Last year, Wye Oak surprised listeners with Shriek. With their fourth studio album, the Baltimore duo abandoned the guitars that had defined their earlier work — such as 2011’s critically acclaimed Civilian — in favor of synthesizers, resulting in a record that seemed more beholden to synth-pop than to their indie rock roots.
This shift away from guitar-driven rock, said vocalist and lead songwriter Jenn Wasner, isn’t as significant a change as you might think.
“One of the points of making a record like Shriek was to prove to ourselves that instrumentation is not really the focus,” Wasner told Weld. “What’s important is the arranging. I’ve always tried to write not necessarily with a particular instrument or aesthetic in mind, but just to write the strongest compositions, the strongest melodies that I can write.
“My belief is that, if the material is strong enough, it should be able to stand up to as many different reinterpretations as you could imagine. If the foundation is there, you should be able to play it in any number of ways and settings.”
It’s difficult to imagine a setting more different from the electronic styling of Shriek than where Wye Oak will be performing on Thursday, March 26: the Alys Stephens Center alongside the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, performing selections from the album as re-imagined by composer William Brittelle.
When Weld spoke with Wasner, she was stuck in traffic on the interstate in South Carolina.
Weld: Where are you headed?
Jenn Wasner: This is actually kind of insane! The Birmingham show is actually smack-dab in the middle of a larger solo tour that I’m doing [opening for Sylvan Esso, as Flock of Dimes]. So I’m actually driving up to North Carolina, and then I’ll be on tour for a couple of weeks. Then I’ll hop off that tour and fly into Birmingham to do the show, then hop right back on tour again.
Weld: And then you’ll end back up in Birmingham on March 31 for Sylvan Esso’s show at WorkPlay.
JW: Oh [expletive], that’s right! I’m coming to Birmingham, and then I’m leaving to meet up with Sylvan Esso’s touring party, and then I’ll make my way back to Birmingham. That is so cool!
Weld: So, what drew you to this collaboration with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra?
JW: Andy [Stack, the other half of Wye Oak] and I were originally contacted by William Brittelle, who sat down with us and explained the vision that he had for this show. At this point in our career, Andy and I are particularly psyched about doing things that are a little bit outside of the typical album cycle and touring grind, things that are more challenging, more creative, more exciting. What William described seemed to fit that bill perfectly. He pitched that to us about a year ago — that he would rearrange the songs from our record Shriek, and then try some compositions of his own meant to feature us as musicians.
We were just really stoked about doing something out of our comfort zones, and wanted to see what would happen when someone took a stab at the Shriek songs. We couldn’t say no.
Weld: It’s a huge step away from performing as a duo.
JW: It is, and honestly, because the arrangements are so different, it really is like looking back at our music through someone else’s eyes. It feels really new and fresh. I can’t tell you the last time I had the pleasure of just singing these songs. I think it’s never really happened.
It sounds like it would be easier, for me to just focus on singing, but because of the nature of the performance, it’s actually going to be pretty challenging and intimidating. But I believe that if you don’t scare the [expletive] out of yourself every once in a while, you’re probably not doing it right.
Weld: What material should fans expect from the concert? Are all the songs taken from Shriek, or will we see a sampling of your entire catalog?
JW: People should not expect a live Wye Oak set. It’s a completely different thing. The arrangements are very different. For the first half, we’ll be playing songs from Shriek as rearranged by William, and then the second half will be William’s original compositions. There won’t be any of our other material, and all the material that will be played will be played in an entirely different way. This is definitely not your average Wye Oak set by any stretch of the imagination.
One of the things that encouraged us to say yes to this collaboration was that William immediately said, “We don’t want to do the classic, cheesy sort of…you know, Metallica with strings. We don’t want it to be a rock band with an orchestra behind it.”
The arrangements are pretty adventurous, and I think people should expect to see a completely different thing that’s never happened before.
Weld: So, tell us about the tour with Sylvan Esso that will bring you back to Birmingham.
JW: I’m actually in the process of making my first solo record under the name Flock of Dimes, and Sylvan Esso asked me to come along on tour because we’re really good buddies. I’m testing out a lot of new material. It’s kind of like pop music, but not quite so straightforward — mostly electronic compositions, but I alternate between guitar, bass and keyboard.
I’m still figuring out what [the album]’s going to be because I’m still in the writing stages. It’s weird to be going on tour at this point in time, but I’m looking forward to learning some things about these new songs that I couldn’t learn in any other way. You can really figure things out about material that you would never realize in any other situation by playing it in front of people.
Weld: If you’re working on your solo album, does this mean Wye Oak will be taking a break?
JW: The situation with Wye Oak, as it stands, is that Andy and I are really excited about making music together. We’re working on a couple of things, including a collection of previously unreleased material that never made it onto any records that we’re trying to bring to life and share with people in some capacity. And maybe a handful of shows in the next year, a festival here and there.
But, overall, both of us are at a point in our lives where we have so much going on professionally and personally that it feels right for the band to be one of many things we do, but not necessarily the only thing we do. So, we’re not going to be grinding it out on the touring circuit super-hardcore like we used to do. Instead, we’re hoping to be writing and recording a lot more in the comfort of our own respective homes. Because that’s really the part of it we enjoy the most.
Wye Oak will perform their collaboration with William Brittelle and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra at the Alys Stephens Center on Thursday, March 26. The show will begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $21-$29. For more information, visit alysstephens.org.
For more information on Flock of Dimes show with Sylvan Esso on Tuesday, March 31, visit workplay.com.