“The feeling of connection that comes with making something that moves people and speaks to them and their lives - it’s an incredible privilege. I don’t want to throw that away.”
Jenn Wasner feels it all. Over the course of eleven years together, it’s been Wye Oak’s stylistic restlessness and intense focus on progression that’s marked them out as one of America’s most consistently exciting musical prospects; their first four albums saw them go from scuzzy noise-rock (If Children) to simmering guitar-synth drama (The Knot, Civilian) to glossy electro (Shriek) with total conviction and a sense of urgency that suggested they unequivocally equated repetition with creative death. Civilian and Shriek, in particular, were diametrically different, but both rank among the finest albums of the past decade.
The duo’s fifth album, The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs, might be their masterpiece, but that isn’t just down to the towering collage of musical ideas that singer-guitarist Wasner has built with drummer Andy Stack; it also represents her most potent lyrical statement yet as she grapples with the yawning chasm between our online personae and our real-life selves, the impossibility of finding order in chaos in the information age, the isolating and all-encompassing extremes that social media offers, the personal acceptance of mental health struggles and, on the particularly close-to-home ‘Lifer’, the way in which the guilt of privilege can go from nagging to all-consuming.
It’s an album informed by the present political climate, but not defined by it; one that reckons with the uncertain state of the world without losing sight of what we still have to be optimistic about. The week before Louder I Call’s release, Wasner talked us through the record’s themes, its long-distance gestation, and Wye Oak’s future, both immediate and long-term.
DiS: This record feels really impressionistic. What was it about the way you approached the writing of it that meant it came out sounding like this?
Jenn Wasner: The creative process is tricky. You can never really use the same path to get to the places you’ve been before, no matter how many songs you write or how many times you find yourself inspired. The same tricks don’t work every time, and so I think a big part of our tendency to experiment and challenge ourselves is just us trying to get back to a creative space. That’s something that doesn’t necessarily get easier; you just have to learn to expand the palette that you’re working with, right up until the point that you find yourself inspired again.
Do you think that’s something that’s harder when there’s only two of you?
Yeah – I mean, that’s a perfect example of the sort of limitation we impose upon ourselves. They’re jumping-off points for inspiration, I guess. We’ve been a band for ten years now, and I think we’re both the best we’ve ever been at what we do, and a big reason for that is that we’ve always asked ourselves the right creative questions. This is the first record where we didn’t set those limitations; we just followed our noses, and that’s resulted in something more maximal than what we’ve done in the past, but it also feels very true to the present moment. I think there are lots of little pieces of philosophy scattered throughout the record.
You made the album remotely, as with Shriek - you in Raleigh, North Carolina this time, and Andy in Marfa, Texas. That wouldn’t work for a lot of bands. Why does it work for you?
I think in the beginning stages of creativity, when everything’s very new and vulnerable and your ideas are so fragile, it’s helpful to have space and privacy to refine them, and make them stand up before you expose them to somebody else’s critical eyes and ears. If your ideas can stand on their own two legs before you share them, it makes them better, and it makes the whole process a little bit less dramatic – the stakes are lower when you don’t have to worry about hurting feelings. You don’t have to do any additional explaining of what it is you’re aiming for, and then when we met up for these week-long stretches, we were able to just jump in and execute, which was nice.
**The last thing you put out was Tween a couple of years ago, and there was a little bit of confusion as to whether or not that was a record proper...
Yeah, we tried to make it clear that it wasn’t really a new album - I mean, it wasn’t new material. It was sort of a B-sides collection of stuff that we had worked on after Civilian, that we kind of walked away from because it wasn’t really in line with what we were trying to do with Shriek. We still liked it, and we still thought that it had potential, so we came back to it later down the road, and by then we felt like we’d expanded our skillset enough that we could confidently realise the songs the way that we had wanted to years prior.
I think people were maybe wondering what was going on with you guys, because you weren’t doing much as Wye Oak at that point.
Tween was basically an effort to keep the band afloat, because the collaboration between the two of us is such an important part of our creative lives, but we were doing other things. I was working on my solo album as Flock of Dimes, and Andy was touring with other bands – EL VY first, and then Lambchop on their record FLOTUS. I certainly consider this to be the first Wye Oak record since Shriek; Tween, conceptually, was something different.
