After breakthrough, Wye Oak follows unexpected path to 'Shriek'

Baltimore indie-rock duo finishes tour with homecoming outdoor show

  • Baltimore's Jenn Wasner (left) and Andy Stack of indie-rock act Wye Oak.
Baltimore's Jenn Wasner (left) and Andy Stack of indie-rock… (Shervin Lainez / Handout )
July 11, 2014|By Wesley Case | The Baltimore Sun

For Wye Oak to continue as one of Baltimore's most well-established indie-rock acts, change was necessary.

Sometime after the 2011 album "Civilian," singer Jenn Wasner began viewing the guitar — her instrument since she formed the duo in 2006 with drummer Andy Stack — as a liability.

Before then, Wye Oak's clever songwriting and dramatic rock sound had propelled the group from the city's DIY music scene to success on a national scale that included song placements on popular TV shows and a live performance on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." But when it came time to write the follow-up to "Civilian," Wasner suddenly hit a creative roadblock with the guitar.

So for "Shriek," Wye Oak's fourth album, released in April, she ditched it entirely for the bass.

What seemed drastic to outsiders — how could it be a Wye Oak album without guitar? — was actually Wasner preserving her creativity.

"If a particular instrument or a particular style just isn't yielding the same creative results, then I feel like I only really have one choice, which is to chase whatever feels inspiring," Wasner said as she drove last week through Texas for a tour that will wrap up this month with a homecoming show outside Baltimore's Metro Gallery. (The singer assured that she was wearing a headset while talking and driving.)

Wasner makes clear that she is a songwriter first, and whatever instrument she chooses to play is secondary. The attitude is indicative of a band that tasted a few drops of mainstream success but refused to compromise its artistry to chase even more. The goal for Wye Oak is not fame, accolades, wealth or even a more prominent spot at a festival gig. Instead, Wasner and Stack follow the same mantra: Do what feels right.

"The tools that I use to create are sort of less important to me than the foundation of what it is that I do, which is to write songs," Wasner said.

This assertion has been apparent to longtime fans of Wye Oak. Each release leading to "Shriek" has been marked with improvement. The cautious, independently released "If Children" (2007) begat a moodier, more confident approach on 2009's "The Knot." After an experimental EP titled "My Neighbor/My Creator" in 2010, the duo maximized its lush-but-meaty guitar-and-drum parts to unmatched heights on the critically acclaimed album "Civilian." (The AV Club named it the No. 1 album of 2011.)

"Shriek" has more electronic elements and relies heavily on the thick grooves created by Stack's drums and Wasner's bass. But the heart of it is still unmistakably a Wye Oak album, with indelible melody lines, dense layers and Wasner's haunting alto.

"I thought once people heard it, it would make sense," said Wasner, 28.

It's easy to forget, especially in Baltimore, that many were first introduced to Wye Oak within the past few years. The band was far from anonymous at the time of "Civilian's" release, but the third album raised the band's profile considerably.

Most significant was the title track's placement in a memorable scene in a 2012 episode of the popular AMC zombie drama "The Walking Dead." It's now the band's most recognizable hit (it has millions of more plays on the streaming service Spotify than the rest of the duo's catalog). It's a milestone Wasner and Stack appreciate, but it still leaves them scratching their heads.

"Neither of us really watch the show," Wasner said, before adding that they reviewed the scene before giving final approval. "We didn't realize it was going to be such a tremendous thing for people."

While Wasner said all similar opportunities for "Shriek" tracks are considered on a case-by-case basis, neither she nor Stack seems much interested in such things. For both members, Wye Oak is simply about conquering the next challenge — whatever it might be.

The most daunting challenge after "Shriek's" release was re-creating the album in a live setting. Wasner's swapping of guitar for bass would have been hard enough, but that wrinkle was compounded by the fact the duo wrote and recorded the majority of "Shriek" on opposite coasts (she was in Baltimore, Stack was in Portland, Ore.).

"We never actually stood in a room together and played the songs," said Stack, who was riding shotgun as Wasner drove. (He and Wasner formed the band as a couple but broke up in 2010.) "There was never actually any live arrangement ... until we had a completed record."

To make it work required "a whole lot of practice," Wasner said. For a band that seems allergic to "going through the motions," the rededication to performance was invigorating.

"It's important for me to feel that I'm pushing myself, and I'm doing something that doesn't necessarily come really easily," Wasner said. "It's actually a huge asset in that it's helping us stay engaged with the songs for longer."

Stack concedes that there was "a period of sheer terror as we were rehearsing" new material, but that the circumstances surrounding "Shriek" led to a more engaged live set.

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