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Sylvan Esso's Nick Sanborn on Solo Project Made of Oak, "The Triangle," and Leaving Breadcrumbs

Music InterviewSean McHughComment

It wouldn't be off base to say that Nick Sanborn is best known as one half of the euphonious brain trust that is Sylvan Esso, but being Sylvan Esso's chief instrumentalist to Amelia Meath's head lyricist is not indicative of Sanborn's entire body of work. He's been an active constituent of the vaunted North Carolina "Triangle" for going on half a decade now, having aligned with acts like Megafaun as well as continuing to expand his long standing solo project, Made of Oak.

Wholly thoughtful and incredibly amiable, Sanborn spoke with Transverso about Made of Oak's 2015 debut EP, Penumbra, the various perspectives an act like Made of Oak allows him to explore, and the wellspring of musical collaboration found in Durham and the surrounding North Carolina area. 


TRANSVERSO: You just played in Bloomington, how was that?

SANBORN: Surprisingly great, considering I’ve never been there before with this project, and it was a Wednesday, and it was raining. [Laughs] It was great. It was kind of serendipitous coincidence that happened that my friend, Nate Brener’s band, Naytronix, happened to be in town on tour. We were crossing paths like ships in the night, and he ended up being able to open the show, so it turned what could have been a cold, weird night into a deep, old friends hang. We all went back to his mom’s house afterwards [Laughs], it was great. It was really, really cool.

So what are your thoughts going into the Spring/Summer tour? It sounds like Bloomington was a pretty solid start.

Oh yeah, it's great. With this project, the stakes are so low, and the people who tend to come to the shows have an extremely open mind about what they’re expecting or not expecting – so what the most exciting part to me is about these shows is that they feel very free and open, and can kind of go anywhere. That’s been the main theme for me, and also I’m just back to playing the venues I’m used to. Sylvan [Esso]’s been doing great, and I’m really grateful for that – that’s obviously been a huge change in my life. You know, I’ve toured clubs like the Bishop [in Bloomington, IN] last night for twelve years before any of that happened. This is like, I’m back in the shitty greenroom, where I belong.

Is that a familiar nostalgia?

Well it's more that it feels like my wheelhouse. These are kind of the clubs that I’ve always played in, and you know the last two years have been awesome, playing for way more people, but that’s the aberration – that’s the outlier. Shows like last night are more of the norm for me. So it's kind of good to be back to that.

Being in a more familiar territory, do you feel as if you approach your Made of Oak shows differently from your other projects? Does it make it feel any more organic?

No, not really. I think that just the energy of a smaller club is way different from a bigger club. They’re two totally different types of show. I think if I was playing the exact same set that I played last night that was like, ten times larger, it would feel way different, and I would react different, and I would play different stuff. You kind of just go with the energy that the crowd has, and I think in a smaller room there’s a really wonderful, intimate, energetic thing that happens when you can look up, and I can make eye contact with every single person that came to the show. It's just a different thing. You feel like you’re a part of the crowd. I guess that’s the biggest difference, I feel like when I’m in a small club, there’s no big difference between the performer and the audience, whereas the moment it gets bigger there’s this moment, when it reaches this critical mass where when the audience hits it, they feel like one giant person, you know? [Laughs] You’re kind of trying to make an individual connection, but its just kind of this mass of people, and it's either going well or its going terribly, and that’s kind of your litmus. That’s the biggest difference. I’m not sure if that makes a change in how I’d approach putting the set together, but I think energetically is where you really feel it.

I would imagine with your EP, Penumbra, already being more sonically dense, a smaller space might be a little easier to embody the record’s spirit.

Yeah. [Pauses] I think that… well, you know what? I think its tough to say. I think this material feels a lot more niche to me, definitely. So in that way its makes the most sense in a small room. But yeah, you might be right, there’s kind of a lot going on, so the minute it does get bigger you might lose something. I’m not sure though. Its tough to say, having never done it.

So what have the months following Penumbra’s release looked like for you? Were you pleased with its reception? Do you even bother with stuff like that?