Did making that Flock of Dimes record inform this new Wye Oak one at all?
Oh my god, so much. The reason that I wanted to do it in the first place was to learn how to take responsibility for every part of the process. It was incredibly exciting, but harder than I ever could have imagined at the same time. I learned so much in bringing those songs to life; I expanded my abilities as a songwriter, as a producer and as an instrumentalist – I mean, I played all the drums on that album! But the thing I didn’t necessarily anticipate was that it made me so much more appreciative of the partnership that I have with Andy. We’ve been playing together since we were teenagers, and I think that both of us, to a certain extent, had taken what we had for granted. What we’ve ended up with is a musical vocabulary and a shared experience that you can only build with time, and it’s something that I’m really grateful for now that I know how difficult it is to make a record on your own.
It seems as if one of the central themes of the new record is that we’re living at a point in history where we have more information available to us than ever before, but our ability to change the world around us hasn’t kept pace with that.
Yeah, and I think the title reflects that.
At what point did you realise those ideas were going to be such an important part of the album?
They’ve been at the forefront of my mind for a while, and I don’t think I’m the only one. I think a lot of people really struggle with the weight that this expanded awareness and new means of communication has placed upon their shoulders. For me, what it’s done is that it’s made me develop this fear of people en masse. I’m not afraid of people in one-on-one situations, and I’m very comfortable in social scenarios in groups, but I think when you remove my physicality from the equation, that changes. So much of the way I’ve learned to interact with people is based on a reading of their feelings and intent that I only really have when I’m sharing physical space with them. When you remove that, I feel unmoored, and I don’t know how to express myself completely.
I think a lot of people are beginning to feel that way now that it’s impossible to avoid using the Internet to communicate on a daily basis.
I was talking to a friend of mine about it recently, and she actually used the word ‘dysmorphia’, because the reaction I have to separating my personality from my body is almost like an actual panic disorder. That’s obviously bad for somebody in my line of work, because more and more, how you present yourself as a brand on the Internet is becoming more important than the actual product you’re making.
How is it that you’re able to write these really personal, vulnerable lyrics, and yet you struggle with social media?
There’s a great central irony, which is that the things that make me capable of tapping into whatever I have to tap into to be creative and productive are also the things that make it so difficult to do what we’re talking about doing, which is opening up every part of my life to observation at all times. I haven’t figured out a way to have one without the other, because I’m sensitive enough to feel these things deeply and write the songs that I write, but that same sensitivity makes the other parts of the job really difficult. I don’t know how to deal with that yet. It seems like the work I’ve done to be a happier, healthier, more stable and balanced human being is in direct conflict with what I’m expected to do to promote our band and be ‘successful’ in the music industry. It might be a problem without a solution. Playing shows helps me to make sense of it – it reminds me that there are still these one-on-one interactions where i make a thing, I share it, and then somebody is affected by it. Those moments of real, direct, honest communication between people still happen – it’s just that they’re harder to come by.
The fact that some of these songs have been informed by concerns about the information age and the twenty-four-hour rolling news cycle means that this feels like the most political Wye Oak record yet. Was the fallout from the presidential election and the general direction of Western politics during the time you were making it something you were actively thinking about when you were writing lyrics?
Well, there’s music that is overtly and explicitly topical, and then there’s music like there is on this record, where the style of songwriting that I tend to gravitate towards for my own expression is something that’s a little broader and more timeless, and deals with the underlying universal feelings that come along with these events and less so the actual events themselves. That’s not to say that it isn’t deeply affected by those events, though, and when I listen to these songs, I find it impossible to divorce them from what was going on around me at the time.
I get the impression that we’re sort of viewing these global anxieties through the prism of your personal worldview...
Yeah. I do feel as if there’s an incredible amount of psychological damage in us having constant access in great detail to every bad thing that is happening around the world. That’s something that everybody is still working out because it’s so new. In these songs, what it really comes down to is the question of whether I’m capable of allowing myself to continue doing the very vulnerable work of putting something that I made into the hands of the world at large. Some days I don’t feel comfortable doing that; I don’t feel strong enough, and I just want to disappear. You’re trying to balance, on the one hand, how these things affect you and your own mental health, and then on the other, feeling as if that’s selfish and that you should just be focusing on any kind of good you can do to counteract the overwhelming amount of evil that’s constantly unfolding. It’s enough to make a person crazy, it really is.
