by: Stephan Masnyj and Shay Mehr
“It’s too hot in here to think,” Amelia sighs. We had retreated to her and Nick Sanborn’s tour bus in hopes of finding a quiet place to record our conversation, but we unfortunately had to compromise comfort for silence. Amelia and Nick are in the midst of their promotion cycle for their upcoming second record, What Now, as the duo Sylvan Esso. Since their inception, the group has crafted songs that have been difficult to categorize. Sanborn’s arrangements are catchy enough to dance to, but minimalistic enough to make you wonder whether doing so would be appropriate. Meanwhile, Amelia’s voice sounds like it would fit in perfectly with a folk band as opposed to electronic beats, which would make sense considering her main music project was a folk trio called The Mountain Men before her time in Sylvan Esso. However, this combination accomplishes more than setting them apart from their peers; it makes their music adopt a human element rarely seen in electronic music. Their compositions breathe and emote, and are all the better for it.
What Now looks to expand upon the qualities that made their debut so ubiquitous. “Kick Jump Twist” settles into a harder groove than anything on their self titled debut, and “Die Young” puts a larger emphasis on Amelia’s storytelling than previous songs. Furthermore, “Radio” is a tongue-in-cheek admonishment of radio singles packaged in their most radio-friendly track yet. Throughout our time with the group they remained humble and engaged in talking about the trials and tribulations that led to their new record. Our conversation with the duo centered around how they handled the pressure of burgeoning fame, the inspiration behind their new record, and — randomly enough — the joys of Star Trek. Read our transcript below.
Stephen: You guys will be releasing your second record, What Now pretty soon. Bands that have become as successful as you have in such a short period of time generally have big pressure with their second album; they often tend to try to do too much or try something radically different. Did you guys feel any sort of pressure while recording this follow up to not fall in the "sophomore slump?" Or did you try to block that out?
Nick: We totally did.
Amelia: Yeah we both tried to block it out and filter it a lot.
Nick: But I think that was kind of the thing that helped push us through, was realizing that all of those reactions that you just described are all very reactionary ways of writing anything. Each one of those is a reaction to either your audience or your perception of them. The minute you realize the only actual thing to do is just write the music you’re gonna write now... Thats the only way that actually makes any sense.
Stephen: I guess it can also be different because when you're making your first record there's almost no expectations other than you guys want to make something [for yourself]. And the second time around — not that there weren't people waiting before — but there are so many more people waiting now.
Amelia: No one was waiting before (laughs). Nick: Yeah no one was waiting before. This was not a band people were anxious to hear.Amelia: No one cared. And now and then it felt like they did. But also your duty as a maker of art is to not feel that pressure and just make the things you're feeling.
Nick: Yeah otherwise you're making weird art through a lens. Amelia: You'd just be faking it. And there's nothing worse than faking it. Nick: Everyone can recognize dishonesty really easily.
Shay: So I recently read an NPR headline from Bob Boilen that said, "New Music from Sylvan Esso = more Bubbly Joy." But quite honestly compared with your debut music, "Die Young" and "Radio" seem cynical [in comparison]. If you'd care to comment on that and what we can expect from What Now on April 28th.
Nick: Sweet Bob Boilen (laughs).
Amelia: I think you're kinda right. They are cynical but also not — there's cynical elements to those songs as well as joy within them.
Nick: I wouldn't say they're pure cynicism.
Amelia: Yeah I like to think our songs are not one sided. And the record itself; like if the first album was the band figuring out who we were, then the second album is using that vocabulary we built on the first record and telling stories. So there is cynicism. Because cynicism is real. And feeling sad is real.
Nick: And feeling sad right now is real. But I think there's a lot of joy on the record. I think there’s a lot of nostalgia and trying to figure out what kind of person you're going to be. I think those are big themes on this record. I mean I would say "Radio" is a pretty cynical song, but I think it’s also pretty joyous. I would say the same about “Die Young.” Is there anything really else? (Looks to Amelia) I don’t think there's a ton of cynicism outside of that I suppose.
Shay: I'm wondering what inspired this pivot; is it the political climate? Or...
