TRANSVERSO

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What Now: Sylvan Esso on Radio, Politics, and Beating the Sophomore Slump

Music InterviewWeston PaganoComment

What now? It's the question posed by many a sophomore record, and Sylvan Esso's new LP of the same name has the challenge of meeting the extremely high bar set by the North Carolina duo's self-titled debut in 2014.

As the first two tracks slowly blink open their glitchy, vulnerable eyes to the crackle and spasm of both vinyl and CD skipping, Amelia Meath coaxes "I was gonna write a song for you / Gonna sing it out loud," in What Now's opening breaths. To add to the mystique, each of the ten tracks were released a week early via ten separate vinyl singles hidden in record stores across the world. Then streamed on their site for a single day, the songs came to contextually mimic the fleeting, digital reality they already explore sonically.

While Meath is spinning lyrics ranging from delaying ones own death for unexpected love to a knowing diss track that sets the radio model in its blisteringly clever crosshairs, Nick Sanborn weaves them within electropop soundscapes that seem to carry unspoken contemplativeness of their own. There are only two intersecting parts, yet they combine in crisp, impeccably moveable depth.

"Do you got the moves? / To make it stick, yeah / To get the clicks, yeah," Meath challenges on lead single "Radio." Not only do they have the moves, but if you have the pleasure of seeing Sylvan Esso perform you'll find them as organic as the vocals, never made rigid or polished despite the synthetic texture of the music they're set to.

Transverso called up Sylvan Esso to discuss What Now, radio, and North Carolina politics.


TRANSVERSO: Your new single "Radio" is a really clever commentary on the music industry and radio model. Did you find yourself becoming disillusioned after your debut?

AMELIA MEATH: Not really, mostly because we knew what we were getting into in general. There was like a sense of deepening of feeling, like all of a sudden we were in a new system, but everyone knows what the music industry is like. You know what you’re getting into. You’re selling a product and the product is your feelings, so you turn it into a song.

NICK SANBORN: The product is your feelings - that should've been the name of the record! [Laughs] I think that song, there is a lot there, because it's not just getting mad at the commercial radio market and all the nonsense that comes with that, which it is, but it's also kind of acknowledging our place in that. You know we're just as complicit as anybody else.

AM: Yeah exactly, and also acknowledging our participation and excitement around those ideas that I'm talking about.

I really appreciate the irony of the track fitting into that radio-friendly 3:30 timeframe you reference but also being decidedly FCC unclean.

NS: [Laughs] Thank you very much!

AM: You know the funny part about that is it's actually pretty clean. I say "dick." You can't say "sucking dick," but we had to bleep out [when] I say "folk girl" in it and people keep thinking I’m saying "fuck girl," which is also like a cool, new thing to say instead of "fuck boy." But we had to bleep it.

NS: [Laughs] Yeah we had to make a bleeped version...

AM: ...for radio so it sounds much dirtier than it actually is, which I kind of like.

You currently have "H.S.K.T." airing in an AT&T commercial. With many describing advertising as the new terrestrial radio, is that an idea you agree with?  

NS: It's interesting, I haven’t heard that before.

AM: I haven’t heard that either. That’s interesting. That’s a cool idea. I don’t think that’s true though, because it’s not like they say "This song is 'H.S.K.T.' by Sylvan Esso" at the beginning or the end. If they did then that would be true.

NS: Right. But in the era of Shazam I guess it's weird. I think, more than anything, what radio used to do (and still does way better than a lot of people think it still does) has just spread out into so many more types of media. People just choosing to just take music in or to take creative, you know... Oh god, I don’t want to say the word "content..."

AM: Ooo do it! Do it! Say it!

NS: They’re taking in content...

AM: Yeahhhh!

NS: ...in just all kinds of different ways. So the idea that somebody would call advertising the new terrestrial radio, that’s really interesting to me. But I'm not sure that it is, it's just a different, it's just another great equalizer, you know? That’s the thing I think we are really kind of missing right now, that there is no Johnny Carson, you know? There’s no one cultural touchstone that we all share anymore, and even the ones we do all share I think we perceive them in decidedly different ways. So it’s interesting, I haven’t thought of advertising like that. It’s interesting. That’s a good… I’m going to think about that for a long time once this call is over. 

