FFS Interview: Wye Oak

Baltimore duo Wye Oak have just released one of the best albums of this year, The Knot could win over the sternest of souls. After self-releasing their debut, they’re now signed to the legendary Merge Records, home to the such luminaries as Arcade Fire, Conor Oberst and Neutral Milk Hotel. The long-time friends answered FFS’s questions about all things Wye Oak.

Your second album came out recently how has it been received?
Andy and I are our own toughest critics and, on the whole, I think we were mostly very proud and satisfied with how the record turned out. A miracle in and of itself. After that, we try not to think too much about what other people’s reactions will be. Regardless, we are certainly very grateful to those who have taken the time to listen, and especially those who have felt connected to it in some way.

It was your first on Merge Records, did you feel any pressure because of that?

Actually, our first record, “If Children”, was on Merge as well, so we had already established a loving rapport with those fine folks when we started the recording process. But it was, however, the first time we had gone into a recording knowing exactly what the release process would be like. When we made “If Children”, it was a fun little project between friends, and we were not expecting it to be released beyond a few hundred copies for our closest friends and family. When Merge picked it up, it was a shock, but the record was already finished and we knew, to a certain extent, that they liked it or else they wouldn’t have wanted to release it. With “The Knot”, it was a totally different approach to a very different sounding group of songs, and we weren’t sure what the reaction would be. Fortunately, the folks at Merge are the most supportive and least intimidating people you could ever hope to work with, creatively and otherwise.

There are some very very good bands on Merge, did that have an influence on you signing for them?
The biggest influence upon us signing with Merge was that, by some miracle…they asked us to. We were literally a completely unknown band with one album that we had recorded ourselves in our basement. Out of the blue, we’re asked to sign with Merge. There wasn’t much discussion of the matter, really!

Your sound is big but intimate at the same time, was it difficult refining that sound?
Andy and I both have a hard time answering this kind of question because the way our songs are arranged and recorded isn’t so much conscious as it is instinctive. We naturally like things to sound a certain way, and sometimes we can’t put a finger on it at first, so there’s a lot of arrangement trial and error in the studio. Given that there’s just the two of us in the band, we don’t really get to hear how these songs sound fleshed out until we start recording them. So we’ll just add and remove until we’re both agreed that it’s done.

Do you find it easy to replicate in a live setting?

We definitely don’t seek to reproduce these album versions of the songs on stage; that would be impossible! We had to come to terms with the fact that there are going to be many different incarnations of these songs, and whether we’ve got the bells and whistles of the recording or it’s whittled down to just the basics, the song should hopefully stand on its own. So, while it can be frustrating to have to peel back all the layers, I do think this duo setup has forced us to make the songwriting process our main priority, to focus on building the songs themselves.

How do you go about writing your songs, do they just happen and you then run with them?
If I am in a creative mood, like I am these days, I’ll sit down and write day, or every few days. If not, I can definitely enter a long creative dry spell. I have discovered that you can’t force it. If I’m going to write something it’s going to be because I’m excited about it, not because I need to hit a deadline or fill some imaginary quota. I have to be very careful to…not think too much about it.

You seem to encompass genre upon genre, what did you grow up listening to that have influenced your sound?
Even if I ventured a guess at this question I would probably fall short. I’m a firm believer in the bulk of our experiences and influences being entirely unconscious. If there was a way to trace back the pathways of the brain and figure out where these ideas really came from, I’d probably surprise myself.

Wikipedia claims that Andy can play the drums and basslines at the same time. Is this another wiki-myth? Or can you?
Indeed, that’s the crux of our live show. Andy plays a kit with two feet and right hand and plays keyboard basslines with his left hand. I play guitar, we both sing, and we both operate some samples and other extraneous bells and whistles. We do the best with what we have. It can be frustrating, especially for Andy, to have to learn to work within these limitations, but I think it’s become a huge part of the kind of band we’ve become. Not just onstage, but in the studio, as well. We put a lot of thought into the recorded arrangements of these songs because they don’t exist before we record them, and it gives us an opportunity to decide for ourselves, without restrictions, just exactly how we’d like these songs to be.

What’s next for you guys now? Any plans on coming over here soon?

We’re holing up for the winter and doing some writing. A few scattered shows here and there. We’re hoping to make it back across the pond sometime in late winter/early spring!

Words: Jack Phillips