The Baltimore duo Wye Oak has come a long way since early 2008, when the members released their debut CD, If Children, under their original name, the Monarchs. Since then, singer and songwriter Jenn Wasner and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack got signed to Merge Records, developed a national following and were praised far and wide for their evocative songs and multi-hued productions. On The Knot, the two build on some of the ideas explored in their debut but also push their sound in a more melody-oriented Americana direction. Here, they talk about their new album, their musical histories and the joys of waiting tables.
How would you characterize your music?
Jenn Wasner: That’s very hard to do. The thing about all these tags is that I always tend to get really creeped out by them. There’s the Americana thing, which I don’t necessarily think is totally indicative of the music we make. I hear “noise folk” a lot, which I think is kind of accurate. I’ll take that over pretty much any other. I’ll take that over shoegaze or dream pop. But honestly, if I had my choice, I would take none of the above.
How did you hook up with Merge Records?
Andy Stack: It’s really bizarre, but we just kind of connected over the Internet. We had our first record self-released, under the name Monarch. We kind of did it just as a project between friends. I did a little bit of a press push on it. I sent it out to some blogs in Baltimore and tried to build my way up and get a little bit of stuff written about it. And [Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan] heard a song on a blog one day and sent us an e-mail. He said “You guys are great.” So I sent him a couple of records, fully expecting to never hear a word from him again. I guess the expectation for us was that he probably sent out complimentary e-mails 10 times a day. But three months later he was like, “Hey, let’s do something together.” So we’ve been really lucky. They were our first label, and we could have very easily been thrown for a loop and gotten taken advantage of, but they’re pretty much as upstanding of a record label as I’ve ever come across.
Can you compare The Knot with your debut?
JW: If Children wasn’t really intended to be a debut record. We had a bunch of songs that we had written over the course of quite a bit of time, but we hadn’t started our band and we didn’t have a live set-up. It was mostly that we had all these songs and all this time and Andy had just started learning to record. Then we started playing live and developed this live set-up and wrote a lot of songs with that set-up in mind, and those songs became The Knot. So I feel like The Knot, in a lot of ways, is really our first record. The songs are meant to fit together in a certain way. They’re about a certain thing, and they’re made to be an album as opposed to some songs we had lying around. And I think the fact that we wrote them and arranged them around the live set-up has a lot to do with the way they sound and the way they turned out.
Did you have a sound in mind when you started recording, or did it develop organically?
AS: The sound evolves as we’re going. We really like layers in the recording and we let ourselves get a little wild with that sometimes. So we kind of let the studio act as an arranging tool. [The sound] definitely is thick. I’m not really a super-proficient studio technician. I think there are things on both of the records that happened by accident. Some of them were happy accidents, and some of them were, I guess, not so happy. On this last record, I spent a whole lot of time on the mixing. We put a lot of time into it, and it was a real learning process. It makes me excited to make another one, because each time we do it I think we feel a little more in control.
Do you think being in Baltimore influenced the band?
JW: Definitely. I think being in Baltimore is one of the main reasons I’m able to do what I do, because it’s a really friendly community for creative- and artistic-minded people. We were very supported from the first day we started rehearsing. I think a lot of bands in Baltimore inspired me to think that I can do it for myself. I went to see so many bands and so many projects and so many artists I admire — it occurred to me there’s no reason that I couldn’t do this too. It was inviting and open and encouraging as opposed to distant. Musically and stylistically, I’m sure that all the bands that I hear and I admire from around here have crept into my subconscious.
Can you tell me what got you into music?
JW: I started playing music when I was a kid. My mom was probably my earliest influence in that regard. She had me singing, and I was taking piano lessons from a really early age, and it just totally absorbed my life. It wasn’t until I was about 13 or 14 that I started playing guitar. At that point, it was tough competition for the classical piano lessons.
When did you two come together?
JW: We had a band in high school together. I cut my teeth playing in that band. It was the first time I’d ever really played any of songs for other people and arranged them in a group. Andy was part of that band, and I think that’s one of the main reasons we’re so comfortable together — because we’ve been doing it since we were kids.
Did you have a name for the band?
JW: We did. The band was called — I don’t know if I should even say it. Honestly. Kind of embarrassing. I’m gonna keep that one to myself.
What kind of music was it?
JW: It was garage rock. It was like a pop-rock band — sloppy indie rock. It was really fun. Honestly, I owe a lot to that group because I don’t know if I’d have ever been comfortable playing in front of people if not for that set-up.
When you decided on the male-female arrangement, were you surprised so many other acts came on the scene using that configuration?
AS: I don’t think I’m that surprised. I guess it’s more popular of a thing now than it has been in the past. But I don’t honestly think that much about us as a duo. It certainly defines us in our live show, but not really on record. Based on recording technology, you can be one person and sound like you’re 50. We’ve always sort of followed that style in recording. The other thing is, I’ve seen people compare us to other duos, and it doesn’t always make sense musically. It’s just kind of like, “Oh, they’re like the White Stripes or something.” I tend to think more along stylistic lines about who we’re compared to. But back to the duo thing, I guess there’s something that makes sense about people tearing down and economizing at this time in the world. For us, it certainly makes it a lot easier to tour and keep a band going when we only have two schedules and two personalities and two mouths to feed. We can get further faster, I guess.
Stereogum interviewed Jenn for a “Quit Your Day Job” feature in March, 2008. Have you quit working at the Golden West Café?
JW: I’m still there, believe it or not. I’m at the point now where I probably wouldn’t necessarily have to be there — and if I really wanted to leave I could probably figure it out, you know? But I like working. It’s not like in the moment I’m like, “Oh, wow, this is great. I love waiting tables.” But it’s a great place to work. They’re very flexible with my schedule, so it’s rare that I have any issues in that regard. And honestly, it keeps me in motion. I have to have some kind of routine in my life. I’m really bad with self-motivation and imposing structure into my daily routine, so anything that keeps me having this sense of structure or accomplishment when I’m not touring is a really good thing. And if after I do that there’s money involved, then that’s also a really good thing.