A Conversation With Wye Oak

Over the course of three surprise-filled albums, Wye Oak has artistically come of age in the public eye. Singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner and drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack mesh spellbinding folk-rock melodies with a dynamic range that shifts, in the blink of an eye, from the parlor to the garage. The Baltimore duo, whose latest album Civilian (Merge) can whisper as loud as it rocks the rafters, is on duty all week as guest editors of the MAGNET website. We recently caught up with Wasner via phone.

MAGNET: First time I saw you play was with Blitzen Trapper in San Francisco a few years ago, and then, more recently, I saw you at Bottom Of The Hill in San Francisco.
Wasner: I love Bottom Of The Hill. I remember walking up and down some really steep hills there and getting some exercise, which is something I don’t get to do very often.

Have you ever run into problems, being a woman and playing rock guitar? Close-minded people saying, “Well, she can’t be any good!” Or, has that kind of stupid attitude finally gone out of fashion?
I don’t know if it’s ever going to go out of fashion completely. People are less and less surprised to see women in bands, but the reaction I get is usually positive. People do mean it as a compliment, but it does reveal a lot about their mindset going into it. Usually the thing I get is, “I can’t believe you’re that good at the guitar!”

That seems pretty back-handed. Like all you should be able to do is make sandwiches and brew coffee?
[Laughs] Yeah, like “I’m really surprised that you can play guitar.” It’s pretty insane. Sometimes they’ll say that it’s so nice to see a female guitar player. But it’s never expected. I’m pretty much used to surprising people. I don’t consider myself to be a virtuosic guitar player, by any means, but I’m comfortable and confident.

Hey, you’re a very good guitar player. When I did a live review of your show, I compared what your were doing to Neil Young & Crazy Horse, meant as a real compliment in my book.
Well, that’s my hope, that people can see some of Neil Young in my playing. He’s a very gifted guitarist, but he also knows when to play and when not to play. I think he was way ahead of his time. I take it as a compliment. I think defying people’s expectations can be a useful trick in getting their attention. That’s something we have to be aware of. I’ve had some bad experiences, too. One that particularly sticks in my mind is when a sound guy comes up to me and says, “Sweetheart, if you don’t turn your guitar down we won’t be able to hear your pretty little voice.” So, I just say something like, “Well, believe it or not, this is an intentional esthetic that we’re going for.” You know, there’s always going to be some asshole, but for the most, part people are really supportive. One of my favorite things is just being around other female performers. A great band, Lower Dens, from Baltimore is fronted by one of my best friends, Jana Hunter. They played with us on part of our recent tour. They couldn’t go as far as San Francisco with us because they had to go to Europe with Deerhunter. Boo. [Laughs]

Tough assignment, but I guess somebody’s gotta do it.
Then there’s this other great band we play with from Brooklyn called Callers that is also a female-fronted band. Hmm, I’m about to enter a tunnel now, so I may lose you. I’m in a car on the way to meet Andy for band practice.

That’s a good segue to talk about Andy. I was amazed when you played live to see a guy who could keep a drum line going with one hand and play keyboards with the other. That seems like rubbing your head and patting your stomach at the same time.
It came about when we started playing together. The duo thing was never meant to be permanent. He did that out of necessity. While we were looking for other band members, we wanted to play shows and have a versatile setup. We could be loud if we wanted to and not be restricted by being a duo. So he came up with the idea of playing drums and keyboard at the same time. Andy’s always been really talented, but I was skeptical. Then he disappeared into the basement for a couple weeks, and he emerged being able to do it. It was slow going at first. He’d learn a song with one hand on the drums, then learn it with the other hand on keyboards. Then we’d put it together.

I like the new record. It seems quieter in places than (2009’s) The Knot.
I think it’s really a slow burner.

There’s one song called “Hot As Day” where it’s pretty quiet, then you explode with the electric guitar. That’s a tactic you’ve used before in your career.
Especially live. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing that song. It’s easy as a two-piece to use these tricks to surprise people, like a huge burst of volume out of nowhere, just defying people’s expectations of the amount of sound a duo is capable of producing. That comes easy. The far more difficult thing for us has been learning to be convincingly quiet and nuanced and still compelling. That’s way, way harder to do, much more challenging.

Have you thought about adding extra personnel? Frankly, I don’t see any reason to do it as long as just the two of you can cover all the bases.
If that were to happen, at this point it would be a different band. I write in a different way than I would for a larger group. It’s just been such a large part of who we are. We’ve just started working with an even more complicated setup for Andy. He’s now got a sampler as well as a keyboard.

As if he hasn’t got enough to do.
With the sampler now, there are a few songs where he can play two-handed drums, then cue up samples and bass lines simultaneously. We haven’t really exhausted what we’re capable of doing.

Have you ever seen Liam Finn play live? It’s just him onstage, but he’s got all these samples that he loops, and by the time he’s through, it’s a pretty damn big sound.
I haven’t seen him. But at this point, the sky’s the limit. With today’s technology, it’s so much easier to think about adding layers. Even after doing it for years, it was kind of intimidating, almost frightening, being onstage. It was always just as much as we could do to keep it together. If one element of the setup were to go, the whole thing goes. But now we’ve reached the point where we’re not just regurgitating the same parts we’ve practiced night after night. We’re more comfortable and looser with it.

