In which the Baltimore indiepopsters
learned to quit worrying and love the bomb… er, “to let go.”
BY JOHN SCHACHT
According to Wye Oak songwriter Jenn Wasner, “learning to let go” was
one of the key emotional territories explored on Civilian (Merge), the superb third full-length from the
Baltimore-based duo she founded with Andy Stack. Little did they know the LP’s
10 songs would provide the first opportunity to put Wasner’s lyrical feet to
After recording in Baltimore,
the duo turned over the LP’s mixing process for the first time to someone not
actually in Wye Oak. Wasner and Stack spent six days in Dallas with producer
John Congleston (Shearwater, St. Vincent), and the guitarist/singer confessed
she approached “nervous breakdown territory” when Congleston told them each day
to come back in “five or six hours” while he worked his analog magic on their
“Relinquishing all control to someone who was at that time essentially
a complete stranger was a huge leap of faith,” Wasner chuckles, admitting she
suffers from what Congleston termed “completion anxiety.” “I’m trying to get past it, and let things
exist as documents of a certain time, and a certain place and moment, rather
than trying to make them into this ultimate thing.”
The leap of faith was rewarded because Civilian‘s songs still resemble semi-feral animals. One minute
they’re all sweetness riffs and wistful organ-wash melodies, then, often
foreshadowed by Stack’s ticking-bomb beats, they suddenly roil into explosive
bridges and soaring codas highlighted by Wasner’s feedback-friendly guitar
fireworks. Concentrating on first impulses and dialing back Wye Oak’s
tendencies to “tweak and fiddle,” as Wasner puts it, does more here to capture
the band’s cathartic live show – and catharsis, too, was Civilian‘s purview.
“Without getting too personal, I will say there was a lot of living
that had to be done in order for these songs to even exist,” Wasner says. “The
making of it was very much like a cleansing process for me, so it’s really nice
to have what is almost a totem of what I’ve been through and accomplished, and
what we’re capable of.”
Blurt spoke to the 24-year-old Wasner the day before the duo was to
leave for a short run of Euro dates. It was just the start to what she
predicted would be a long year away spent away from family, friends and the
town and its burgeoning music scene she and Stack feel so honored to be part
BLURT: So you
made this record with John Congleston -how’d that come about?
JENN WASNER: (Andy and I) both thought that he had a really good way
with finding space with heavily layered songs. We have a tendency in the
studio, maybe because of the forced sparseness of our live show, to go all out
in tracking. But I wanted to make a record that had space to it, that didn’t
seem just like a wall of sound and textures; a little bit of sparseness, even
if it was only a perception of sparseness. John has an uncanny knack for making
space in recordings, for providing atmosphere. We felt he’d be a great fit, and
it turned out to be true.
We did the basics in Baltimore with Mickey and
Chris Freeland at Beat Babies studio. We did our last EP (2010’s My Neighbor/My Creator) there, where
they did the Lower Dens record, which I loved. Then we did overdubs ourselves, and
took it down to Dallas.
So, yeah, for the first time ever, we just threw our hands up and said, ‘yeah,
okay, here we go.’ That was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done, because
we have trouble letting go, and this record was, in part, about learning to let
go. In the moment I was kind of approaching nervous breakdown territory because
mixing is traditionally for me a really tough time. I have a really hard time
seeing through all the work that we’ve been doing and all the time that we’ve
been spending on it, to see the finished product. So relinquishing all control
to someone who was at that time essentially a complete stranger was a huge leap
of faith. There were definitely some moments of panic. But we really trusted
him. We had a lot of say in the mixing, but his mark is all over it. Looking
back and being able to see the final product, he did a fantastic job.
That process seems so…mysterious.
It’s a mystery to me. It’s amazing
to watch, takes years and years of experience, and talent. We’d give him the
sessions of a song for the day, and he’d be like, ‘okay, split, I’ll call you
in five or six hours, I’ll have a basic mix.’ Then we’d come back and spend a
few hours together tweaking the mix he made. So for the most part what he did
remained a total mystery. There were moments when Andy and I would be like,
‘how did you do that?’ And he’d say, ‘I’m not telling you.’ There are ways, but
I can’t say I know what they are even after working with him.
I read where Andy called it ‘scary new
territory’ for you guys…
We were basically complete
strangers, so to hand over this thing that meant so much to both of us and that
basically amounted to the culmination of two years of work for me, and what I
figured was pretty much my best collection of songs to date – yeah, scary. I’m
a complete control freak – I’m not necessarily proud of it, but I’m aware of
it. The fact of the matter is that there are people out there like John, this
is their real talent, this is what they do. I feel like in the future, I want
to be a little more open about working with people and allowing them to do what
they do best and understanding what I do best and sticking to that.
How long were you in Dallas?
Six days. It was terrifying. That
was all we could afford. Going into it John said, ‘we’ll make it happen.’ He
said he’s mixed full records in a day. It’s all about how long you spend on
stuff. We probably averaged one or two songs per day, remixing them. The other
thing about John, but a total surprise to us, he works entirely analog, he’s
making these mixes on the board, then prints them to tape, then they’re done.
