July 2 2014 02:40 PM

Baltimore duo use geographical obstacles to their advantage

Wye Oak
Jenn Wasner (left) and Andy Stack are united as a creative duo, even though they live on different coasts.

Last year, after eight years as a band and two straight years of touring behind their third album, Civilian, Wye Oak needed a break. The Baltimore duo had grown weary of the music they were making, exhausted in part by playing the same songs live hundreds of times and losing perspective on how best to move forward.

In fact, they almost didn’t. Multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack tells CityBeat that he and songwriting partner Jenn Wasner began to ponder whether or not they would continue making records.

“There was a lot of questioning about whether we were going to make another record at all after Civilian,” Stack says. “This band’s been going for, oh, eight years, and we’ve both changed a lot in that time. And touring… is not the most natural thing for us, either. Over the course of about two years, we did probably 300 shows. When we finished with that cycle, all we could do was step away from it.”

In hindsight, the band’s hiatus was short-lived. When Stack and Wasner came home after extensive touring in 2011 and 2012, they put Wye Oak on the backburner.

Stack, who’d up to that point been a lifelong resident of Baltimore, pulled up stakes and moved 3,000 miles away to Portland, Oregon.

Under ordinary circumstances, this might disrupt a band’s creative process, but for Wye Oak, it did the opposite. Within a year, they finished their fourth record, Shriek, which ended up being a dramatically different sound for the band. It’s a much more synthesizer-driven record, with the louder, ragged indie-rock sounds of their previous records stripped away in favor of a more atmospheric approach.

Wasner didn’t play guitars on the album, instead focusing on bass and vocals, while Stack took up synth duties. The sound is still identifiably Wye Oak, but in an entirely new context, taking on a lighter, dreamier style through songs like the hypnotic title track, the pulsing and minimal “The Tower” and the gorgeously danceable “Glory.” For the duo, putting some distance between themselves and their previous album was necessary motivation to take on something new.

“It started to feel a little bit like this jukebox machine of that sound and that sort of style that we were playing,” Stack says. “It certainly isn’t that we don’t stand behind [Civilian], but I think we both have a lot of different interests in terms of the music we listen to and that we relate to, and in terms of the music we’ve always wanted to make.

“After a while of doing that, there was just a feeling like we needed to stretch out a little bit,” he continues. “It wasn’t in us to make another record like Civilian.”

Creating Shriek required unconventional thinking. Some of it came out of a desire to throw out anything overly familiar. However, a lot of it was out of necessity; living on opposite sides of the country makes it a lot harder to organize weekly rehearsals.

Rather than carve out month to concentrate their songwriting, Stack and Wasner took a more open-ended approach, recording individual pieces of songs and sending them back and forth over an extended period of time.

“We never actually really set foot in a room together and played through the songs, or had any live, real-time version of any of the material until after the record was completely finished,” Stack says. “I think we were sending files back and forth via email and talking about how we wanted the record to be, but never in each other’s presence. So, what that brought out was very individualistic sessions of recording for each of us.”

Stack contends that Wye Oak is still the band it’s always been—Shriek is just a different aspect of it. And by tapping into a different side of the band, taking on a radically different approach and challenging the idea of what Wye Oak could be, they’ve erased doubts about the possibility of progressing. Stack says that he and Wasner are “energized” after the process of making Shriek, emerging much more optimistic about what’s to come.

“The stuff we’ve done in the past—it’s not like that version of this band is dead,” he says. “We still really stand behind that stuff. We still play the songs. But there’s this whole other side. I think that feeling of opening up to new ideas and a new process of writing is something that’s gonna stay with us in the future,” he adds.

“We’re really excited about the next thing.”

Email jefft@sdcitybeat.com or follow him at @1000TimesJeff