Sylvan Esso would seem to be a band uniquely suited to ride out a situation that requires social distancing. Consisting of only two members—singer Amelia Meath and electronic musician Nick Sanborn—and powered by synths, MIDI, and other digital instrumentation, the whole operation is so self-contained that their early tours were conducted entirely out of a Toyota Prius.
How ironic, then, that the COVID-19 pandemic comes hard on the heels of an experiment in which Meath and Sanborn took the minimalist formula that has generally defined their work and blew it up, recruiting a 10-piece team of indie ringers the likes of Wye Oak's Jenn Wasner and Hand Habits' Meg Duffy to create a new and different Sylvan Esso experience. Dubbed the WITH Tour, the late-2019 effort saw the band breathing fresh life into fan-favorite material through a process of deconstruction and reconstruction, resulting in songs that maintained their intrinsic character, but presented in distinctive ways made possible by the expanded group dynamic and analog musicianship involved.
It was a limited run that spanned only a month and a handful of dates, but fans who missed out on seeing it in person—or, those who were there and wanted to relive the experience—were granted a gift when, on April 23, Sylvan Esso simultaneously dropped a concert film and a 16-song live album documenting the entire happening. Released at a time when stay-at-home orders were in full effect across much of the globe, both film and record served as poignant reminders of the magic that can happen when friends come together to make something cool.
Now, with WITH receding in the rearview mirror, a new album somewhere on the horizon, and staying at home still en vogue, we caught up with Meath and Sanborn to talk quarantine happy hours, the WITH experience, and where they go from here.
How are you holding up?
Amelia: We're fine, in the grand scheme of things. It's really sad to not get to play shows, but we're better at making food than we've ever been before.
Nick: We've kind of been super busy. We've been lucky enough that we're healthy, and that we have a lot of things to preoccupy us.
Amelia: Yeah, exactly. I've been working. I've been giving myself a soup primer, like a Soup 101. I can do the thing now where I get home from the studio and can look in the fridge and make the food, and be like, "We have all of these things, I will prepare..."
Nick: You mean like improv?
Amelia: Yeah. I'm an improvisational chef.
Which is a real step. What have you been drinking to get through this whole scenario?
Amelia: Well, not necessarily to get through, but more to keep us afloat, maybe. [Laughs]
Nick: We had a friend who had a condition that put him at risk, escaped New York and came out and lived at the studio for the last months, and so, to kind of give everybody a thing to do every day that was somewhat social, we would meet on the porch, on the studio and have a glass of wine, or whatever. And that became kind of a crucial get through the day moment. It was like a way to count that a day had happened.
Oh, our band can be anything. The thing that makes it sound like our band is that the two of us were at the helm of it.”
In particular, what type of wine do you guys like to drink?
Nick: Well, it's hot out, so there's been a lot of Italian whites.
Amelia: Yeah. A lot of Italian whites.
Nick: There's no way to talk about what wine you're drinking without sounding like a turd.
Amelia: It's a beer publication. You can say whatever you want.
Nick: I guess that's true.
Amelia: Yeah. Into Italian whites right now. I like anything from the Loire Valley. Mostly white, unless we're having food, or steak. And then we'll go for really solid Nebbiolo.
Is this different from when you're out on the road? What's the tour drink of choice?
Amelia: Yeah, yeah. I have gin and then we put grapefruits on the rider, so that I can make like a gin, La Croix, fresh squeezed grapefruit drink every night.
Nick: That's kind of like the tour drink. That and, like, Peroni.
So, your pace has been fairly relentless in terms of touring and cranking out new material. What was the mindset going into the WITH project, and why was this the time to do it?
Nick: Well, we had been kind of trying to find a time to do it ever since we did that Echo Mountain session recording, which was the last time we kind of put a band of friends together. But it's just kind of a logistical nightmare. And especially since we, our band, in normal times tours eight, nine months a year. So, trying to find a time when that number of people, who are all also working in bands, can have a clear window of their schedule to do this thing, has just been a thing that's never worked out. And last year we knew we were going to spend the majority of the year writing the next record. So, our booking agent suggested, "We actually have a lead time and your schedule is open enough that we can probably find the time to make this happen." And so it was really just that, it was really just us blocking out almost an entire year in order to have the runway to figure out a time where that many people could do it.
Were you looking for people to bring their own character to the music, or did you have an idea of what you wanted these arrangements to sound like before you got everybody in a room together?
Amelia: I think, unless you're training with classically trained musicians, you just have to hope that someone's going to imbue the music with their own vibe, particularly when you're dealing with people who have their own bands.
