Interview ~ Will Crain
Baltimore duo Wye Oak, formerly known as Monarch, are the latest band to join the likes of the Arcade Fire, Spoon, and M. Ward on the North Carolina based Merge Records. Wye Oak, comprised of Andy Stack and Jen Wasner, have been critically acclaimed for their ability to blend elements of rock, shoe-gaze, folk, and even country. Their debut album, If Children, is due out April 8th and Wye Oak is most certainly a band to look for in 2008. the square recently sat down with Jen Wasner to talk about making music in Baltimore, their recent record deal, the songwriting process, and even wrestling bears.
the square: Since a French metal band and a Christian rock group from New Jersey have already claimed the name Monarch, I understand you recently made the switch to Wye Oak. What significance does the new name hold for you?
Jen Wasner: When we first began considering a name change, we wanted something simple and specific. Wye Oak, in addition to being a deliberate nod to our home state, has the kind of simple, natural feel that we both were looking for. Also, every other band name was taken. Honestly, I think significance only comes with time and experience, and we grow more attached to the name the longer we have it.
square: You have both been pretty involved in the Baltimore music scene, often playing in and collaborating with other local bands. Describe how it has been growing as a band, both musically and in popularity in the Baltimore music community. Are there any distinct pros and cons in trying to “make it” in Baltimore?
JW: A lot of people think that you have to leave Baltimore to find success elsewhere, but we don't really believe that. There's so much you can do to promote yourself—especially if you're on internet and blog-savvy—that has nothing to do with where you're from. Furthermore, it just seems to us that there's a higher ratio of quality bands in Baltimore—which is in part because we've got such an amazing music scene here, but also because there are just fewer bands. There are certainly great things happening in bigger cities like New York or LA, but you've got to sort through a much greater amount of shitty music to find them.
square: As the Baltimore music scene continues to gain notoriety, there seems to be a growing disparity between being a band from Baltimore and a band of Baltimore. Is Baltimore a place you intend to keep calling home as you continue to make music?
JW: We have no plans to leave Baltimore, although one never knows where life will take you. But we definitely feel as though we'll always call it our home. Also, the other bands and musicians that we've been lucky enough to collaborate with over the years have played a huge part in making us the musicians and people that we are, and it's very important to us to continue down those various paths.
square: What are you most excited about in working with Merge? What musical aspirations do you think Merge can best help you accomplish?
JW: Merge is a dream label for us, and so many of our favorite bands and artists have been associated with them over the years that it's hard to believe it's happening to us. There's only so much that you can accomplish as an independent artist, and we've already begun to reap the benefits of having such a fine team of folks working to support our music. Everyone at Merge has been amazing to work with, and it goes without saying that they hold a lot of water in this business. We're just excited to make the best music for them that we can, and work as hard as we can on our end to promote it.
square: Merge recently announced it would re-release If Children . What is the timeline for its release? Can we expect any changes to the record?
JW: If Children has been slightly remixed and wholly remastered, and it'll be released April 8th.
square: For a while now you've been playing new material at live shows. You must obviously be excited to have If Children released by an established record label, but do you also feel a bit detached from the material by now?
JW: Those songs have been around for a while now, but we're really just excited to have as many people hear them as possible. Any songwriter will tell you that their songs are enormously important to them, and every time you play them for someone new, they're filled with a new life. That's one reason why touring is so rewarding—having the opportunity to play your songs for an entirely new crowd of people every night. I don't think I'll ever get tired of playing my songs as long as there's somebody on the other end who's excited to hear them.
square: If Children incorporates elements of a number of genres, including shoe-gaze, folk, and even country. Are there any particular artists or styles you would say most influenced you during the time you wrote and recorded If Children ?
JW: The influences that people have noticed in the record's arrangements are never intentional. There's always so much going on in your brain that you're not consciously aware of, especially when creativity is involved, and most of the time we find that thinking too hard about the creative process tends to kill it. Andy and I listen to as much music as we can get our hands on, genres notwithstanding, and it's no surprise that some of those influences show themselves in our music. But I tend to think that other people are far more qualified to recognize those influences than we are. We're way too close to that record to see the whole picture like others do.
square: Lyrically the record appears to be a very urban album, but the natural world never seems far off. The album opens with a stroll through the city as Jenn sings “I can please concrete by walking.” In “Lawn to Mow,” Andy sings of “the smoggiest of towns.” But in “Regret,” Andy sings of an urban landscape's destruction: “The city swallowed by the ocean deep.” How does the city play into your songwriting and inform your music? Do you ever find yourselves pining for a more rural environment?
JW: City life definitely influences the way we think and the way we write. Right now, we love living in Baltimore, but I think there's a part of everyone that craves the natural world. It's impossible to play in and promote a band without spending a serious amount of time in urban areas, and there are many elements of city life that we enjoy, but I can't imagine living my entire life in a city. One of the major perks of achieving a reasonable level of success as a band is the opportunity to relocate to a more isolated environment. Hopefully one day we'll be able to hole up in the woods somewhere and have a bit more freedom to write and record, in between harvesting crops, chopping wood, and wrasslin' bears.
square: Many of your lyrics are concerned with family and relationships. Is there a particular way you go about incorporating personal experience into your music or does it come natural to you?
JW: The only rule that I apply to writing songs is to be as honest as possible- but, of course, that's not exactly a new idea. My songs are very personal, but I can say that I think if something affects you enough, the song will come to the surface without too much effort. Usually, when you really try— that's when the song eludes you.
square: Lastly, what hopes do you have for 2008? Any New Year's resolutions?
JW: Cash, money, bling, benjamins. The more the better.
For more information see: www.wyeoakmusic.com www.mergerecords.com