Column 316: Wye Oak, Why Not?
The duo’s sound is larger than the two of them…
by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
The South by Southwest Music Conference was just two weeks ago, but it already seems like ancient history. For a lot of bands, SXSW not only is a career goal, it’s a chance to get discovered by both a larger audience and maybe a record label executive or some other music industry shlub who could change their lives.
But Jenn Wasner, half of the Baltimore duo Wye Oak, said that if you’re going to Austin looking for some sort of miracle to happen, you’re going for the wrong reasons. Wasner, who plays guitar and sings alongside band mate Andy Stack, drummer and bass player (yes, you read that right), had just left Austin when I spoke with her last week, calling in from the road as they headed to San Diego for a gig at The Casbah on a tour that brings them to Slowdown Jr. Sunday night.
“It’s obviously a good opportunity to have a lot of good people and bands and labels and journalists all in the same place at the same time, one-stop shopping,” Wasner said of SXSW, “but it’s not as big a deal as people make it out to be. It’s a small piece of the puzzle in terms of what we have to do to stay in a band, to keep touring and stay active. You definitely should already have had your big break before you play there.”
Wye Oak’s big break came in 2008 when out of the blue Merge Records’ label executive Mac McCaughan asked the band for a copy of one of their recordings, and followed that by asking if Merge could release it. Wasner said that three years later she’s still “completely astonished” by the deal. “It just fell into our laps,” she said. But we all know that it takes more than luck to make it in the music biz. It also takes great songs.
Wye Oak’s music is built upon a bedrock of classic ’90s indie influences, from Madder Rose to Spinanes to Yo La Tengo to Built to Spill. There’s an untamed beauty to songs like the strange, frontier love ballad, “Civilian,” the title track off the band’s just released album where Wasner starts off quietly crooning, “I am nothing without pretend / I know my faults / Can’t live with them,” before it explodes into a monster of feedback and noise that a modern Neil Young could adore.
So big is their sound, in fact, that you would swear that there’s more to Wye Oak than just the two of them. Wasner said the two-piece architecture was supposed to be just “a temporary thing,” but that now “it’s become a big part of who we are and how I write and arrange songs,” she said. “It’s become a limitation that’s made us better. We would be a different band if we added someone else. I don’t think either of us has tapped the potential of what we can do.”
They certainly don’t sound like the other “guitar and drums” two-piece acts that we’ve all come to know and love (White Stripes and Black Keys come to mind). The trick is in Stack’s ability to deftly multi-task.
“Andy has this set-up where he plays the bass line on keyboards and also plays drums,” Wasner said, “and I play guitar, so it’s a basic three-piece right there. We do have some loops and samples that we recently started using, but it’s been a really valuable thing to distill our songs down to their basic components.”
Being able to pull off such a huge sound with just two people requires a close relationship. Which brought us to the question that I couldn’t find an answer to online or in any of their bio materials: Are they “a couple” in real life? What exactly is the state of their relationship?
“We get along very well,” Wasner said. “We were a couple for five years and we’re not anymore. We’re very close and comfortable with one another.” So, just best friends and band mates? “Yes, and it’s much better that way,” she said. “I’ve done it both ways.”
Wasner, who turns 25 in April, said Wye Oak’s growth has been gradual over its four-year history. “I notice that people are coming to shows now, and that’s really nice,” she said. “It’s been slow and steady and the result of years and years of hard work on our behalf. I feel like we’re at a point now where I’d rather focus on my main job, which is being a good band, writing songs and playing them well and not necessarily focus on too much beyond that.”
Including trying to make more out of SXSW than what it is. Wasner said in the past she hadn’t looked forward to the conference, “but to be honest, this year I had a really excellent experience and I’m not sure why that is,” she said. “You have to go into it with the right expectations, and I know to expect very little for it in terms of actually seeing music. But this year I ended up being able to see shows, see friends and go swimming.”
What more could you ask for?
Wye Oak plays with Callers this Sunday, April 3, at Slowdown Jr. $8, 9 p.m.
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An update on that Kite Pilot info that I posted a couple days ago. Turns out that Kite Pilot won’t be playing at The Barley Street Tavern April 16. Instead, the band will be playing at the Stir lounge at Harrah’s Casino in Council Bluffs April 23 with Thunder Power (according to this thread on the ol’ Lazy-i webboard).
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Tonight it’s the return of Old 97’s to Slowdown. The band’s latest album, The Grande Theatre, Vol. 1, came out on New West late last year. Opening is Dallas twangsters The O’s. $20, 9 p.m.
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.