Merge Records has always been a purveyor of great music. When a Merge record jumps into your cd player, you can assume the best. In this case, Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack would like you to close your eyes and let your imagination run wild while listening to their newest album, The Knot. There’s something about their music that leaves you gasping for more and begging for answers. How do they create songs so dense, yet fragile? Why can’t more bands create vocal harmonies, this complex yet beautiful? Why isn’t Ryan Seacrest introducing their newest single on AT40?….skip that last one. It’s the dumbing of America that keeps this band from being in heavy rotation on your local, crappy radio station. Thankfully, Jenn took a few moments to battle cellphone towers in west Texas and talk about the passion that is Wye Oak.
TDOA: You’ve talked about the arduous process of putting out the first Wye Oak record, with the huge gap between recording it and finally releasing it. Was putting out The Knot an easier process?
WO: It was definitely still pretty painful. But for better reasons. We knew what we wanted from the songs going into the process. We already had arrangements, so it was a little easier in that way. We had more experience in the studio. But still, this was the first record that we “knew” was going to be released and our first on Merge so there were high expectations. Not necessarily from Merge, but from us. The first one, we were kind of doing for ourselves and we didn’t really think anyone else was going to hear it. We definitely agonized over it. It was a pretty quick process and we recorded it in less than three months. But we did everything ourselves, recording and mixing. We were so completely wrapped up in it, we didn’t know if it was good or not. When you do the same thing for three months you kind of lose sight of what it is. The difference is I think we’re much happier with the result.
TDOA: It sounds like the recording process for the first record was less stressful because there was no pressure, but this time there was. Even if it was self-inflicted….
WO: Exactly. The first one we did, we didn’t think it was going to be released. Once Merge decided they were going to release our new record, that was a little scary. But we’d had a bunch of people, including people at Merge say, “This is really good.”, so we knew it wasn’t going to be a complete bomb. But the fact that Merge had decided to release it was really comforting. I think the new album is more indicative of who we are an what we’ve become. But we weren’t really expecting everyone to react so positively.
TDOA: Major labels who’ve invested lots of money in a band will generally ask for demos while you’re in the studio. Did anyone from Merge call you during the recording process to check in and see how it was going?
WO: They had already finished the artwork before they’d even heard the finished product! They are 110% behind their bands and giving you complete control of what you’re doing. Their hands-on in the areas that you don’t want to deal with: money and press. But when it comes to doing what you want; writing and recording they let you handle it yourself. That’s gratifying and also a little terrifying. I mean, we’re delivering the masters and the wheels are already motion. So we’re like, “What if they hate it?” and they’re not that way at all. They’re really supportive and hands-off on the things you’d want them to be hands-off on.
TDOA: Early on you had the shoegaze tag, but with the new record it seems like critics don’t feel as compelled to try and categorize your music. Was their a conscious effort to move in one direction or the other? Is it gratifying that they just like the music and not because it fits a genre?
WO: Hopefully that’s a sign that people are moving away from that impulse. We wanted to make a record that was cohesive. We didn’t really talk about the kind of music we wanted to make or what we wanted it to sound like. You write a song and try and arrange it in an interesting way. We did address the fact that we wanted to make the songs united and joined together for part of the overall product. But as far as trying to sculpt the sound to fit a certain way, we didn’t do that. I think the one thing we’re always trying to escape is the male/female thing. It’s so ridiculous and transparent. Whenever people can address our music and not reference that it’s a duo and a boy and a girl, that’s kind of nice. When we record, we try and overcome that so that people don’t say, “They sound pretty good for a duo”. We just want them to think we sound pretty good, period.
TDOA: How do you make the album translate live without extra musicians?
WO: We compensate for subtlty with volume. Andy plays drums with one hand and keyboards with the other. There’s nothing pre-recorded. There’s some loops, but mainly it’s just us. There’s stuff about the arrangements that I miss, but there’s an immediacy to the songs that I think people seem to enjoy. It used to be a limitation, but now we’re used to it and it’s something that we’ve come to enjoy. We enjoy playing live.
TDOA: I love the vocal harmonies on the record. A lot of people would be afraid to do those live. Do you practice a lot while you’re on the road.
WO: When you’re performing on stage, it’s so different, so there’s some things we can’t practice. We don’t do as much harmonizing live as perhaps we’d like, but Andy’s already so overwhelmed with drumming, keyboards and singing that we have to give him a chance to breathe too!