Baltimore duo, Wye Oak, headline The Phono del Sol Music Festival tomorrow with Thao & The Get Down Stay Down. Often labeled as indie folk rock after the huge success of 2011’s Civilian, new album Shriek has critics scratching their heads and searching for new ways to describe the band.
Shriek’s departure starts with the duo’s minimal use of guitar (as in pretty much none), supplemented with melodies from keyboards, drum machines and vocal harmonies. You won’t hear anything of the guitar signatures that defined their previous album’s tracks like “Holy Holy” or “Civilian,” instead the new singles like “Shriek” and “Glory” highlight looping keyboard riffs and vocals that dance across a wide range of octaves.
Before they rock Potrero, Jenn Wasner (vocals, guitar, bass and more) took the time to answer a few questions for us. There are still tickets available to see Jenn and, partner in crime, Andy Stack at the festival this weekend here. (It’s a steal at $25, trust us.) To get a sense of the style I really like “Glory” off Shriek. Check it out here: SFCritic: Sometimes with a runaway hit (like “Civilian”) I have heard that it can become a bit of a drag to play it over and over. Did the success of the song and album Civilian influence the way you approach creating new music?
Jenn Wasner: Maybe not directly, but indirectly, for sure. With the record Civilian, things just came together and we agreed to say yes to every opportunity until the opportunities stopped coming. The thing is, though, we are human–and we burned ourselves out on the repetition of the material and the difficulties of the lifestyle long before we ran out of opportunities to say “yes” to. In a lot of ways, a lot of the really difficult negative baggage that surrounded that time for me became associated with those songs, and specifically the guitar. So I think stepping away from that sonic palate was a very necessary step in the process of figuring out how to be creatively productive again.
SFC: I love Shriek, it was a bold departure to stay away from guitar. Were you purposefully avoiding guitar or was it more about embracing other instruments? Maybe a bit of both?
JW: There was definitely an element of the guitar becoming a creative block as a result of the experiences I just mentioned. But, of course, being excited about new sounds and textures and instruments is such a huge part of why I’m impelled to write songs. I have absolutely no desire to make the same exact kind of thing over again.
SFC: I really appreciate the range and way you use your vocals in Shriek. What is the process like for the vocals– from finding the right word to finding the right way to express it?
JW: This time, the process was very different. Whereas in the past I had written music on specific instruments, this time the studio was the instrument, and the recording/producing and writing processes were all tied up together. Meaning that, when I was writing and recording vocals, it was over a more complete sounding track that I had made. The ability to focus solely on what I was singing (not simultaneously handling instrument duties) while I was writing allowed me to write and sing more complex melodic and rhythmic ideas (and also be more emotionally and creatively focused!). Total game changer.
SFC: I have heard you talk about how getting away from what makes you comfortable and embracing fear is an important part of your writing process, have you thought about what kind of methods you might use in the future to push yourself like you did with this album?
JW: I have thought about the fact that this will be necessary..because it is always necessary. But as far as specifics go–I won’t be able to think about that until we’re done touring for a little while. But it’s true–challenging myself is an essential part of being creatively driven and inspired. I’m already looking forward to starting over.
SFC: Being a duo VS a larger ensemble probably has its advantages and disadvantages. Are there times when you wish you had a bigger band? If you could add one new element to your live show what do you think it would be?
JW: Playing in a bigger band is so much fun, and can be so satisfying in so many ways. But Andy and I have been performing as a duo for so long that it’s become total second nature. And, despite the fact that it took a tremendous amount of work, I still think that we managed to create a show that did justice to the record. If we ever felt that our performance was lacking and we were just a duo for duo’s sake, we would reconsider.
SFC: Do you prefer playing at indoor venues or outdoors at festivals? What, if anything, attracts you to either type of venue? What has been your favorite place here in the Bay Area to play?
JW: They both have their advantages. It can be so lovely to play outside in the daytime–we are mostly creatures of the night, so a little sunshine goes a long way. But it really depends on the audience, more than anything. There are so many great places in the Bay Area to play, it’s hard to play favorites! I do have some really fond memories of The Independent in San Fran.
SFC: I like to call this one the “burrito question” because I get the answer “burritos in the Mission” a lot, but is there anything special you do when you visit San Francisco?
JW: My hairstylist lives in San Fran, so I get my hair cut!
Photo courtesy of Shervin Lainez