Wye Oak :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview


On The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs, Wye Oak synthesizes the disparate strands that have run through its discography over the last decade into one solid form. Synthesizers hum, electronics whirl, guitars mutate into fantastical shapes. All of this happens without ever losing the human elements of multi-instrumentalists Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack. It’s a record sees Wye Oak transformed, but more itself.  “What my heart wishes is a treasure/Seemingly foreign/But somehow still it is familiar,” Wasner sings on the slinking “It Was Not Natural.”

Though both halves of the duo, which formed in Baltimore in 2006, presently reside in North Carolina, the lp was recorded with Wasner stationed in Durham and Andy Stack based out of Marfa, Texas. But all that geographic distance folds in the album’s songs. Built on a foundation that suggests the art-pop grandeur of Kate Bush, the Cocteau Twins, and Peter Gabriel, the record pairs Wasner’s interrogative lyrics about moral duty, acceptance, and hesitation with bombastic guitar squalls, lush harmonies, and swelling beats. While previous albums — particularly 2011’s Civilian and 2014’s Shriek — were composed with strict instrumental and conceptual limitations in mind, The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs pulses with maximalist weight. “We made the world large/And wanting every piece of it,” Wasner sings on “My Signal,” part acknowledgment of human selfishness and part proclamation of intent. Here, Wye Oak sounds bolder than ever before.

So what does any of this have to do with Metallica? Speaking with Wasner and Stack via phone early in the morning a few weeks ago, I was surprised to find myself bringing up the Bay Area metal band as I fumbled to find the right language to discuss the ego-less approach Wye Oak employs. Luckily, two had rewatched the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster  on tour recently, and it proved a useful tool for illuminating what makes the project work. Our conversation, condensed and edited, is presented here. The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs is available now from Merge Records.

Aquarium Drunkard: Often people tend to talk about Wye Oak’s albums in instrumental terms, like “Oh, this is a synth-ier record versus a guitar-based record.” But maybe my favorite thing about The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs is that I often can’t tell what’s what instrumentally.

Jenn Wasner: I feel like someone who listens to music for ideas and substance and words. The aesthetic of something is kind of the last thing that really matters to me. I think listening for music that all sounds a certain way and being like, “That’s what I’m into,” is sort of a weird, top-down way of listening to music, but I also think it’s the way a lot of people listen to music. [Laughs]

Andy Stack: We lament that every day, that people want to be able to put it into the category and have it be tidy.

Jenn Wasner: I think it’s frustrating because I feel like we’ve always been doing essentially the same thing, but part of what’s fun about being creative is changing the lens through which you view your own work and allowing yourself to experiment and explore. I’m delighted by things that are unexpected or confusing. Or surprising.

AD: The record starts with a track called “Tuning,” and then it goes into a song called “The Instrument.” Was that a conscious bit wordplay: “Tuning the Instrument?”

Jenn Wasner: For sure. Because “The Instrument” is about the instrument of my body and mind; [my] physical being and consciousness. Being a songwriter — as opposed to just being a guitar player or being a drummer — is such a unique thing because your instrument is the instrument of your entire fucking existence. [Laughs] It’s difficult and strange. There’s no way to separate yourself from what you’re doing and what you’re making. It’s as simple as just: the songs that I’m singing come out of my own mouth, and it’s just such a mindfuck. It definitely was an intentional nod to that.

AD: Have you ever seen the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster?

Jenn Wasner: Oh yeah. We sure have. We watched it on tour, in fact.  

AD: I haven’t seen it in a really long time, but one part has always stuck with me. There’s this scene where Kirk Hammett is processing the band’s decision to have him refrain from playing solos on St. Anger. The idea is that Metallica  would “solo” as a band instead.

Jenn Wasner: Yeah. [Laughs] I remember that.

Andy Stack: And Kirk is like, “But I’m the guitar player, it’s my whole job.”

AD:  My metalhead fans always cited that as an example of the band’s artistic missteps, but regardless of the record itself, I think that’s actually an admirable goal for a rock group to aspire to. It’s about multiple people functioning as one.  Could “The Instrument” also maybe be Wye Oak itself?

