Grocery Shopping For One:
Wye Oak Learn To Be Together Apart
Wye Oak are two young people from Baltimore, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack. With Jenn on guitar and vocals, and Andy simultaneously playing drums and keyboards, they create sparse, beautiful, captivating songs that are at once affecting and enigmatic. Wasner’s gentle, tender voice, inflected with an odd, difficult-to-pinpoint drawl, conveys the heart of her words even when swathed in a swarm of rumbling volume. Wye Oak’s material often strikes me as little folk songs, dark old country songs stabbed with bolts of electricity. They have that sort of haunting quality that’s both warm and mysterious.
Friends since high school, after starting as Monarch five years ago Wasner and Stack opted to rename themselves after what was once the largest white oak tree in the country, located in Wye Mills, Maryland until a thunderstorm felled it in 2002. Wye Oak’s first, self-released album, 2007’s If Children, was picked up by the wise souls at Merge Records, who subsequently issued 2009’s stupendous The Knot and last year’s EP My Neighbor/My Creator. Out March 8th, Civilian is the third full-length record from Wye Oak, an album whose songs, according to Wasner, “are, as a whole, about aloneness (the positive kind), loneliness (the horrible kind), moving on, and letting go of people, places and things.”
With that in mind, I caught Wasner, 24, as she was returning from the grocery store to her humble abode in a downtown Baltimore warehouse space. Just back from a brief but hectic European tour, she was thoroughly enjoying the freedom of the first day of a two-week break before Wye Oak heads to South by Southwest, followed by a US tour, followed by what looks to be a full year of hustle and bustle as the acclaim for Civilian accumulates…
So you’ve been out of the country for a bit – I’m sure your cupboard is bare.
“Yeah, it is quite bare, and actually, this is the first time I’ve grocery shopped in two months. Because even when I was home before, it didn’t really make sense to get a bunch of food that I wouldn’t have more than a day to eat. It’s hard to shop for one, and not have things go to waste. I’m not the best.”
I thought you and Andy were living together or something.
“We lived with each other and dated each other for almost five years. And we have been independent of one another, at least in that way, for probably about a year and a half now. And it’s surprisingly drama-free. It’s actually much less drama than there was when we were actually dating and playing in a band together… To me, it makes perfect sense, because we get to preserve all the aspects of our relationship that we never really wanted to lose, and we’re still able to move on… We kind of are like, at this point, brother and sister, like family. I feel like he’s kinda still my other half in a lot of ways.”
I had no idea until recently that the two of you were so young. And of course you were significantly younger when you started the band. You have a quality in your music that sounds… I don’t know, “mature,” I guess, but also experienced, a bit world-weary. Been around the block. A little dark…
“I’ve heard that before.”
How do you get that? Any idea? Does it just come naturally? Or is it something you kind of strive for?
“Well, it’s certainly not conscious. I’ve always been the kind of person, and I’ve been told throughout my whole life – my short, young life, thus far – most people assume I’m older than I am. Not just in my music, but my daily routine. And I think that stems from my upbringing quite a bit. I had a kind of rocky teen-hood, and left my parents’ house pretty young, and I’ve been kind of out on my own, you know, from a younger age than most people are. And it definitely instilled a certain self-sufficience and a certain responsibility that I think, for a lot of people at that age, wasn’t required of them. I don’t regret it in any way. I mean, it made me the person that I am. I think I started working at the…restaurant where I still work, when I was 18 or 19, and everyone assumed I was in my late 20s then, ha ha ha! It was kind of the running joke, that I’m a little bit…I hate to use the words ‘old soul,’ but I guess I never really gave myself much of a youth.”
When you say that you didn’t give yourself a lot of youth, what do you mean?
“Well, I can’t really specifically elaborate, but things at home when I was growing up were not particularly stable. And, um, so I think children or teens who grow up in that kind of environment, sometimes they have to learn to be the adult, a little bit earlier. And most of my songs are about it, and reference it, and it’s not necessarily me personally as it is family and loved ones, so I can’t really get into super-specific stuff, but I think I kind of was forced to be self-sufficient and take care of myself and others around me from a really young age… When Andy and I got together, and we were living in Baltimore, I was probably 18 or 19, most of my friends were in their 30s and 40s with kids and jobs, and I don’t know why that happened the way it did, it’s just, those are the people I kind of fell in with, and that was the lifestyle that I – whether intentionally or not – I guess was trying to create for myself.”
You’ll probably have a really wild midlife crisis where you’ll go completely ape-crazy.
