With debut records out this spring from two of our favorite young bands, Splice Today moderated a discussion between members of Baltimore’s Wye Oak and Washington, D.C.’s These United States. Wye Oak is the duo of multi-instrumentalists Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack. On April 8, Merge Records will reissue their LP If Children, which they originally self-released last year when their band was called Monarch. These United States is a loose collective built around singer/songwriter Jesse Elliott. Their record A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gate to the Garden of Eden was released on March 4 by United Interests.
Splice asked Andy and Jesse about touring, name changes, recording albums on the cheap, and the meaning of release dates in an age of digital media. The result is an illuminating look at the recording industry from the viewpoints of two musicians getting their feet in the door.
SPLICE TODAY: It sounds like the recording methods for both of these albums were similar – bringing in friends, recording when you could, and even self-financing. Tell us about how these records were eventually completed.
JESSE ELLIOTT: Ours started as a fun side project between me and my pal David, who goes by Paleo in the music world these days. We toiled in basements off and on for a couple years—when we were back home visiting parents for holidays in Elgin, IL, or when we met somewhere out on the long and winding road. I was working as a writer; he was making his own name in music. So it was all very much in starts and fits. Finally, some time right before he started a big project called Song Diary, we decided to get serious. He came out to DC for a month, where I'd since moved, and we just started inviting all these people in from around tnown that I'd been bumping into. Some old friends in Chicago and Iowa City and elsewhere pitched in eventually. All self-financed, yeah. All in basements and bathrooms. The good old-fashioned new-age way.
ANDY STACK: We took full advantage of my full-time student status and recorded a large part of the record in the studio at my school. That sort of recording worked very nicely for us since it’s basically just the two of us playing everything. If we had spent the amount of time that we did on that record in a professional studio with professional rates, we'd need a major label budget to afford it.
JE: That's rad. If there's one regret I have, it's that I didn't start doing music a little earlier in life. College in particular was a pretty magical experience for me—Iowa City's an amazing little oasis of thought and sound and fury and art and love and corn and—well, you know...
AS: Whatever, there's no right or wrong time to start or finish. As my great friend Tim Kearley immortalized in a song with his band Errant Strike, "Time ain't right, and it ain't wrong, and it ain't anything." That guy has two kids and a commuter desk job and he still writes more songs than most.
For me, college was a slow and often painful process - so slow, in fact, that I have yet to actually finish it. Damn. Anyway, I hear that Iowa has some of the prettiest girls in the world. I think my dad told me that. Maybe that's why college was so magical for you.
ST: How did you guys encounter your respective labels?
JE: A lot of labels seemed to love what we were up to, had to live with the songs for a while, eventually decided maybe the songs weren't so pretty as the night before. We had a lot of one-night stands like that, all in succession. Really heartbreaking and liberating, just like one-night stands always are. We felt very virile by the end of the first year, but also very unloved.
Finally, we found a place that made us smile, and kept us smiling. We're working with these good peeps out in Colorado who go by United Interests. It's a kind of comprehensive thing we have going with them, not even really what you'd call a label deal these days. It's more like a secret subversive triumvirate. Or maybe a Confederacy of Idiot-Savants, now that they have us on board.
AS: For all the bitching that I do and everyone else does about the "blogosphere," it was directly responsible for our getting hooked up with Merge. Maura at Idolator wrote a really complementary track review of us a while back, and within twelve hours of that review, Mac [McCaughan] from Merge sent us an email. That's not to say that it's normal for things to work out that way, but it certainly proved to me that there is some real substance to the whole online media frenzy.
JE: I love the blogosphere, and if it can propel a great band like The Artist Formerly Known as Monarch to such great heights, that’s proof positive that it's a powerful and democratizing and relatively benevolent force. Which is more than you can say for most Forces in the world. Andy, why'd you guys change your name from Monarch, anyway?
AS: The change came because of the 174 other bands in the world with the name Monarch. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. The most popular of them is a French DOOM metal band (with a capital DOOM), and their MySpace profile was intimidating enough for us to look for a new name. And I must say that band naming is harder than it used to be, which I guess is a result of world overpopulation. Just about any cool name that you think of is already taken if you look into it enough. There's even this other dude named Andy Stack who lives in New York and writes songs. Doppelganger!
ST: Can you tell us about touring? What's your favorite part of the country to tour in?
JE: They're all beautiful, in their own unique ways. Like snowflakes, even. Really and truly, though, we love them all. We wouldn't have this band name if we didn't. We're probably received best in the Pacific Northwest. It's a wonder we don't move there, really. We would already be called the George Clinton of the Pacific Northwest, I'm absolutely sure of it. Unfortunately for our careers, we really love the mid-Atlantic. McComb, Mississippi is the best place to play a show. Ever. Go there.
