Despite the seemingly wink-wink title of their sophomore album The Knot, Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack are not married nor planning any nuptials in the near future.
For them, another life-changing social contract might only pale in comparison to the one they signed two years ago, when Wye Oak (then known as Monarch) joined the powerhouse indie-rock roster at Merge Records. Up until that point, Stack and Wasner's upstart alt-country project had been more of a pastime than a profession—helping them stick a foot in the door of Baltimore's flourishing music scene, but hardly offering any promises beyond that.
"With If Children [the band's 2007 debut], we basically did it as a hobby," Stack acknowledges, "because we didn't have a record label, and honestly, we didn't really even have a live setup figured out yet. We just had these songs that had been written in the last year or two and we wanted to have some way to showcase them. So we did it as a sort of recording project, finished the record, and put it out. Then it got picked up by Merge and they re-released it."
Stack is fully aware that the matter-of-fact delivery of that last sentence would drive many a struggling indie musician crazy. For 20 years, Chapel Hill-based Merge Records has served as the gold standard for indie-rock labels, both for their ability to recruit and develop talented, innovative artists (Arcade Fire, Spoon and Lambchop among them). For most young musicians starting out, getting signed to Merge is a pipe dream—a distant goal on the horizon. For Stack (drums, keys, vocals) and Wasner (vocals, guitar), both in their early 20s, it became an overnight reality.
"I wish I could give advice on how to do it, but it was really just an incredibly brilliant stroke of luck for us," Stack says. "We self-released our record, and I tried to do a little bit of a press push on my own—sending copies out to different websites and blogs and a few record labels. I didn't even include Merge, because most labels of that level don't really accept demos, just because they get so swamped by them. But as it turned out, Mac [McCaughan] from Merge heard our music on some blog and got in touch, and I sent him a few copies of the record, never expecting to hear anything from him ever again. I just figured he sent out messages like that 10 times a day. But yeah, a few months later, he offered to re-release If Children, and [Merge] has been fully onboard with us ever since then. It's pretty incredible, but I still don't know how the hell we got on the label. [Laughs.]"
All humility aside, most critics would tell you it's the songwriting craft and diverse palate of Wye Oak's music that actually landed them on Merge, and the release of The Knot this past summer only seems to have confirmed the potential that Stack and Wasner had shown on If Children. A more cohesive and refined batch of songs, but no less dramatic in their tonal and emotional shifts, The Knot is the perfect marriage (no pun intended) of Wasner's absorbing compositions and Stack's heavy, hazy arrangements. Walk in during one part of "Take It In," and you might think you're in Gillian Welch territory. A minute later, it's more like Sonic Youth. Put it all together, and no other band comes closer to recreating the Neil Young & Crazy Horse gestalt right now than Wye Oak.
"I think it's been a really natural thing for us," Stack says. "We love a lot of old country-rock stuff like The Byrds and Gram Parsons, but at the same time, we're into a lot of noise-rock and more experimental stuff. So while we're not necessarily an experimental band or a country band, it just happens that a lot of these different styles that we've been checking out kind of coalesce in our sound."
If you're looking at Stack and Wasner's adorable press photo and trying to figure out how a young, happy couple could make music this dark and desolate, you're not alone.
"Yeah, especially on this new record, people have been talking a lot about how dark it can be," Stack says. "You know, we'll talk to people and they'll say, 'Are you guys OK? Is everything all right at home?' [Laughs.] But yeah, I don't think either of us are particularly dark people. We're actually pretty lighthearted generally. I don't know. I think everybody has outlets, and the songwriting for us can sometimes be an outlet for some of those darker feelings or ideas. But you know, we're not wearing black nail polish or anything like that."
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