Arts Desk

Sylvan Esso on Trading Folk for Electro, Brooklyn for Durham

sylvanessoAmelia Meath has made a sonic 180 from her time with folk vocal trio Mountain Man to her current place as one half of the electropop duo Sylvan Esso. She teamed up with Megafaun’s Nick Sanborn (who was performing solo as Made of Oak when the two met) last year to write and produce an album, combining her songwriting chops with what she calls his production “wizardry.” (The new group’s first single, “Play It Right” is a rework of a song Meath sang with Mountain Man.) Now they’re playing two sold-out shows this weekend in D.C. with fellow folk-punk innovators tUne-yArDs. I asked Meath about making the switch from banjos to synthesizers, leaving Brooklyn for Durham, and making pancakes for your audience.

WCP: The first song you completed together was “Play It Right,” or rather, a version of “Play It Right,” which you first released with your band Mountain Man. Was it a stretch to move from a band that’s known for its lo-fi, almost pastoral sound, to one that’s more production-heavy?

Meath: I was always interested in electronic music, and really the only stretch I encountered was in the difference between writing folk songs and pop songs. With the help of a good sound system, you can creep into the audience’s bodies using bass, and actually vibrate their bones and get them to feel the music instead of just creeping in through their ears. The more I do it, the more I realize that both bands were reaching for the same goal: presenting music as honestly as possible, with similar content about the pedestrian experience.

You and Nick set up shop in Durham, N.C., to work on this album. What brought you there?

Serendipity! I had just gotten off tour with Feist, and wanted to move to a cheaper locale than Brooklyn, where I was living at the time. Nick had just moved to Durham from Milwaukee to play more with Megafaun, and we had just decided to make music together. I went to visit Durham, was greeted by a host of amazing people and decided it was worth the adventure of moving.

A lot of smaller East Coast cities have been having their moment in the sun as creative hotbeds. I’m thinking of Baltimore’s slew of bands that have gained national attention in the last five years. Do you see Durham headed that way?

Durham has amazing music coming out of it! It certainly should head that way.

The last time you played D.C., you were at DC9, a much smaller venue than the 9:30 Club.  But I’ve seen you play for tens of thousands of people. What’s your favorite type of venue to play as Sylvan Esso? Is it different than what you prefer as part of Mountain Man?

As Sylvan Esso, a venue with a good sound system that is not afraid to use it is ideal. But it also has to be filled with people who are excited to be there. With Mountain Man, I loved playing house shows. We played one once in Oakland, Calif., on a porch. Afterwards, we made everyone pancakes.

You’ve said that before you and Nick teamed up, you both felt like your solo projects were “lacking a crucial component.” For you, is that the production value that Nick brings to the table, or is it something else?

Nick and I are creepily cozy collaborators. Together our two sounds create something that is much more articulate than just one of us on our lonesome.

Are there other collaborators you want to bring to the table? Anyone that you want to write with, or someone’s song you’d like to take a crack at covering?

I would love to write songs for other people. And we want to make a video game soundtrack eventually.

Sylvan Esso opens for tUnE-yArDs tonight and tomorrow at 9:30 Club. Both nights are sold out. 815 V St. NW. (202) 265-0930. www.930.com.

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  • Greg

    Iron & Wine is based out of Durham now too. It's had a pretty sizeable indie/alt music scene since the 90s at least.

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