Sylvan Esso: Kendrick Lamar was on constantly while we made this record
Photo by Elizabeth Weinberg
Sylvan Esso are zipping down the interstate toward New York City in a Prius. There, vocalist Amelia Meath and beatmaker Nicholas Sanborn will perform on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon with the Roots' bandleader ?uestlove adding live drums. They opt for "Coffee," a glitchy, bells-strewn track with a coda referencing Tommy James and the Shondells, but virtually anything off their self-titled debut could spread their organic synth-pop to the masses.
Sanborn's past musical allies include indie stylists Decibully and bearded porch-rockers Megafaun (more on all of his bands here) and in Meath's background are Mountain Man's room-filling Appalachian harmonies and the ambient-folk collective BOBBY. She also has harmonized live with Feist, and he has produced beats solo under the Made of Oak moniker.
On Saturday, Sylvan Esso will warm up the stage for Polica at the second annual 10 Thousand Sounds Fest in downtown Minneapolis. Gimme Noise Spoke to Sanborn about the band's early success while Meath was behind the wheel.
See also: 10 Thousand Sounds: Behind the Bands
Gimme Noise: Tell me a little bit about the experience opening on the tUnE-yArDs tour. Nicholas Sanborn: It's a bunch of people in their audience who are real listeners and also have a really open mind about music -- but at the same time come to the show wanting to have a good time. It was a very cool group of people for us to be able to play for every night, and we feel very lucky to be out with them. Plus just the tUnE-yArDs group, they're such an inspiring group of musicians. All of them were so talented, interesting, and generous. They would give us their rooms for us to sleep in while they were on the bus. I watched their whole set pretty much every night. Usually you get fluid or you get intricate, but it was both -- like watching this extremely well-organized chaos.
How well-organized is Sylvan Esso at this stage?
We created this record totally in a vacuum. We just did the whole thing with nobody paying attention. We didn't even play for our friends really. Nobody heard it until it was like done, basically. The way are comfortable working is when it's just the two of us figuring out the song. That's when we're at our happiest. Having a stage show is kind of like that too. I think we invite everyone to get on board, hopefully, when we get on stage.
How has what you've created translated into a live show?
I play the songs so much differently now than when we started. The stuff on this record we play live can scale up and down really easily. About a year ago we randomly got to open for Beach House one night. It was our first time playing in front of more like 200 people. There were like 1,000, it was a big room, so it was louder. It's just the two of us, so it's small physically no matter what we do. How it scaled up emotionally for us was a big surprise. I was pleasantly surprised at how it has worked in big rooms -- mainly because it's something we made in my bedroom.
What electronic music did you listen to growing up?
Electronic was how I got into hip-hop actually. I started working at a record store in Madison when I was 15. Pretty soon after that I found out about Autechre. That EP7 was like mind-boggling. That kind of led me into Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, and Boards of Canada. Then, I suddenly found instrumental hip-hop and J. Dilla. Electronic music was my entry point for a lot of different things when I was younger. I've always been making electronic music but this is kind of the first time I've taken it seriously. I'd do it when I was at home or I'd do a remix for a friend or when I was off tour. [Amelia and I] met at like my second solo show. I had never done shows even though I'd been making music like that for a long time I just decided to start playing shows.
Can you imagine people rapping over the beats you're making?
I would hope so. I don't rap, but I love rap. We put the instrumentals out because I hoped it would show up on somebody's mixtape or something like that. That's part of the point. We wanted to do something that referenced the old-school DJ 12-inch. Using a phrase like "get up, get down" in "Coffee" sounds like hip-hop.
We listen to a lot of hip-hop. We listen to a lot of music period. That Kendrick record was on pretty much constantly while we were doing this record. Where does that phrase take you, musically?
James Brown is the go-to. The thing we talk about with James Brown is that phrase is so lovely is because those are polar opposites. James Brown makes them mean the same thing. There's a lot of beautiful life metaphors you can pull out that we were both very drawn to. But yeah, that was the genius of Amelia, who did very nice work of sampling in a lyrical way.
After living all over, you're based in North Carolina. Does it matter where your home is at this point, or do a lot of different places make up your home?
Both of us are definitely very involved in our home community right now. I can talk a long time about Durham, but at the same time when you travel around this much you get really used to living out of a backpack. That becomes its own allure. You wake up, you drive anywhere between two and 12 hours, you get somewhere, you sound check, you meet a bunch of guys who are all similar versions of guys you had met the previous night, you go eat dinner, you play a show, you talk to as many people as you can, you hopefully eat something delicious, you figure out where you're sleeping, and then you wake up and do it all again in a totally different place. There's something super comforting about that.
You seem pretty zen about being on the road. For some people, it's a necessary evil at best.
I always dreamed of going on tour. Sorry, we almost got hit by an Escalade [laughs]. There is just a certain personality type that this lifestyle makes total sense for. Probably like one-tenth of one percent of the population would enjoy this. Both of us are definitely in that place of the population and I can't imagine doing anything else now.
Sylvan Esso. With Poliça, Allan Kingdom, Carroll Frankie Teardrop, and Tree Blood. The 2014 10 Thousand Sounds Festival, presented by Coldwell Banker Burnet, will be held between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Saturday, July 26, at the parking lot on Hawthorne Avenue between North 10th and 11th Streets in downtown Minneapolis.
Set Times: 4:10 p.m. Tree Blood 4:55 p.m. Frankie Teardrop 5:40 p.m. Carroll 6:30 p.m. Allan Kingdom 7:20 p.m. Sylvan Esso 8:35 p.m. Poliça
Tickets are $25 (general admission) / $45 (VIP). Available here. Note, VIP tickets will not be sold at the door, and GA tickets will be $30 at the door.
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