This year’s Phono del Sol Music Festival headliner came close to not performing in the Bay Area this year. In fact, Baltimore duo Wye Oak nearly avoided playing at all. Vocalist-singer-bassist Jenn Wasner and drummer-keyboardist Andy Stack almost didn’t create Shriek, April’s follow-up to 2011’s critically acclaimed Civilian. They narrowly avoided calling it quits as a band.
Exhaustion from touring, as well as the grind of doing the same thing night-after-night, broke Wasner and made her question what she was trying to accomplish.
“Especially for somebody creative who’s most excited about making new things, it’s really tough to be forced into such a repetitive situation for such a long time,” Wasner said in a recent chat during a tour stop in Chicago. “At the time I didn’t realize,” she pressed on. “I thought the only way out from that was to end things — which is why it was such a revelation (to me) that this band could be whatever I wanted it to be. It could sound whatever I wanted it to sound like.
“I thought running away from it was the solution, but fortunately, we were able to find another way to make it feel new and exciting for us again.”
The path to rediscovery was initially fueled not by inspiration, but desperation. The commercial success of Civilian, their third full-length album, which included placement in television shows like The Walking Dead, trapped the band in a corner of sorts. They became a guitar band. And what a guitar band they were. With swelling, subsiding and crashing progressions, Civilian — both the album and the title track — pushed Wye Oak into epic territory.
When the time came for a follow-up, the well was dry. Wasner had nothing left to create with a guitar. Numerous failed attempts depressed her, and that, combined with exhaustion from touring, nearly led to the fall of the band. Eventually, she picked up a bass and decided to give songwriting a go from a different angle.
“Honestly, it wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision to try to distance myself from (guitar) as much as it was the fact that it wasn’t working for me the way it used to,” she said. “I realized it was going to end up being a choice between making a very different kind of thing and making nothing at all.”
The follow-up to Civilian was also impacted by the physical distance between Wasner and Stack, who moved to Portland, Oregon, and then to Texas. The time and space allowed her to work on two side projects: the synthy Dungeonesse (with Jon Ehrens of White Life), and beat-heavy Flock of Dimes.
The projects allowed her to see that her music didn’t have to start with a guitar riff or melody, and gave her more responsibilities in composing and producing—which was valuable when things began clicking for her with Stack while they still lived half a country apart.
“If I had an idea I wanted to share with Andy, I was forced to integrate the recording into the writing process, which…our increased distance forced us into in a really extreme way,” she said. “Building and producing these tracks from the ground up…allowed me to write in a more interesting, more complex way (and) that was really satisfying.”
Wasner said she can’t see herself writing Wye Oak songs any other way going forward, even if she and Stack are in the same room.
“I learned to appreciate the process a little more when I had lost the ability to do it,” she said.
Shriek is a very different record from Civilian. It could be the work of an entirely different artist. Besides the notable absence of guitar, there is an increased attention to rhythm and layered synths. There is more white space and quiet in the songs. And in most cases, the story would end here, with a band that changed its sounds in favor of creativity and marginalized itself.
But the acclaimed reviews for the album, which is narratively a “documentation” of Wasner’s struggles to regain her creativity and freedom to make music as she saw fit, told a different tale — that Wye Oak was successfully able to reinvent itself.
Stack and Wasner aren’t sure whether their new sound is a permanent destination for the band, or just a layover. But they now understand that they will approach all future projects knowing they can do whatever they want with their music. They are done with trying to adjust to the expectations of others.
“In the future, I think there will be even bigger changes afoot for us as we grow and mature,” she said. “But if something is going to last and be sustainable, it has to grow with you. What’s worse is trying to force yourself into the footsteps of something that isn’t yours anymore — trying to be someone you’re not or live a lifestyle that you’re no longer comfortable with.”
The 2014 Phono del Sol Music Festival, with Wye Oak, Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Nick Waterhouse and more.
July 12, 2014
Potrero del Sol Park, Entrance on Utah Street near 25th Street
12-7pm, Tickets: $25 advance/$30 door, All Ages