Over 10 years and five albums into their career, estimable American indie outfit WYE OAK have decisively opened the second chapter of their story with new LP The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs. Known internationally for their appearance on the soundtrack of cult TV series The Walking Dead with 2011 track Civilian, the band’s sixth album sees Wye Oak moving from the guitar-driven alt. rock rushes of their earlier work, towards percolating electronic rhythms and pellucid synth textures.
Comprising of singer/guitarist/bassist, songwriter Jenn Wasner and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack, the duo were founded in the East Coast city of Baltimore. A move to North Carolina and Texas respectively in recent years, despite the colossal travelling distance between the two opened up new possibilities for writing and recording.
The Louder I Call… issued to near-ecstatic critical praise in early April sees Jenn’s sweeping ethereal vocals remain Wye Oak’s fulcrum, with influences of dream pop, shoegazing and now left-field electronica pushed into the foreground. “Incorporating synthetics sound sources has been part of our band from the very beginning, even if it hasn’t been really necessarily the focus,” Jenn explains on the phone from a snowbound Durham, North Carolina. “I think the real difference with this record for us, the way I’m thinking about it, is we’ve always given ourselves these intentionally inspiring creative limitations. For example, the duo being one of them or, with this record, saying we’re not gonna be doing these things, or on this record we’re not gonna use this instrument.
“It gives us sort of a starting point, so we don’t have this blank slate,” the singer says. “With this record, we’ve been doing this for long enough and we’re so much more in control of our skillsets and able to realise our own ideas. For the first time we were like, ‘What if we made a record that didn’t put those limitations into place and we just made the record we wanted to make just to see what happened?’”
With all the restrictions that her and Andy had placed on themselves previously was it liberating to head into the studio with a different mindset? “Absolutely, it’s a blast” Jenn states. “While we were making it, it’s a total pleasure to indulge every creative whim and then of course you get to the point where we were like ‘Oh, now we can’t actually play this!’ It’s been one of the more challenging records to learn how to play just in general. I think we have a tendency to write at the absolute limit of our own personal capabilities, which is fun but it’s also a challenge.”
The Louder I Call… is the successor to 2016’s well-received Tween, which was pulled together from material that had been jettisoned or remained incomplete from the recording sessions between Civilian (2011) and Shriek (2014). The songs were far from below par mind, as the album’s positive response suggested. “We needed a period of taking stock, [acknowledging] what we had done in the past to make sense of what we wanted to do in the future,” Jenn states. “Giving some life and some voice to some of these previously discarded ideas was really empowering: A. We came around to really liking them again, and B. A lot of people really liked them in return, so it was a helpful reminder to both of us.”
“I think, at that point, I was in a really weird over-critical stagnant stage,” Jenn says of the period. “I think when you’re in that mindset it can be very easy to write almost nothing, or nothing that you write is good enough, so it was a really helpful exercise in finding positive things about tracks that we had previously considered unusable. We were learning how to self-edit and to appreciate what we do, so in that way it was a really important clearing of the slate a little bit. It’s really hard to have perspective on yourself and sometimes the only way to have that is to give yourself a little distance from whatever it is’ the singer explains.
“We had kinda decided after making Tween the response was really encouraging so we had decided to take a stab at making another record, which at that point was sort of up in the air. We decided we wanted to do it, but we wanted to do it quickly, because we didn’t really want to give ourselves a chance to back out of it I guess!” Jen laughs. The morale boost the LP provided meant that the sessions for the new album were completed in rapid time. “All told from the beginning of writing to final mix, it was less than a year,” Jenn recalls. “I wrote most of the songs in the period September to March last year, we recorded in the late spring and through the summer and finished it up in the fall. We both live in separate places, so we were sending a lot of stuff back and forth, I was trying very hard to trust my instincts and not be over-critical. To allow things to develop naturally and to remember to trust that if I enjoy something, the chances are good that someone out there is going to enjoy it and connect to it as well.”