Did you guys tackle this record any differently then your debut? Did you fear a sophomore slump at all?

NS: Of course. I mean, we did the thing that I’m sure any other band whose first record is somewhat successful does. Which is, you know, you kind of have a little very selfish meltdown.

AM: Or a very long drawn out one that last many months.

NS: [Laughs] Yeah, maybe not so little.

AM: You know, like a torrential rain. [Laughs]

NS: Yeah, and you know that is the same as anybody else, we were absolutely kind of crippled by our own worry about ruining it or whatever the fuck we could be worried about. For a while I think the real shift for us happened when we kinda realized, well, we kept trying to do [things the same way. We were] like, "How did we do this last time? What did we do last time?"

AM: Which just doesn’t work. You can’t. We just figured out that you couldn’t force it.

NS: We just figured out that we were different people.

AM: Totally, and also if you try to do the same thing you did last time then you don’t make something new.

NS: Yeah, and I think the real thing for us was [realizing] we are just very different people then the people who made the last record so there is no way we can do that again. And then you realize that kind of the two major reactions that you can have to that problem, or that people tend to have, is that they make the same record again, or that they make something purposefully weirdly different, and those are both kind of flawed reactions in opposite directions. So the only thing you can actually do is just figure out what kind of music you make now, and who you are now, and what you need to say now, and the minute we did that it all got kind of a lot easier and we stopped worrying about it so much.

AM: Yeah.

This is also your debut on Loma Vista. How has that transition worked out?

AM: It’s all pretty cerebral. The transition was just us talking to a bunch of different labels and us being like, "Okay, you can borrow our record for 25 years!"

NS: [Laughs] Yeah it’s a weird thing. I mean, it's weird to talk about it because I don’t want to downplay how helpful they’ve been, because they’ve definitely been fantastic so far and a great help in kind of executing the thing that we want to do. That’s on one half of it, and the other half it's kind of like, this is your first time with your cookies being sold at Starbucks, you know? It's tough to encapsulate all those differences without putting too much weight on them.

So you already sold out of some vinyl colors for What Now and you also sold out a lot of shows. I know it's still early, but do you feel the reception has been what you thought it would be?

AM: It’s bigger than I thought. Or it’s bigger than it has every been before, which is exciting. I am excited to go out on tour and actually see what it’s like, because that’s really the only time you really get it, is when you’re in front of people.

NS: I’m really ready for the record to be out.

AM: Oh my god, me too.

NS: It’s so cool that we sold way more copies of our record than we had planned on. That’s obviously a huge victory for us and we are just so grateful to our fans and everyone who bought it. But it also just still feels preemptive. Maybe that’s like the Midwesterner in me, but it feels like, okay, great, but they could all still hate it when they get it, you never know!

AM: I love that that’s part of your reality.

NS: Of course, I don’t understand how it isn’t part of your reality! But yeah, it has been way bigger than expected or that we had planned for for sure and we feel insane about that. I think anytime you kind of leave for a little while and stop playing shows and stop, whatever, tweeting, I don't know...

AM: I never stopped tweeting!

NS: [Laughs] You know anytime you kind of take a little time to not do things publicly, I think we worried like everybody else is that you’re going to come back and nobody is there anymore. So it is immensely reassuring that not only do people still give a shit, but there are more of them now than there were then.

AM: Yeah, that’s nice.

I saw your SXSW set and the new material seemed to integrate really well. How has the process of adding a new album to your performance been so far?

AM: Yeah, yeah it was fun.

NS: Really fun. It’s interesting because it's not totally in the exact same vein - there's a few more moving parts in a lot of it. It's kind of been cool trying to figure out how exactly it wants to live in the live set, you know? Which I am really excited about, because we are kind of expanding parts of our rig and how the show is going to be for the shows coming up starting in May. I’m just excited to figure out what space they're going to live in once we’ve played them 100 times.

