Wye Oak occupy something of a niche in the pantheon of two-piece indie rock outfits. The briefest of glances at some of their most prominent contemporaries - The White Stripes, Death From Above 1979, Royal Blood et al - conjures notions of sonic minimalism and raw, stripped back, grit-flecked riffola. Multi-instrumentalists Jenn Wasner (guitar, bass, synths, vocals) and Andy Stack (drums, synths), however, serve as an intriguing counterpart to the stereotypical guitarist and drummer pairing.
Over the course of their past four albums, Wye Oak have cultivated an indefinable sound that is both densely textured yet embodied with a lightness of touch seldom heard in most bands, let alone those operating in the confines of a two-piece format. From the minimalist melancholy of 2009’s guitar-driven The Knot and follow-up Civilian (2011), the pair have hauled their sound into territories few could have foreseen. 2014’s Shriek saw Wasner eschew her guitar in favour of densely layered synths and bass, while Stack’s kit incorporated more electronic elements than ever before.
Following the release of Tween (2016), a collection of re-worked songs from the Civilian and Shriek sessions, Wye Oak once again set about reinventing themselves when sessions began on new album The Louder I Call The Faster It Runs. And if their previous efforts tested the boundaries of what a two-piece band is capable of, then this one obliterates them entirely.
Bristling with enough experimentation and sonic creativity to keep the collective hands of a band four times their size’s hands full, it is testament to Wasner and Stack’s skills not just as writers and musicians, but as accomplished producers, that they have managed to assemble a truly genre-defying juggernaut of a record without allowing its sheer scale and scope to get the better of it. Under less experienced stewardship, TLICTFIR could easily have boiled over into an unrestrained mass of interesting ideas without direction or discipline. Yet, in collaboration with mix engineer John Congleton, Wye Oak have successfully produced their most ambitious album to date, combining guitars, bass, synths, live drums, electronic drums and, indeed, the studio itself, to construct a towering wall of sound unlike anything else in their catalogue.
PSNEurope editor Daniel Gumble sat down with Wasner and Stack backstage at London’s Village Underground ahead of their May 3 show to talk gear, production techniques and where the Baltimore band can possibly go from here…
How did you go about starting work on TLICTFIR?
Jenn Wasner: We have gravitated over the years to using our home studios as a writing tool. We both have mini studios in our houses and we work separately, so we do a lot of sending things back and forth. That’s how the writing process unfolds and in this instance we congregated twice in the same place. It’s a combination of long periods of time working independently and then short bursts of frantic tracking in the same place.
Does that make it more difficult when you finally get into a room together?
Andy Stack: It’s a combination. Working independently affords us the opportunity to each do what we do best and fully flesh out ideas, like production ideas that are complete and end up being on the record, as opposed to just sketches. Often we’ll do that and then get together and create a ‘better’ version of this and very often that takes the whole thing in a different direction than you expected. It can become like demo-itis.
JW: You can capture something in an initial recording that cannot and shouldn’t be replicated. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between something that could be better and something that has magic and shouldn’t be fucked with.
AS: We’ve ended up using a lot of things that our egos were telling us wasn’t ‘proper’, but then we get to a point where we know it’s right, like a dinky soft synth we’ll use for a particular sound that we thought would be redone.
Each of your albums has become more sonically ambitious and complex. Has the writing and recording process become more complicated as a result?
JW: Songwriting by its very nature is difficult, in that it’s impossible to use the same trick to get to a new place, so you constantly have to try new things and fail repeatedly. That’s inherent, whether you’re using a guitar or a whole arsenal of studio tricks. Over the years we’ve got better at self-producing and we’ve got to a point where we can execute the ideas we have. At this point our records probably sound more ambitious because they are; because we are better at that side of things than when we started. All these tricks and skills make the songrwiting process possible for me. Finding that inspiration is like a drug, you constantly need a little bit more to get you to that place.
AS: It’s like trying to climb the same mountain but from a different place.
Has the evolution of your sound happened naturally, or are you constantly looking to break the boundaries of what a two-piece band is?
JW: That’s just a result of being the kind of people who want to use all of the tools available to us.
AS: That’s been our MO from the very beginning. Even our first record is very textural and has a lot of layers. It’s just that our toolkit has expanded and we’ve got better at expanding the palette.
Tell us about your home studio set-ups.
AS: We started incorporating Ableton into the live show about four years ago after Shriek. That was a Pro Tools album and hardware synths, stuff like that. Then Ableton came into the live show and has slowly crept its way into the writing and production process. A lot of the stuff on this record started in Ableton before eventually migrating to other platforms. A lot of stuff on the record started by playing around with electronic live processing of drums, these hybridised acoustic and electric kits that became the beds we would each write to. This is the first time we did anything that way.
