On a typically hot, muggy Baltimore summer night two young musicians stand alone on stage at the legendary Ottobar.Â Within the packed crowd, minor local luminaries are spotted: writer Geoffrey Himes, singer/songwriter Caleb Stine, and the seemingly always stoned Geoff from Ace of Cakes.
Despite the large crowd, the stage is relatively empty – just the two lone musicians and a small array of instruments.Â The shy female guitar player stands on one side of the stage; an amp, a few pedals, an extra guitar, and a pillow with a triangle on it her only accompaniment.Â To her left, a small drum kit, a keyboard, and a few odds and ends lay at the feet of her bespectacled partner.Â
Despite the limited set-up the sound this duo, known as Wye Oak, creates is surprisingly loud and shockingly intense.Â
The drummer bashes his kit with his feet and right hand, while his left hand creates a bass line on the keyboard. Occasionally he picks up one of the musical toys at his feet to add an inventive splash of color to the proceedings.Â The shy guitarist careens quickly from a simple muted rhythm to an explosive strum that finds the delicate balance between quiet and loud and balances perilously on the edge between the two, while her ethereal, dreamy voice is carried forward on a wave of emotion.Â The music they make falling somewhere between the frenzied fury of the Pixies and the shoegazing-noise-pop of Yo La Tengo.
â€œA few years ago when I started playing the bass and drums together we thought it was just going to be temporary thing,â€ remembers Andy Stack, the drummer and one half of indie-duo Wye Oak. â€œWe didnâ€™t want to be this acoustic folk-duo â€“ no offense to that style â€“ we just wanted to be a little more raucous, a little more raw and loud.â€
Wye Oak released their second album, The Knot, on legendary indie label Merge Records in July.Â It turns out that what started out as a conveyance for the two young musicians until they could find someone to fill the third spot in the band became their musical identity, and the limitations of playing as a duo came to define who they are and the music they make.
For guitarist Jenn Wasner, there was even more trepidation about the bandâ€™s minimalist line-up. â€œAs a girl singer/songwriter who plays guitar, I feel there is a certain stereotype of the female songstress that I wanted nothing to do with.Â So I think in many ways I originally overcompensated, I would try and cover everything up with noise or bury my vocal.â€
This simple line-up was first formed in 2006 (as Monarch – the name change came after realizing the abundance of bands with that same name), when Stack and Wasner had returned home to Baltimore from stints in college.Â The two had previously played in a variety of bands in high school, but it was after their return that they felt they had enough of their own songs in their arsenal to try and make a make a record as duo and to try in earnest to make a career out of their music.
With the music the two were creating together they began to, as Stack puts it, â€œexplore the middle ground between more folksy Americana and the more feedback-soaked stuff of My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth.”
This exploration yielded their debut album, If Children.Â It was an album created when the two were still struggling to find their identity as a band and had just begun to play live as a duo.
â€œWith the first record we were dabbling with a bunch of sounds and trying a bunch of different things on. We didnâ€™t even really have a live set up when we started recording it,â€ says Wasner.
Stack continues, â€œThrough the miracle of modern recording technology, we werenâ€™t hindered by being a duo â€“ we could just play all the instruments and layer then on top of each other.â€
If Children was an impressive debut, but one that the band feels was musically disjointed at times.Â Stack says it was a collection of songs written over the years, and was put together with no concept of how it would flow.Â Still, the album and their developing live show began to pique interest from the indie-blog world.Â Stack sent out copies of the album, and it eventually caught the ear of Mac McCaughan of Superchunk, and founder of Merge Records.
The band had no intention of re-releasing If Children, but Merge persisted, and eventually prevailed in April of last year.Â Wasner found solace in this, saying â€œIt made it less intimidating for us.Â We didnâ€™t have to record a debut for this big label.â€
Shortly after the release, Stack and Wasner began work on the follow up.Â â€œStrangely enough, this album was scary for us to record, because it was essentially like doing a debut,â€ Stack says, â€œThe last one was already done when we signed.Â This was the first time that either of us made any recordings that we knew people of any consequence would be listening to.â€
The resulting album, The Knot, is a powerful expression of the two still-developing songwriterâ€™s immense talents (and a dark-horse candidate for one of the best albums of the year).Â The album has a much more cohesive feel than If Children, which was cobbled together from songs written over the course of a few years.Â The songs on the The Knot were all written over the past year with a clear thematic idea in mind as they wrote. The new album was also written after the band had a chance to discover what they were capable of as a duo and it shows.
â€œThe live set-up has become a big part of who we are; it has shaped a lot of the new record,â€ explains Wasner. â€œThe sound, the arrangements, a lot of those things on the new record has been shaped because of how we have to set it up for our live show.Â I think our identity as a duo has been cemented.â€
Musically, the album is a contrast between the loud and the soft that the duo deploys with such effectiveness.Â For Wasner this contrast helps to give life to the lyrical nature of the album, which deals with the cycle of relationships between people.
â€œThey have these quiet verses with big choruses. I like when they come out of nowhere, when there is no build,” she says. “I think that thematically it works with these songs, to have these sonic explosions.â€
This was a change from the past when they would sometimes look to cover their lack of subtlety with sheer volume.Â It was a chance for the duo to find that tricky area between being quiet and still being dynamic.Â It is an area that Wye Oak found, mastered, and made all their on the new album.
The other change was Wasnerâ€™s vocals.Â Because of the extremely personal nature of the lyrics, she relented and allowed her vocals to be moved to the front of the mix.Â With the lyrics and words playing such an important role to the shape of the album, the guitarist knew they had to be upfront to allow them to gain their full power.
Wasner explains that â€œThe new record is a big step outside of that for me. They are different from songs in the past and I think to appreciate them, you really need to hear what I am saying in them.â€
Along with the bandâ€™s recorded growth they have also grown more comfortable in a live setting.Â Their shows have become an intense, emotional workout.Â Both Wasner and Stack have discovered exactly what they need on stage to help them create the deep sound textures from their albums without having to add musicians.Â They have each added a loop station to their setup and worked out how they can replicate some of the tricky parts from the album live, though they both recognize that some of their songs just might not ever be able to make it to the stage.Â The live version of many of the tunes from The Knot have seemed to find even more power as some of the more delicate string parts are replaced live with Wasnerâ€™s guitar, which adds a razor sharp edge to them.
For Stack, with his ever growing number of roles he plays during the live show, it can be an exhausting affair, but something he readily admits is worth it because, â€œIt is really rewarding to be able to put out the sound we want with just the two of us, as opposed to having three or four people on stage.â€
Just two lone muscians.
Photos by Dan Stack / courtesy of Wye Oak