“Ha ha ha! I don’t know, I’m kind of aiming to do that now! I mean, I feel like I get to do this really incredible thing with my mid-20s where I travel around the world and play music, and that’s pretty much all that’s asked of me right now, so it’s really nice. I mean, I’m just trying to do and see as much as I can, and to meet as many people as I can, and to make as much music as I can, while I have the luxury of just being a little bit of a floater in the world.”
You’ve known Andy since high school, and you had some previous bands with him, like high school bands. When was it that you first started playing in bands with him, and was that how you met him?
“That is exactly how we met, in fact. We met when I was 15, so it’s coming up on a decade, now, and the first day that we met we had a band practice. I actually met him because I was…I went to high school with one of the other members of the band he was in, and I was joining that band to play keyboards. And it was the first experience I ever had playing music in a band set up, in a group at all. I pretty much, everything I learned was self-taught, and it was…I took piano lessons, and my mom taught me how to play guitar, and we would sing together, but I never tried to play with others before. So the very first day we met, Andy and I had a band practice together! Within minutes of us meeting each other. So that has definitely been the common thread throughout our relationship for as long as we’ve known each other. And that band was funny, because, you know, we were very much all learning, so we all wanted to play all the instruments, and we all wanted to write songs and so it was one of those bands where Andy played drums and guitar and bass, and I played a guitar and keyboards and bass, and you know, we were just always switching around from thing to thing. And didn’t really have a lot of focus, but we did have a lot of fun.”
Sounds like it was a good way to learn a lot of different instruments.
“Exactly. I think that it was a really important part of our musical upbringing. Also, in a lot of ways, it taught us how to be in a band, but it taught us how not to be in a band, and I think we learned a lot from that set-up, from that lineup. It was also some of my first experiences trying to write songs of my own.”
Did any of them last into Wye Oak?
“No! (laughs) Not at all! I guess a couple of the ones that I was writing toward the end of that phase ended up on the If Children record, but we never played them with that band. I would be somewhat horrified to have those [earliest songs] see the light of day. It was very much an early, early experiment with songwriting, and I was not any good! (laughs) So I’m hoping those stay buried for as long as possible.”
I’m sure there are incriminating demos out there.
“There are! They’re definitely out there, but I’m hoping that no one ever, ever finds them! (laughs)“
I guess by the time you were forming Monarch, which became Wye Oak, you and Andy were in a relationship by then?
So aside from that aspect of it, what drew you to want to work with him, specifically, on music?
“We both realized pretty early on that we both have incredibly complimentary sets of strengths. We’re not good at the same things. Andy is great with helping me to realize my ideas that I’m not capable of realizing myself. We both kind of play a little bit of everything, but everything that I play, he does better. And so, I can write something on guitar, or I can come up with something on drums, I can come up with these ideas, but as far as actually realizing them in a way that would work, I would turn to him for help with that. I’ve become, I guess, a sort of prolific songwriter, and so, I kind of have started to be somewhat of the driving, creative force, at least the impetus behind most of the actual songs, but when we work together, I’ll have these skeletons and these ideas that basically need a lot of work being pieced together, and he is incredible with helping me with that. So yeah, I think we’re just know our strengths, and it just so happens that they are very complimentary to each other, and help us to get…I think kind of like, together, we are the complete package.”
Do you remember when you were first doing Monarch, when you first felt confident and comfortable and complete with the idea of it just being the two of you?
“Yeah, I do, because it was soon after we started recording, we wanted to wanted to play some shows. We didn’t really have any idea how that was going to work out. And so Andy came up with this idea to do the drums-keyboard double-duty thing, where you play bass-lines and then one-handed drums. And I myself was extremely skeptical about that particular setup. I really didn’t think it was going to be enough. I thought maybe he could learn a couple songs and temporarily speaking it would work out, but generally, I was very doubtful that it would be a long-term thing. But he disappeared into the basement for a couple weeks, and basically rehearsed. I don’t know what he did down there, but he rehearsed for a while, and he came back, and was just way more gifted with it than I ever thought. He was capable of so much more than I thought he would be. And at that time, there wasn’t a single one of the songs that we had that he wasn’t able to adapt in some way. So I was basically just like, oh, well, if he can do it, let’s just see how far we can take this. And so I kept bringing new songs, more complicated songs, different styles of songs, thinking maybe this’ll be the one where we kind of hit a wall and can’t go any further, and he just kept adapting and kept getting better at it, and honestly, to this day, I still haven’t been able to stump him on it (laughs). I think this setup has become one of those limitations that has been incredibly helpful in developing a good creative mind for arranging, and also understanding what the essential components of a song actually are. ‘Cause you have to distill it down to its most basic elements in order to pull it off. And that’s an incredibly valuable learning experience for both of us, so yeah, I remember realizing, oh, maybe he is actually going to be able to do this, and maybe this is a band. To this day I don’t really feel like, I never felt like I don’t have a full band backing me when I play with Andy, so that’s pretty cool.”
