Q&A: Andy Stack of Wye Oak on the band’s ‘fearless vulnerability’

Wye Oak w/ Margaret Glaspy, Sister Wife

Englert Theatre — Friday, April 6 at 7 p.m.

Mission Creek joins with SCOPE Productions to present dream pop duo Wye Oak at Mission Creek 2018. — photo courtesy of Mission Creek Festival

One of the true musical highlights of the 2018 Mission Creek Festival is a live performance by Wye Oak, a musical duo consisting of multi-instrumentalists Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack. Originally based in Baltimore, MD, the pair met in college, dropped-out to make music, signed to indie label Merge Records and developed a genre-defying, evolutionary sound that has garnered increasing critical acclaim with each subsequent record.

Wye Oak’s latest, The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs, continues that trend, with music critics bending over backward to praise the album which is set for release this Friday, April 6 — the same night as their Mission Creek performance at the Englert Theatre. The show, with Sister Wife and Margaret Glaspy, starts at 7 p.m.; tickets are $20. Festival Weekend Passes ($75) are also still available.

Last week Little Village spoke with Andy Stack about the band, their new record, the meaning behind their latest single, “Lifer,” and why Iowa City has a special place in his heart. Our thanks go out to Andy for his willingness to accommodate a second conversation due to technical issues.

The Louder I Call… seems like the most polished, fully-realized album of Wye Oak’s catalog. Can you talk about the recording experience? What was the collective mood coming into the studio? Was this album a struggle to record?

At the time we recorded the record, I was living in Marfa, Texas and Jenn in Durham, North Carolina. This is the third record that we’ve made under these circumstances, with each of us on different ends of the country, so we’ve gotten some good systems in place by now. What was different about the process this time out was, we consciously set aside any limitations around what the record should or shouldn’t be. In past records, we’ve used limitations as a writing tool, as on Shriek, where there was no guitar, just synths and bass. For this record, we’ve taken all of the musical materials that we’ve played with over the years and put everything on the table.

In a pinch, how do you classify or categorize the band’s sound? I feel like The Louder I Call… could fit into several genres — several genres Civilian wouldn’t fit into. How do you feel the band’s sound has evolved since you started? Can you talk about where you think you might want to head with your next record? Does the thought of Wye Oak starting from scratch in the studio and recording the process have any appeal?

Yeah, I don’t really know what genre of music we are. It can be frustrating because by and large, I think the majority of consumers like to have clarity about what their musical choices represent — like it’s a lifestyle item or something like that. Generally the music that really speaks to me is the stuff that falls somewhere in between.

To the question of where we’re going for future records, I mentioned on the phone that I’ve just recently moved back to the east coast, and I’m living in Durham. It represents the first time the band has been based in one place in about six or seven years. So I have to assume that it will change the character of the music. I’d really like to explore what it’s like where we make music in the same space, together in a room, rather than playing this game of telephone which has come to define the recording process in the past few years.

Especially in the wake Jenn’s essay about “Lifer,” I feel the melancholy or sadness that is at the heart of several of the new songs is worth unpacking. Where does that come from? How do you negotiate mental health/depression and the ongoing negativity of our current culture as a band?

At the heart of a lot of the new material is a fearless vulnerability, which is a total paradox. Maintaining and cultivating that tension of opposites is in a large part what these songs are about, and what creating art is all about. It’s a continual challenge to take the subtlety and complexity of emotion and experience and place it on out there as a public spectacle; neither of us are real extroverts, so we struggle with that regularly.

The sellout question is silly but in this digital age, and [with the] new realities of the music industry, how do you stay true to yourself when it comes to using your music in advertising, film and television?

We’ve never had any extreme crisis of conscience, like where the NRA wants to put our music in their ads or something like that. But the ethics of commerce are a moving target. What would have been “selling out” 20 years ago is not the same as today. In the current state of the music business, limping along as it is, licensing in film and TV and all that is pretty important to be able to sustain a career. Ultimately, you just end up making a series of micro-choices all the time and going with your intuition about when something crosses a line and makes you squirm a bit too much for comfort.

Have you had a moment in your career when you felt like you arrived or succeeded in a way that was surprising? I believe you mentioned the Baltimore symphony when we last spoke. Conversely, have you ever been disappointed by success?

Yeah, playing with the Baltimore Symphony was a high point for sure — we’ve been doing a bunch of these symphonic collaborative performances in the last couple of years, and those are always hugely challenging but also rewarding. It puts us in the room with the highest caliber musicians, but people who are operating in a really different sphere. It puts us off balance and makes us check in with what we are bringing to the table creatively — sometimes just going through the motions of tour is a very mechanical, even unmusical, exercise. But when you’re thrown into a setting with these incredible players, you have to come up to their level, or at least find the common footing.

Have you been to Iowa before? Any cities or venues on your upcoming tour you’re looking forward to?

We’ve played at the Mill several of times, and we got to tour way back in the early days with Andre Perry’s band, the Lonelyhearts. Also, Jenn and I are both die-hard Arthur Russell fans, so that’s a check in the win column for the state of Iowa.

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