We spoke with Shearwater and Wye Oak, who play together tonight at Local 506. Hospital Ships open the 8:45 p.m. show. Tickets are $10–$12.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: You’re six records deep, and you’ve been playing as Shearwater since 2001. How do you keep it fresh? What was the strategy on The Golden Archipelago?
I don't think making art ever gets stale unless you let it. Over the course of the records, you can hear us finding our feet, figuring out what we're about. Palo Santo definitely felt like a leap forward—and these days, it's about as far back as we go in the live show. A lot of bands might have changed their name at that point, if only to avoid questions like this, but I think there's something a little sad about changing your name to appeal to the media's lust for the just-minted, the fresh face, the writer or musician who seems to have appeared fully-formed. If you scratch the surface, that's almost never the case—and none of my favorite artists knew what they were doing right out of the gate.
As for TGA, we wanted to make a really ornate album with a wide range of textures and colors, musically and emotionally—that worked on the scale of some of the big, dark, grand art-rock albums from the early ’80s that we loved, like Pink Floyd's The Final Cut or Peter Gabriel's third record. I was a kid when those records came out, but they were what I listened to most often in high school while Nevermind was conquering the world. Making a record like this—at a fraction of those albums' budgets—took several months and a lot of help. Very different from our first record, which we made in two and a half days a million years ago.
How is the new album translating live?
Really well. I never think about how we're going to play something when we're recording it. I just trust that we'll be able to make it work somehow, even if a song's got a ridiculously elaborate arrangement, as several on TGA do. I find that a lot of times, when you're playing live, you can let more wild, elemental textures creep in to substitute for more refined ones on the recordings—the weirder the better (i.e. distorted bass, some severely distressed samples, and Wurlitzer in place of strings, winds, and real piano). To me, it's not fidelity to the recording that matters so much as fidelity to the emotional content of the songs—and on that count, I think we're at the top of our game right now.
You’ve answered a thousand times about how being a birder has influenced your music, but how has your music influenced the way you look at the world? And are Rook (with the many bird references) and The Golden Archipelago (with it’s sort of lyrical tension about man and nature) products of that?
Thank you for not putting me through that one again! I guess I'd say that over time I've become more and more interested in the special ability of music to convey and evoke conflicting emotional states at the same time. The recording of the Bikini Islanders singing their national anthem that opens TGA was a really powerful example of that, for me. When you read the lyrics, it's a song of exile and despair, but the performance is full of a wild energy, even joy. When I heard it, I knew I wanted the album to explore that emotional state as much I as wanted it to be about the islanders and what happened to them.
What do you want this band to be when it grows up?
I'm not sure. What do you want to be when you grow up? How will you know when you've reached it? I don't mean to go all "the-journey-is-the-destination" on you, but the thrill of discovery is what keeps you going as an artist. I hope we never really settle down or get too comfortable. I've already got a title for the next record, and when I'm daydreaming with my nose pressed against the window of the van on this tour, that's what I'll be thinking about.
For our talk with Wye Oak, hit the jump.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: When did you think the two of you together as a band might work out?
JENNY WASNER: I think the first time I really started feeling good about the setup that we have is when we started working on what we currently do live, which is some kind of arrangement where we have guitar and keyboard bass and drums and loops and vocals. When we started playing with that setup, I really started to feel like it was possible to not let the fact there are just two of us affect what we wanted to do musically, and I started realizing that it wasn’t necessarily totally important that we have more people in our band because we were really able to pull it off ourselves. That’s when I started feeling like maybe this was something that we could make work in the long term, and so far it has been. So, I’m pretty satisfied with it.
I’m always a little bit astonished by how textured and layered your songs are. Is that something when you go in recording that you are adamant on being able to produce live, or do you kind of like a tension between the show and the recording?
