Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner on The Louder I Call, the Faster it Runs
We catch up with Jenn Wasner, one half of Wye Oak, to talk about their latest record, The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs, bad band names and finding joy in music
Wye Oak began as a band mired in noise-flecked indie rock and quickly became a polished, efficient dream-folk outfit before taking a hard turn into synth-pop on 2014's Shriek. Now, after 2016's brilliant transitional outtakes compilation Tween, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack have torn up the rulebook once again. The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs sees the duo shattering their status quo to make their boldest and most assured creative statement to date.
We caught up with Wasner, one half of the duo, the morning after the band's first live airing of new material at SXSW. “We had our first show last night as a three-piece, and first playing new material... it was all of the emotions at once: exciting, fun, extremely terrifying.” The duo have now added a bass player to help recreate the more densely layered sonics that abound on the new album; “we had to come up with a set of grounding principles... technically it is possible to use the technology we've used in the past to duplicate the sound on the record, but the question becomes: is that what you want your live performance to be? As a general rule, if something was created with the use of computers, it makes sense for it to be played by a computer, but if it was played by a human, we want it to be played by a human.”
Principles, or self-imposed limitations, have been driving forces behind the band's previous records, but after years of studio tinkering the pair now have the confidence to go after exactly what they want. “I think a lot of our records were a result of learning to recognise the happiest accidents and work with them, whereas now we're able to be like 'we want this sound' and we know how to get it... so it's more intentional, rather than 'let's use all this equipment and see what happens.'
“In the past we've set out to be minimal, but ended up maximal, so with this record we were just like, 'Fuck it! Let's be maximal'... It's the first record we've made where there wasn't some sort of artificial limitation placed on the recording or the composition – not in a negative way, just a limitation we've used as a creative jumping-off point... but this is the first time we haven't given ourselves any limitations, we just decided to put everything on the table.”
'I feel pretty devoid of hope for the future'
The cover of the album, as well as recent promo shots and the video for the title track, come from time spent in White Sands Desert, New Mexico. “I like that place so much – it's like a void, it becomes a sort of blank slate. When you're in it it's very easy to become extremely disoriented and lose track of position and space... all of those qualities seemed to lend a perfect backdrop to the image we were trying to create.”
The video and album cover demonstrate the hold that the past has on us, despite wanting to move forward – a perfect encapsulation of the album's thematic concerns: “The image on the cover is that of a figure that is actually being followed by its own former selves – a visual representation of being chased by the past – moving through time, in a forward direction, but at the same time being chased by every past iteration of yourself that has ever existed.”
Although the new material is seemingly rooted in personal strife and efforts to progress, it is inevitably influenced by contemporary geopolitics. “More so than any time in my life I feel pretty devoid of hope for the future, and I don't say that in a super emo/goth way,” Wasner states matter-of-factly, “but I've come to realise the present moment is the only thing that matters, and if anyone is going to have any semblance of joy in their lives, it's going to happen in the small, present moments.”
Catharsis via music isn't a new idea, but the strength of conviction that comes across on the record, further confirmed by Wasner's striking clarity of vision, is genuinely uplifting and the concept feels all the fresher for it. “The world has always been, in many ways, dark and difficult and unkind and cruel, but we have an access to it [now] that we've never had before – we have a window on every horror that's happening in every corner of the world. The only reaction that I've been able to come to, in terms of finding a will to continue, is not manufacturing some sort of artificial hope that things are going to get better. But to do as much good as I can in the small ways that I actually have control over, and to try and bring joy to myself and others through the privilege I have to make music.”
Barely pausing for breath, Wasner continues: “music is the only thing in my life that I legitimately feel hopeful about. Everything else is like 'despair' and 'we're doomed,' but when I think about music it's like 'man, I really think my best work is ahead of me and I'm so excited!' And I'm so grateful for that, and if I can give other people that sense of joy or peace or comfort then I feel like my life will not have been a waste.”
'We've never really liked the name Wye Oak' - on album titles and band names
The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs breaks a Wye Oak tradition of snappy album titles (their last three have been single words). “We've done the concise, super condensed [titles],” Wasner muses, “I do love trying to capture ambiguity with just one word, as we've done in the past, but with the limitations off the table it felt like the right time to introduce a much wordier title into the mix.
“I love this title in particular because it's like a sort of psychological test you can give people. For me it's like this: 'I'm in hiding, and the louder I call for help, the faster whatever I'm hiding from is able to find me,' whereas I told Andy and his reaction was 'the more I want something, the faster it goes away from me,' so it does have that ambiguity I like so much. Even though I hadn't thought of it that way, the second way still applies to much of what's going on in the songs; wanting something and trying to figure out how to get it, or watching it slip through your fingers...”
We share a few thoughts on the way simple word associations can reveal a person's psychological state before agreeing that this title is another aspect of the idiosyncratic streak that permeates the record, as well as a rebuke to the charge of creative complacency. “I don't want to go outside of my instincts to try and create [music] that I think people are expecting, or want to hear, because I think that's how terrible, terrible music is made,” Wasner scoffs with a chuckle.
Every aspect of the creative process is important to Wasner, but especially names/titles, something that she's managed to indulge through side projects like Flock of Dimes and Dungeonesse, though it seems to be logistical reasons that's kept Wye Oak going for so long. “If consistency wasn't a concern in my career I'd probably invent a different persona and name for every record, to match whatever I'm trying to create at any given time.
“I'm gonna be honest with you: we've never really liked the name," she laughs, "not even when we came up with it, but every conceivable band name is taken and we had to come with something in like a week when we signed to Merge [after previously being called Monarch]. Most band names are terrible, if not all. No, I'm just gonna say it, they're all terrible. All you can really hope for is that it comes to represent not what it originally meant, but what you are and what you do. I don't love the name Jennifer but [you] gotta call me something!”
Considering the idea of making music under her real name, Wasner ponders, “it's possible, but I'm instinctively very afraid of that because it's the one name I cannot ditch – I could kill Wye Oak or Flock of Dimes and start making music under another name, but I'm stuck with my personal name for life.” Whatever the case, it may come under a different guise, but it doesn't look like Jenn Wasner is going to slow down her output any time soon, and we're all the better for that.
The Louder I Call, the Faster It Runs is released on 6 Apr via Merge