Nick: I think it's just we're growing up.
Amelia: Also I don’t think its that much of a pivot in general. Or maybe it is?
Nick: It doesn’t feel like a pivot to us.
Amelia: Yeah I felt like the first record was as cynical.
Nick: HSKT was a pretty cynical song.
Nick: I think the people we were when we wrote the first record; that’s the perfect set of songs that would come out of that. And the people we are now; this is the perfect set of songs to come out of this. We don’t tend to make pre-emptive stylistic choices when we're writing. We kinda just try to write the things we should be writing from the points of view we have now. I feel like a completely different person than I was when we wrote the last record. I mean it’s been a wild three years for us, personally and professionally. Even zooming out more macro than that I think seeing our place in a larger world has been... its been a wild three years. So we just realized there was no way to write anything like the thing we had written last time, just because we are so different. I'd say it was more of that than any conscious pivoting.
Stephen: Speaking of the singles that have come out, I wanted to ask about "Radio" in particular; that song seems to be poking fun at the idea of a radio single, dealing with record labels, press, etc. I guess I wanted to get your thoughts on the inspiration behind that song and wanted to ask; more than your other contemporaries you guys have seem to have grown in popularity quickly. Did that experience influence you guys to write a tongue in cheek song like that? To poke fun at the whole process?
Nick: It's more about expectation than anything else.
Stephen: It seems like you guys became popular by marching to the beat of your own drum a bit.
Amelia: Well, yeah totally. "Radio" was about all of those things. But that's the climate you're living in when you start playing bigger shows and you get the attention you want from your record label because you're actually selling records. That being said, also when we were trying to get songs from the first record on the radio people would come back to us and say "We already have a female voice."
Shay: (Groan) Don’t tell me those things.
Nick: No joke. It's the darkest timeline.
Amelia: Yeah it's not cool. It's blatant sexism. Also, I was being sarcastic about the industry but also about myself, like the amount of pressure that I personally felt to step up and deliver again was the same amount if not more pressure than what was being projected at me. More than anything, it was a song about the frustration with myself. And the need to write more songs. “Radio” was one of the first songs I wrote for the second record. We had been touring for a year and a half after I wrote that song. It was about, "Are you kidding me? We have to write more already?" We hadn’t stopped.
Stephen: From a listeners perspective too they often adopt the opinion of, "Man it's been three years since the last Sylvan Esso record" but its not like you guys have been doing nothing.
Amelia: I think we had like a month [of rest].
Nick: We've only been doing the band since [we started]. And thats one of those tough things, everyone is like "Where's the record?" and nobody else writes our songs for us, and we produce our own records. And [fans] have come to our shows and thank you so much for coming to those, but we were on those tours the whole time (laughs).
Amelia: It's not like we left home to come play for you and then went back home.
Nick: I know a lot of other bands that are really good at writing on the road, and we are just not one of those bands. It's a skill where we're trying to get better at for this next run, and we're spacing out [tour dates] a little bit differently. The last one we were just playing catch up the whole time which is the greatest problem to have. It wasn't a problem; it was fantastic. But we were just racing and bumping shows up and trying to make sure as many people who wanted to come to a show could come [see us]. But trying to hit every city more times and do the things it seemed like we needed to do and what our fans wanted us to do — there was no way to not do that. But we did two and a half years straight and then stopped and recorded for a year. And we even stopped and played some shows last year between recording.
Shay: So I assume you're about to be on tour for What Now. How does SXSW compare to most tour stops you've had in the past?
Nick: SXSW is the weirdest place to play a show. It's like completely outside of reality. It’s the wildest thing. It has no bearing on the rest of anything. Its so weird and I love it.
Shay: In what way?
Nick: It's like, you guys have been hanging out here right?
Amelia: It's not necessarily the most conducive listening environment.
Nick: I mean we had to come in our van to tape this (laughs). So its weird. I don’t feel like the point is direct focus. The point of playing a show at SXSW is not the point of us playing a show [on tour]. Like we're playing Stubbs BBQ tonight and we play Stubb's BBQ again in August for our own show. And those two shows are going to feel totally different. Because this place is a place for discovery and finding out what somebody's doing that's new and seeing twenty things in a night. Its just a totally different headspace for bands and the audience.