There’s a definitely a difference, a big difference between what we do on stage and what we do in the studio. And I think that that is OK, because I think if there wasn’t a difference then there’s really no reason to go and pay money and see a band. There’s kind of supposed to be something new across the table at that live performance that is the reason why people want to see it. And I definitely think that there are certain aspects of our recording that we aren’t really capable of duplicating, but I don’t—I’m passed the point of feeling like that’s necessary. I feel like the songs sometimes have different arrangements live than they do on the recording, but sometimes that’s really interesting, sometimes it’s a lot of fun for us to try and be creative and take liberties with these songs convincingly and not just stick with this one kind of delivery that we do. It doesn’t bother me that the setup is different, but yeah it is important that we’re able have a full sound, a big sound and not feel like we have to sacrifice anything arrangement-wise while we perform. And I think the more we do it, the better we get at kind of being able to accomplish everything we want to accomplish with the songs on stage.
So you’re two and half records deep, how do you see it evolving? What do you want this band to be when it grows up?
Umm, I don’t know. I don’t know if we’ll ever necessarily grow up. I just think it’s important to us that we feel like whatever excites us musically, that we could pursue that. I don’t feel like we necessarily have a style or a sound that we have to stick to. With this new EP, we’re definitely trying some different things arrangement-wise. I think the songs are ours and so to a certain extent there’ll always be, they’ll always sound like us because we have certain characteristics of the way we write that will always probably stick with us whether we want them to or not.
I think it’s the most important thing to both me and Andy, that we’re able to kind of just pursue these new exciting, interesting sounds and ideas wherever they take us, regardless of what people are used to hearing from us. I think there are songs on the new EP that are a little different than many people are expecting based on the sound of the last record. I guess what I’m trying to get at is that the most important thing is that we don’t feel like we are being pigeonholed in any way, that we can kind of be whatever we want to be at any given time.
Are there terms that you just balk at when you hear people describe your music?
I don’t know. I feel like whenever someone’s trying to describe our music usually whatever descriptors they’re choosing are meant to be favorable, you know, are meant to be complimentary. So I never really take offense, per say, but I’m definitely sometimes surprised about certain things. I think I heard someone refer to our band onetime as a “slowcore band” and I was really surprised, because I was like “have they even listened to the new EP at all?” It’s really not an accurate descriptor.
But I think it just depends. There’s really no point getting too caught up about how people are describing you because everyone’s going to describe you a little bit differently because everyone’s opinion is different. So if people give a shit enough about us to want to try and describe our music, we’re not going to take offencs to what they say. I have a hard enough time describing it myself, so I can certainly relate to people’s difficulty. I can’t say I have the correct answer.
What’s the story on the new EP? And on top of that, why did you decide to do the remix? That was one of those moments when I was listening and then all of a sudden in my car I had a Scooby Doo moment.
Ha. Awesome. That’s great. Well what happened originally was that our friend Mickey Free did the remix. He’s a really good friend of ours—he’s a producer and great rapper and all around talented dude—and we’d been talking about him doing a remix for a while. So he actually did that first, and we just loved it and so then the idea came up of recording some songs just for fun with him and his brother, Chris, who have a studio together in Baltimore. The remix kind of actually spawned the idea of working together more, and the EP was really a chance for the four of us—me and Andy and Mickey and Chris—to get together and kind of mess around in the studio. I had some songs we were kicking around that I didn’t really know what to do with. I already kind of have like a certain vibe in mind for the next full-length, and they weren’t necessarily sticking with my vision of what the next full-length was going to be. So I was like, “I have these songs. I still really like them. I don’t really know what to do with them.”
Plus, I really wanted the opportunity to work with new people and kind of get some exciting new sounds and ideas into the mix. And we were home, and we were snowed in all winter. It was the perfect time to work on it. It’s kind of like we didn’t necessarily start going about being like, “We’re going to make an EP,” but it just kind of worked out that we came up with some songs we were happy with and just wanted to get them out as quickly as possible. That’s how it went down.