Wye Oak - Jenn Wasner on Sexism in the Music Industry and Their "Intensely Dark" New Album | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Wye Oak - Jenn Wasner on Sexism in the Music Industry and Their “Intensely Dark” New Album

Learning a New Language

Jul 23, 2014 Issue #50 - June/July 2014 - Future Islands Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share


Wye Oak's stunning new album Shriek, at the surface, lies in stark contrast to their earlier work. The duo of Jenn Wasner (synths, bass, guitar) and Andy Stack (percussion) have eschewed their trademark guitar and drums sound in favor of something more silvery and abstract, no doubt informed by Wasner's foray into electronic textures on her 2013 side project Dungeonesse. Yet, at the surface, these are still the Wye Oak numbers of your dreams. Their innate pop instincts burn as brightly as ever. They just require more effort to crack, given that their code is replete with slinky grooves and crepuscular synths. Stick with it for multiple listens, and you're right there with Wye Oak on the finest and most rewarding album of their esteemed career. [Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Wasner, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on Wye Oak.]

John Everhart (Under the Radar): People love to fixate on women playing lead guitar. I feel like if Marnie Stern stopped playing guitar, it would be a huge deal, and I think it's absurd. How do you feel about that?

Jenn Wasner: I think it's sexism veiled as a compliment. I've always felt weird about how people have fixated on my guitar playing, because whenever someone goes apeshit over my guitar playingI mean, I know for a fact that I'm a mediocre to competent guitar player. There are tons of people who are way better at guitar, and I know that. It's a fact. I've never worked to be more than competent. I'm not a virtuoso. But when I hear people freak out about it and fixate on it, "She's really great at guitar," what I read into that is, "Can you believe it? She's a woman and really good at guitar." It's sort of like, you don't hear people raving about similar male guitar players to me. It's hard for me to not see it as a veiled compliment. It's couched in this inherent surprise and disbelief. Plenty of dudes play guitar competently, but people aren't blowing a load over it. Everybody fucking plays the guitar! Jesus Christ. But whether people are conscious of it or not, it does have sexist undertones. So it's empowering for me to say, "Screw you. I'm gonna do whatever I want to do and not think twice about it." I think that, from a feminine perspective, is the most powerful thing a woman can do with her art. Just do what they want to do with themselves, whatever's most comfortable and authentic and genuine for them, instead of whatever limiting box other people want to put them in.

You're a songwriter first and foremost, and I've never been a big guitar guy, but I've always thought songwriting came first. Bands like R.E.M., Nirvana. They didn't have great guitarists, but inventive ones, and served the songs. For women there's such a focus on how proficient they are. It should be about the songs.

Well, amen. I couldn't agree with it more. I have such a hard time with this, people who get fixated on instrumentation. And people who love music, there are plenty of them out there, but for people who music isn't a large part of their lives, they sort of pick these aesthetic, sonic elements. An image, or the way a band represents themselves. It comes down to how the band speaks to who they are. It's not what they're hearing, it's more about the band's image and how the band's publicized. And we sort of got into this niche of music listener that associated guitar bands with musical authenticity, which I hated. I really struggled with a contingent of people who are closed off and struggled with music that sounds different. To not like music created with synthesizers, it's something I just don't understand. I don't want to associate my music with people who think that way. For a lot of people, the guitar's considered real music, rock and roll; it's this comfort zone. It drives me nuts, and it's a big reason why the guitar became toxic to me. But I love the guitar. I've played it my whole life, and I'm sure I will again. But it's a tool, and it's not essential to what I do. It frustrates me when people are unable to see through the aesthetic trappings; the integrity of the composition underneath is what matters. I guess people who do that will like this record because it's the strongest batch of songs I've ever written, and the people who are unable to do that won't like our band anymore, and that's fine, because that's a sentiment I don't get down with at the heart of it at all.

Where did you feel like you were coming from at an emotional level on this record? It comes across as dark to me.

It's funny, and I'm super psyched you said it was a dark record, because every single interview I've done has said, "Why is your record so happy and upbeat?" [Laughs] There are elements of positivity and peacefulness in it, but it is intensely dark in a lot of ways. I really like playing with ambiguity, and the ambiguity of having a dark sound and happy lyrics and having something upbeat be dark. It's a trick I like to employ, and some of my favorite songs do it really well. You can't take something at instant face value without giving some thought as to what it's trying to do. I knew people would hear dancier beats, synthesizers, and prettier songs, and think, "It's a fun happy dance record." But, just like it's hard to feel only one emotion at once, it's impossible for me to write a song that isn't multi-faceted in the way it exists. People don't feel one way at a time. It's trying to capture the duality of that or the ambiguity of conflict. It's about tension, really. These songs were built as an exercise for me to resolve some of that tension, to help relieve anxiety. They're mantras I repeat to myself to calm myself and get through some of the more difficult emotional struggles I've faced. It's not like, "Oh, they went and made a happy record." It's just as dark as if not darker than the records we've made in the past.

[Note: These are extra portions of our interview with Wye Oak, quotes that didn't make it into our main print article on them. This article first appeared in the digital/tablet/smartphone version of Under the Radar's June/July issue (Issue 50).] 



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