Stephan: We got here last week and I was joking around earlier [with Shay] that I have absolutely no perception of time, like I don’t know what day it is or where we're supposed to be.
Nick: And think about how different it is from the last time you bought a ticket to a show, and like went with your friends. It's a completely different thing. And that’s not to say one is better than the other, but comparing SXSW to a normal tour stop is like comparing apples to something that isn’t a fruit. Like apples and oranges doesn’t take it far enough.
Shay: It's like you're always missing something and you’re never missing anything at the same time because theres so much going on.
Nick: You just have to follow your bliss.
Amelia: You just have to wave goodbye to the FOMO immediately because there’s so much going on. At this point going to SXSW is like going to a weird cocktail party where all of your friends are. Its like summer camp for touring people.
Stephen: I wanted to ask you guys a bit about your sound. I feel like the combination of Amelia's voice and Nick's arrangements is a particularly unique combo that people may not pick up on paper but it's something that obviously works so well. Was there an a-ha moment when you guys were starting where you felt like this was something totally different? Or was it a lot of different permutations before you settled on your sound?
Nick: I feel like each song is a permutation (laughs).
Amelia: It's sort of like you have what you have. It's not like I sat around and thought "I have a really warm voice." It's just how we are. And we get along. And we decided to work together.
Nick: And we're fans of each other which I think is the biggest thing. I just love what she writes.
Amelia: And I love what he writes.
Nick: But really the a-ha moment was the first thing we did. I did a remix for her that became the song “Play it Right,” which she had written for her old band The Mountain Men. And for me at least that kind of opened up a bunch of doors in my head of how I can really be myself in a band. And since then that’s always been the goal. We both love things that feel really human. I think that’s the kind of thing that you're reacting to. We both want every part of it to feel the way you probably feel about her voice. We want it to feel like human beings made it. But every new song is us to feel a new permutation of ourselves.
Stephen: You guys are from Durham North Carolina, which isn't the first thing that comes to mind when people think of a music scene. Was it challenging to start a record in a place like that as opposed to a larger place like LA or NY?
Amelia: Actually Durham is the home of Merge Records.
Nick: It's not like Nashville or something or Austin. it's not an on-the-face music town.
Amelia: But theres a bunch of music being made.
Nick: Hiss Gold Messenger, Superchunk, Iron and Wine, Mountain Goats, J. Cole. And thats just the people you would probably know, the people below that are insane. And it's also super diverse. I think that’s the coolest part about it. So we're kinda in three cities; there's Durham, Raleigh, and then Chapel Hill. And those are all 20 minutes from each other. So it seems like a small town but Durham alone is 350,000. Raleigh is 600,000. So it's a huge place.
Amelia: And hilariously we kind of moved there to make this record. It was a serendipitous move. Nick moved for another music job which has since fell through. I moved because we had just started the band and I wanted to record the album. So I moved for six months. I figured we'll finish there. Because its cheap honestly.
Stephen: It's interesting because a lot of people think they're going to move to LA or NY to start a band, but in reality it's a lot more affordable to go somewhere else.
Nick: I'm from Milwaukee and I lived basically my whole adult life until we moved to North Carolina in Milwaukee. And I started touring there when I was like 20. And that always made the most sense to me. My rent is cheap, I could always bartend and leave my job and come back whenever I want. It's a really easy place to do that. Where if I had a band at the same level in Brooklyn I would be completely screwed. I just don’t know how anyone does it. Kudos to anyone who can but I just could not do that. I'm envious of that work ethic. To me I feel like I need time and space to find a way to be creative and towns like [Durham] afford that to you. And we just get the bonus of having an insane, low-key music scene around us all the time.
Shay: So my last question is a global, existential question; what fulfills you?
Nick: Oh god
Amelia: A nice, sold seltzer on a hot day. That fulfills me.
Nick: So many things. But, recently one of my favorite downtime fulfilling things is a bath while watching an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation. Just some epsom salt and Captain Picard (laughs).