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It’s not like Sonny and Cher
By Simon McCormack
Mac McCaughan gave Baltimore’s folksy shoegaze duo Wye Oak the best Christmas present of its young career.
The co-founder of Merge Records, who has also signed bands like Spoon, Arcade Fire and Buzzcocks, offered Wye Oak a spot on his label in the winter of 2007.
“It’s sort of like a fairy tale story,” says Wye Oak keyboard and drummer Andy Stack. “They showed us the label’s offices and gave us a bunch of free shit, which was the coolest thing.”
It’s not hard to see what McCaughan saw in Wye Oak. The impenetrable layers of guitar feedback, swooshing symbols and new wave-ian keyboard have a modest and nearly effortless magnetism. It’s thickly textured, to be sure, but Wye Oak mesmerizes without becoming too oversaturated with squeaks and squawks.
Stack met singer, guitarist and significant other Jenn Wasner in high school, but the two didn’t start playing together seriously as a duo until 2006. Stack is straightforward when he talks about his and Wasner’s relationship, but he’s careful not to overplay it on stage. “We try not to be Sonny and Cher or anything like that,” Stack says. “But we’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes.”
In a relatively short period of time, Wye Oak has developed a chemistry that could perhaps only have blossomed between two musicians with an uncommon bond. “In a creative sense, we can kind of finish each other’s thoughts because we think along the same lines,” Stack explains. “We’ve had the opportunity to develop our tastes in parallel.”
The early twentysomething couple spends a lot of time together on tour and at home, but the near-constant interaction hasn’t sparked any catastrophic conflicts. “Being with only one other person for 5,000 miles on the road can be a trial,” Stack says. “We get along great, though.”
The duo takes an unconventional approach to reproducing an album’s worth of sound with only two people on stage. Stack plays the drums with his feet and right hand, and a keyboard-bass with his left, while Wasner plays guitar and sings. There’s also a good amount of looping, but Stack admits sometimes things are tough as a two-piece. “We’re really exposed out there,” Stack says. “We'll be playing and Jenn's amp will crap out in the middle of a set or something and there’s nothing you can do. You can't really finish a song with bass and drums.”
Wye Oak’s inventive and vulnerable live shows helped the band (whose name comes from the official state tree of Maryland) grow in stature in its hometown. Stack says he's aware many people’s impressions of Baltimore come exclusively from HBO’s “The Wire,” but it could be worse. “I'd rather Baltimore’s show be ‘The Wire’ than ‘The Real Housewives of Orange County’ or something,” Stack asserts. “ ‘The Wire’ is one of the best shows there is.”
Stack also makes it a point to mention there are some things folks might not know about the underrated East Coast city of his birth, including that it has a burgeoning music community. “You don't get shot when you walk down the street, which is a common misconception,” Stack says. “The music scene has been getting a lot of attention in the last year. It's vibrant, everyone's supportive of each other and everybody plays on each other's projects.”
With one album under its belt (If Children, released April 8 on Merge), Wye Oak is anxious to finish work on its second release. Stack says the band has been trying to write songs that will more closely match up with the twosome’s live show. “The first record was labeled as a shoegaze album,” Stack says. “I think this record is going to be a little more concentrated than that. But both of us are characteristically bad at describing our own music and the sounds. We’re too close to the flame.”
Wye Oak plays a 21-plus show at the Launchpad on Monday, Sept. 1. The band is coming in support of Austin-based Sheerwater. Hospital Ships will start things off. The songsmith-heavy show starts at 8:30 p.m.
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