Wye Oak reinvents itself by embracing distance

The  Wye Oak duo created its new record while living on opposite coasts.  They will play new tracks at the Southern on Monday. Shervin Lainez The Wye Oak duo created its new record while living on opposite coasts. They will play new tracks at the Southern on Monday. Shervin Lainez

Wye Oak’s 2011 long player, Civilian, was the band’s breakout record. It was the third release from the duo of Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack, and their first for the vaunted North Carolina indie label Merge.

It was a profile-raising album, and one of the most highly lauded recordings of that year, allowing Wasner and Stack to quit their day jobs.

“Obviously, things were going really well for us as a band,” Wasner said. “Civilian was the first point we made money off our music. We were in the hole forever, which is fine—that’s not the reason we [make music].”

Not long after its biggest success, Wye Oak faced, arguably, its biggest challenge.

After two years of constant touring behind Civilian, Wasner and Stack found themselves on opposite coasts and the band’s bright future was uncertain.

“The only thing that was going to keep us together was the music, figuring out an idea that we were excited about,” Wasner said. “And until we did that, I was pretty much ready to say, ‘If I have to start waiting tables again, so be it.’ But I won’t make something I don’t believe in just because I can make money off it.”

The band’s forthcoming release Shriek, was born out of separation. It marks a new direction for the group and a drastic shift in the duo’s creative process. It was in part necessitated by distance—with Wasner in Baltimore and Stack in Portland, the two traded home-recorded demos, which, Wasner said, opened up new methods for developing melodies.

“My roommate is watching this all unfold and she was like, ‘I feel like I’m watching music moving into this new era of possibility,” Wasner laughed.

But the marked shift in the creative process is more fundamental: Whereas Wasner wrote much of the band’s first three records on the guitar, she found herself increasingly frustrated with its limitations.

“The amount of time I’d spent playing the guitar, it acquired some sort of negative connotation,” Wasner said. “The idea being that the guitar itself had acquired this negative energy associated with this really difficult time in my life.”

Shriek basically inverts the roles of Wye Oak’s players: Where Stack once played droning bass lines on keyboards as he pounded drums, he now occupies the upper register where Wasner’s guitar once resided.

“I still love the guitar,” said Wasner. “I play the guitar all the time. But when I sat down to try and write new songs, it was a curse, it made it impossible to write anything that felt fresh.”

Wasner, in turn, plays to the low end of the new record with bass and synthesizers, freeing her breathy alto to explore previously unmapped melodic territory.

In eschewing the guitar entirely—“There’s not a lick of guitar on this whole record,” Wasner told Spin last year, during the recording of Shriek—she found much-needed inspiration.

“I didn’t decide I’d write keyboard songs or bass songs or whatever the hell,” she said. “You just have to chase that muse, whatever it is, and the guitar just had too much baggage. I just needed to step away from it to be creative at all. It was going to be everything else or nothing.”

So gone are the squalls of distorted guitar. In their place are latticed patterns of layered pianos and synths that meld the roles, and various instruments, of both players. “I never thought of Wye Oak as a guitar band anyway,” Wasner said. “We’re a songwriting vehicle.”

Shriek also places renewed emphasis on Wye Oak’s considerable songwriting prowess. It largely explores the personal struggle for peace—but within the instinctive, unconscious mind. To wit, the first lines of opening cut “Before”: “This morning, I woke up on the floor/Feeling like I’d never dreamed before.”

Where Civilian was nominally a rock ‘n’ roll record, Shriek operates in the outer orbit, the larger zeitgeist of electronic pop—think a more direct Future Islands or a less washed-out Washed Out — and its songs are filled with bright synths and a steady thump.

Shriek still packs the cathartic releases dispensed readily on Civilian, but delivers them in different ways. Where a guitar would have roared through the punchy chorus of “The Tower,” Shriek’s first single, a processed loop glides just above the main melody, guided by percussive synths that recall Wasner’s pop-leaning side project Dungeonesse; cellos add weight to the verses’ otherwise Spartan frames.

The throbbing “Glory” plays with a similar dynamic, filling the space where a blustery guitar riff would have propelled with controlled keyboard stabs and tight synth lines.

The emotional core of Shriek is the penultimate track “I Know the Law.” It’s a stunning ballad that finds Wasner purging feelings of helplessness. The song resonates with empowerment, delivered by someone who has put her own personal cosmos in order.

“I wasn’t used to tapping into that impulse when I wasn’t melting down and losing my mind,” Wasner says. “And I think that this record sounds a little more joyous and ecstatic. It’s interesting to learn how to tap into these other mental resources. I think it resulted in some of my favorite songs I’ve ever written.”

While Wye Oaks’ reinvention has yielded a daring and winning collection of songs, translating its retooled sound into a live setting has proved somewhat problematic.

“It’s been very, very, very hard,” Wasner said. “It’s been unquestionably the most difficult thing we’ve had to do as a band.”

Stack lives in Texas now and Wasner said they’ve crammed two month’s worth of rehearsal for the upcoming tour into two weeks. (Though she does ignore a call from Stack to continue the interview.)

Charlottesville is its first stop.“It’s a pretty high anxiety zone,” she said. “We’re sort of in that weird zone where very few people have heard the record, and we don’t know how they’re going to react to it. “

Wasner readily concedes that first impression might not be positive, and she anticipates some measure of blowback from longtime fans presented with such a radical reinvention.

“I do worry about it, because how could you not,” she said. “But I refuse to let it matter. One thing I know for sure is the approval of others is a pale substitute for the approval of yourself. In a way, it’s a triumph because for a while I didn’t know I’d ever write a song I was happy with again.”

Indeed, it’s a triumph that Wye Oak still lives, and by embracing reinvention, exists in a whole new form.

“We’ve basically built an entire new band,” Wasner laughed. “We’re hoping it’ll fly. And if it doesn’t, it’ll crash and burn. Maybe that’s the selling point right there.” –Patrick Wall

Wye Oak performs at The Southern Café and Music Hall on March 3.