So if you want to remix it, you’re starting from scratch. We’re used to working
in the modern ProTools realm, where you mix a song and then if you hear
something you don’t like about it you just open up the session and fix it, and
it takes 10 seconds. He said, ‘I believe that more options, and the infinite
ability to constantly tweak and re-tweak, does not necessarily make better
records. I think you’re first impulse is usually your best, so I’m going to
force you guys to make decisions about things on the spot, and you’re just
going to have to go with it.’
That was the ‘scary new
territory’ Andy was talking about, because when it comes down to it, we’re just
tweakers and fiddlers, and we’re used to having time to sit back and take it
with us and go, ‘oh, we can just turn this one thing down real quick’ — anything’s
possible. But once you print that sucker to tape and you clear the board –
that’s it, that’s what you have. There were a couple times when we did that and
we thought ‘that’s going to be a remix and another half-day.’ And when you’re
working on a limited schedule, deciding whether the tiny thing you’re obsessing
over is worth another half-day of remixing, or if you should just live with it
– those kinds of decisions were new for us.
In the end I’m really
proud of the way it worked out, because if we had been mixing ourselves I know
that there would be things – many things – that would be very different about
it. And if we had, even with John, the option to tweak things, it would’ve
sounded different. But it’s a moment in time – it could go an infinite number
of ways, and at a certain point you kind of have to call it finished, and let
it be what it is. He helped us do that, and I learned from him that at a
certain point you have to understand it’s done.
He had a really cool phrase for it, he called it ‘completion anxiety,’
which I really like and like to keep in mind now because I know that I suffer
from ‘completion anxiety’ with pretty much everything I do because I’m kind of
a perfectionist. I’m trying to get past it, and let things exist as documents
of a certain time, and a certain place and moment, rather than trying to make
them into this ultimate thing.
Sounds like it had some reverberations for the
Oh, certainly. I mean, I don’t
think we’ll ever make a record by ourselves again. It’s onward and upward from
here. If anything, I’m interested to see what it’s like to work with a producer
from start to finish. We’re trying to change it up and find the more
interesting and exciting way to make records.
Did you find the analog to be ‘warmer,’ as the
general consensus goes?
There are a lot of different
ways to achieve that warmth and that kind of sound. I’m by no means one of
those people who are going to say that technology is cold and dead and
harsh-sounding always, and that digital recordings can never sound warm. I
think beautiful sounding recordings can be made with digital interface.
Obviously tape and a board, they sound a certain way and provide a certain
feel, but I’m not an absolutist. We didn’t record to tape, we just mixed to
tape, and it was really great to have that option. If we had the money and the
time to make a record entirely on tape, I’d love to see what that process is
like. But generally speaking, you can make great sounding records anywhere, and
in any way. And you can make great records that don’t necessarily sound good –
I like records that sound like shit sometimes. I like the lo-fi shit too. I
just think it’s knowing how to work within the means you have and making
something interesting and exciting with what you’re working with.
In the original tracking, did you try to
change things up to match the live show sound, or were you still trying to get
as many textures into the equation?
If anything, we were trying to
limit ourselves. It’s just our gut impulse to layer as much as we can because
we’re so excited to have the options — ‘what about this?’ or ‘or how ‘bout trying
that?’ – just because they’re available. In the past, we just haven’t edited
ourselves in any way in that regard – ‘okay, just pile it on, see what
happens!’ This time we made a concentrated effort toward, not necessarily
sparseness, because I think it ended up being a pretty lush record, but just
making sure that if something’s in there there’s a reason for it. ‘Is this
necessary, does this have a place, does it play a part?’ In the past we’d be,
‘how ‘bout a few layers of noisy guitar?’ This time we made a concentrated
effort writing parts and editing down to only what we thought was absolutely
necessary and making sure what was in there was appropriate.
That’s tough for us because
we spend so much time rehearsing the live show. It’s not quiet, and it’s not
sparse, but to us we do feel somewhat limited by it. So it’s only natural for
us to kind of push it in the studio. But I’m happy that we took the extra time
and effort to edit things out as opposed to just leave everything in.
It feels like the work of a more experienced
I hope so, shit. It feels good
to hear that. We made this record kind of quickly – when I say it’s the product
of a couple years of work, the actual songwriting came in a really brief period
of time, a couple of months. And the recording was a month, and the mixing was
six days. For us, that’s really brief. But the work that I’m thinking of when I
say that is just learning how to be a band — playing shows, recording things.
Just being more experienced is exactly what it felt like. Going into the
process, learning from mistakes we’ve made, regrets we’ve had with recordings
we’ve made in the past.
And without getting too
personal, I will say there was a lot of living that had to be done in order for
these songs to even exist. So I’m really proud of myself for writing them. I’m
happy with the recording but even more than that I’m really happy with where I
was able to go, writing-wise. I’m just really happy that they exist. It’s great
to be a songwriter or artist because you have this permanent documentation of
the things that have affected you most in your life, so I look back on this
record and see a somewhat different version of myself, for sure. But the making
of it was very much like a cleansing process for me, so it’s really nice to
have what is almost a totem of what I’ve
been through and accomplished and what we’re capable of. I’m happy to finally
see it come to fruition.
To be continued
tomorrow. In Part 2, Wasner delves into the nature of her songwriting, about
being on the road and the “tour bubble,” her city Baltimore, The Wire, and more. A version of this article also appears in the latest print
issue (#10) of BLURT.
[Photo Credit: Natasha Tylea]