went down. So, two years on, did it work? Do you guys feel revitalized and a little freed up?
WASNER: It worked! It totally worked! Honestly, we feel better about this band than we have in a really, really long time. A lot of that is thanks to, not only the making of that record and the fact that we continue to enjoy playing the songs, but also the fact that we used to feel like it was kind of an all-or-nothing scenario, and we have scaled back our lifestyle in this to something that feels a lot healthier for the two of us, and we found out that it’s still viable as such. We didn’t assume that would be the case. But we’re really fortunate that, even if we’re not going to be drawing circles around the country in a van all the time, we’re not going to stop playing shows, because we like playing shows. But I think we felt like, if we’re not going as hard as we did when we burned ourselves out, would people still give a shit about us? We’ve been playing less, but really enjoying it more, and people are still showing up. We’re grateful for that. It makes us really excited to keep making music because it makes us feel like it’s possible to do it in a way that’s way healthier.
STEREOGUM: You’re playing some new songs at SXSW. Are these songs you just started working on?
WASNER: Yeah, they are.
STEREOGUM: What do you two have in mind this time? What’s the sound you’re chasing?
WASNER: You know, they’re all really different. It’s interesting, because one of them is brand new and a couple of them are re-workings of songs we were actually working on between Civilian and Shriek that we’ve changed a bit. They were songs that we’d abandoned and put aside in favor of the Shriek songs, but we realized recently that we still quite like them and wanted to bring them out into the world. One of them is totally new — like a month old.
STACK: They’re all guitar songs.
WASNER: Yeah! Not that that matters.
STEREOGUM: With Shriek, it wasn’t just like “This is a Wye Oak record but on synths.” You guys reworked your entire writing process from the ground up. Now having that in your toolbox, plus the way you did the old stuff, is there some kind of hybrid happening now?
WASNER: Yeah, writing on every instrument. I think the misunderstanding that a lot of people had was that, it wasn’t like I wanted to eliminate guitar from the entire equation permanently. It was more like, when I sit down at my house and I want to be creative, I have a whole slew of stuff. I’ve got a piano, I’ve got tons of synths. I’ve got a bunch of guitars, I’ve got my drums. It’s already such a weird, strange, difficult, intangible thing to have to chase some sort of inspiration, that I never want to feel like I have to limit myself. It’s death to sit down and be like, “For this project, I must write this kind of song.”
STEREOGUM: During Shriek, though, didn’t you actually do that to force yourself into a new thing?
STACK: Yeah, you sort of did do that.
WASNER: Well, to open it up, yeah, exactly.
STACK: I think part of this is, up until Civilian, we were both in Baltimore, and then I moved to Portland and now I’m in Marfa [Texas]. After that, ever since then, we think of this more of a songwriting and production experiment. Like, a project rather than even a band. I don’t think we think of it like a band that much because we’re not even together doing the band thing that much, and we’ve never felt like we operated quite that way. I think moving to opposite geographies cemented that. [Wasner currently lives in Durham, North Carolina. –Ed.] With Shriek, it was pushing us into the process of making a record, it was a cool limitation we created for ourselves. Now, I think we basically feel free to explore a bunch of different sonic directions or ideas, whatever’s interesting us at the moment. That includes guitar, that includes all kinds of textures.
WASNER: Everything is now on the table, which is exactly what I wanted in the first place. To open everything up. I wanted to set a precedent that Wye Oak could be whatever we wanted it to be, and now that that’s the case, I feel free enough within the confines of this project that I can do anything I want to do. And I feel really fortunate that the people who are onboard with us at this point are onboard with us for that reason. It’s because they want to see the kinds of songs we are making next and I’m really grateful for that. That’s the best thing you can hope for as a songwriter, that people are going to be onboard with following your whims wherever they lead you. It’s hard to say what these new songs are like because, as it’s always sort of been, it’s going to be a bit of a grab-bag.
STEREOGUM: Well, I have to ask. When do you think we might hear this grab-bag of a new album?
WASNER: It might be sooner than you think.