The complex grain of Baltimore duo Wye Oak doesn’t run straight; it swirls rings of dreamy heartache
for Oklahoma Gazette
There isn’t really a correct way to interpret Wye Oak. The Baltimore rock band, comprised of singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner and drummer/keyboard player Andy Stack, doesn’t mean to give the wrong impression, but there’s no reconciling the sonic inconsistencies between its albums, nor the divergence between the sound of the record and the setup of the live show.
It’s also nearly impossible to believe that Wasner, who in person is disarmingly friendly and animated, owns the heartbreaking voice behind the majority of Wye Oak’s catalog ” a depressing array of songs that touch on everything from family turmoil and religious doubt to the trials of a failing relationship.
“The Knot,” released on Merge Records last year, is heavy-handed compared to the band’s latest EP, “My Neighbor / My Creator.” The former relies a great deal on distortion; the vocals are quiet and the drums loud, for the most part. The latter is comparatively triumphant and clear, although tackling many of the same issues.
Perhaps most interesting about Wye Oak is that the heavy layering and complex tempos are handled onstage by the same two people who recorded layer after layer in studio.
“We always think, ‘Oh, God, how are we going to do this?’ But we don’t ever let that stop us from doing some-thing on a recording” Wasner said. “We definitely have moments where we think, ‘This is the way we want it, and it’s going to be difficult to duplicate this.’ It was tough for me to get over that, but I realize now that it’s OK if the songs are different live.
“We get a big kick out of re-imagining them … stretching their boundaries and making them work in our live setup. It can be really frustrating for certain songs, where we’ve gone at it again and again and never hit upon something that works live. That’s definitely a bummer, but for the most part, our two-person setup is something we’ve stopped considering as a limitation and realized it’s just part of who we are.”
Among Wye Oak’s other defining characteristics are its deep ties to Baltimore. Stack and Wasner are natives who moved away for college, returned home and, shortly thereafter, formed the group.
“I’m definitely one of those born-and-raised folks. Our families are there,” Wasner said. “I never realized how exciting a city it really is musically, artistically, creatively and culturally until I tried to move away. We got lucky; we grew up at a time when Baltimore was blossoming in a lot of ways, and it’s an inspiring place to be, but I will say this: If I didn’t travel a good chunk of the year, I don’t know where I’d be. By the end of a tour, I’m so excited just to be home, but by the end of my time at home, I’m like, ‘Get me the fuck out of here. I need to go on tour.’ I don’t know how long I can necessarily keep that up, but as of now, it seems to be a pretty good balance. Baltimore’s an important part of the kind of people we are.”
Indeed, themes of family and home weigh heavily into Wye Oak’s songwriting. The group’s lyrics are at once vague and strikingly personal, and many of its songs find Wasner openly questioning her belief in God; the tray liner of “The Knot” disc reads, “There is no great eye on the sparrow?,” taken from the album’s “Mary Is Mary.”
Wasner attributed the biblical reference to another source: the recently deceased Mark Linkous of alternative rock band Sparklehorse, whose “Hundreds of Sparrows” is a favorite of Wasner’s.
“It’s one of those songs I just really, really love. When I heard the news (of Linkous’s suicide), it hit me really hard,” he said. “I didn’t realize until now how much that song had influenced me lyrically. That line, ‘You are worth hundreds of sparrows,’ just stuck with me. It’s about how I’m going to handle religion, or the lack thereof, in my life and how I’m going to handle that with my family. His lines have been in my head the whole time, and it came full circle: I put that reference back in my own songs and, yes, there is a question mark on the end. I do not have that shit figured out.”
And rightfully so. The gravity of Wye Oak’s music makes it easy to forget that Stack and Wasner are young, both in their 20s ” and semipublicly dealing with the very same issues that plague everyone else their age. Case in point: A couple linked since the act’s 2006 inception, Stack and Wasner recently parted ways, romantically, while their friendship and working relationship has remained intact.
“We’re still on tour, and we’re still playing the same music, and we’re still the same kind of friends we’ve always been. We’re not making a press release about our personal lives. We’re not egotistical enough to think anyone would really care,” she said. “We’re also not trying to hide anything. It’s not a huge part of who we are musically, but when you’re a duo, people are curious. … I think it’s important to keep the line drawn between the important stuff ” the really personal stuff ” and a public persona, but shit, we’re just people. I’m not going to lie to anybody.”
Currently on tour with Texas act Shearwater, Wye Oak performs Friday at the Opolis in Norman, and recently completed a stint at Austin’s South by Southwest festival.
“We’re getting along great on tour. We’re both happy and content with the state of our band partnership and our friendship. Things are good,” Wasner said. “We get to travel around in a van and have good times, and you can’t really ask for much more than that.”
During “I Hope You Die,” from “My Neighbor / My Creator,” Wasner sings, “Was it deafeningly loud, or was it peace ” sweet peace?”
With Wye Oak, it’s always at least one or the other, and most of the time, it’s both.