AS: Yeah, the Pacific Northwest is really incredible. It's easier to get energized for a show after making a breathtaking drive, and we made a couple of those out in that part of the country. That's as opposed to spending the day on the Jersey Turnpike, which is how we spend our time here in the mid-Atlantic region. Other than that, we haven't really done a whole lot of national touring, so I feel a bit under-qualified to pass judgment.
ST: What records were the inspirations for the sound and production of your new ones? What records from the last year or two have struck you hardest?
JE: All the ones from 1972. And dub music. As for recent stuff, my favorite may be Andrew Bird. The man's a master. There's so much good music these days. Most of it's local. And the Furies Say in El Paso, they just broke up. That broke my heart in four. We just saw Nat Baldwin and his gang, from up Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They took each of the four of those parts and halved them again. Many a DC band has put out a fine fine album in the lat year or two—Call Message by Greenland has been on repeat on my home stereo system, which is an old boombox. Ask me again in another two weeks, and another great DC band will have come out with an amazing album. And then a month after that, and another. My concern is actually that there's too much good music, that none of it, none of us, can actually last. We'll all cancel each other out.
AS: My favorite record of the last year (and Jenn's, too, I can say without question) was Rise Above by the Dirty Projectors, which our mutual friend Nat Baldwin played bass on. It’s totally captivating from start to finish. Sometimes it brings me to tears and sometimes I scream along to it in back seats. A friend recently told me that a bunch of musicians he knows are throwing in the towel on playing music because they figure they can't possibly top that record. Maybe that's a bit extreme, but goddamn that record is great.
JE: Man, I hate it when that happens. I'm never gonna listen to that album now. Damn. I just gave up. Damn, it has the same effect whether you listen to it or not. Damn it all, I'm going back up to the top of the mountain now.
AS: As for influences for our record, Jim O'Rourke was a big one - his solo records as well as the first Loose Fur record are great, and I was listening to them a lot in the time leading up to our recording. We’re also way into Smog. That guy [Bill Callahan –ed.] inspired me to be a songwriter more than anyone else in the world.
Oh, and our mutual friends in Pontiak—those guys are the most badass band on Earth. Actually, Jesse, you remind me a lot of them. You could be the fourth Carney brother. Anyway, those guys are so great on record, and even better live. I look forward to every opportunity I get to see them play. Just saw them the other day, in fact. Those motherfuckers put hair on my chest. God damn.
JE: The Brothers Carney [Layne, Jennings, and Van, of Pontiak] are indeed a massive influence on my facial hair and general demeanor. When I meet them in the streets randomly, in some faraway city, which seems to happen more often than it you’d expect, I just stand there and tremble. They are capital-A Awesome in the truest sense. They inspire awe and shock and fear and love and lovemaking and hair. Andy, how did you meet them? Was it in an oracular cave somewhere? I bet it was.
AS: We played a show with them in Baltimore very early on into the whole Monarch project. I had never seen Pontiak and didn't know what to expect, but I loved it. So we did a short tour with them this past spring and continue playing with them from time to time. I'm psyched that Van is in Brooklyn now. It was awesome hanging out with them at our recent Union Hall show, and we just shared a bill with them again at the Cake Shop the night after.
ST: So how does a new band in 2008 expect to find publicity? Do you think word of mouth through websites and blogs has the deciding influence, or is it just a matter of getting on the right tour, or what?
JE: Not sure. Please write firstname.lastname@example.org when you encounter the answers to this one.
AS: Well, as stated above, there must be something to the whole blogging thing, as it’s largely responsible for getting us where we are. However, I think that touring might be the most important thing—making personal connections with people and building up support on a grass roots level. Dave from Paleo has made a great name for himself by playing lots of living rooms and art spaces. Deer Tick, too (that guy's so great- you're friends with him too, right Jesse?). I guess there are a lot of people doing that these days—booking all their shows on their own and perpetually touring around the country. Maybe I'm just saying all this because I really want to tour all the time myself. I love being out on the road and seeing the country (and hopefully other ones one day).
JE: Deer Tick and Paleo are both huge influences and inspirations for me—musically, personally, spiritually, everything. It's easy to over-romanticize DIY touring, but there is something truly beautiful about it. In a modern world where everything is run so systematically, it's nice to think that there are glitches in the Matrix. In the future, everyone will be Deer Tick for fifteen minutes.
AS: Jesse, we should talk about your tour for the summer, the plan to play 30 cities in 30 days. Who are you most excited to play with? Is it more exciting to come into a town without any clue about the people who will be backing you up? That's sort of the spirit of the tour, right?
JE: I'm totally thrilled and terrified about this tour. I think some shows will be amazing, and many will not be as amazing as they should have been. We're calling them Experiments, in the scientific, rigorous sense—not like experimental music. We're not going that far out.
AS: You're filming the whole thing too, right? Do you have any specific plans of what to do with the footage?
