Interview: Sylvan Esso

Sylvan EssoSylvan Esso are a two-piece, electro-pop band that were never meant to be. Meeting by chance on the same bill at the small venue, vocalist Amanda Meath approached electronic producer Nick Sanborn with “Play it Right”; a song she performed with her folk trio Mountain Man, and asked him to remix it. After creating the obligatory remix, Sanborn sensed there was something else to this collaboration; a feeling shared by Meath. In no time at all the pair moved to Durham, North Carolina and began recording what would become their debut release in Sanborn's bedroom.

The realisation of this pairing comes in the form of ten tracks that showcase a beautiful harmony between luscious folk vocals and pulsing electronica. The production is richly layered, yet minimalist, the vocals deal with subjects that would dissuade the need to move, yet demand that you do. Every melody feels fine tuned, each click and glitch serving a purpose, not one second of the album feeling wasted or tacked on. It's an album that redefines the model of female-fronted electronic music, proving that there is hope yet for an ailing genre.

We sit down with Nick to discuss video games, Travis McGee novels and their self-titled debut album.

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Is this your first time in the UK?

No, we were here about a month ago and both Amelia and I have been here many times with other bands.

For anyone unfamiliar with you how would you describe your sound?

We’re a pop band, I think. I think that we tried to make a pop record that didn’t totally treat you like an idiot. We were both really excited by the idea of really accessible pop music being a little less simple. I think every decision we made is kind of a ‘less is more’ decision. You can get wrapped up in mixing, and adding things always seems like a solution but it kind of isn’t most of the time.

The name Sylvan Esso was inspired by the game Swords and Sorcery, do you both consider yourselves avid gamers, or do you enjoy them more on a casual level?

It’s kind [of] like heroin, if I can compare it to heroin [laughs]. Every time I play a game at a friend’s house, I get so into it that it reminds me that I probably should have a video game system at my house. My sister has an Xbox and every time I go over there I get so deep into Assassin’s Creed that I almost don’t hang out with my sister and that’s not okay. But on tour, we’re both hugely into the creative process that’s happening in games right now. We’re really excited about smaller game developers and the way game developers can make a whole world for somebody to live in, that’s a really fascinating and beautiful thing to us. A game like Swords and Sorcery is a perfect example of that, where it’s just a little iPhone game but it’s actually this whole world they’ve made that you can step into. It’s so specific and unique, and the soundtrack is beautiful. We’re huge fans of the medium, but we’re such huge fans of it that we try to do everything we can to stay away from it. Amelia was a huge gamer back in the day; she was a big online gamer and we both tried to step away.

You mentioned the score of Swords and Sorcery, and I know that you’re both super interested in doing a video game soundtrack so what kind of game would you like to score?

That’s a good question. I think that the cool thing about that idea to me is just that it’s such a creative job. The idea of changing music as the character walks into a different room and how you design the sound to match all that is a really beautiful set of problems that you could have creatively. In that way, anything would work, because each type of game presents its own set of needs and obstacles.

Can you remember the moment that made you want to become a musician?

It was such a slow realisation, but it was always a part of my childhood. My dad’s a musician and I always thought that was the coolest thing you could do. I always played stuff, the minute they let you be in the orchestra, I was in the orchestra. A year later when they let you be in concert bands I was in that. But the minute I figured out you could be in your own band and not play Bach, that was in seventh grade. I remember this whole realisation of like, “Oh man you can just be in a band? Anyone can just make a band?” That was so huge, I remember thinking that was for people who were way cooler than me.

So if you weren’t a musician what would you like to be?

I don’t know, I’d have to be a very different kind of person. One of the many things that attracts me about music, is that it’s a totally immersive job, and if you do it the way we do it, it becomes your whole life. In the same way that being in law school or a medical resident is your whole life. Those jobs make a lot of sense to me; something that you have to put yourself into fully to make it good.

What non-musical influences played a part in the writing of the album?

That’s a really good question. I’m trying to think of good examples of that. I think the whole thing for us was this idea that everything felt human. All the things I’m going to remember are going to seem disparate and only make sense to me [laughs]. I was reading a lot of this series of mystery novels, the Travis McGee series. The thing I love about them is that they are this really formulaic series of books about this guy who solves crimes. But within that formula they are beautifully written and contain all these ideas about the changing state of America in the 60s and 70s when they were written. But seeing this author use the form of that to make something really resonate has always been super inspiring to me. We were both reading a lot of those when creating the album.

The first song I heard was “Coffee” and I immediately thought of the film Drive. I could just imagine you both recording that song whilst that song was playing.

That song is cool because one of the things I love about Amelia’s writing is that she writes very personally, she writes about these really specific non-simple situations that happen to her. But because of the way she writes we’re able to put a lot of different stories on it. That song in particular we’ve got some really interesting reactions to, but that one’s my favourite.

The album was recorded in your bedroom, and you can really hear the warmth in Amelia’s voice and the instruments. Was this choice borne out of necessity or for a more organic experience?

At first definitely necessity, but as we went on the benefits of doing it at my house became something we couldn’t give up. We worked on these songs so much, and we kept changing them and trying to make them better. I think that long-winded creative process just wouldn’t have been possible at a regular studio. I think the house I live in became a character on the record; I hear it in the record. We did all the vocals in my hallway and all that reverb is just off the hallway. We’re both really into this idea of ‘you can do this too,’ we wanted to pull the curtain back from the wizard, this doesn’t take a tonne of money to do, we just did this.

What are you guys looking forward to most about this tonight’s show at Village Underground?

Just being able to play our songs to a bunch of Londoners who don’t know who we are, that’s a really exciting challenge to us, we totally get off on that.

What is your favourite song on the record?

It’s like picking babies…

Sophie’s Choice.

Honestly, I think “Come Down” might be my favourite. We did it in 20 minutes; she [Amelia] just went in there and recorded all of the vocal parts one after the other. I just did four takes of drone guitar over the top and threw a little record noise on it and called it a day. The thing we wanted with the last song on the record was to end it with a question mark. It will hopefully do it in such a way that you wouldn’t be able to say what our next record will sound like. Not that I’m comparing ourselves to Radiohead but the end of OK Computer where they stay on that loop for a while, it’s not the note you expect it to be. It ends with this question mark in this beautiful way. We wanted to do something so totally loose, and off the grid but still totally sounded like our band and left the door wide open.

Will you be returning for a headline tour in the UK?

We’ll be here in the fall, we go all the way up and down. I’m excited to come back and be able spend some more time in the country. All we’ve been doing is these support shows, which are awesome because it gives us this opportunity to show our stuff to all these new people. The only bummer is that we’re just playing London, which is cool, I love London, but I also love Leeds, like Brudenell Social Club. There are so many places that I would love for us to play. And I’m glad that I know that we’ll be able to do that later on in the tour.

Sylvan Esso's self-titled debut was released on 2nd June 2014 through Partisan Records in the UK. Read our review here.

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  1. Sylvan Esso | Interview – Chris Mackin Writer - 02/02/2019

    […] Read the full interview at DrunkenWerewolf. […]

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