Yeah? Um. Yeah, “question mark.” I guess. [Laughs] I try to not read anyone who writes anything about it, or who writes about any music made by me. Because, there’s no good that can come of that, you either get your ego stroked and then you become addicted to having your ego stroked, or somebody doesn’t get it and tells you you’re terrible, then the part inside you that tells you, “You’re terrible,” all the time is like, “See! You’re terrible!” So there’s no good that could possibly come of that.

What about with your live shows?

The shows have been great! We did a tour kind of right after it came out, and we went on tour with this band Tushka. And with Tushka, the coolest part of the tour was my buddies – Phil and Will – only put out one song out and they just put out one video, and I had just released an eighteen minute EP. So nobody coming to the show where you usually do forty-five minutes, they all know that they can’t expect… They’re going to hear a ton of stuff that they’ve never heard. Like everyone knows that going in. So that just made this great environment where the shows, both sets every night, felt like they could go anywhere. That has been a really cool part of the reception, I think. The people that are into it seem like they want to come and listen, and figure out what’s happening, and hear something they haven’t heard before. So no one’s waiting to hear “some hit,” its like what track is even playing is beside the point. So I think that’s my favorite thing, that that crowd exists.

There are some particularly unique song titles for Penumbra, or at least from an outsider’s perspective – I’m sure for you they make total sense.

Well that’s kind of the nice of being an instrumental artist, I’m not using lyrics, but I still feel like I wrote something that’s from a very specific time in my life. So you kind of leave these breadcrumbs that make sense to you. I just love it when you can imbue that kind of material with intent. Like when you look at something and think, “Oh, this is an intentional choice. This person chose these things. Why did they do that?” I love that moment, where as an audience member, you have to ask yourself why something happens, because whether you come to what the artist thought, it gives you this kind of structure to hang your own story on. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. I know that "penumbra" means "the outer region of a shadow being cast..."

Dude! You are the first person who interviewed me that’s looked up what it meant. That is awesome!

Well it sounds like you’re trying to have some fun with the language of the titles because there are no lyrics. So it almost seems like you’re presenting an over-arching theme without having to spoon-feed it to listeners.

Yeah, well that’s another thing, I think there’s this kind of teeter-totter of “overtness.” I was reading this negative review of a season of Mad Men – I’m so sorry, I’m going to tangent you out here.

No need to apologize, it’s a great show.

[Laughs] Perfect. So I think it was about season five, and the reviewer’s problem was that the metaphors were too “on the nose.” That was the season where one episode there was a toothache, and [the reviewer felt] like it was too surface, and that it didn’t take much thinking to figure out what they were trying to do. Where as before in the show, you had to really think about what questions it was making you ask, and you had to suss out the meaning of each shot, even. And then [the reviewer] compared that problem with when you hear a joke, which is, the thing that makes a joke funny to us is that our brain has to kind of “jump the gap.” Its when you make the connection, which is why when you explain a joke to somebody, it isn’t funny, because of the fact their brain didn’t do that. So learning-wise, we only ever learn the lessons when we actually have to make the leap ourselves. Like that’s the only reason that actually happens. Its like when you’re a kid and you do dumb shit over and over and over again, and your parents tell you you shouldn’t be doing this, but you have to screw it up to actually grow up and learn the lesson, you know what I mean? [Laughs] So I think about that a lot with music; you could really spell it out for somebody, but then it's not interesting. Its like you rob the listener of the opportunity to make their own connections and learn their own lessons, and relate it to something. You’re taking that really important part of interacting with a piece of art away from them. So I think about that a lot – how can you present them with enough proof of content, and enough of those “breadcrumbs.” Its kind of like this promise you make to the listener, like “I put something here. You aren’t wasting your time. Its here. You might find it, or you might find something else. You can trust me.” I think about that a lot – that line of making it too opaque or too clear, which is kind of an interesting tightrope you can walk there.

That’s fantastic. So you’re basically utilizing your experience to allow the listener to heighten their own.

 Right. Well I’m not much of a lyricist, and I don’t really love singing on records. [Laughs] So I have one opportunity to do the thing a lyricist would do, kind of. I have that tiny bit of real estate to kind of give [the listener] a hint of context.

