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Wye Oak on surviving 10 years in the indie-rock trenches

Wye Oak

Wye Oak

There’s a sense of unease in Wye Oak lately. A nervous energy. Lead singer Jenn Wasner has previously attributed the band’s ferment to an East Coaster’s mentality that says “If you’re not working, you’re not justifying your existence.”

It’s this mentality that drove Wasner and bandmate Andy Stack to tour 250 dates in a year in support of their 2011 breakout Civilian -- an experience that both musicians claim nearly killed their band. It didn’t, of course. Wasner’s vocal nodules healed, and both cut back on the late nights. In band terms, that hell was half a lifetime ago. The Baltimore duo just celebrated their 10th year making music with the melodic, enigmatic EP Tween.

Composed of tracks written after Civilian but before 2014’s guitar-eschewing changeup Shriek, Tween shows Wye Oak as a band transitioning for the sake of survival. With Civilian’s imposing, drowning guitars and Shriek’s drab synthesizer tones, Tween lives up to its moniker by providing a sonic glimpse into that transition as it happens. But it’s more than just a time capsule. It’s a document of where the band is headed as they put their wearying first decade behind them.

Wye Oak are in Minneapolis this Sunday to play the Fine Line, and we spoke to Stack about how he and Wasner have managed to keep Wye Oak going through impossibly long tours, stagnation, and the all-encompassing bullshittery of trying to sell records.

City Pages: Congratulations on 10 years. When you look back on the career of Wye Oak, what do you see?

Andy Stack: I think we both feel like we’re different people in a lot of ways. I certainly think that we’re a lot better at what we do now than we were when we started. We were around 20 years old when we started this project, and we definitely had a vision to some degree of what we wanted to do with the band, but I don’t think we knew how to accomplish that.

To us, it made a lot of sense that it took a couple albums of trying stuff out before we felt like we were firing on all cylinders, and Civilian was the first record where it felt like we really knew what we were doing. Since then, we’ve allowed ourselves to change, and our style has evolved. It feels like a totally different phase of life, now.

CP: Things changed a lot for you in 2011. Civilian was a huge hit, and all of a sudden, you’re on a 250-date tour nearly killing yourselves. How did that all happen?

AS: It was a culmination of a lot of different things. We really had been hustling for some years before that and taking a lot of tours. Working on our craft. There’s always an element of luck and good timing that goes into this stuff, but we were just putting ourselves out there. It didn’t change a great deal, honestly. We were playing to bigger crowds, which was nice.

The thing that we learned the most in that period was how to sustain ourselves. How to build healthy structures for ourselves. Because we were in a position where we were sotra expected to be hitting the road as much as we possibly could. That started to be a toxic thing for us, creatively and personally. It was in that period that we started to look at things in a larger time scale.

CP: With a lot of buzz bands, the idea of trying to compete with the album publicity cycle is exhausting. Is that part of why you’ve decided to release Tween as a record that lives outside of the normal album cycle?

AS: Yeah, absolutely. It’s an interesting position to be in. There’s this tension between being creative but, at the same time, basically running a business. Those two sides very rarely coincide gracefully. We wanna do things that are creatively fulfilling, even if it’s at the detriment to our careers. Honestly, the last couple release we’ve done are examples of that. There are a lot of nuanced reasons behind why we released Tween the way we did.

CP: Things move really quickly in the hype cycle. To me, Tween is like a capsule of a time that was lost during the buildup of Shriek after Civilian. Do you see it that way?

AS: Neither one of us see it as “lost” stuff. For us, the gulf between the sound of Civilian and the sound of Shriek isn’t as wide as it might be for other people. Tween for sure fits pretty squarely between those two albums stylistically. Shriek came together in a really compact window of time. Maybe three months of writing. And there was three years between those two albums, so [Tween] was a chance for us to go back and examine that time.

Interestingly, I think we’ve moved back to that sound. Not to say we’re regressing to the version of ourselves we when we wrote Civilian, it’s that Shriek was an exercise in restraint, and we don’t feel the need for that anymore. Everything is back on the table. Guitar and all that stuff we learned and got excited about when we were making Shriek.

CP: Listening to Tween, since it has both the sound of Civilian and Shriek, it also works as cumulative piece. More so than it’s a bridge between the two sounds, it’s additive.

AS: Yes. I actually feel that same way. Ironically, it is both an examination of our history, but it’s also new. Applying all these tools and production styles -- this process that we’d picked up over the process of Shriek and since Shriek -- it totally feels new and forward-looking.

CP: I think that’s why “Watching the Waiting,” which is a new song, fits so naturally into the tracklist.

AS: Absolutely.

CP: You’d said before that the first three records were you trying to find your way as a band. Where are you at now as collaborators?

AS: I feel like we’ve learned enough about ourselves individually and as collaborators. The creativity is flowing really well at this point. We’re also at this point of stepping out and doing other things. [Ed note: Wasner also plays in Flock of Dimes, who just announced their debut record, and Stack plays in El Vy] Now, we can come back together as Wye Oak with all these experiences working with other people and bring that energy back. I’m really excited about that, right now. That’s something we did very little of for the first eight years of the band.

CP: If you weren’t in a good place, it’d probably be a lot harder to function as a band now that you’re living in Texas and Jenn is in North Carolina as opposed to both being in Baltimore.

AS: It’s been great. We were a little unsure about it in the beginning, but we ended up writing Shriek completely remotely. Sometimes the logistics get a little complicated, but there’s only two of us, so it’s probably simpler than it would be with a larger group of people living in the same place. If anything, the distance has been an asset for us. It allows us to work in our own space and bring ideas that are more fully formed to the table.

CP: It seems like what’s kept Wye Oak going for 10 years has been not being afraid to stretch and challenge yourselves. Is that the secret?

AS: I think that says it for sure. I don’t think that we’d still be doing this if we were not able to just be open to adapting and changing. The monotony of it would’ve taken us down a long time ago.

Wye Oak
With: Tuskha
Where: Fine Line Music Cafe
When: 8:30 p.m. Sun., July 31
Tickets: $16-$30, more info here