Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have experienced a career most young musicians can only dream of – and it nearly ended as quickly as it began.
Over the last eight years, their Baltimore-based band, Wye Oak, has had late-night TV appearances – including a performance on The Late Show With Jimmy Fallon. They’ve had prime spots at major music festivals like Lollapalooza and Pickathon. Their song, “Civilian,” was prominently featured in the second season of The Walking Dead.
Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley personally invited them to Annapolis to see his desk made from the original Wye Oak – the state’s honorary tree before it was destroyed in a thunderstorm in 2002. And American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis even tweeted that “Wye Oak is the only band that calms me now” – a high compliment from an individual who has made his living writing about sociopaths.
But after releasing their third critically acclaimed album – 2011’s Civilian – the two 28-year-olds were drained from logging more than 300 live shows around the world. Their possessions were packed away for more than a year, and they constantly surfed from couch to couch with no official place to call home.
“Civilian was great, but at the same time once we were done with the touring, we really wanted to step away and wanted to reclaim our personal lives – reclaim ourselves,” says Stack, who currently lives in Marfa, TX.
They took nearly a year off from the road and recording together, wondering if they would ever make music together again after more than a decade of partnership that dates back to their days of playing in high school bands in suburban Maryland.
Wasner returned to her roots in Baltimore to work on other musical projects, including the indie bands Flock of Dimes and Dungeonesse; Stack made a beeline for Portland, OR, with his fiance and started working on his own musical projects. It was the first time since Wasner and Stack formed Wye Oak that they had spent a significant time away from each other.
Fast-forward to early 2013, and Wasner started throwing around ideas for a new album with Stack. They each had a change of heart and wanted to continue their longstanding project. But they made it clear to one another that they had no intention of making a second volume of the folk-derived sounds of Civilian, nor did they want to subject themselves to the constant pressure of striving for the next big breakthrough.
“If we were going to make another record, it had to be pretty different,” Stack says.
What resulted is the indie rock band’s most adventurous album to date – the April 2014 release, Shriek. Comprised of 10 pop-laden songs with electronic beats and bass, Shriek is a significant departure from the band’s guitar- and vocal-driven sounds on their previous albums.
Wasner penned each of the songs from a small studio in her home in Baltimore last spring, sending the demos to Stack, who added drums and electronic elements from a workspace in Portland. Working on opposite sides of the country was a process completely new to each musician, and it was that distance that helped define the spacious sound of the record.
“It was a really important limitation for us to work with – to be separated during the writing of the record,” Stack says. “It allowed each of us to fall down and fail at something, but have the privacy to do it on our own. Then we could bring some more adventurous ideas that we probably would not have come up with if we were doing it in a room together.”
Wasner, who has been praised for her soaring vocals and powerful guitar riffs, was initially so disinterested in picking up the electric guitar that she actually wondered if she would be able to write songs using the instrument again. Stack says Wasner called him up early in the songwriting process, telling him she wanted to get away from electric guitar and move to songwriting on the bass guitar, finding inspiration on the instrument after filling in on tour for fellow Baltimore band, Horse Lords.
Stack, who serves as Wye Oak’s drummer and keyboardist, started experimenting more with synthesizers, fleshing out some of Wasner’s sparse demos with more electronic sounds. They took the demos to the Rare Book Room studio in Brooklyn last fall where producer Nicolas Vernhes (who previously worked with Spoon and Dirty Projectors) put his own touches on the album.
“We came to the revelation that we didn’t have to be an Americana band or a roots band – whatever label people would want to assign to us,” Stack says. “And from the start, Jenn’s songs on [Shriek] are very strong. Her melodic sensibilities and lyrical sensibilities are as strong as ever.”
Shriek’s opening song, “Before,” kicks off with a simple keyboard part of two notes, giving way to Wasner’s contemplative lyrics – “I tell you stories/ But truth be told/ I can’t remember/ What came before.”
The album’s lead single, “The Tower,” features off-time rhythms and syncopations, and a driving bass line is highlighted in the next song, “Glory.” One of Shriek’s standout songs is the ballad “I Know the Law,” which includes Wasner’s lofty vocals in an almost purging ceremony of the pressures of fame.
Stack says playing with new sounds the band had not previously experimented with helped to create new “sonic landscapes” with synthesizers, keyboards and bass rather than the electric guitar. The duo even went as far as to make the ground rule that no electric guitar would show up on Shriek (although it did eventually find its way into a few songs).
“The process was less defined by what we wanted to put on the record than by what we didn’t want to put on the record,” Stack says. “By eliminating the guitar as this crucial key instrument of the band, it made us approach all the arrangements differently, and it made us open other doors that we were maybe hesitant to open in the past.”
Wye Oak already started touring for Shriek in March, playing places as far and wide as Paris, Istanbul and the sold-out Coachella music festival in California. Stack says this time around, they’re focused more on enjoying the moment.
“We’re more comfortable being able to live our lives and have this band be a piece of it,” Stack says, “but not fully encompass it.”