Speaking of lyrics on a Made of Oak track – what can you tell me about your collaboration with Well$ and Professor Toon on the “Side Rides” remix?

That all just came about from doing that [“Side Rides”] video. I had that concept for that video, and kind of talked through my idea of what I wanted it to feel like, and they were both way into it. I just thought when we shot it, that they were going to come and freestyle, because for the music video, we wouldn’t actually hear it. But both of them showed up to the shoot with written verses, like they wanted to be doing the same thing in every spot, and they were just super pro about it. So then over the course of that two-day shoot, me and all of the other people there just kind of got obsessed with the idea of eventually releasing a totally different version of the song that would showcase them instead of showcasing the track. It just took us forever to actually do it. It was interesting, I think when the video came out, there was this misunderstanding that I had made a decision to mute the vocals or something, which was a real bummer to me. It just missed the point really heavily, and I just thought “Oh, bummer.” But when it came out, everyone was like “Oh cool, where’s the vocals?” Which was ironically the initial, kind of snotty joke of an idea that I had - a reference of how people think of instrumental music. It kind of weirdly up like the snake ate its tail [Laughs], because the irony was everyone was writing about – at least everyone who took that angle on it – “how interesting” or “how stupid, he muted the vocals,” but the thing was, we didn’t even have the vocals recorded. That wasn’t even a thought, until after we actually made the video. [Laughs] So yeah, it took like months for us to get it done, because its three really busy dudes’ schedules; we’re all playing all the time. But yeah, it was great when it finally came together.

Do you like being able to collaborate with other artists from “The Triangle” in North Carolina, and kind of help maintain a healthy music scene out of the area?

Oh absolutely! That’s like one of the first things that drew me to the area in the first place. That’s actually like the main thing that drew me to [Durham, NC], because I moved there four years ago to play with this band, Megafaun. So it was like a no-brainer to move there, because the music scene is so diverse and rich, you can do almost anything and people will show up and pay to see it. So the level and the volume of talent there is, its like this weird secret; [Laughs] it's crazy. But yeah, the hip-hop scene is nuts there right now, like Well$ and Professor Toon are obviously two of my favorites, but there’s like so many young dudes coming up that are really cool. This dude Ace Henderson just put out an amazing mixtape, they’re all over the place. And then there’s this other cool thing that’s started popping up is bedroom producers have started to emerge. I think that making electronic music has kind of made other people be like, “Oh, I’m not the only one that does this here. I can show up at stuff,” so that scene has gotten really cool. It's all the same group of 200 people, so if there’s constant intermingling, then everybody is really excited to work with everybody else, but it makes for a lot of weird output.

It's a cool, otherworldly collaboration, it sounds like.

Yeah, that’s the thing, I think especially in hip-hop, how that scene works is either by total chance or “Hey, why don’t you send this guy a packet of like twenty beats;” one is happenstance and the other is kind of depressing. [Laughs] That’s the cool thing about The Triangle, you’re around everyone all the time where legitimate collaborations happen, and you can work together and you can take the time to make something cool, which sounds like a low bar, but it actually doesn’t happen. So its only in places like that - well there are crews and scenes that are really good about that - but its cool to see it in action. To take something further than just sending a guy your beat. Its nice to really make something together, it's really cool.

So do you think that microcosm within The Triangle, and more specifically, Durham could be viewed as the “catalyst” for some of the area’s civic growth? Do you think it has a direct impact on the proverbial, “revitalization” of Durham?  

Air quotes revitalization is the perfect way to put that. [Laughs] It's tough right now, there’s a lot of tension right now, and I think the correlation between the creative scene of people and developers is that developers tend to capitalize on places that are very rich in creative people. It's kind of been the thing since the dawn of real estate development [Laughs] more or less. So that’s the only real correlation I see there – any time a place has cool shit going on, people tend to build condos there. But, I think culturally, the interesting thing is that there’s just a lot more people in the area, and that means inherently, there’s a lot more creative people, or people who want to make music, or go to shows. So that has been really great and welcomed, and it’s a crazy scene of a lot of very different kinds of people there, and that makes for some really awesome chance happenings. But yeah, I’m not sure I’d credit it or correlate them more than that. I think we could have a whole other conversation about the successes and failures of the Durham City Council [Laughs], whether that went right and where its going wrong. And again, its tough for me to even talk about, I mean I’m a white guy in my thirties whose only lived there for four years. I’m not sure its really my thing to talk about.