The geographical distance between Jenn in Durham, North Carolina to Andy in Marfa, Texas is a scarcely believable 1,685 miles (cheers, Google Maps). A travel time that involves a marathon twenty-five-hour drive. “I know, I just did it!” Jenn laughs. “A really good friend of mine is from the North of England and she lives in America now and she said, ‘If I drove twenty hours I’d be in fucking Russia!’” the singer laughs. “It’s just so crazy that America is one country and so unbelievably big, it’s ridiculous. One of my favourite parts of my job is that I’ve driven pretty much everywhere in this country myself and I’ve seen the landscape unfold in front of me with my own eyes. I feel like you get an understanding of the entirety of the space by doing that. I think a lot of people, even if they do travel are flying from place to place.”
Relocating to North Carolina from the East Coast, Jenn and Andy’s home city of Baltimore has more than made its mark culturally, spawning synth pop doyens Future Islands, alt. rock types Beach House and venerated screenwriter David Simon, creator of byzantine TV classic The Wire. “I’m personally grateful to have come from a place like Baltimore,” Jenn says. “I think in a lot of ways, both personally and creatively it’s made me the person that I am and given me the perception of the world that I have that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
“Baltimore’s got a really amazing music scene happening, I honestly miss it a lot, for the lifestyle that I have right now, I think my solitude is more of a priority than going to a different show every night of the week,” the singer ponders. “Maybe I’ll go through a midlife crisis, change my mind and go and do that again, but right now I’m really into the mid-thirties in bed by 11pm kinda lifestyle!” Jenn laughs uproariously.
“As someone who’s never lived in what could be called a ‘major city’, I’m most familiar with and comfortable in places that are more liveable for regular people. Not to say there’s probably people who have even less money than I do living in New York or in LA, but having been from Baltimore and moving to North Carolina, I sort of made a conscious decision of what my priorities are, and they are having a lower cost of living, so I can afford to have art-making be my job. The actual physical space and the psychological space to do that. I’m very happy and comfortable living in a place that’s off most people’s map of major, significant, important cities. That’s one of the best things about living in the US, there are still so many places that are like that. They are really great communities of people doing really interesting things, not necessarily being one of the big cities doesn’t mean there’s not tons going on.”
On the subject of the American landscape, the video for the album’s title track and lead single is a memorable affair, shot in the almost lunar landscape of the White Sands National Monument, New Mexico. “It’s a series of gypsum sand dunes, which is bright white sand, but it never gets hot, so it never absorbs heat, it’s a strange phenomenon,” Jenn explains. “When you’re in it you lose your sense of perspective, there’s not a whole lot to hold on to, it’s really easy to lose your way. It’s really unnerving, as you’re in the desert but oftentimes it looks like snow.” In addition to supplying the visuals for the video, the location provided the optics for the album artwork. “To me it seemed like the physical representation of a psychological blank slate and the record cover itself is of a figure moving forward being chased by all its past iterations,” Jenn notes. “Thematically I feel like that is super-important, the idea that your past is always with you, even if you’re not running, it’s pursuing you and that was something we wanted to capture in the video as well.
“I wrote the song before I decided to use it as the title for the whole record,” Jenn recalls. “Sometimes when I’m in a creative flow, I have a really hard time remembering what happened. It’s this sort of strange, ecstatic, fever-state when I try to think back on it can’t remember. I had this idea of, ‘OK, so I’m calling for help, but the louder I call, the easier it is for what I’m running from to find me’.” The ambiguity of the title appealed, as the moniker has a double meaning. “When I told Andy the title, he said ‘Oh, so it’s like I’m trying to get something but the harder I try the further it moves away from me’. It’s interesting, everybody thinks of one of those two things. I feel like it’s this crazy psychological test I can put people through to see which one of those they empathise with the most! They’re both perfectly accurate and it’s the ambiguity that I’m looking for in a title, so when I heard that I knew that it instantly embodies everything I was trying to say in one phrase.”
Working on ideas for The Louder I Call… separately proved to be an effective way of creating music before guiding the songs to completion. “I think at this point we both really enjoy having the solo, individual time to work out our ideas and realise them a little bit before we expose them to the other person’s critical eye and ear. It works really well for us, we’re both multi-instrumentalists and producers and we both write and sometimes who wrote what and who played what on the record is not necessarily what you would expect. It gives us the chance on our own to really finesse the ideas we have before we share them.”
