Wye Oak on Overcoming Writer’s Block, Abandoning Guitars, and Subverting the Formula

Playing Off The Board

Jul 22, 2014 Issue #50 - June/July 2014 - Future Islands Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share


Growing stronger with every record, while incrementally increasing its audience for a good part of the past decade, Wye Oak well could've trodden the beaten path and continued with its trademark guitar and drums sound, one that had endeared it to a progressively mainstream audience, including appearances of 2011's Civilian's title track on the likes of The Walking Dead, Being Human, and Safety Not Guaranteed. But when the time came to follow up Civilian, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack found themselves at a crossroads. They could've followed the path of least resistance and continued with Wasner playing her dazzling, serpentine guitar lines over Stack's supple drum fills, or they could slyly subvert the formula, dabbling in sawing cello, keyboards, and creative bass tones. They opted for the latter, and it paid dividends for the duo, resulting in the stunning Shriek.

"The story that I've been telling everyone was that we played Civilian for the better part of two years, played over 200 shows in a year, and said yes to everything," says Wasner. "And it took its toll. It was a classic burnout example. By the end of the cycle it was a really difficult time for me in a lot of ways. I was struggling relating to myself and relating to my music. It was dark. So when it finally came time to call it a day and take some time away and rest and recover, I discovered that a lot of that really negative baggage that I'd associated with that time of my lifethe guitar itself had come to be a symbol of that. I discovered that basically because I couldn't write anything."

Wasner found herself with acute writer's block, and claims that the only antidote for the malady was fervent experimentation, sans guitar, which had come to represent a particularly difficult time in her life. She dabbled with this direction via her side project Dungeonesse, but it came through full-throttle during the sessions for Wye Oak's new album.

"I had to let go of what people's expectations of what I could do were and what my expectations were and allow myself to make whatever it was that I wanted to make," she says with self-assurance. "And sure enough, it worked like a charm. After that period of intense self-examination, I wrote the record we're releasing now in about six months. It just sort of started to flow again. So it was a very necessary departure and a very necessary step for me specifically as a songwriter to be able to come back to that again. I love the record and I'm proud of it, especially because there was a time when I wondered if I'd ever be able to do it again."

But the songs flat-out dazzle. From the ethereal, sawing cello that guides "Before" to the Byzantine bass lines of the operatic "Shriek," the instrumentation and vocals serve the songs, like Lego blocks piled atop one another only to form a gorgeous gestalt.

Sure, the pieces of the game have changed, but the players remain the same, a prosaic fact that isn't lost on Wasner.

"It's sort of a classic tale, almost a cliché, when people are surprised by it. It comes as a shock to me that people are so taken aback by it. For creative people, it's what you have to do. You have to find new ways to be creative all the time. It's the oldest trick in the book. My reaction is, 'Have you ever listened to music?' when people are surprised. I think a lot of bands nowadays, unfortunately, when they find success in the music industry as it currently exists, they're afraid to not give people what they expect," she says with disdain. "They don't want to risk losing it. If you keep giving people what they expect from you, you'll maintain visibility. And I think a lot of people expected that from us, because we'd spent the better part of a decade getting to the place we were with Civilian. If we were more career-minded it would've made more sense to make another record that people really liked that we made. But it was impossible for me to do. Being the writer I am now, it's impossible for me to make that record again. This is the only record I could make. And I think a lot of people might be put off by that, but I also think I might've not given people enough credit. There have been a lot of people who have come out of the woodwork and said 'This record's great,' 'It's cool that you're taking this risk.' 'At the heart of it it's still very much the same.' Some people are gonna be down, some are gonna be up. That's the world in a nutshell for anything."

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar's June/July print issue (Issue 50).]

 



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