Jenn Wasner: I actually haven’t thought about it up until this point, but…I like it. I think any idea that resonates on a small scale, can be extrapolated out to having even larger meaning. But [regarding  Some Kind of Monster] –there are a lot of times in it where I felt really deeply sad watching that movie, even though it is very funny. Making music, there’s such a thing as being almost being too thoughtful. This is a tendency that I have. If you start to take things apart and examining them and asking yourself “why,” everything in the world can sort of fall away into absurdity.

It extends to any musical choice. [With] creation, you’re just sort of figuring out what you want to say and how you want to say it. If you’re in the right mindset, or the wrong mindset as the case may be, pretty much everything looks silly. Because it is. Music is something that people love and it brings their lives joy, but it’s not something that’s particularly dignified. In fact, making music that is very personal and vulnerable is sort of an inherently embarrassing thing to do if you think about it the right/wrong way.

AD: How do you push through that feeling in order to actually create something?

Jenn Wasner: I think a big part of being able to do it is A) taking yourself less seriously, which I think is helpful in all areas of life, and B) letting go of this idea that you are somehow better or smarter than the set of ideas, tropes, and form — the history of the form that has been established. I think a big part of the challenge for me is to think, Okay,   I want to be making something that sounds original and unique unto itself, but I also want to be at peace with the fact that inherently, I’m making pretty pop music for regular-ass people. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that. Bringing people comfort and joy, even if it is through using a set of tropes that have been used hundreds of thousands of times, is okay. I’m not too good for that. [Laughs] You know what I’m saying? At this point, I’ve been rambling so long I almost forget why we started talking about this.

Andy Stack: Kirk Hammett.

Jenn Wasner: Kirk Hammett. Right, of course. I relate to that because I feel like almost anything you can point to, like a guitar solo, is inherently a goofy fucking thing to do. It’s like, “Why are we doing this? Why are we putting a guitar solo in here?” Other than the fact that it’s what we want because we’ve been conditioned to want it.

Andy Stack: There’s another part [of the film] I also remember it speaking to me at the time, which is that what they were trying to do on that record, and in that movie, is remove the ego from the band. That’s an admirable thing to do. I think for Jenn and me, we’ve always approached record-making from that perspective as much appropriate, where we try to not be so precious about whose role is whose. We each play all different instruments and we try to just each be in service of the recording or of where it feels like it should go, and I think making music, making art in general, is always this tightrope you have to walk between that egoless approach, just sort of giving yourself over to the process, and then at the same time, exactly like you’re saying, Jenn, doing something which is inherently self-serving and full of ego. I don’t know, that movie was an absurd display of that exact tension of people, who are in arguably the biggest band in the world, who make music that is designed around the human ego, in the most clownish way, a lot of the time. And they are trying to go on this jazz odyssey of self-exploration. In that case, it didn’t quite look so good, but I honestly applaud the idea of it.

Jenn Wasner: I have a lot of love for it, because I feel like it’s so easy to watch that movie and come at it from a place of, “Look at these idiots,” but everyone I know who makes music on any level, I think would be lying if they said they didn’t have a moment where they were like, “Oh shit, it me.” [Laughs]

AD: Metallica was making a statement about how smart Metallica would like to be. And I identify with that, kind of painfully.

Andy Stack:  And of course it speaks to the other kind of tension that bands deal with, or at least some bands deal with, which is the expectations of the industry. Commerce versus art. They were hitting their heads up against throughout that entire movie.

Jenn Wasner: Oh yeah, and it’s brutal for pretty much anyone in that situation. But trying to prove how smart you are, man, that’s such a trap. It’s a trap that I will admit openly to falling into and struggling with my entire life.  There’s this other layer of it for me, too, of trying to learn my craft and be as good as I possibly can at what I do, and then also, at the same time, trying to do that in a female body. Which means that you have to try twice as hard to have people give you the benefit of the doubt that you know what the fuck you’re doing. I’ve often had moments where I look back at my entire career and I look back at the decisions that I’ve made, and I have to really ask myself, “How much of these decisions are really coming from me and the art that I want to make, and how much of these decisions are coming from needing to prove something to somebody?”

AD: It can be so easy to get caught up in that way of thinking.