JW: It was the first time I ever tried to write a song around an existing drum track. The first song to hit with that process was Lifer. That drum track was pretty complete. I chopped it up a little bit and layered in the main synth part… it was whatever patch I had opened on the Prophet 6 I’m borrowing from a friend (Nick Sanborn from Sylvan Esso) and the song completely opened up from there. This was like building from the top down rather than from the bottom up. We’ve been fortunate enough to work with Universal Audio, so we both have Apollos in our home studios. I still use Ableton for live stuff and creative noodling but for the most part I use Pro Tools. And a ton of the synth stuff on the record is from the Prophet 6 because it’s just so versatile. And I have a Juno 6 that I use a lot too. My set up is really bare bones, but it’s mostly for overdubbing guitar and vocals.
AS: Over the last 10 years or so we’ve kept our recording rigs pretty tight and mobile. There’s been three or four albums or collaborations with other people where I’m literally in the back of the van editing mixes while we’re on tour. It’s just so limited so you work out what works for you in the box.
Tell us about the mics you used on the record.
JW: I have a 414 that I use for room stuff and guitar and I have a Mojave 201 that I use for my voice when I’m just tracking. It’s the mic I used for the record Civilian, but now I just use it for whatever I’m doing around the house. For this record I used a RODE NTK, which I really like, it had a lot of nice body to it.
AS: We have a bunch of Shure mics we’ve used for mic-ing drums on the last couple of albums.
JW: We tour with our entire mic package because we run our own in-ear mixes from stage, so the mics we rehearse with are the mics we have on stage, that way our in-ear mixes are saved and relatively consistent.
AS: We don’t have a monitor engineer, we tour in a van, so we have all these micro choices we have to make about how we can make touring affordable - we have to think about luggage weights and stuff like that. For this tour we were so considerate down to every last pound and inch of our luggage to make sure we could fly and bring the full production we wanted to bring.
JW: Because pulling off these songs live is so complicated there is no way to do it without building the show in this very specific way. We have to have in-ears and we have to be able to set up very quickly in any situation. We can’t always have a three-hour sound check to rebuild our in-ear mixes, so if we have to throw and go at a festival we can at least have the stability of roughly mocked up in-ear mixes we can start from. We have constructed the set this way because we are not at a point in our career, nor likely will we ever be, where we’ll always be playing in venues that are equipped for the kind of band we are, so we have to think creatively about how to make it work in a variety of scenarios.
Tell us about the challenges you face playing these songs live.
AS: The biggest thing is that we’re now playing as a three-piece - with bass player Will Hackney - which we’d never done before, and we’d always made these records without any preconception about what the live performance would be and then adapted the music to the show. In the past we were able to figure out ways to pull it off where it still felt organic, dynamic and fun. This time we felt that the sounds, the layers and the general approach to these arrangements were not going to work for us as a two-piece. In that sense it’s been a revelation. It’s opened up the songs and we can have more of a traditional band dynamic rather than always walking a tightrope.
Would you introduce that third person into the studio?
JW: Probably not. We have a musical chemistry that’s coming up on 15 years, so we need to throw another set of opinions into the mix. If we reach a point where we think it’s not working and we need something new then sure, but we’d probably just call it a different band.
Do you see a point where you’ll revert back to a more traditional approach and both just go into a room together with a guitar and a drum kit?
AS: I would love that. Music is not like a constant ascent; it’s not like creativity is always bigger and bigger and bigger. You have to be able to go small and create something out of that.
JW: It would be an interesting challenge.
What were the records that first made you acknowledge sonics and the power of production?
JW: The Dreaming by Kate Bush. I had never heard anything like that before. It was an introduction to the idea of using the studio as a sonic tool in and of itself, as opposed to it being a place just to record instruments. There is so much weird shit going on; she was using the Fairlight earlier than a lot of pop musicians and incorporating a lot of crazy samples and stuff that sounds nuts. Also, Arthur Russell. Even though the majority of music we know of his was released posthumously and are all demos really, they just drip with originality and creativity and gorgeousness.
AS: Arthur Russell is not ‘good’ sounding, but the records sound amazing, and it’s a testament to his instincts, it’s not about high fidelity or anything like that. There are high-end producers I love but I also think of people like Phil Elverum and Deerhoof who produce all their stuff. Those records sound unmistakably like those people; they make really bold choices in the studio.
JW: As a scrappy, self-taught creative musician the things I find most interesting are things that sound original and adventurous and break rules rather than faithfully adhere to them. But it all depends on the record you’re trying to make.