“I honestly thought I was broken. I was starting to think about what else I could do with my life.”
Jenn Wasner is at home in Baltimore, honouring press commitments for the new Wye Oak record. It isn’t that long, though, since she was convinced that she’d never be in this position again. Back in 2011, she and Andy Stack released Civilian, their third full-length record since changing their name from Monarch in 2007. On previous releases If Children and The Knot, they’d traded primarily on a noisy, decidedly unrefined brand of folk-rock that sounded like precisely what it was; a couple of kids barely out of their teens picking up instruments and attempting to figure out the ins and outs of their own musicianship, and paying pretty much no heed whatsoever to present trends in the process.
On Civilian, though, it was pretty clear that something had changed. There’s no way anybody could listen to that album and suggest that it was born of a creative attitude that amounted to throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck. It’s a record so elegant, so measured in its execution that it makes fellow Baltimorean duo Beach House look like Lightning Bolt. It has atmosphere in spades; there’s a tension running through it that couldn’t possibly be the work of a band that didn’t have a tight handle on every minute detail of their approach.
Where their older material regularly swung wildly between reserved and explosive, Civilian merely simmered; on the gorgeously moody “Plains”, Wasner only affords herself the briefest of noisy breaks from an otherwise tentative slow-burn. The title track eventually reaches crescendo, sure, but the way in which it gets there is an exercise in close control; the galloping drums take off first, before searing guitars join them at the climax. The manner in which “We Were Wealth” married ambience and euphoria, with such flair, confirmed how quickly Wye Oak had come to realise the value of restraint. The critics, in turn, realised the value of this sudden leap forwards, responded accordingly, and left the pair on the verge of a genuine breakthrough.
“All of these amazing opportunities kept presenting themselves,” Wasner remembers, “and we were so excited about it that we didn’t really say no to anything. We ended up playing more than three hundred shows in two years. Neither of us lived anywhere; we just put all of our stuff into storage, hit the road and stayed out there. We had no stability, no real routine. When you live like that for a while, you start to shut down a little bit.”
Some context probably wouldn’t go amiss here; when I saw the band play in Manchester in August of 2011, in front of - to give a generous estimate - around fifty people, Wasner apologised for looking tired, because they’d driven to the venue from Germany and barely made it in time for soundcheck. She delivered this appeal for understanding in pretty casual fashion, as if racing across Western Europe in the back of a beaten-up van to get to work on time was something that most of those gathered would be able to empathise with. That in itself tells you plenty about how accustomed the pair had become to such a gruelling day-to-day; privately, though, it was beginning to take its toll.
“I think when you’re in a situation where you know there’s no way out for a while, you start to detach yourself, emotionally, from the realities of it,” she says. “It’s a pretty classic coping mechanism, removing yourself from the things that cause you pain. I started to become aware that this was happening, that I was slipping into some kind of depression, but I don’t think I really realised the severity of it until I got home, and had time to reflect. I’d become totally cut off from myself, and I rely so heavily on being in touch with my emotions and my intuition that it inevitably caused a creative block.”
Back in Baltimore, Wasner now had thousands of miles separating herself and Stack, after months of living on top of each other; he’d settled in Portland, Oregon once they’d finally put Civilian to bed. She put out a couple of solo singles during the latter part of 2012, under the name Flock of Dimes. When the time came to start thinking about new Wye Oak material, though, she was struggling. “I discovered that all the tactics that I had used in the past weren’t working; I just couldn’t write the way I used to. For a while, I thought it meant that I was broken, and that I might never be able to do it again. I couldn’t really understand why it wasn’t happening for me.”
“Eventually, it occurred to me that a lot of the baggage of those past two years had become caught up with the way I was thinking about the guitar. I’d spent so much time playing it, and Civilian was such a guitar-centric project, that I guess I’d come to assume that there was an expectation that we would make another record the same way. Once I allowed myself to let go of what I thought this album was supposed to be, that mental block just lifted. It was an incredible relief, to realise that I could still do it - it just had to be different.”
Different will pretty much be the word du jour for anybody coming into Shriek expecting another Civilian; it’s as dramatic a departure from one record to the next as I can remember for quite some time. Wasner must have left her guitars down at her storage space when she went to pick up her belongings, because there’s only the faintest hints of them on this album; instead, the band have whole-heartedly embraced synths in what must, I suggest, have felt like a risky decision.
“Maybe it seems that way, but you have to think that there was a time where I never thought I’d ever write anything again. If there’s no songs, there’s no band, and I’d already accepted the possibility that I might have to figure out something else to do with my life. I’m curious as to how people are going to respond to it, but I’m just so happy that it exists, and that I like it as much as I do, that I’m not going to worry about it too much. It’s certainly preferable to no record, whatever people think of it.”
She’s perhaps underselling it a little there; once I’d managed to get past the creeping sense that the band’s PR had possibly mislabeled somebody else’s album and sent it to me by mistake, I began to appreciate how well Shriek reflects upon Wasner and Stack as musicians; where Civilian was chiefly concerned with mood and tone, this is all texture and groove - a field in which they had scant previous experience, but that they’ve pulled off with startling assurance. The sound of the record wasn’t the only uncharted territory for the pair to navigate, though; they needed to figure out how to reconcile their newly-bicoastal geography with the task of writing music together.
“Pretty much the whole record was written with me in Baltimore and Andy in Portland,” Wasner relates. “We knew we weren’t going to have the time or money to be able to spend a while working things out in the studio, so we had to plan ahead pretty excessively. The idea we had was to create these really fleshed-out demos, that we could use as a template. We wanted to have everything down, structurally, before we went to record; every part written, every idea in its right place. You can’t account for everything, obviously, but we thought that if we had a real blueprint, we could really get the most out of our studio time.”