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On Tour with Wye Oak – Interview and Photos

By ; March 4, 2011 at 10:57 PM 

It’s just gone seven thirty and for Jenn Wasner the world is coming to a swift end. In less than two hours, her band, Wye Oak, are due to take to the stage to play their first ever headline show outside North America, but they have no amplification. Wasner blew the amp they had used at their previous gig and the one she had used to sound-check earlier has mysteriously disappeared from the venue.

Amidst various managers, PR representatives, venue staff and the band themselves scrambling around calling anybody they can think of in search of an available amp, whispers start to spread of Wye Oak possibly playing acoustically. I’m assured that the band are brilliant in stripped down form (a fact of which I didn’t need any convincing), but to me, seeing Wye Oak play acoustically would be like seeing them betraying the spirit of their band.

Despite only having two members, Wye Oak are one of the loudest bands you’re likely to see, something they take pride in. They admit enjoying surprising unsuspecting crowd members with their volume, “sometimes I’m surprised by how loud we are, sometimes I wish we weren’t so loud” confesses drummer and bassist Andy Stack, which immediately earns him the label of “pussy” from his bandmate. Such is the dynamic in the duo; Wasner leads the band with her outgoing and fearless onstage demeanor, accompanied by the more meticulous and contemplative Stack.

Whatever the differences between them, there is one essential facet that keeps this band running: their work rate, which is driven by their passion for the music. “We’ve both made sacrifices being away from home and touring as much as we can, not really taking any break between making records and touring,” Jenn tells me, adding her belief that “if you’re not willing to sacrifice everything else in sake of this, then it probably won’t happen.”

By the time Wye Oak take to the stage an amp has miraculously appeared, and as they rip through their set you can see the relief and happiness radiating from Wasner, who takes no precaution to turn down the amplifier to ensure she doesn’t blow it this time around. It’s evident that she lives for these moments and she’s not going to let any inhibitions hold her back from rocking out. Each time she comes to the crux of a song she turns to her partner who reciprocates her energy, silently, almost telepathically spurring her on, and Wasner obliges, delighting the audience with an explosion of tuneful noise. Wasner, as singer, is the natural focal point for the crowd, but anybody glancing over at Andy Stack has a hard time pulling his eyes away as he simultaneously plays drums with his right hand and thumps the basslines on the keyboard with his left. This gives Wye Oak as a live band richness in sound that is unprecedented in a two piece.

Talking about his idiosyncratic role in the band, Stack tells me that although he’s “evolved with it a bit,” he still finds his ability to be a “mystery and a challenge.” Considering the ostensibly simplistic nature of their setup, people could be forgiven for believing that their music is simple too, but in reality this couldn’t be further from the truth. Their new album Civilian is a dense, dreamy affair wherein arrangements bombard you from either side before they are swallowed whole by torrents of loud guitars. Talking about their progression in sound they tell me that “tonight we played one song from our first record; we hardly ever play songs from our first record and for us playing it now it feels rudimentary. We had the realisation of how far we’ve come and what we’re capable of doing with this setup. There’s still a feeling that we can work out new ways to work as a duo.”

I ask whether they ever consider adding a bassist to the live setup but both immediately confirm that “this is it” and that “if somebody else came in, it’d be a different band.” Not that Wye Oak as a band are insular or selfish in any way, in fact quite the opposite. They are keen to give huge props to their sound man, whom they believe they are privileged to have, and you can hear why. The dingy Monto Water Rats is exactly the kind of small, unlikely venue where on any other night vocals will barely be audible amongst continually feeding back guitars and brash percussion. But on a night like tonight, with an experienced sound man at the helm, Wasner’s luscious vocals are perfectly audible even at the loudest points, such as the chorus of “Civilian” or the crescendo of “I Hope You Die.” Their gratitude to others goes beyond the people who work with them on tour, Wasner is also keen to acknowledge the work done by Merge; “it’s nice to see the work of people who I respect and really enjoy working with paying off in such a huge and insane way” she says in reference to Arcade Fire’s recent Grammy triumph.

One thing that really shines through in talking to the pair is that, all things considered, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack may be in a touring rock band, but ultimately they are just normal people trying to get along in life. This idea is what informs a lot of the lyrics and themes in Civilian. “In my mind it took this role of having to choose between worlds, having to sacrifice stability, realising that there are several paths my life could have taken, but I could only choose one.” And that choice seems to be coming into fruition; there’s certainly a buzz around the release of Civilian and Wye Oak are deservedly starting to draw the crowd sizes that will merit them headline tours, not that the volume of people is of utmost importance to Jenn; “It’s a pleasure to play for people who are happy to see you; I don’t care if there are ten of them or a thousand of them.”

Contemplating it further she admits “there are things about having a stable existence that I really miss,” but quickly emphasises that touring and being in a band is work she feels privileged to be doing. “This is my life,” she concludes, and there’s not a single shred of regret to be seen on her face.


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