Nick: Yeah. I mean, we asked each individual person because we wanted their energy to be a part of this. There was no one that we asked because they could complete a technical requirement that we had, or anything like that. And then, when we sent out the initial email, we kind of suggested parts that people could cover, but we purposefully communicated that we wanted them to feel totally free to find their own route to where we were all going. It was kind of like, "How do we tell people what the emotional destination is, and then let them kind of get there however they want to get there?"
In the process of translating these arrangements from the electronic form they were originally in, were there any songs in particular that challenged you?
Amelia: There really weren't that many like that. Usually what would happen was, the songs where Nick and I had an idea of what they should sound like, then trying to put them on the band, the band would just not be falling into the groove, and then we'd realize we were trying to shove a square peg in a round hole. That happened with “PARAD(w/me)E”, where we were like, "It should sound like this version we did three years ago at a festival with a totally different band." And then that didn't work at all until we realized that we just had to start with, like, the bare bones of what the band could do.
Was there anything in particular that surprised you about this process of creating that alchemy?
Nick: A shocking thing to me was how much it still felt like a Sylvan Esso show. [...] I was worried it could come across as a gimmick, or something, or like a bluegrass band covering Radiohead. [...] It felt really freeing too, in a way, because it was like, "Oh, our band can be anything. The thing that makes it sound like our band is that the two of us were at the helm of it."
I'm assuming the touring experience was entirely different, given you had five times or six times the amount of people that you normally tour with.
Amelia: It was, it was so fun. It was like being on a soccer team. We would show up, and we'd have to check 43 bags.
Nick: Moving as a giant act through airports was an experience that I've never gotten to have before.
Amelia: There's absolutely no way to disappear.
Nick: We were the group that everyone sighs in disappointment when you show up at the same restaurant.
You didn't get matching satin jackets, or anything like that?
Amelia: No. Usually we do.
Nick: It was a huge oversight on our part. I think this tour was so short.
Amelia: We should probably still do it.
Nick: We should probably still do it.
Amelia: We're going to do it.
Now that you've gone through this whole process, will it change anything about the way you approach your music and songwriting moving forward?
Amelia: Absolutely. I think it might just be, like, confidence in understanding that, like, there's no way to break Sylvan Esso, as long as Nick and I are involved. We're not going to not be ourselves and make the things that we make together, which is always something I feared when we involved other people. So, the spirit of the band is stronger and also isn't as linear, or as limited as my fear was telling me.
Amelia, you mentioned in the documentary that you write a lot about moving through pain. That was something that really struck me, especially now that we're all kind of in this place where there's a lot of pain and we can't move that much. Has that opened any doors for you emotionally or creatively?
Amelia: Yes, but it's all still in the percolation phase, because even though it's been three months and we've all gotten really good at making jokes about it on Twitter—and then, also, in the midst of the largest civil rights movement that our country has ever seen, which is such a manifestation of pain. I think I need, like, two more months to be able to really talk about what it is, and what it feels like. Also, because all of my elements are gone, because there's not that much movement. So, you just have to kind of stew. That's the hardest part for me right now. Usually, I'm an incredibly physical person anyway, so that if I do feel uncomfortable, my first thing I do is change locations, and it's just not possible now.
Nick: Yeah. I think, I think all this is going to take a while to unpack.
You were already working on new material before this all happened. Is this going to change anything about what comes out of that?
Amelia: Yeah, I think it did. Our new record's going to come out in the next little bit.
Nick: But yeah, I think this entire, extremely intense stretch of time, even dating back to the tour we went on, each piece of it, I think has changed each of us individually and collectively in totally different ways. And I think if you're making work that's honest to whoever you are at the moment, that there's a way to not have the work reflect and acknowledge those changes. I have no idea what the next chunk of things we're going to make will feel like, that will be a reaction to how we're feeling right now. But it already feels like the bonds of what we thought held the whole thing together are loosening up in a way that's exciting rather than scary.
Amelia: The thing I'm most interested about this situation, is that, unlike a personal event that you write about, everybody is experiencing this at the same time. Everybody in the world. And so everybody has a personal connection and sometimes I think it means that like, if I am going to write about it, I have to figure out a way of observing something about it that is deeper and more interesting than the thing that everyone else knows. Because if you sing about something that everyone knows, it's like writing this stuff about like, kind of liking somebody, and I'm not that interested.
So you have to find the angle that's distinctly Sylvan Esso about this situation, is what you're saying?
Nick: Or at least that's worthy of saying to everybody.
Amelia: Yeah, not even distinctly Sylvan Esso, just something that's like an interest point, without saying, "Oh, I'm sad. Oh no."
Nick: Did you ever watch that David-Byrne-interviews-David-Byrne thing (from Stop Making Sense)? There's a great moment where he asks himself, "When will the Talking Heads go on tour again?" And he says, "We'll go on tour when we've got something else to say."
Amelia: Oh, that's nice.
Top photo by Elizabeth Weinberg. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.