LEFT OF THE DIAL In the spring of 2013, Jenn Wasner found herself at an unexpected crossroads.
As one half of Wye Oak, the singer-guitarist had been touring the country nearly nonstop following the critical success of Civilian, the album that shoved the then-five-year-old indie guitar band into the national spotlight. Brooding, heavily melodic, equal parts pretty and cinematically noisy, the title track was soaked through with Wasner’s moody guitar tone, unmistakable technical chops, and her vulnerable yet powerful voice. If you watched any TV in 2011, chances are you heard it — the band licensed it to a number of shows. (“We had been working for years and years, and for whatever reason everything kind of culminated around Civilian, so we decided to say yes to every opportunity that presented itself,” she says.)
But staring down the band’s first real down time in two years, Wasner sat down to write new material, and found that she wanted nothing to do with the sound with which Wye Oak had just hit the big time.
“It was a difficult time for a lot of reasons. We were both exhausted. And I just discovered that there was a real air of negativity that surrounded music that sounded like the music we’d been playing for two years,” says Wasner. “It was really hard to feel inspired or compelled to work that way again. There was all this emotional baggage associated with the guitar, and because that was how I’d always written in the past, it became a block.” She spent a few months considering the possibility that this meant the band was over, that there would be no new album, before she realized something: She was allowed to write whatever kind of music she damn well pleased.
“I let go of a lot of expectations about what this album was allowed to sound like, a lot of expectations I had about pleasing other people,” she says. “I went, ‘You know what? Make the record that you want to make.'”
Turns out, she probably shouldn’t have worried. For most Wye Oak fans, the record she wanted to make — Shriek, out April 29 on Merge — is a far cry from a disappointment. It is decidedly, almost defiantly different: Wasner has traded her guitar for synths, picking up a bass while she’s at it. Gone is the swirling storm cloud of reverb; in its place are electro-R&B grooves, with percussionist and keyboard player Andy Stack now also carrying the lion’s share of melody.
These are kids who grew up listening to Janet Jackson, and they’re letting it show. (They’ll bring that party to the Bay July 12 for Phono del Sol.)
Around each element, however, also sits an unfamiliar amount of breathing room — a sparseness that allows Wasner’s vocals, sounding more confident than ever, to break through in a way we haven’t heard before.
“It’s been a really long process feeling comfortable with my own voice,” she says. “I spent a lot of time trying to obscure my voice, and change it, and hide it…those were aesthetic decisions, but it also came down to feeling detached from it. That’s definitely changed in the past couple years: I’ve started caring for my voice, practicing, treating it like my instrument, embrace the fact that I love singing.
“A lot of these melodies are specifically crafted to be more open,” she adds. “It’s a more vulnerable position to be coming from, but it feels good to do.” Live, she’s dealt with the fact that it’s much more difficult to sing and play the bass at the same time than rhythm guitar — but that too is a good thing. “Being challenged is what keeps it interesting.”
Another big change: Collaborating from different sides of the country. Between Civilian and Shriek, Stack moved to Portland, while Wasner remained in Baltimore, forcing the duo to communicate in a new way throughout the songwriting process.
“Every time I wanted to share an idea with him, I was forced to figure out a way to realize it, record it,” says Wasner. “And being forced to do that with everything I did was an incredible good way to learn and practice. It changed the way I wrote songs. It’s a big part of the reason these are some of my favorite songs I’ve ever written.”
As for the reaction from their devoted fan base, who Wasner realized she had to put out of her mind in order to write the songs she actually wanted?
“To be honest with you, I expected it to be much worse!” she says with a slight laugh. “I feel pretty strongly that the foundation of our band has always been the songs themselves: It’s never been about a particular instrument…and these songs are Wye Oak songs. I think if people really listen they’ll hear that. It’s the same voice, the same fundamental nature of the songs. And I think a lot of people have.”
Most importantly, though, she’s happy with it. “Criticism is always subjective, nothing that you can take personally,” she says. “And it’s cool because I’m happy with it to the point that it’s hard to top that. Real satisfaction, when you know you’re satisfied with something, that doesn’t get swayed by almost anyone’s opinion. The approval of others is a very thin substitute.”
With Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, Nick Waterhouse, Tony Molina, more
Phono del Sol
Sat/12, noon to 7pm, $25-$30
Potrero del Sol Park, SF
ODDS AND ENDS
The Bay Area Record Fair (that’s B.A.R.F. for all you cool kids) has announced its second edition, set to take place Sept. 27, once again at Thee Parkside. This collaboration between local label Father/Daughter Records and promoters Professional Fans kicked off in February with folks from 17 record labels from around the Bay coming together to network, hawk their wares, and, most importantly, drink beer and eat tater tots while listening to good, loud rock ‘n’ roll, because that’s why the good lord created Thee Parkside.
This fall’s event is busting at the seams, as Jessi Frick from Father/Daughter tells us: “This time we’re pulling permits to block off part of Carolina Street to make room for even more vendors, and a limited number of early bird tickets are available for $5 which gets you fair access one hour before doors open to the public.”
There’ll be a daylong lineup of live music TBA, of course, and the number of labels participating has pretty much doubled. You can see a full shakedown of the day’s events at www.bayarearecordfair.com, or catch organizers at Phono del Sol next weekend, where they’ll be selling a 21-song compilation CD featuring the labels represented; all proceeds go to keeping the whole damn thing free. Sounds like a pretty good deal on this end.
Sept. 27, all day, free
1600 17th St, SF
And speaking of kicking things up a notch: Viracocha is back, bitches. Everyone’s favorite semi-secret Mission District venue — what with her ornate, gorgeously appointed bathroom, shelves full of antique typewriters, and great-sounding basement venue that’s played host to all manner of live music, poetry readings, movie nights and more — got the official go-ahead from the SF Entertainment Commission to re-launch as a legitimate venue, meaning owner Jon Siegel will be able to promote some of those great live shows for the first time.
An opening party with an evening full of live music is planned for this Tuesday, July 15, but beyond that a lot of things are up in the air. Be on the lookout for a beer and wine license, a totally revamped store, and more in the coming months; like Viracocha on Facebook to stay in touch.