After working up the initial framework of the songs, the pair met up to track the results. “The first stage we did, I went to Marfa and recorded the basics. After some time apart Andy came to North Carolina and we worked in a studio in my neighbourhood, then again in LA with John Congleton.” One of the leading producers/mixers on the planet put simply, Congelton’s calm counsel was highly appreciated by the band. “He’s a good friend and an incredible creative mind,” Jenn effuses. “He worked on Civilian and my solo record Flock of Dimes. He’s accustomed to what it feels like to be in our shoes, to just be stressing over tiny little bit of minutiae on the record like it’s the most important decision that was ever made. His attitude in general is, ‘None that shit really matters, make the decision you feel like is right in the moment and don’t worry about it. If the song is good, it’ll be good.’ We needed a little bit of that energy to push it towards it actually being finished. He’s worked with enough creative weirdos, he knows how it’s done.”
Associated from their debut album onwards with powerhouse US indie label Merge Records (Arcade Fire, Dinosaur Jr., Conor Oberst), the company founded by 1990s underground guitar slingers Superchunk is based in Jenn’s hometown. “Yeah, they’re all here, they’re fifteen minutes down the street,” the singer says. “They let us make the records we wanna make. There’s this respect for artistry outside of whether they think it’s going to be marketable or lucrative and when they work with a band they work with them forever. They’ve been putting out Lambchop records for thirty years. To be onboard for the duration of an artist’s career is something that is sadly, increasingly rare. Everything moves so fast in the music industry and in the world that it’s very sad to me that people are so absorbed with the new, it’s very difficult to have a career of any sort of length.”
Alongside Adrianne Lenker lead singer of Big Thief (“It felt like I was seeing something I couldn’t really believe I was seeing” Jenn says of a recent live set) and US experimentalists Palm, Jenn’s recent listening tastes swerve towards the leftfield. “I’ve been listening to a lot of beautiful, meditative electronic music. I’m sure that a lot of those patterns find their way into the songs that I write, whether I intend to or not. I really love Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Jenny Hval, but at the same time I’m still as in love with Joni Mitchell and Arthur Russell as I ever was.”
At points the new LP is reminiscent of German electro pioneers Tangerine Dream, currently undergoing a revival through their presence on modern classic Stranger Things. “Funnily enough I was just in Austin for SXSW and I was in one of our favourite record stores End of An Era and they were playing this record that I thought was just amazing. I asked them about it and ended up buying it and it’s by Michael Hoenig from Tangerine Dream.”
In tandem with the heightened use of synths, Jenn’s voice is higher in the mix than prior albums. Is it fair to say the vocals on the new disc are more prominent? “I think I’m a better singer now and I’m more comfortable with letting my vocals be audible, so if that’s what you’re referring to, then without a doubt,” Jenn replies. “I think it’s a classic insecurity that a lot of vocalists have. You wrote the song and you sang them, so you hear the vocals no matter where they’re situated. It takes a while to realise that other people don’t necessarily hear the things that you made in the same way.”
The group’s live firepower, especially evident in the superlative sessions for revered Seattle radio station KEXP, available on YouTube, sees Andy’s octopus-armed multi-instrumental skill in full effect, holding down the drumming with one hand and playing keys with the other as standard. Along with the new studio modus operandi Jenn and Andy have, the duo expanded their onstage line up with the recent arrival of North Carolina native Will Hackney. ‘We always said about the duo configuration live we would do it as long as it felt like a positive limitation and not a negative one,” Jenn says. ‘With this new record we were at this point where we think not having another human being in the mix is going to be detrimental to the way these songs come across.”
“We played our first handful of shows as a trio at SXSW recently and it was just absolutely a pleasure, it was so much fun. It really does add more than I ever could have expected. Like many duos we exist creatively as a pair but our band situation when we’re playing live can be a little bit more flexible now. Andy’s still playing drums and synths and all sorts of other things, we’re both still multitasking pretty extensively but the new record is just so dense. We feel like if something is played by a human, we don’t want to have it duplicated by a machine. That’s our new rule.”
And with more interviews and rehearsals later in the day, the singer bids farewell. Set to play at new venue On Air, Wye Oak’s Merseyside debut, (“I’ll fairly certain that we haven’t played Liverpool before” Jenn confirms) with their new live configuration and the just released album looks set to be a dazzling introduction to the group.
Wye Oak perform at On Air on Saturday 5th May.