Jenn Wasner:  One of the most harmful ideas that I’ve managed to absorb is that there’s something inherently stupid or lesser-than about making something accessible that moves people on an emotional level — like somehow that is “lowbrow” versus making highbrow art for “smart people.” I think it’s weird: the past ten years of my life has been sort of coming back around to doing something that I used to do when I was younger sort of effortlessly, like I’ve just gotten caught up in all these little eddies of the brain and mind where I’m like, “Oh no, I can’t do that. It’s embarrassing, it’s stupid. It’s for stupid people.” [Laughs]

AD: It surprises me to hear you say that because I think of your music as so pleasurable. It’s so immediate and arresting. It’s deep, but it never feels like an exercise in intellectualism because it’s just so enveloping to listen to.

Jenn Wasner: I think that’s one area in which I’m very grateful that my intuition has carried me through all this. Honestly, everything that I do and everything that we’ve done has been so enveloped in self-doubt and difficulty, and that’s not something you really see from the outside, fortunately, because yeah, no one needs to be exposed to that. What we’ve always tried to do is bring more forward-thinking ideas into music that is, at its heart, something meant to touch people on an emotional level and to create some sense of universality, timelessness…I feel really lucky that, creatively speaking, I’ve always been more reliant on my intuition, and that is something that my intellectual brain is often at odds with, like, “Look at this silly song you wrote.” But at the same time, my intuition has never really let me down, and learning to listen to it and embrace it was something that, like I said, it was very easy in my youth and it’s gotten harder and harder, so it just has to be this constant practice of getting back to that unmarred, emotional, intuitive space. I’m really grateful that that is a tool I have, and learning to trust that has been such a guiding principle for me because I really don’t know any other way of making stuff. It’s sort of the only way that it happens.

AD: You’ve called the album title “A sort of psychological litmus test.” To me, the record is sort of about the distance between an idea and its application in real life. You sing about “feeling heat and then the lack of it/But not so much what the difference is.” And that line feels like what we’re talking about, about focusing on individual sensations, but removing the intellectual process that allows you to compare and contrast them.  Sometimes the over-analyzing thing renders you inert. Is part of this record about how these songs work as a source of action for you, allowing you to get past that?

Jenn Wasner: That idea — when you pull the thread on pretty much anything, it starts to crumble — that’s the way I move through the world. [Laughs] It is with great effort that I convince myself to continue to function in spite of being someone who  sees the majority of everything around me to be absolutely absurd. At best absurd, at worst sick. Evil. Wrong.

AD:  Is that what you’re singing about in “Lifer?” About making “up for all the space I take?”

Jenn Wasner:   I get to live being a detriment to the planet and to other people who have less than I do…that feeling is not something I’m really able to turn off, and it makes the simplest things in life really, really difficult. If we’re just going to apply it directly to music, there have been times when I have managed to think my way out of the idea of wanting to make records and share them with people, as it being  an inherently trivial, ineffective, selfish, silly thing to spend my time doing. Because if you frame it in the right context, it is. So much of my work  is about learning how to be alive on the planet, but also how to be peace with who I am. What I’m doing is understanding that, sort of seizing upon the things that I can control, trying to be the best version of myself that I can be, but also understand that as a human, I am inherently, deeply flawed. I’m  trying to share joy with other people, and hoping I can make some sort of mark, however small, on the world in a positive way. [That song is about]  not letting my perfectionism and high expectations for myself, and everything around me, force me to  withdraw from the world. Every decision that we make as human beings, no matter what our intentions are, comes with a whole host of terrible consequences that we can’t even see. It’s difficult. It’s a fine line between being a thoughtful person sometimes can cross over this line into…driving yourself crazy.

AD: How do you avoid the latter?

Jenn Wasner: I think that’s why my creative practice is so important to me. Because it’s one of the only times in my life when I really turn off my brain and fall into my intuitive self — the part of myself that just feels things deeply and is grateful to be alive. I try to use that space to create something that inspires that feeling in other people. It’s like a meditative practice. It fills my life with joy and meaning and gives me something to fix my world around. In that way, much of this record is about dealing with all that anxiety and powerlessness that comes from being a human in this particular moment and learning to accept and value the things that you can control, and find some joy and peace in that. words/j woodbury