I don’t know if you still have it on there, but when I saw you at SXSW you had "F THE NC GOP" written across your gear. I assume this is response to the discriminatory bathroom bills in North Carolina, right?

NS: Amidst many other things! We can talk about [former NC Governor] Pat McCrory's power grab in his final week in office to take power away from Roy Cooper’s incoming administration. We could talk about their unyielding gerrymandering of all of the congressional districts...

AM: Yeah, North Carolina is no longer legally a democracy.

NS: Oh yeah, we can talk about how we fell below the necessary requirements for a true democracy! [Laughs] We could talk about their continuing assault on voting rights.

AM: Yeah, and not to mention this bullshit fake-out fixer-upper of [bathroom bill] HB2.

NS: Oh god, that’s the fucking newest. And the NCAA caving on that, oh god.

AM: Heartbreak hotel.

NS: It’s just nonstop, and there are so many pieces of it. It's like a lot of politics right now, where everyday you wake up and they’ve done something new that would’ve been the most outraging thing of an entire administration before, and now it's like every morning.

AM: Fuck 'em.

NS: Sometimes when you only have a limited about of space physically you just got to get to the point. [Laughs]

To what degree if any do you feel artists are obligated to use their platform to address political and social issues?

AM: I don’t think that anybody is obligated to do anything because it's art, you know, you can do whatever you want. But if you have a platform, personally, I have a platform, and I intend to use it because that’s my prerogative. I think a lot of times, particularly as a women, people like to say a lot of things that women have to do when they’re performers to be a good role model, and I think it's all just rude and another way of trying to control people.

NS: We're actually an interesting case because we are almost entirely uninterested in making overtly political music. That isn’t to say that the music doesn’t touch on the emotional realities of living in a political world, that is certainly a big current, I would say, but I would be shocked if there was a day I woke up and thought to make a song about a particular bill or person seemed like the right idea. That’s just not our vibe, but at the same time we are very active with the band's kind of voice and our personal voices.

What is your favorite track from What Now and why?

AM: My favorite song is always the last one that we wrote, so in this case it's probably "Song," which you can tell we wrote so close to the end we didn’t give it a name.

NS: [Laughs] Yeah usually we have these kind of fake names for songs.

AM: And then we [come up with] the real names and we just didn’t for that one.

NS: Well we tried a lot of different names. They were all terrible.

AM: We tried a lot of different names and they didn’t work. I don’t know though, this one is horrible.

NS: But it’s more true.

AM: I am really proud of that song, I like it a lot, I like the ideas it talks about. I like that it's love song to songs in general.

What's an example for an alternate placeholder title for one of your past songs?

AM: We called one "Zelda."

NS: "Rewind" was called "Zelda."

AM: Just because one of the parts of it sounds like a peaceful level of [video game The Legend of] Zelda. [Hums melody]

NS: Yeah that opening, my sample voice in those chords, we immediately felt like that was a Zelda level, so that is what the track had become called. Most of the other ones are pretty direct; "Radio" is obviously "Radio," "Sound" is obviously "Sound," "The Glow," and "Kick Jump [Twist" were also the same.] Oh, "Just Dancing" was called the very inventive title "15" forever.

AM: 'Cause it was the 15th thing.

NS: If I don’t know what a thing is about yet I number it, this is really exciting. [Laughs] We almost called that one "15," but we didn't, thank goodness.

So what would be your favorite track?

NS: I think my favorite one is the first one. I think "Sound" is my favorite song. I’m just really proud of every piece of that. That came together in like an afternoon, and the minute we wrote it we knew it was the first song on the record. I feel like every sound in that song has purpose and meaning to me, and I feel like it’s the most enmeshed the two of us can be in a recording. That is like a really the prefect union of the two of us, both how it is written and everything. I am really proud of it.


What Now is out now via Loma Vista, and you can buy it here. Read our other interview with Nick Sanborn about his solo project Made of Oak here.