"We can get pretty loud; it's awesome."
That's singer/guitarist Jenn Wasner, talking about Wye Oak's surprisingly noisy live shows. For a band that, in the early days, got pigeonholed into the coffee house circuit — thanks to its girl/guy charm and bookworm good looks — it's something of a point of pride for the Baltimore two-piece.
"There's nothing I love more than engulfing myself in volume to the point where I can feel it, where I can hear nothing else. Everyone always says I'm too loud, like, 'Sweetheart, your guitar's so loud I can't hear your pretty voice!'" She laughs. "At that point I usually turn up my guitar more."
And what a beautiful noise it is. A surging, soaring blend of dark folk-rock and dreamy indie-pop, Wye Oak's songs bulge with chiming guitars, bubbling synths and pulsing, complex drum patterns. Toss in Wasner's gentle-yet-aching vocals and it's a little like Cat Power fronting early Yo La Tengo.
So, it can be a hard to keep in mind, when you're watching Wye Oak on stage, all that sound is coming from just two people.
Much of that credit goes to multi-instrumentalist Andy Stack, the other half of the band. Wasner and Stack have been playing in bands together since they first met in high school (they also dated for a time, but are now just "best buds"). In 2006, when they began forming what would become Wye Oak, they never considered trying to keep it a duo. But after no luck finding the right people with whom to play, Stack got tired of waiting and disappeared into his basement. He emerged a few months later with an entirely new musical set-up, one that allowed him to play both drums and keyboard simultaneously. While also manipulating loops. And singing.
Basically, he became a one-man backing band.
"At first I was extremely skeptical," Wasner admits. "I didn't expect it to last past the interim while we were searching for other band members. But he learned it so quickly and completely and with such success, that it turned out to be more exciting than it was limiting."
A year later, Wasner and Stack self-released their first album, the critically-acclaimed If Children, and started touring relentlessly. The album eventually made its way into the hands of Mac McCaughan — Superchunk frontman and co-founder of the Durham label Merge Records — who quickly signed them after being hooked by Wye Oak's catchy, youth-in-love anthem "Warning." Another full-length (2009's The Knot) and a recent EP (the fantastic My Neighbor/My Creator) later, and Wasner and Stack have never thought twice about their decision to remain just the two of them. Not that it's exactly set in stone.
"Andy is so good at it, we don't really feel like we're missing anything," Wasner says, "but we're not married to the idea of this novelty-act duo thing. I think we both have an agreement that the minute we start to feel limited by it and confined by it — that it's a hindrance rather than an asset — then we'll move on. But as of now we're still both really excited about it. The limitations have actually made us more creative."
Wye Oak is currently hard at work recording its third full-length, slated for release in early 2011. According to Wasner, the band's main songwriter, the new tunes are compositionally some of the most adventurous she's ever written. Fortunately for us, Asheville fans won't have to wait until next year to hear a them.
"I can promise that we'll be playing at least four totally new songs that will be on the next record," Wasner says about Friday's show at the Grey Eagle (the band's first time in Asheville). "We use our live shows as a learning experience. It's always fun with the new songs to see how they develop and evolve when they're still babies. So, we'll have some babies with us."
And if you're wondering how it feels to go from playing quiet coffee shops in front of a half dozen people to opening up rock shows for Lou Barlow, lo-fi pioneer and founder of seminal indie-bands Dinosaur Jr. and Sebadoh, let's just say it feels pretty damn good.
"Oh, I love Lou, he's one of my heroes," Wasner gushes. "It's unbelievable that he likes us and wants to take us on tour with him. I mean, there are so many things that have happened to us in the past few years we would have never imagined in our wildest dreams. So keep 'em coming, I guess!"
Sure, but you're going to have to ask a little louder.
— Miles Britton is an Asheville-based freelance writer.
who: Wye Oak, opening for Lou Barlow
what: Dreamy, folk-influenced indie rock
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, Aug. 20 (9 p.m. $10 advance / $12 day of show. thegreyeagle.com)