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Wye Oak interview: 'Some people won’t connect with Shriek, but I do. That in and of itself is such a gift.'

Wye Oak frontwoman Jenn Wasner embraces transformation on the Baltimore band’s latest album

Photograph: Shervin Lainez
Wye Oak

Wye Oak fans who were expecting the duo’s fourth album, Shriek, to be another collection of transporting, guitar-driven indie-pop tunes are in for a bit of a shock. The pair has abandoned six-strings entirely, with frontwoman Jenn Wasner handling bass, and multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack playing drums and keyboards. We caught up with Wasner to discuss how the reinvention led to Wye Oak’s strongest LP to date.

Shriek is quite different from your previous records, but to me, it sounds like a natural progression from 2011’s Civilian.
I’m happy to hear you say that, because I do think it is very much the same as what we’ve always done. These aesthetic differences are sort of a side point to me—they’ve never been a fundamental part of what we do, and at the heart of it, everything has always been in service of the songs themselves. I think that’s still the case. I think people are overly fixating on the trappings, like the guitars. If they listen to what’s underneath, it’s the same stuff that we’ve always done.

There’s always a narrative that forms when a band or artist releases new material, and the fact that you’re no longer playing guitar seems to be it for Shriek. Does that bother you at all?

It would if I wasn’t completely prepared for that. I know how the press machine works at this point; everyone wants to reduce something to the least common denominator, or the easiest, snappiest headline. It’d be a waste of energy to be annoyed by it. But it is a little silly; it’s not like we made a free-jazz record or something. It’s still pop songwriting.

Are you worried about the reaction the album might get?

I think about it, but I’m not worried. Realistically speaking, with anything you make there are going to be people who like it, and people who really hate it, and people that don’t care. Some people are gonna really connect with it, and some people won’t, but I do. That in and of itself is such a gift that it honestly doesn’t really matter to me if some people don’t like it.

You’ve talked about how touring behind Civilian was an exhausting experience that led to a bout of writer’s block—how did you eventually move beyond that?
It took a lot of time, a lot of self-examination and reflection. One of the things it came down to was stepping away from things I associated with that time in my life, the guitar being one of them. I feel like every cell in my body is different from then, and it was a necessary process to go through. It took a lot of self-care.

What did you do to help yourself recharge?
Physically speaking, I did yoga and meditated a lot. Creatively speaking, I allowed myself to chase some tangents that I’d previously had to put on hold, and do things that served no other purpose but for the sheer joy of them.

You worked on two side projects, Flock of Dimes and Dungeonesse, in the period between Civilian and Shriek. Were they a part of that process?
I undertook those projects specifically to work on while on tour—to continue to feel creative and inspired while I was traveling. I had no baggage with those projects like I had with Wye Oak. It was really just learning how to feel that way about [Wye Oak] in spite of the baggage, and then freeing myself to be able to write again for it.

You’ve also talked about how this is a very personal record for you—did that make it harder or easier to write?
Much, much easier, once I was able to allow myself to be in as vulnerable a place as is required to do that. It takes a lot of self-love and self-care and allowing myself to feel that what I have to say and what I have to make is of worth. That is a difficult process, and it’s a highly volatile one, but it just comes down to embracing that fear and allowing yourself to be that vulnerable. It’s hard to do that when you’re feeling fragile.

You’re still based in Baltimore, but Andy lives in Portland, Oregon. How did being in different cities affect recording Shriek?

The recording became a part of the writing process, which changed the way I was writing. It allowed me to execute more complex ideas instantaneously. But mostly it just meant that everything we shared with each other, we had that additional step of recording it and producing it into a concrete form, and working from there. It was great practice, and it was also really fun for me. I think it ended up being a huge asset.

Now that you guys are taking this material on the road, how has your performance style changed?
On the surface, it looks very similar, but it couldn’t be more different. It’s much more challenging for us. For me, I’m still standing and holding a string instrument, but what I’m doing is much more complicated. It took a lot of brain separation. And what Andy’s doing has only increased in complexity tenfold.

Has the challenge been fun so far?

Yeah. It’s much better to have something you have to work at and don’t feel really comfortable with than to do something really easy and tire of it immediately.

How have audiences been responding to the new material?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised. People don’t always want to hear songs that they don’t know, so I thought it might be an issue with the record not being out yet. But the crowd response has been much better than I was expecting.

Wye Oak plays Webster Hall May 7.