Wye Oak: Just a Couple of Civilians

Music Features Wye Oak

For a self-described self-deprecator consumed by doubt and musical insularity, Jenn Wasner, singer/guitarist/songwriter for indie-rock duo Wye Oak, certainly has a lot of lofty musical ideas. For the band’s newest full-length album, the critically adored Civilian, Wasner wanted to explore—well, you know—the basic nature of being a human. “I just think of the word ‘civilian’ as encompassing the greater population as a whole,” she says, hanging out at her Baltimore home, recovering from an irritating cold. (Get her talking about a topic she finds interesting, and no amount of sniffles can keep her from an articulate soliloquy.)

“It’s just this really distant, detached-sounding word. This is obviously such an emotional batch of songs, but I like the cold distance that a word like ‘civilian’ would imply. I like the word because it kind of groups everyone in the world together under this one enormous category, which is clearly such an impossible thing because everyone is clearly so different from one another, and we live such different lives and live in such different places. ‘Civilian’ is the one word I could think of, maybe other than ‘human,’ that is truly all-encompassing.”

“All-encompassing” is actually a pretty accurate description of Civilian the album. Taking the blueprint of Wye Oak’s first two releases (2008’s If Children and 2009’s The Knot) and expanding upon it, Civilian is a dense, cathartic blend of anthemic folk and space-rock, soothing one minute then exploding the next, touching everything from Beach House to The Besnard Lakes to Neil Young along the way. The Beach House comparison is especially apt—both bands are duos based in Baltimore; both thoroughly enjoy reverb and feature Stevie Nicks-influenced female vocalists with low ranges and sultry smoke-screen voices. And with Civilian, Wye Oak (which also features Andy Stack on drums and keyboards) has crafted an album that might well be for 2011 what Beach House’s Teen Dream was for 2010: a sexy, mysterious indie rock landmark that we’ll be talking about years from now.

There are a lot of reasons for Wye Oak’s sudden stratospheric leap in quality. Wasner describes their past recording style as a “kitchen sink approach” in which layers of overdubs were piled onto a track, maxing out a song’s melodic potential by trying just about everything that popped into their heads. This time around, she wanted to reign in on what matters most: “In my mind, I had a certain idea—I wanted it to be a little bit more subtle; I wanted the parts to be more carefully considered. This was very much a considered compositional approach. It’s definitely a very layered and lush record, but the difference is that each layer is very intentionally crafted and sculpted instead of just kind of left to chance.”

And while Wasner and Stack tend to use an approach that is “much more instinctive than it is cerebral or conscious,” they made some quite conscious decisions. “I wanted it to be a little bit less of a ‘guitar record,’” she says. “There’s a lot of guitar on this record, but there’s also a lot of keyboard and a lot of strange samples and synths. I wanted it to be a little less weighted in any one direction in that way.”

But what accounts for the absolutely mammoth sound of the album? According to Wasner, more time in the studio was a big factor, but it also helps working with experts on that stuff. “I think the biggest thing you’re hearing, that I’m constantly grateful for, is the fingerprint of Mr. John Congleton, who mixed the record,” she says. “That’s where that spaciousness really comes from. We wanted to work with John because we had heard a lot of his work with other bands, and he has a very particular way with taking recordings that are really heavily layered and finding space for things and opening them up a little bit. … I think the biggest reason why it sounds like it does, why the layers sound that way—there’s space for each part. Even though there’s a lot going on, you kind of hear everything, and that is in no small part due to his work in the mix.”

It’s ironic that Wasner helped make what might go down as 2011’s finest hi-fi indie rock album—once you consider the fact that she prefers her music on the dirty side. “Honestly, if I had to say my own personal listening aesthetic, it usually veers a little more toward the lo-fi. I love things that sound like shit, but I think the main thing to remember and I think the main idea that guides everything that I hear—it all comes down to whether or not the song is good. If the song is good, it can be recorded on a busted four-track and be hissy and disgusting, and I’ll love it, or it can be recorded in a perfect, pristine studio environment, and I’ll probably love it then, too. I think there is an infinite number of ways you can interpret a good song, but the song is always what I hear first.”

When it comes to the songs on Civilian, Wasner didn’t even know if she liked them at first. When describing her reactions to the material, she slowly shifts around the puzzle pieces of her own wildly emotional mental state, giving me a glimpse into just how complicated this whole “songwriting” thing really is for her. “To be quite honest with you, I’m finally now—six or seven months later—finally able to actually like it!” she laughs. “When we were making the record—and it’s always this way a little—I tend to get caught up in my own head. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees sometimes. You spend so much time with a recording that it becomes hard it to hear it objectively. I was so tied up with my emotional state at the time, all these other factors, that when we finished it, I was terrified. I kind of thought it was garbage, and I didn’t want to hear it ever again. It’s only been in the past month and a half or so that I’ve come back to it and listened to it again.”

Now Wasner and Stack are playing the album live, incorporating more keyboards and samplers into their sound in order to replicate the dense structures of the album—Stack uses a sampling pad, which allows him to trigger actual recorded sections from the album, like bass guitars and various other instruments. As they’ve stated in numerous interviews, this duo has no intention of expanding their set-up in order to make things easier on themselves. And in fact, Wasner wouldn’t want to do so for any other reason:

“To be honest, our set-up kind of started as a temporary thing to hold us over until we could find other members. But in that time, we grew to really, really love the set-up, and it became one of those limitations that I think made us better musicians, better writers, better arrangers. And it’s kind of forced us to always be aware of what the most essential components of a song actually are. And to be able to distill a song down into those and learn how to make it work is a skill that I’m really proud we’ve been forced to learn. I also feel like at this point, the two-piece set-up has become so much of who we are as a band and such a part of the way I write and the way we record that bringing anyone else in would definitely make it a different band. It would just be an entirely different thing. I feel we’ve only really just begun to scratch the surface of what we’re capable of live with the two of us, especially now that we’re integrating these new components into our set-up, so as long as we feel that there’s more that we can achieve, I don’t really feel there’s much of a reason to bring anyone else in.”

The epic journey that is Civilian seems to have reinforced something in Wasner she may have never expected: a sense of contentment and belonging. Which, of course, leads us back to Wasner’s thematic vision: “I think people like to feel a part of something, and at the same time, I think most people are grasping to figure out what they’re actually a part of. And so I don’t really think there’s such a thing as ‘normal,’ but to feel a part of the world as a whole is something that feels good, feels right. It feels like, to be a part of humanity, to be a ‘civilain’ in the world—that’s kind of what it means to me. I feel like everyone wants to be a part of something, but there isn’t necessarily just one ‘something’ to be a part of. If there were a word to sum it all up, ‘civilian’ might be it.”

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