Tell me how you acquired your singing voice. I know comparisons can be odious, but your voice reminds me, at times, of Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac.
Wow, that’s awesome. I actually played the role of Christine McVie in a Baltimore Fleetwood Mac tribute band. I think that’s an accurate comparison. Singing is such a huge part of who I am. My mom has an amazing voice, a beautiful voice. She sang songs to me in the bath tub. And not just singing, but complicated harmonies, which she instilled in me from a really early age. When I went to family parties, my mom and I, with two of my mom’s cousins and my cousin, four or five ladies, and our idea of a good time would be to sit around and sing. Whatever my mom liked. A lot of Fleetwood Mac.

Well, there you go.
My mom was really into the Indigo Girls, too. But we’d just pick songs we knew. My mom played the guitar. Because of the way I grew up, harmony is an innate thing for me. I can sing along and I don’t have to think about it. I don’t even have to hear it; I just sing it. It just happens. It’s the most natural thing to me. I didn’t know until I started playing with other people that it wasn’t something that everyone could do. Everyone I was around could do it.

It must be genetic. You’ve proved it.
I actually get on people’s nerves, because I can’t not sing along, and I’m trying to harmonize constantly. And it annoys people from time to time. But I can’t help it. My friend used to call me Karaoke Live. I’d tell him, “It’s funny—I’ve never done karaoke.” And he’d say, “Jenn, your whole life is karaoke.” I took piano lessons from an early age. I played classical piano for 10 years. Then my mom started teaching me how to play the guitar. At that point, guitar and songwriting pretty much eclipsed everything else. Then I met Andy and joined his high-school band when I was 15—I’m almost 25 now—to play keyboards while I was learning guitar.

Playing guitar is one thing, but how did you get into playing really loud, amplified guitar?
The kind of music I was into was not sulky, acoustic music, at all. I was really into Pavement, Yo La Tengo, My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth. Kinda noisy and dissonant. The first performances I ever did by myself, I’d play the local tavern when I was 16 and just sit around and play all the songs I knew. And they would mostly be stuff that nobody’s ever heard before. I would constantly get people who said, “Play some Sheryl Crow, play some Jewel.” And I hate that shit. I guess it’s because I’m a girl and I’m sitting there playing songs on acoustic guitar. At that point I swore I’d never play acoustic guitar in front of an audience again. It was a conscious thing, not to be an acoustic, female songstress. Fuck that! I’m going to have the loudest, noisiest guitar I could possibly have, so no one will ever again ask me to play Sheryl Crow songs.

Hey, I have to tell you. I once interviewed a fellow Baltimorean, John Doe from X. And he was telling me how Exene Cervenka developed this unique sense of harmony that she just pulled out of her head. Which means, I’d say, you’ve either got it or you don’t.
I fully believe that. If you practice enough, you will get better. But I do believe that certain things cannot be taught. Some people have an innate understanding. But, then again, some of my favorite singers are somewhat tone deaf.

Sure, Lou Reed, Ray Davies—those guys aren’t technically great singers, but they’re my favorite singers.
Yeah, it’s knowing how to do something real with the gift you have. Most of my favorites are not traditionally good singers. I mean, Neil Young is a great influence. Everyone says that, and it’s true. It’s undeniable. Anyone with an ear for songwriting, he breaks down barriers. Everyone loves Neil Young. I had a job recently teaching music to fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth-graders. It was the hardest job I’ve ever had, 30 kids in each class. It was a maternity-leave thing, and the substitute fell though.

Have you ever thought about taking vocal lessons?
If I wanted to take lessons and work at it, my voice would be a lot better than it is. But I yell and scream and laugh and probably smoke a little too much weed. I’m not the kindest to my voice. But I feel like it’s more important for my purposes to be comfortable with my voice than to have a classically trained voice. It’s been cool, learning to accept my voice. I’ve never really liked my voice. But I’ve been getting more and more comfortable with it.

I know more people who don’t like their own voice. I’ve put off transcribing an interview sometimes because I can’t stand my voice.
Well, I have a theory about it. I don’t think I have a bad voice.

No, you don’t.
But I hate to listen to it. My theory is that it’s unnatural to hear your own voice played back to you. It doesn’t fit quite right with our brains. When I hear my voice, singing or speaking, it doesn’t sound like me. I can’t stand it. It makes me cringe. But I’ve learned to deal with it. I hear my singing voice recorded, and one part of me says, “OK.” But this other part of me just can’t deal with it. There’s a lot I wish I could do with my voice that I just can’t do. You have to be yourself and know what your strengths are. In the past, when I’ve tried to make my voice sound shitty, it just sounds contrived, like a persona. I’ve had to learn to live with the voice that I have. It’s not the voice I’ve imagined would be singing the songs I write. But it’s the only one I’ve got.

I have a friend who has a great singing voice. And I helped talk her into playing live with her band for the first time about six months ago. She sounded even better live than I would have thought. Everybody told her afterward how great she was, but she thought they must be lying to her. They’re just trying to be nice.
You know, it’s really true. No one hears your voice the way others hear it. I’ve never known any singer who is 100-percent psyched on the sound of their own voice. Even the best singers I’ve ever met in my life have hang-ups about their voice.

Well, take it from me: You have a great voice.

—Jud Cost

“Civilian” (download):