I’m amazed by musicians that can play more than one instrument at once and hold a song together.
“Yeah, he’s the best I’ve ever seen, for sure. And he is getting better, even still. I mean, we’ve been incorporating new elements to try and learn some of these newer songs, and we’ve been fucking around with some sampling options, and we have this drum sampler that we’ve stationed on the other side, opposite from the keyboard, and so for some songs now he’s actually playing two-handed drums and cuing up bass-line changes on a sampler simultaneously with the drumsticks, so that’s something that’s new, and it’s a little bit…well, we have yet to debut it live, too much, but that’s a world that’s gonna open even a whole lot more possibilities to us than we even had before, so it doesn’t really seem like he’s hit the, or that either of us has hit the ceiling, as far as what we’re going to be capable to do with this duo setup, which is exciting.”
I like what you said in something I read once where you were talking about working in the studio, you overdub and layer so many things and make it sound like as many people as you want, but when you’re playing it live you have to take these songs that probably started out with just the two of you and then were built into this more expansive thing for your recordings, and then you have to distill them back down in a totally different way to play live.
“Yeah, it’s true. It’s a really unusual process. I think it’s probably different than most bands, when they’re working through new material. It’s certainly different than any other band I’ve been in. But it helps us to know our songs really, really well. And it’s totally changed the way I think about writing songs, too – or at least writing songs for this band. Because you do really have to consider, okay, how’s this going to translate not only live, but how is this going to translate in the studio, and…I don’t know. It feels like an asset to me at this point. Like, I feel, playing in this duo, I wouldn’t be the guitar player that I am if I hadn’t been kind of like, forced, in a trial-by-fire kind of way, to put everything I do out in front of,, basically, what is very little to hide behind. And so, everything that I started out doing in this band, I had to learn to get better at and be really comfortable with incredibly quickly, because, you know, you can’t disappear behind anything. In a lot of ways, the guitar’s really the primary melodic instrument. The bass is there, but the guitar is pretty essential, too (laughs), and so, uh, when you only have two melodic instruments, they’re both pretty crucial. I’m incredible glad that it’s forced me to challenge myself and get better and try and learn at a quicker pace, and do some things that maybe I previously thought were out of my grasp, out of my range of capabilities. It’s made us both better, I think, for sure.”
You’ve said the songs on Civilian are about aloneness, loneliness. Can you elaborate a little further?
“Well, oddly enough, it really comes down to exactly what we were talking about when I was talking about learning how to grocery shop for one, and that’s just one small example. For the first time in my life, this past year I’ve had to learn to be dependent on, essentially, no one but myself. And not just from a logistical standpoint, and not just living together or in a romantic relationship, but creatively, um, I’ve been pretty much alone, and moving and getting my life together, and getting my brain together. So when I say ‘aloneness,’ as in the positive kind, that’s what I mean. When you tour, it’s a gift, it’s an incredible luxury, to be truly alone. And I think just out of habit, you know, when you live with someone long enough, you start to be afraid of being alone. You don’t know how to do it. You don’t know what to do with yourself, and it feels strange. It feels almost like a part of you is missing.”
I guess one of the great things about being on the road all the time is you get to meet a lot of people, but also one of the drawbacks is you can’t really spend a lot of quality time with them, and it’s hard to build any kind of relationships with anyone when you’re traveling so much.
“Yeah. It’s really hard. There’s no stability whatsoever….I’m not in a position now where I can sustain a relationship that works, because I’m gone constantly. I can’t imagine that we’ll be touring to this degree forever, but for the time being, it’s what I have to do, and it means that I have to kind of be alright with letting others go, and not having the kind of relationship that maybe I would’ve had at a different time in my life. The way we think about it is, we’re working really hard now so we don’t have to later. We’re trying to build a life for ourselves, I guess. And touring, like anything else, is a skill that you can improve upon with time. So I think I’m at a point where I know how to do it.”
Just stay away from the White Castles and the Hardee’s and that’ll help.
“Oh yeah. That’s huge. We don’t fuck with the fast food. Not at all….I pretty much carry around a box of cereal and some fruit and nuts and little things like that all the time, because you just never know when you’re gonna have the option! I was also thinking. along those lines, too (this is stupid and silly) of writing a book about the best places to go to the bathroom on tour. Especially for girls. My number one special super secret location is the women’s bathroom in Guitar Center. There’s never anyone who wants to use the women’s bathroom in Guitar Center! I’ve, like, washed my face, brushed my teeth, changed my clothes, no one ever knocks. It’s clean and there’s no one ever waitin’ in line.”
Photo by Natasha Tylea.