Criss-crossed harmonies, colour drenched electronica and weighty drum beats. Wonderland talks to Sylvan Esso – aka Megafaun’s Nick Sanborn and Mountain Man’s Amelia Meath.
A fortuitous happenstance – a chance meeting that brings about something beautiful – exactly the kind of moment that spawned Sylvan Esso which brings together Megafaun’s Nick Sanborn and Mountain Man’s Amelia Meath. Characterised by criss-crossed harmonies, colour drenched electronica and weighty drum beats, the duo’s productions perfectly capture the grey-space that exists between genres.
Ahead of their Scala gig we sat down with Nick to talk about their cadre of seminarian groupies, the challenges they face trying to stay creative and their burning desire to score a videogame (round of Portal anyone?).
You’ve just started your European tour, do you have a favourite city?
Copenhagen is a great city, it’s such a beautiful place! Not every European tour gets routed through there so we probably only get to see it one out of every four times we’re on the road. All the cities we’ve been lucky enough to visit have a completely unique energy to them. I love Utrecht in Holland. Lisbon took me totally by surprise too, I’m normally a woodsy camping kind of guy but it was an amazing place. Outside of Europe Amelia is a huge fan of Iceland too. Once you’ve been touring for a while it starts to become much more people based. You start to look forward to places like Paris and Berlin knowing who you’re going to be able to meet with whilst you’re there. Like most things in life it centres around the people and the food.
Have you ever thought about moving country?
I’m not sure. I used to think I would make an excellent expat but the older I get I start to realise just how American I am. Not necessarily in a weird or a bad way, but being in the states, if you’re here for long enough all these things get brought up which you’re told are “Amercian”. You end up thinking that’s not me, I’m much more worldly than that, I don’t wave flags or tote guns, but then you go to Europe and you’re confronted with so many experiences which are nothing like the culture you grew up with. It makes you recognise, this isn’t my place, I’m still an American. I might not be one of the ones you see on TV but it’s still inherently a part of who I am. I’m not sure at this point in my life I could fully adopt life a new country.
Do you like being on the road?
It’s impossible to write whilst we’re on tour. Every time some person says “we wrote our second record on the road” I always think how the fuck did you manage that? When did you find time to be creative? Then again I’m just not one of those people that has songs constantly pouring out of them like some kind of eternal flame or a wellspring of ideas. I have to sit down and work to get stuff out. I can’t immediately get myself into a creative space. One of the reasons I think Amelia and I work so well in a band together is that we constantly inspire one another. If one of us has a tiny idea the other can build on it and help shape it into something more concrete. It’s a much quicker way of making music than some of the other bands I’ve been in. Whilst we’re performing all we can think about is how to finesse the next performance to make it even better than the last one.
What’s the most peculiar gig you’ve played at?
Not quite a gig as such, but we still have a group of priests from Pennsylvania that are always coming to see us live! We’ve played all sorts of weird shows. No matter what level you’re at there will always be someone who wants to pay a little more to get you to do something out of the ordinary. Whether it’s gigging at a family reunion or playing at some out of the way casino that you would never otherwise be at. Ha, we’ve found it helps if the music is loud, even if no one is getting into it you can just up the volume and forget about it. We have it easy compared to stand up comedians though, that must be really tough!
Have you managed to make time to work on the new album? How’s it coming along?
We each booked separate writing spaces throughout December. It was great to get back into a routine working 9 to 5 in the studio again. It was wonderful; a complete flip from the previous 8 months of my life.
Are you exploring a new direction?
The last album was a bit of a cliff hanger, it left you unsure of what to expect next, and that was intentional. It’s still early stages so it could go in so many different directions. Neither of us gets married to an idea before the song writing is done. We’ve got a couple more remixes coming out which I’m super excited to share. It’s cool to finally be entering into a time where it’s not out of the realm of possibility to work with people we really admire. I can just email them and there’s a chance now that they’ll know who we are.
So before starting on new material, how do you wind down? Anything that helps you reset so you can start working on new music?
Lots of reading. Especially long interviews with Blake Mills or Keith Fullerton Whitman, they’re really interesting, insightful people and I’m keen to understand the nuances of what they do. Gaming has recently become a huge thing too. Have you ever played portal? Ha, maybe don’t start if you’re not already. Zelda is another big thing for Amelia and I at the moment. After we get back from tour I need a period of doing absolutely nothing. I think to myself, ok if I lay still for exactly 36 hours doing absolutely nothing it’ll give me time to get refreshed.
Have you ever thought about doing something outside of music?
Scoring is a huge thing for both of us. Scoring a video game is something we’ve been trying to do forever. Aside from that I’m a bit of a design nerd, specifically typography. Sign painters and hand letterers, that kind of thing. I’m getting obsessed with video and film too but the more I look into it the more I realise it’s a whole other life that I could of had. I wouldn’t have time to get good at it now. Maybe a life is only enough time to get good at one thing, and that’s fine by me. Amelia and I do work very personally on all the video content for Sylvan Esso. We’re gradually starting to direct more of our own content and start directing others as well.
What are you most excited about for the rest of the year?
I can’t wait for festival season. Camping with a bunch of friends, actually getting to see and meet with other artists. Festivals are much more social than being on tour!
SYVLAN ESSO’s PLAYLIST:
Percussions – “KHLHI”
Kieran Hebden has been putting out these great minimal house / techno 12″ singles as Percussions for a couple years now, and he just collected them all into a convenient Bandcamp release. I had always enjoyed them when I’d pick them up individually, but finally hearing them as a whole really puts into perspective how beautifully cohesive the project is. This track, KHLHI, is one of my favorites and really sums up the combination of minimalism and emotion that makes the project so great. Also how about that fucking sample????
Taylor Swift – “Style”
So the only problem I consistently have with Taylor Swift’s music is just that everything in it is so black and white – “You’re terrible / you dumped me / I’m awesome / you’re the worst” etc. I still love her, but I’ve just always wished that we could hear a song from her that’s more representative of (what I’m guessing is) the unbelievably complex situation of “Taylor Swift Dating Someone”. But then this jam comes along and answers my prayers! No one is totally wrong, no one is totally right, and it’s a quasi-unhealthy thing they can’t deny! Total grey-area hit.
Dntel – “If I Stay A Minute”
Easily my favorite album of last year. He’s such a genius at making electronic music that feels undeniably human, imperfect and emotional. It’s just gorgeous. Go listen to it immediately.
Blake Mills – “Hey Lover”
This guy just rules. I saw him a couple years ago opening up for Fiona Apple and he just played one of the best sets I’ve ever seen. His new record Heigh Ho is fucking amazing, but it also took me back to this unstoppable hit off his last LP.
Mr. Twin Sister – “Blush”
“Is there even a real me? / Or am I just a series of nights?” – what a line. Jeeeez.
Mount Kimbie – “You Took Your Time (f. King Krule)”
After loving their first LP I was a little late to the game on this one, but now I can’t stop listening to it. Not only is the song itself totally great, but I love how they start with one of my favorite beats of the year and then take a sharp left turn by flipping it to all live instruments halfway through. Who does that?? Also this is further proof that all you have to do to get me to love something is to put a reed organ in it.
The Lion King OST – “Just Can’t Wait To Be King”
Amelia & I are seriously considering doing this as a duet.
Words: Thomas Curry.