SHORT AND SWEET: WMSE TALKS TO NICK SANBORN OF SYLVAN ESSO
POSTED:: October 29, 2020
Interviews, Short And Sweet (Q&A's)
FILED UNDER:: Interviews, Short And Sweet (Q&A's)
Nearly everyone who lives in Milwaukee and loves Sylvan Esso knows the magical origin story of the dance-pop duo. In the summer of 2010, Nick Sanborn (living in Milwaukee and playing out as his solo synth project, Made Of Oak) and Amelia Meath (then touring with her folk band, Mountain Man) shared an unlikely bill at The Cactus Club in Bay View, met and stayed in touch, sharing music in the months to come and eventually made it official as a touring, working band after their pop prowess was discovered.
Fast-forward ten years and the pair have played countless festivals, television programs and cool radio stations across the globe. As of recent, Sylvan Esso is on their third record, Free Love, created and released in two pretty different worlds. Nick took the time with us to talk about the sound and feel of the new record, releasing it in the midst of a global pandemic and his deep connection to Milwaukee…
I heard you had to leave Los Angeles pretty quickly this spring to get back home to Durham – how did you feel when you finally reached NC?
Pretty shell-shocked. We were planning on being there for the whole month but about four days in the news started getting crazy, and we decided to do a grocery run just in case they shut restaurants down. The scene at the Silverlake Whole Foods was absolute apocalypse-style pandemonium. We got back to the studio and immediately changed our flights to the next morning, and on our layover in Atlanta the news channels were all talking about how the stock market had been shut down after crashing. It was crazy.
You had a full band last year – do you envision that picking back up again once things settle?
Maybe? One of my main takeaways from that whole wonderful experience was that our band can be anything we want it to be. Shortly after that we did a taped performance as a trio with a saxophone player, and it just confirmed this confidence we had in what we were doing that WITH gave us. Mostly though, changing it up is just fun. Especially for a band like us, where there’s all these different ways to express the same thing, pointing at the same destination from a different starting point.
Did you have your studio in Durham all finished when you came back? Were you able to get to work in it right away?
Yes and no. There’s two studio rooms out there, and one is just a tiny little room that we didn’t do anything to besides some acoustic treatment – that’s where we made the whole new record and have been working ever since. Then there’s the other room, which is this big open space with a couple isolation booths – that’s the one that has been under construction this whole time. It is mostly done and we’ve had sessions in there and I LOVE IT but there are still a bunch of things that need to get finished for it to be a fully-functioning place. I’m just so excited to have this weird creative hub out in the woods finally operating; it feels like camp out there.
As “the sound” of Sylvan Esso, what new bells and whistles or techniques were you most excited to try out on Free Love?
I leaned much more heavily on my modular sampling rig on this record, which had a few moments on What Now but really guided a lot of the music on the new record. “Numb”, “Frequency”, “What If”, “Rooftop”, “Train” – all of those either started or ended or both on the modular. I love working with it because you feel this constant sense of discovery. Another thing we had always talked about doing was broadcasting parts of songs over the radio and then recording them back through a boombox, which we did a bunch of times on this one. I love trying out different processes and then paying attention to how they inherently make me feel, and when we started printing things through the radio i was surprised to realize that it gave me this sense of comforting nostalgia (and depending on how we did it, could be combined with this offsetting sense of everything falling apart). That technique is all over the record, but you can really hear it before the bass drops in “Frequency” and for the whole song “Free”, where we printed the whole song through it rather than just a piece.
You’re no stranger to improvised sounds (your own project as Made of Oak and your 2019 release and string of shows with Chris Rosenau showed that vividly) – within pop music, it seems there are confines where you have to give people the thing that they know. Do you try to stretch that as much as possible to get the creative adrenaline of improvising in?
