Q&A: Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner And Andy Stack On The Hype Machine, Touring For Almost An Entire Year, And Feeling Unworthy
A year ago this month, Wye Oak kicked off their 2011 with an opening slot for The Decemberists at Beacon Theatre. There was a snowstorm, and it was a pain in the ass to get home, but their set was a great kickoff to what's been, for the Baltimore duo, a great year. Their third album Civilian, a slowly revealing mix of slanted arrangements, dream-pop melodies and guitar riffs that sound like pixies getting sucked into jet engines, won them the best reviews of their career, and they've been touring nonstop. They've been around the world, covered Dinosaur Jr. and Nirvana for the Our Band Could Be Your Life tribute show, and wrapped up the year with another Beacon opening set, this time with The National.
Singer/guitarist/songwriter Jenn Wasner has a complicated relationship with the hype machine. When I met with her and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack for dinner at the end of December, the two were clearly wiped from a long year of taking advantage of their increased exposure. Still, they were very open with Sound Of The City about the toll this year has taken, the making of one of the year's breakthrough releases and their plans for the futurewhich include a solo set by Wasner, performing as Flock of Dimes, tonight at Shea Stadium.
How's your year been?
Jenn Wasner: It's been a crazy year. We were just talking about how it's interesting to be back here at the Beacon because we started our year here in 2011, and we played a couple shows at the Beacon. 220 shows later, we're back, and we're wrapping up the year. It's probably been the most life-changing year I've ever lived so far.
JW: Things with the band have been great, I've been living out of a bag for eight months, pretty much giving every waking and sleeping moment to touring with this band, as we both have. It's been paying off, we've done some things this year that I never thought we would be able to do, played in some insane spaces with incredibly big bands, our record is doing well. It feels like the past five years that we've spent toiling have started paying off. I, for one, am ready for a rest, but I feel as though it hasn't been a waste. It's so much better to get through a year, knowing that it's come to something. I'm excited to take a rest and write some more songs and to go back at it next year.
Is this the first year where it felt you were an established band, and this wasn't just a hobby?
JW: I still don't feel like a real band. I don't think I ever will feel like a real band. I still feel like whenever we have these little milestones my reaction in my head is "I can't believe we fooled somebody else into thinking we're a real band."
Andy Stack: But we've also been doing this for a pretty long time. This is our third record, this is our fourth year of... I think we've probably played a hundred or more shows in the past four years in a row.
JW: It's dominated our lives up until this point, for sure.
AS: It was exhausting, a lot of the time.
JW: I missed a lot of it, because I was just totally in my own... it's typical for me to constantly wish for the things I don't have. I'm sure when I get off of tour I will probably want nothing more than to travel again. Musically speaking, I think we've clicked in a way we've been trying to since we started. I feel like Andy interfaces with his setup like it's one big instrument now. I feel like there are a lot more doors open to use creatively than in the past, we've expanded our palette. We've only just started to experiment with sampling, not just with the keyboard but with the drum pad. We've done a little bit of experimenting with that and it's allowed Andy to play drums with two hands. We're just scratching the surface of it. I don't feel like we've reached the ultimate potential of what our band could sound like or be on stage or on record. Personally, I feel like we're just getting started.
AS: There's another level of that which is sort of going with what she's saying. You make songs and you get really excited about them and they feel really fresh and you feel like you're doing something you've never done before, and then you play them 500 times and inevitably they're not fresh anymore and you don't feel as excited about them. After doing it so much, to say like you feel like a real band...
JW: You feel like a faker.
AS: You feel like a real artist at the inception of an idea, and then after that it's the mechanical repetition of it, and to ask that after 200-plus shows, we probably feel like less of a band than before the start of the year.
JW: Honestly, I feel like a glorified jukebox, but that's because we've really hit it in excess. To be quite honest, our band started when we were really young. And it's not that there aren't moments that I'm proud of on those first couple of records, but in a lot of ways I wish the last one was our first record. I feel like that was the first one where we were able to figure out exactly what we were going for, and have the knowledge and the ability to realize it. I feel like our band is going to change very, very drastically from here on out in order to remain vital to us. Because very few people listen to the same music they were listening to when they were 19 when they're 29. So I feel like our tastes are evolving, we are evolving, and it makes sense that our music should, but we've been kind of playing catch-up because we've been playing so many shows.
I am really excited to move forward creatively, but it's going to take time. Just realizing we've gotten to a holding point where we have the luxury of taking a year and figuring that stuff out and working really hard on that end of things, and the next time we go out, we can be really excited about what we're doing. It's really rewarding for us to be able to take these songs to people who want to hear them, all the positive feedback has meant the world, and it's probably what's gotten us through this year, but I don't feel much of a connection to these songs anymore, personally, musically or sonically at all. I feel like my brain is in a very different place. I'm really looking forward to getting some time to figure all this stuff out.