Interview: Sylvan Esso talks debut single, bright future


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Sylvan Esso
  • Photo courtesy of Trekky Records
  • Sylvan Esso

Sylvan Esso shouldn't sound this confident and cohesive yet. Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, the two halves of the bright and purposeful Durham-based electro duo, have known each other for three years, but their collaboration didn't become serious until last September, when Meath joined Sanborn for the last song of his daytime set during Raleigh’s Hopscotch Music Festival. They should still be figuring each other out, throwing out ideas—some jewels, some duds. Instead, they have arrived with a pair of near-perfect singles packed onto one 12-inch record.

“Play It Right” and “Hey Mami,” released this week by Chapel Hill’s Trekky Records, find the new outfit connecting multiple intensely popular strains without ever feeling forced. On the first, Sanborn retools the meaty throb he lays down as Made of Oak as the foundation for Meath’s intricate vocal lattices. (He also plays with Megafaun.) “Hey Mami” is both more minimal and more exciting, looping and layering Meath’s luxurious croon—previously displayed in the vocal-heavy Mountain Man—alongside booming bass and a barrage of clicks and clacks. It moves like tUnE-yArDs, but it’s executed with a steely, hip-hop-informed intensity that feels fresh. Both songs are streaming below.

With Sylvan Esso celebrating the release at The Pinhook this Saturday, we caught up with Sanborn and Meath to find out how they arrived at their promising sound and where they will go from here.

INDY WEEK: How did you guys get together?

AMELIA MEATH: We met in Milwaukee at the Cactus Club about three years ago when Nick’s solo project, Made of Oak, was thrown onto a bill that we were playing on. I knew we were friends immediately because of the way he danced while he was playing. When Mountain Man needed a remix, I sent him the stems for a song called “Play It Right,” which is now a Sylvan Esso song that’s going to be released on our upcoming single.

NICK SANBORN: That song just went so well that the next time we hung out, we just immediately started talking about how we really liked working together and wanted to do more pop stuff. We started exchanging tracks via e-mail, and she flew out to Durham last year for Hopscotch and recorded a bunch of vocals. She ended up moving to Durham in January. We’ve just been working even more since then. The more we we do it, the happier we are with the result.

AM: I had just gotten off from touring for like a year-and-a-half with Feist. I was looking for a place where I could hang out for as long as possible without worrying about finances or getting stressed about that. And Durham is filled with wonderful people and wonderful food, and it was where Sylvan Esso was going to be based.

What about it worked so well?

NS: We didn’t feel like we had to make too many stylistic choices. It felt like we kind of contextualized each other in a really instinctive way. Anything that we would change about what the other one is doing all feels really natural and based on how we interact. It’s different from some of the Made of Oak stuff and obviously very different from Mountain Man. It’s just that this feels more focused.

We each had niche audiences on our own, but we were each in each other’s audience. Something about that meant that I totally get where she’s coming from musically, and she totally gets what I want to do. When we put songs together, we really trust each other.

When I listen to the single, I can’t help but think of tUnE-yArDs, M.I.A. and other popular outfits pursuing similar sounds. How much did that stuff influence you? How conscious were you that this style is trending upward right now?

AM: I suppose Sylvan Esso [is similar] in that we are a kind of hip-hop, electronic-y band with a female singer. But at the same time, the aspect of Sylvan Esso that I’m really excited about is in the live performance where instead of having a frontwoman and having a band behind her—like tUnE-yArDs, who does an awesome job of including her band in the experience—when Nick and I perform, we play side-by-side, right in the center of the stage, which is something I’m really excited about just in the context of electronic music in general. We’re really presenting ourselves as a band with two equal members.

NS: I think when you mention stuff like tUnE-yArDs or M.I.A., or even Rihanna or Aaliyah, that’s the kind of stuff we think about. We've kind of only ever been in niche circumstances, but we both really love electronic music and pop. I feel like each of us has always sort of tempered that for whatever reason. The main thing that we have openly talked about after listening to bands like that in reference to our own music is just the idea of pop and the idea of accessibility and all the different things that can mean now.

I think that pop is at a really weird place because the major labels are dying. The place where radio pop has traditionally come from is lurching to a halt, so it’s coming out in all these weird, other places. Like the fact that Charli XCX can be a huge star in Britain is crazy and cool to me, or Robyn’s weird ride to being this kind of independent but still totally dance-pop star. I’m not sure we view ourselves in that same category at all, but we just have a lot of conversations about the state of pop because it’s fascinating right now.

How do you think you’ll expand and reinvent your sound going forward?

NS: Right now, I think of the group of songs that we have, “Hey Mami” and “Play It Right” are the most similar.

AM: They were also the first two that we wrote.

NS: It's definitely expanded a lot. If you hear “Play It Right” or “Hey Mami,” you’d be like, "Oh, I totally know what this band sounds like." Then if you heard another song, you’d be like, "I wouldn't expect them to do that, but these three songs still make sense together." If you heard the next song, you’d be like, "I didn't expect that thing either, but these still make sense together." Each song is one notch different in this kind of constantly twisting thing, but I think each of them would be instantly recognizable as us.

We’re continuing to change the types of sounds that we pick, but I think the basic nature of how we work together has a signature to it. And I think that that’s something that will probably change over time as we change, and our connection to each other changes.


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