Oh for sure, improvising is the beginning of everything we do in the studio. I always try to have our room set up in such a way that there’s the shortest possible path between an idea and the execution of the idea, which all stems from the lessons improvisation teaches. The place I think about it way more is in a concert setting, where I really do think (especially with pop) people come with a certain expectation that you’re going to play the song they know in more or less the way they know it. I think there’s kind of a false binary there, where on one side you’re a jukebox playing these exact recitations of material and on the other side you’re defying all expectations and wildly forging ahead (probably while pleasing no one). We have a lot of fun trying to find this middle ground where the whole set feels very malleable but can also stick to the rails when we want it to, designing the setup so that I can quickly add extra drums, or a synth, or sample Amelia’s voice, or construct a long transition on the fly, all while essentially giving people what they came to see. I think that’s the most interesting space for us right now, and for the audience too! even if someone doesn’t realize it consciously I think they want to feel like they’re sharing a moment in time with the band in a real way, they’re right there with us and this thing is happening that has never quite happened this way before and won’t happen again, all without ever alienating them with some unexpected dystopian version of their favorite song. So much of what we do is about opening doors to let people in, and this is a huge part of it.
“Danceable” is the most-used word to describe your music. How do you contend with being in that “danceable” zone – do you feel more pressure to be upbeat over downtempo?
I think about this a lot, because we do make a lot of obviously-dance music, but then at the same time “Coffee” is one of our biggest songs. I think we’re both very rhythmic writers and are naturally drawn to music that physically moves us, and so maybe that ends up working whether we’re at 80bpm or 145? I’m honestly not sure. As far as pressure goes, I’m always really hesitant to go into writing with a “oh, this will work great at Coachella” type mindset, which is an easy thing to get locked into once you’re playing on bigger and bigger stages and sound systems. One thing that really came out during the writing of this album was remembering that we’re only happy when we’re a whole-emotional-spectrum band, and that our quietest moments have gotten us just as many fans as our loudest. Like if we just made “Radio” over and over I think we’d be a really boring band, or at least I’d be pretty bored with us. It has to be everything all at once. That said, we’ve been listening to A Lot of house music lately and I wouldn’t be shocked if we make some more dance leaning stuff in the near future, hahaha.
How much of Free Love was created pre-pandemic? Did this epoch influence the record in any way?
All of it. It’s weird, because to me it’s so appropriate for this time, and yet we made the whole thing last year. It’s almost like the dread and anxiety of the last couple years was distilled into 2020, so this album we made about being terrified and trying to find comfort and each other rings truer to me now than it did when we were making it.
As a full-time musician, do you feel there’s been a natural flow in Sylvan Esso in creating vs. releasing? Do you feel you have a record in you, going forward every couple of years?
Up until now there definitely has been a flow but now I’m realizing that so much of it was dictated by our touring schedule, which is pretty relentless. I think one of the rare good takeaways from this whole ordeal that I hope sticks around will be the decoupling of touring and releasing music. On tour we don’t really have time to feel like humans or have our usual emotional lives, which is where all our music comes from, and now that we’re home it’s like I’m already ready to write again even though we just put this one out. This break has been eye opening for me on that level.
You’ve been a musician for quite some time (Decibully, Cedar AV, Headlights, Collections of Colonies of Bees, Made Of Oak, etc. etc.), yet when Sylvan Esso came along, did something go off in your head that “this is my life, now?”
I’ve always treated music as my life, even in those earlier bands they were always my top priority at the time and I worked everything else in my life around them. With SE, that was the first thing I had ever done where I really felt a sense of personal ownership over what it was, so though my commitment to it didn’t feel any less intense I definitely felt like I was putting myself out there in a different way and committing to that felt great. I still remember the sense of intense relief when we got the tUnE-yArDs tour, because it meant that I could quit my non-music jobs and just focus on SE for the foreseeable future.
What is the thing you miss most about Milwaukee?
If you could eat at any Milwaukee restaurant and see any Milwaukee band (past or present) today, what + who would pick?
I’m going to cheat here and double up on each: Brunch at Corazon followed by dinner at Goodkind, and the show would be 2004/Hospital era Collections of Colonies of Bees opening for literally any era of Call Me Lightning.
Find Sylvan Esso’s ‘Free Love’ at your favorite, local record shop, or on their Bandcamp page.