wye oak

After an eight hour traffic jam, and in amongst some gruelling tour dates, Wye Oak arrive at Manchester’s Ruby Lounge in just enough time to set up on stage and run sound checks before tonight’s gig. Despite the delays they’re more than happy to sit down and discuss their new record Civilian. Andy stays on stage to carry on sound checks and Jenn heads off to a back room where we find some room, in amongst the strewn contents of her suitcase, to sit down and talk about Civilian, Baltimore and life on the road.

You must be exhausted; you’re heading to Scotland tomorrow, aren’t you?

Yes we’re headed to Edinburgh, and then Glasgow and Mexico City in a day. Which will be…I don’t even want to think about it, it’s going to be insane.

You approached Civilian differently than previous albums. Was it a conscious decision to turn it around so fast?

It was conscious in that we had imposed deadlines upon ourselves but the weird thing was that I had written all of those songs in a really short period of time which doesn’t happen very often and which was something really special.

I think the last time we’d written a record, which was the record before; we were a little bit frustrated because we recorded it and mixed it ourselves and we are not super qualified engineers so we just ended up kind of going in circles with it. It’s really hard to know when you’re that close to something when to stop and when to say it’s done. And we never really felt like it was finished and we never really achieved what we were trying to achieve.

This time there were two things: A – we wanted to work within deadlines and, B – we wanted to work with a mix engineer and producer so that we could have a third party to say “ok it’s done, let’s move on, it’s finished”. The guy we worked with, John Congleton, his best piece of advice was that usually your gut impulse is the right one and having infinite options and infinite time does not make a great record. So he kind of forced us to go with our gut on everything and as scary as it was, it was really good.

Having self produced albums in the past, and performing as a two-piece, do you think it’s made you overly protective of your music?

Yeah, that’s always been the case and that’s why it was so important but also terrifying to let someone else into the process because we’d never done that before so we were forcing ourselves to do it for that reason. But it was hard for us to share the songs with someone when you’ve spent so much time and care on them and we’re basically just like “alright, here you go…” handing them over to a guy who was, essentially, a complete stranger. We liked a lot of his work and respected his career so we kind of trusted that he had our best interests at heart. In the long run we didn’t really have a very clear picture of what was going on at that point, certainly when you hear something that much and you work on it for so long you just get lost in it.

Now you’ve had time to tour and let the new record sink in, is there anything you’d have done differently?

I honestly like it so much more now, obviously we’ve been playing these songs a lot live but when we finished the record I was kind of lost and really didn’t know how I felt about it at all. I didn’t listen to it for a really long time and it wasn’t until a couple of months ago I actually went back and listened to it again after people had been telling us that they liked it. I had some space and time away from it and I heard it totally differently and I was like “wow, I don’t hate this!”

It didn’t sound the same to me as it did when we were working on it. There are always things that you would change but there are fewer than I expected, I’ve grown to appreciate what it is.

How long do you leave between touring an album and writing new material?

Writing is my favourite part, recording a close second. But the writing is something that I’m always trying to do and it’s kind of a shitty thing because when you tour you’re always having to steal whatever time you get and there’s very very little privacy and almost no chance at all to work on songs which drives me crazy.

I actually went out and spent a lot of money on mobile recordings that I take around with me. In my bag here, I’ve got my recording software on my computer, my headphones, this little midi controller that I can mix beats with and my microphone. This is like my studio that I take with me everywhere and I’ve had to do this, I mean it’s kind of insane because this stuff actually is pretty fragile and costs a lot of money. Everyone I know is like ”you carry all this shit around in this bag?!” I call it my million dollar bag.

If I don’t have it with me, we’re on tour literally all the time, so much so that we actually don’t even live anywhere; we have no permanent residence, so I wouldn’t make anything, ever, and then I’d go crazy so today we were in the car for eight hours and I was working on something most of the way.

The writing is something I’ve always wanted to do and it’s always the first thing on my mind, if I had my way I’d spend my most time doing that and the least time performing, honestly.

You’re touring with The National at the moment; do you take any influence from the bands you tour with?

I think it inevitable if you’re hearing songs often, whether you want to or not. We very much like The National but other times there have been bands that we aren’t so excited about, which happens.

I think it seeps into your unconscious and I think that when I’m writing I’m not thinking about specific influences, it’s usually instinctive and you’re trying not to think but it happens and, subconsciously, it’s still there and there are times when I listen back to a song that I wrote and think “oh! I remember! I see where that came from!” But it wasn’t something that occurred to me at the time. It kind of buries itself in your brain.

Baltimore seems to have a diverse musical output at the moment, are there any stigmas you try to avoid being from there or is the scene totally fresh?

The thing about Baltimore’s music scene is, you’re right, it’s super diverse at the moment and I can’t believe how lucky I am to live in city where there are so many incredible bands. It’s a really small city, by East coast standards at least, so there’s a lot of collaboration. Shows aren’t really compartmentalised into genre. You’ll go to a show and there’ll be a rap band and a rock group and a noise band and a DJ.

It’s such a small scene and it’s so diverse. There are bands like Beach House, and kind of synth, poppier stuff like Future Islands and Lower Dens, then more hardcore stuff like Double Dagger. For every band that are actually touring there’s a million others around Baltimore that are incredible and I’m amazed by.

Your previous releases have gone under the radar a little in the UK. Are you happy that, for many, Civilian will be the first contact point with the band?

I’m very happy because I think Civilian is the first time I actually felt really satisfied and happy and I think the sound defined our band and that makes a really huge difference.

City Slang who are our label out here have really helped. Being so far away from the UK and Europe we really needed their help and it made such a big difference and more people are hearing it.

So, it’s kind of your tipping point?

Yeah, so I’m happy. I‘d like for more people to continue to think that it was our first record! That’s fine with me! Totally fine.

I saw you covering The Kinks with Jonathan from Shearwater recently, if you could perform with any other artist who would be your dream act?

That’s a tough call. Well, I actually just had a really awesome dream scenario happen which is cool. One of my favourite bands from Baltimore, a band called Future Islands. They asked me to do a duet and we got to perform together at a festival. That was actually really cool.

You’ve mentioned before how Baltimore is a secret city; one you have to know where to look to be able to find the good stuff. Is it hard touring the world and not having the time to explore new cities?

Yeah, there are so many places that we get to visit that we wouldn’t visit otherwise but it is frustrating. It’s rare that we get a chance to really spend time in a city, usually you see the club and you see the hotel. It’s better than not getting to go, it’s still really cool but it is so heart-wrenching, “Oh, god! I wish I could just have one day!”

Hopefully in the future I’d really love to get a tour together where for every show you play you get a day off to explore, but I think you need to make a lot of money, a LOT more.

So do you think Baltimore is a big influence on your music?

I think in every way, it’s a huge part of who I am as a person, I mean my whole family is there. I didn’t realise how special a place it was until I left. Most people always want to try and get away from the city they grew up in so I did and then I realised just how special it was.

It’s a very down to earth city, small, fairly impoverished, it’s rough around the edges, I think being in Baltimore made me really appreciate cities and people and what lies underneath. It’s full of people that are creatively motivated, the people who want to do that kind of stuff can’t necessarily afford to live New York or Philadelphia so you live in Baltimore and you make whatever you want to make.

It sounds a lot like Manchester, not such a great tourist destination but an amazing city to live in
and to get to know…

Yeah, if you visit Baltimore it looks like a shit hole! I like to take people, when they visit, to a show and show them it’s not all just trash and crime and thievery, though there is that – which is why I can afford to live there!

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.