JE: We may have to eat the document, depending on how ugly it is. Or we may pass on to the next world before the whole mad dash is over, in which case you can thumbtack that shit to our tombstones, son.
ST: What do your release dates mean? Do you expect the physical record to sell as well as a download? How important is record store shopping to you as individuals?
JE: For us, that's just when we'll open our front door and a big box of CDs will be on the porch. We expect there to be at least four to seven people lined up outside that day. It will be glorious. Maybe they'll tell their friends, who will then tell their friends, who are the ones who have iTunes, who'll then buy it onto their computers and who'll then burn it onto CDs for friends. I have no idea what distribution even means any more, except that we're going to keep going out on to the road and playing for people in real live rooms that shake and vibrate every night.
AS: For us, the release date means that we'll actually have merchandise to sell at our shows. And while I love record store shopping, it’s plain to see that the online dissemination of music is changing things. And I think it's a good thing—of course we just want for our music to get into the hands of as many appreciative people as possible, and the internet serves that purpose.
And Jesse—one more question for you: I'm curious of your thoughts about the connection between the Baltimore and DC music scenes. They're only about 40 minutes apart, but I don't feel like there is any real sense of community. I've been playing in bands in Baltimore for seven or eight years, and I've only played in the DC area one time. Obviously this is not the case for you, but it wonder if you see what I'm getting at . . .
JE: Yeah, it's always puzzled me. I feel closer to New York, or even Philly, than to Baltimore. And, ditto, I think we've played both those places more than Baltimore. Hell, we've maybe played Chicago almost as much as Baltimore. They just feel so different as places, you know? Like I actually feel quite a bit more at home in Baltimore, because it reminds me of my kinda-sorta hometown Chicago. It's simultaneously both more blue-collar and more artsy than DC. DC is white-collar and uber-"Urban" musically—you know, like the term everybody uses for "black" now. DC has this absolutely stunning history of black music—from jazz to reggae to go-go to hip-hop, back to jazz again. And yet, there is this weird cosmopolitan, international, ridiculously affluent, creepy political and business over-class thing going on. It creates a whole strange tension, which feels very different from Baltimore's tension, which is a slightly more classic urban tension, right out there on the face of things, right out there on the street, where everyone can feel it. DC is dangerous in a different way. It comes at you from nowhere, which of course is also what I love about it as a writer. You don't know where it's gonna go, or when, or how.
Wye Oak on tour
14: Austin, TX @ The Parish (Merge Records SXSW showcase w/ Destroyer, She & Him, Shout Out Louds, Radar Bros., and Portastatic)
10: Lancaster, PA @ The Sugar Tank
11: Baltimore, MD @ The G-Spot (CD Release)
12: Brooklyn, NY @ Union Hall
13: Washington, DC @ The Black Cat (w/ These United States)
2: Toronto, ON @ Over the Top Festival
These United States on tour
11: Dallas, TX @ Club DaDa
12: Austin, TX @ Emo’s Main Room (Force Field PR/Terrorbird Media SXSW Party w/ WHY?, The Raveonettes, YACHT)
13: Austin, TX @ Cream Vintage (DC Does TX SXSW Party, w/ Jukebox the Ghost, Le Loup, Georgie James, MDR)
14: Austin, TX @ AfterTheJumpFest SXSW Party (w/ The Lisps, Oliver Future, Physics Of Meaning, Salt & Samovar)
16: El Paso, TX @ Q8
18: JEcon, AZ @ Plush (WXSW, w/ Phosphorescent, Birdmonster, Bon Iver)
19: Phoenix, AZ @ Trunk Space
20: San Diego, CA @ The Epicentre
21: Los Angeles, CA @ Echo Curio
22: Merced, CA @ The Partisan
23: San Francisco, CA @ Hotel Utah
25: Portland, OR @ Mississippi Studios
26: Seattle, WA @ Sunset Tavern
27: Boise, ID @ Area Code
28: @ Urban Lounge, w/ Purr Bats, Rope or Bullets, Cavedoll Salt Lake City, Utah
29: Denver, CO @ Hi-Dive
31: Minneapolis, MN @ 400 Bar
1: Des Moines, IA @ Vaudeville Mew
2: Iowa City, IA @ Mission Creek Fest (w/ Pieta Brown, Brighton MA)
3: Chicago, IL @ The Hideout
4: Louisville, KY @ The 930
5: Lexington, KY @ The Dame
7: Providence, RI @ AS220 (w/ Deer Tick, Tom Inhaler, Liz Isenberg)
8: Somerville, MA @ P.A.’s Lounge
9: Portsmouth, NH @ Studio Verte (w/ Nat Baldwin)
10: New York, NY @ Cake Shop
11: Brooklyn, NY @ Union Hall
12: Baltimore, MD @ Talking Head
13: Washington, DC @ Black Cat (w/ Wye Oak)