That conflict really informed ‘Lifer’, right? You put out that message when the track was released about how it was to do with the guilt of privilege that’s followed you around for most of your life.
I wrote that song thinking about the people in my life that I care about who have always had to struggle more than I have had to struggle just to get by, for much less than I’m lucky enough to have. In looking at my life through their eyes, I was able to make a promise to myself that if they’re able to keep going in spite of the obstacles in their path, then so am I. It’s something I’m holding myself to; that life isn’t perfect, that it’s hard, but that when I’m faced with a choice between lying down and giving up or persevering, that I have to stick things out – if not just for me, then for everyone I care about who’s watching me and what I’m doing.
I’ve carried that guilt around for the course of my entire life, and when I was trying to track the vocals, I kept bursting into tears. I mean, really badly, to the point that it became kind of hilarious because I couldn’t stop, it was like a meltdown. It’s something that’s really raw to me in the present moment, so I wrote that message to people who were going to listen to it to hopefully prime them to take something away from it.
There was a line in that letter that really stood out to me; about how you’re both an idealist and a perfectionist, and that your first instinct when you’re faced with something flawed is to destroy it rather than fix it. Has that approach always been a part of your writing for Wye Oak, for better or worse?
Totally. I don’t think that’s something that’s unique to me, either. There are definitely times when I feel like it would be helpful for me to be more detached and less personally dependent on the thing that I use to make a living, but that’s neither here nor there, because I know I can’t be. The music isn’t just a product – it’s my whole identity. It’s like my whole self is at stake – it’s personal to the point of being spiritual. The songs feel so fragile and delicate to me, especially when you’re trying to navigate the waters of an industry that is completely toxic on so many levels. You want the music to be perfect, which is why I’d rather throw something that wasn’t working away rather than try to find a way around it, but there’s obviously all these external pressures that you’re having to contend with that limit the degree to which you’re able to be a total perfectionist about things.
Why was now the time to finally face those feelings head on, and try to put down this weight that you’ve been walking around with for so long?
Because life’s not just going to keep on handing you opportunities. It wasn’t always totally certain that there would be another Wye Oak record, and actually, the thought process that the song documents is the same one that went into the decision to make another album. I mean, I’ll keep writing songs until I die, whether anybody’s listening or not, but there was a question of: “Can I handle all the aspects of putting out a record that I find so difficult, that are so psychologically and emotionally damaging?”
All the things that we’ve been talking about: that it’s not in my nature to self-promote, that I don’t necessarily thirst for attention, and that I don’t enjoy having a cultivated social media presence. So, after spending a while thinking about whether or not I was going to be happy to carry on exposing myself to the perils of the industry, I realised that if there’s something I need to be emotionally honest about it, it might be better to do that whilst I know that there is going to be an audience for it that it might connect with.
I feel like it’s turned out as a really well-balanced record emotionally, whether it’s tracks like ‘Lifer’ where you’re processing things you’ve struggled with, or the way ‘Join’ and ‘I Know It’s Real’ talk about depression but have a healthy optimism to them. Was that how you hoped it’d end up? Did you consciously try to achieve that outlook?
Definitely. I think it’s one thing to have all these deep existential feelings of dread, and honestly, I’m not a particularly hopeful person, but I also think that by this point, there’s no more room for despair. It’s not helpful. So, whether or not I actually believe that everything can be saved and fixed and righted, I try to inject a sense of optimism into the music that I write, because I feel as if it’s the only way that I have to try to encourage a sense of good and of progress in the world. It’d be incredibly selfish of me to write a completely despairing record right now. That’s not to say that others shouldn’t do it, because that shit’s real, and it’s a totally valid way to feel at the moment, but I made an active choice to use this album to speak to people who might feel the same way I do, and to provide them with a sense of solace. I hope it can remind people that there are still little things in the world that are beautiful, and that make life worth living, and that are worth fighting to preserve.
The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs is out now via Merge. To read Jenn Wasner’s Track By Track Guide, click here, and for the DiS 9/10 album review, click here. For more information about Wye Oak, including forthcoming tour dates, please visit their official website.