I was just curious. I had noticed some similarities in the developmental struggles amongst fast growing secondary markets like Durham or Nashville in that regard.

Oh absolutely. I mean, it's not just a “your city versus out city” thing. It’s a ton of places right now, and its all at so many different level. In Durham right now, they’re trying to make it a startup town, like enticing startups to move here and stuff. So I think the biggest conversation I see, at least in regard to other cities that have been startup targeted as startup hubs is “Well how do we not make it turn into San Francisco?” It's everywhere, man.

What has Made of Oak allowed you to do that past and other projects – The Rosebuds, Megafaun, Sylvan Esso – haven’t been able to? Or is it all focused on getting out and playing for people?

Well it's definitely that. Everything has the same end result, its “Let’s all do something or make something, let’s communicate something.” It's like “There’s so many of us and we’re all going to die, so let’s just try to connect for a second.” I think bands are all different because bands are all different groups of people, its just like a conversation over dinner – every conversation between two, to four, to ten people will have this different dynamic, so a different thing will come out of it. I think if you’re being honest as a band – like if you didn’t get together before you made music and said “Let’s make this kind of music,” which I think is a silly thing to do – if you’re doing that, every band feel totally different, and feel different when you play it, and feel different when you write it, and feel different to an audience member. So in that way, the nice part about the Made of Oak stuff, I don’t feel like there’s any potential for it to get fenced in to sounding any one way; its just however I’m feeling at that time in my life. So in that way, the biggest difference is both the burden and the freedom of not having to compromise or split the direction or inspiration with anybody else. But outside of that, that is both freeing and limiting. I think when I first started doing the shows, the band I had been in, Headlights, had broken up, and I was kind of in this zone of “I need to take control of my creative life,” I can’t be dependent upon someone else to write songs, to book a tour, and somebody else to do something. I just have to stop being a fucking baby and just do it. So really, that’s kind of the other big difference, unlike my other projects, this is the only one born out of a desire to grow up.

I was up at Eaux Claires this past summer, and I know you’re from Wisconsin, so I was just curious about how that experience was for you to play a festival like Eaux Claires, because it felt different from most other festivals in my mind.

Didn’t it though? It’s a little weird getting asked just about Eaux Claires, because I don’t want to come across as hyperbolic, but no joke, we talk about this all the time – that is the only festival I would recommend that a music fan go to. I’d recommend other musicians go to it. Every other festival I go to, and I have a great time working them, but at some point that weekend I thought “I can’t imagine how anyone would pay go to this,” [Laughs] which sounds terrible, but Eaux Claires is the one that genuinely feels like it’s a celebration of music. It feels like that’s actually what it is, in every way, playing it felt that way, being backstage felt that way, walking out in the crowd to watch the shows felt that way, everyone in the audience felt like that was their purpose. No one was trying to wear some crazy thing to get their photo on a fucking blog or something; it’s the opposite of all that other shit. I think out of that comes genuine no bullshit, no pretense moments, and collaboration, because that’s the only environment where that can happen and not feel forced. I did an improv set with Chris Rosneau there last time, just off the cuff. Like two days earlier, we were like, “Oh, we should do this, so let’s see if we can do it.” And now we’re coming back this year to do that as an actual thing. That would never happen at any other festival. Imagine going to the organizer of Coachella two days beforehand and being like “Hey, can me and another guy in another band do a noise set on this day at this time?” and them being okay with it. That just doesn’t happen.  And then [at Eaux Claires] they’re like, “Hey, that was great. You should come back and do that next year.” I’m excited about this year. I really hope it continues, because if it can stay – I hate to use the word “pure” – but if it can stay “pure,” and focused on its precision and not lose the plot, then it stands to become this incredibly important thing.