Though it wasn't the two-piece's first album, 2011's Civilian was Wye Oak's breakout — the one that got the band on plenty of year-end best-of lists, and nabbed a number of TV and movie placements for its rumbling, rambling title track. It also sent the Baltimore band on a pretty lengthy tour ... and was almost its undoing.
"We did at least 300 shows of that material over two years," explains drummer and multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack, who collaborates with singer and multi-instrumentalist Jenn Wasner in the band. "Touring in general is sort of this sustained adolescent state of traveling all over, getting fed everywhere you go, sleeping in your clothes a lot — after that cycle, we both decided to step away a little bit and reclaim our lives. Or, in a sense, create our lives, because we basically let them lapse."
Stack moved across the country. Wasner pursued a solo project (Flock of Dimes) for a time. "For both of us, it meant going off the map a little bit," Stack says.
When they began to get it back together, Wye Oak had changed some — as is evident in the band's new album, Shriek. While Wye Oak hasn't made two albums that sound quite alike, and had already been moving from a folky sound to more hard-driving (if instrospective) rock, Shriek represents a radical departure. For one thing, Wasner plays bass instead of guitar on the record, and wrote the songs that way. (Previously, any bass parts had been held down by Stack, who plays drums with one hand and plays keys and triggers samples with the other.) There are also a lot more synths on Shriek; it's a shocker for those who came to know Wye Oak as a guitar band. But it was the only option that Wasner and Stack, burnt out on playing the same kind of material for so long, saw.
"I think when we started recording [Shriek], it was imperative that we make a different-sounding record," says Stack, "and that we use different instrumentation, different stylistic touch-points. And if we weren't going to do that, if all we could do is be a guitar band doing neo-folk or whatever people want to call it, I don't think we'd still be a band. I think we would've just called it a day."
Of course, anytime a band makes a significant change, there's the risk of losing fans who have come to follow the band based on how it's sounded in the past — an issue that's never more apparent than in the bifurcation between acoustic and electronic music. That wasn't lost on Stack and Wasner.
"We made comments when we were initially recording the record about how there was going to be virtually no guitar on the record, and instantly, people were like, ‘This record sucks!'" Stack says with a laugh. "Obviously, that kind of thing crosses your mind, but that's such an immature way of viewing the world, such artistic suicide to think about stuff that way."
When Wye Oak was touring behind Civilian, the stage set-up centered around Wasner as a guitarist; she sang and played guitar, with pedals and all, but didn't play other instruments. Stack (who sang on early Wye Oak material but doesn't anymore) played drums and keys primarily, a feat in itself. While most bands, once they have a big record, are more likely to hire touring musicians to help out and simplify things for themselves, Wye Oak seems to have moved in the opposite direction; now both players have to play some synths (Stack uses trigger pads), and Wasner switches from bass (on the new material) to guitar (when they play older stuff).
"We're definitely asking more of ourselves," Stack says. "We talked early on about possibly bringing other people in for the live show. And we approached it like we always have: If we felt we actually physically couldn't make the show work in a way we were happy with, then we would probably get somebody else. But that didn't end up being the case.
"In the past, our live arrangements have been somewhat subtractive in the sense of making these souped-up studio recordings, then having to pare them down and figure out the essentials. These new songs, we didn't really do that. We worked really hard to make it so that they're textured and layered and all the elements in the recording can stand up and still be there in the live show. But still have a sense of two people playing it, in real time, interplaying off of one another, and having a sense of vitality to the performance — not just like hitting the space bar."
And while the new Wye Oak might take some getting used to for those who had grown fond of Wye Oak with guitars, Stack says not to worry: It's still Wye Oak.
"The new material sounds to me like a Wye Oak record — just as much as the old stuff does," says Stack. "There's still the same tension between ugliness and beauty, and this cathartic quality to it. That's the thing that has always defined our music, for me.
"Obviously, it's the two of us — it's always been this collaborative spirit. Individually and interpersonally, we have ways of working and ways of listening and sensibilities with regard to writing melodies, and creating arcs, and the kind of production that we tend towards. I don't think what that is is dependent on being a guitar band, or being an Americana band. It's more unclassifiable than that."